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Prestige de l’uniforme, Loo Hui Phang and Hugues Micol
posted August 11, 2005
 

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An overworked biochemist is accidentally exposed to an experimental serum, hideously mutating his body and giving him superpowers, which he uses to better the lot of humanity. Sound familiar? Of course. Sound French? Well, not so much.

Prestige de l'uniforme, a new graphic novel from Dupuis' Expresso line (actually, Double Expresso -- but I'm not sure what the difference between the two is, although perhaps Double Expresso means softcover), is a superhero comic book in a very French manner. Written by Loo Hui Phang (Panorama) and illustrated by Hugues Micol (3), the book begins as a fairly standard novel about work, stress, and relationships, before itself mutating into something completely different and unexpected.

Paul Forvolino is a low-level science grunt working for Metacorp, the world's largest pharmaceutical company. He is semi-estranged from his wife Rebecca and daughter Zoe because he is called upon to work long hours for bosses that don't appreciate him at all. When working on an experiment to cross mushrooms with algae, he accidentally gives himself superpowers. The good news? His experiment is a success and he is rapidly promoted, now with greater flexibility to be with his family. The bad news? He's hideously deformed and not entirely human.

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If you think that sounds pretty much like a generic American superhero comic book, you'd be right. Where things go astray is in the details. The authors have Paul deal with his superpowers in the only way that he knows how: by imitating American superheroes. He dons a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mask when playing with his daughter, and a Spider-Man mask when he goes out in public. The only place that he can find acceptance is the S&M dungeons of Paris, where his lichen-like skin is accepted as just the latest advance in contemporary bondage chic.

While Paul does eventually save the world (from the meltdown of a nuclear plant), his heroism is largely a footnote in the book. Although the book begins and ends with Paul meditating on the nature of a heroic life, the struggle to define one's identity is a much more prominent theme throughout the book. Indeed, the title, which refers to Paul's desire to attain a different colored (and, thus, higher ranking) lab coat, directly addresses how the way that we look and dress is related to our own internal sense of self-worth. To this end, the use of the masks is a very nice commentary on identity construction, particularly Paul's desire to relate to Zoe through the use of a face that she can understand as both positive and playful.

imageThe other big difference between Prestige de l'uniforme and the vast majority of American superhero comics is Micol's art, which is of the type unlikely to find its way into a Marvel title anytime soon. Micol uses a brush pen, and the work has an extremely loose and gestural visual style that is at odds with the tightly controlled superhero aesthetic so much in vogue these days. The colors, by Ruby, are wonderfully chosen, with a lot of unnatural looking purples, greens and oranges that are suggestive of disease and decay. The total look of the book is very anti-naturalist, ironic in a book in which the hero becomes a form of living plantlife.

Prestige de l'uniforme is a truly unexpected type of book. French superhero comics, after all, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is really only tangentially a superhero comic. In the end, with its thoughts on heroism and individuation it seems more like a note on Nietzsche than a gloss on America's four-color funnies, and that makes it all the stronger.