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Panorama, Cedric Manche and Loo Hui Phang
posted February 17, 2005
 

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Sex is a frequent subject matter for comic books, and one that is almost never done well. Indeed, it is not too difficult to suggest that the "almost" qualifier in the previous sentence is uncalled for. The blandness and predictability of so much comic book erotica -- from the pathetic masculinist fantasies of Milo Manara to the lurid indulgences of manga porn -- are enough to make me run from any hint of the erotic in the comic book form. Now, however, Cedric Manche and Loo Hui Phang have arrived with a new challenge: making the smart erotic comic book. Or, maybe they're just interested in making smart comics that also happen to have erotic moments.

Panorama, a new graphic novel from Swiss publisher Atrabile, is the first volume in what is promised as a series of thematically related works, although the book stands alone perfectly. The story follows a young student, Hariyoshi, and his relationship with fellow boarding house resident, the photographer Yukio. Hariyoshi is focused exclusively on his studies, to the exclusion of nearly everything else in his life. Yukio, on the other hand, is a man of many secrets. When Hariyoshi finds bondage photos in Yukio's apartment he is slowly brought into his neighbor's world, becoming fascinated with a one-eyed woman and Yukio's tattooed sister-in-law. The narrative unfolds through a process of discovery that is ultimately brought up short. As it ends, it is clear that Hariyoshi is in the deep end with little sense of how to swim, and the book flirts on his new engagement with the world of the exotic and the spectacular without bringing the reader into full engagement with them. The book is not teasing so much as distant. Hariyoshi's relation to the sexually charged world around him is always mediated, and the book maintains an almost clinical detachment throughout.

This is abetted tremendously by Manche's reserved drawings. A founding member of Employe du Moi, and participant in a number of innovative anthology projects, this is Manche's first large book project. His drawings are composed of very simple, clean lines overlaid with grey washes. He provides few backgrounds and almost no extraneous situational detail, instead focusing attention on his figures, who are generally presented completely absent any emotions at all. Two fight scenes in the comic, one verbal and one physical, are rendered utterly without passion. This level of remove helps augment the book's traditional settings, recalling the radical dispassion that fuels the films of Ozu. Indeed, Manche's reliance on full and medium-figure drawings is also suggestive of the work of filmmakers like Ozu.

For her part, Loo Hui Phang's story is replete with highly charged moments and symbols that compel the story forward. This is a book about desire and longing in which very little is allowed to happen. What we are presented with is a series of very small ruptures, moments where we anticipate that the plot will go one way, only to find it veering in another direction altogether. The ability to upset our expectations is one of the most powerful attributes of Panorama and the book's creation of a disorienting sense of mystery around the sexual world is its lasting impression.

Next time: In honor of the potential return of Dupuis to Angouleme after 19 years (good luck finding a hotel room!), a look at their new alt-comix line, Expresso.