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L’Association en Inde, Various
posted July 7, 2006


Travel comics are one of those subcategories of autobiographical comics that are only occasionally interesting. The best examples of the genre, like Guy Delisle's Shenzhen and Pyongyang, are produced by artists whose exposure to a foreign culture is more extensive than that of the simple vacationer. Of course, few cartoonists have had Delisle's opportunities as an observer of foreign mores, and fewer still have written about it. Instead, most travel comics tend to focus on the artist's vacation, and, like looking at someone else's vacation photos, the subject itself can be pretty dull. Style, therefore, takes on a more important role. If you're going to show me vacation photos, at least make them well composed.

L'Association has been publishing travel comics for almost a decade now. L'Association en Egypte (1998) featured the work of Golo, Baudoin, David B., and Jean-Christophe Menu, each of whom visited a different part of Egypt on an artist exchange. The book includes a number of strong short stories from artists particularly versed in the skills of the autobiographical comics form. L'Association au Mexique (2000) highlighted Dominique Goblet, Thomas Ott, Vincent Vanoli, and Caroline Sury. This book was much more visually sophisticated than the first, downplaying narrative for a more expressionist take on Mexico.

Now comes L'Association en Inde (2006), featuring the work of five artists: Frederik Peeters, Thiriet, Guy Delisle, Katja Tukiainen, and Matti Hagelberg. My sense is that this book, unlike the previous two, was not the direct result of a group invitation. It is clear from the stories that Peeters, Thiriet and Delisle were invited to a comics workshop. The Finns, on the other hand, seem to be involved in a different trip entirely. This is really neither here nor there, although it does lead to a slightly bifurcated feeling, a sense that is highlighted by the very different visual choices made by the artists.


The book opens with Frederik Peeters' "Les Petits Tapis." This short story, set in 1997, tells of Peeters' experience on a broken down bus to Rikikesh. It is the piece in the anthology with both the strongest narrative and the tightest focus. Peeters, drawing in the bold, cartoon realist style that works so well for him in Lupus, conveys a genuine intimacy in this work, in which he casts himself as a true outsider, barely able to cope with his surroundings. This is one of those stories that will make you think twice about wanting to visit India on the cheap.


Thiriet's diary of his travels with Delisle are extremely removed from Peeters' work. This is a classic diary comic, highlighting the artist's negotiations with taxi drivers, the hotel, the big city, his hosts, and so on. The visual style here does absolutely nothing for me. Thiriet is not an accomplished artist, and his observations are very quotidian. Actually, I think that the book overall would be stronger without this piece.


Guy Delisle, who tells virtually the same story as Thiriet (they shared a hotel room), succeeds where his friend fails on the basis of his style. Working wordlessly in a fifteen panel grid, Delisle's work actually carries the feeling that we are looking at line drawings of his photos. There is a real charm to this approach, and Delisle demonstrates the strong sense of humor that characterizes his best work. Fans of Pyongyang would enjoy this story, and it would be an easy piece for an American publisher to pick up for an anthology.


The book changes dramatically with Katja Tukiainen's "Bingo Catastrophe." I think this Finnish artist is one of the most important young talents going in comics today, but I also think that her comics work a lot better in color. This is a slight piece about a family visit with a newborn to India. Tukiainen tells us that she visits the country often, although it is difficult to see why from this piece in which she is almost electrocuted in a shower, she, her husband, her mother and her baby all wind up deathly ill. Of course, things could have been much worse for her: five days after her return to Helsinki, the tsunami of 2004 wiped out the area in which they had been vacationing. This litany of catastrophes is presented in Tukiainen's lovely bare bones style, but her poetic approach works against her in this instance, tending to underplay the significance of events.


Finally, Matti Hagelberg, another Finnish comics genius, presents what is certainly among the oddest travel comics of all times. Hagelberg, whose highly abstract visual style renders places and spaces difficult to decipher, is an odd choice for a travel cartoonist. Seeing India through the lens of his abstraction, it is sometimes difficult to recognize as a distinct physical locale. Like many of Hagelberg's pieces, there is no strong narrative here, simply a series of strikingly beautiful images gently woven together.

If there is a theme running through L'Association en Inde, it is that India is a place to go to become sick. Not the most flattering theme, I suppose, but perhaps unavoidable in a work that downplays it locale as forcefully as this book does. By focusing primarily on the protagonists (the artists themselves), L'Association en Inde leaves the reader with very little impression of the country and its people, who are reduced nearly exclusively to translators, taxi drivers and waiters. While four of the five stories are successful to varying degrees, the book barely holds together as a common project, making it the least interesting of the three travel books produced by L'Association to date.


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