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January 18, 2007

Conversational Euro-Comics: Bart Beaty Reviews World Trade Angels


And then there are some things I just don't get about comics.

Standing in a store like Paris' Superheros, I occasionally stumble across a book and think, "Well hold on, this will appear in English soon, and I can buy that version." For instance, last fall I saw a beautiful Kevin Huizenga book from Vertige Graphic before I knew that Drawn and Quarterly was also bringing it out, and so I waited for the DQ version that I rightly assumed had to be coming.


On that same occasion I also saw World Trade Angels (Denoel Graphic) and I thought: "Gee, that has to be coming from an American publisher. It's a comic by The New Yorker's Laurent Cilluffo and it's about September 11th. That's the sort of perfect New York media storm that will launch this book onto the bestseller lists. If the guys behind Richie Rich can get loads of press for a bad book about that tragedy, imagine the accolades that will be heaped upon one of the best illustrators working at one of the most esteemed magazines in the country. Surely I can wait for the English edition."

But then I thought, "Wow, this really is a nice version with its heavy cardboard covers and nice paper -- maybe I'll just pick this up now." And, of course, since that time I've never heard anything more about an American edition of this remarkable book.


World Trade Angels tells the story of Stanley Middle, a man whose life is dramatically changed by the events of September 11th, when he loses both his father and his pregnant fiancee. Stanley retreats into a world of his own imagination, living out a fantasy where these deaths did not occur, stumbling through his new life until it is disrupted by Sarah, the new lover with too many questions. But just who is Sarah? A girlfriend? A projection of his subconscious mind? An angel?


World Trade Angels is certainly the finest comic to have been produced about the events of 9/11 to date. Cilluffo's first comic book (he once did the covers for an issue of Drawn and Quarterly, about a decade ago) is something approximating a masterpiece. Formally inventive in a manner that rivals Chris Ware, Cilluffo has designed a book that is simply stunning. Two things in particular stand out. The first is his linework. Cilluffo is a follower of the Ligne Claire design school emblematized by the likes of Joost Swarte and Ever Meulen. His figures are simple without being simplistic, and his thin, graceful outlines are equally reminiscent of the work of Julian Opie. These are beautifully drawn pages. Second, his use of color is almost unparalleled. The book is all oranges and grays, and the constant shifting between colors helps place us inside Stanley's head, with differing levels of reality and fantasy clashing as a field of background washes, sometimes even in the same panel. It is clear when reading World Trade Angels that every single page has been thoughtfully designed to work as a part of the overall larger project, but that each page also stands alone as a striking visual artifact.


The text and story, by French novelist Fabrice Colin, is equally striking. While it has strong overtones of a Wim Wenders-style melodrama, the resolution of the story, while predictable, is heartbreaking. The visual metaphor that ends the book is almost inevitable, and is powerfully moving all the same. If there is a drawback to the book, it might be the fact that the first chapter is overly wordy and a bit difficult to crack. By the end of the book, however, Colin has the good sense to allow the design to carry the emotional weight of the work. He does not try to force cheap sentimentality into the narrative, but rather arranges a genuinely moving resolution. This is one of the few comics that I have ever read that actually touched me on an emotional level.

So I don't get it. I don't understand why there doesn't seem to be an American release of this book forthcoming. I can't understand why it's not nominated for a prize at Angouleme. I don't get the fact that there seems to be so little written about this book. Sometimes I think that maybe it's all just in my mind. -- Bart Beaty
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