Olivier Pont’s “Fragments of Femininity” — on sale for half price on Izneo.com this week for International Women’s Day — is a beautifully drawn collection of short stories centered on the lives of individual women. And, honestly, it only gets better as you go deeper into the book. It starts a little rough and threatens to be a cliched political tome. After that, though, it opens up to something that I think is a little more creative and welcoming.
Warning: Mature Readers Only
Here’s the thing about this book that makes it a little difficult to properly review on this site: The “femininity” of the title is talking about breasts. Each story covers them from a different angle — their power, their size, their contribution to one’s body image, etc.
This site is fairly “family friendly.” (Not that I’m worried about a large number of pre-pubescent readers being excited to read a review of a book titled “Fragments of Feminism,” mind you.) I’m not going to get into that ages-old debate on-line about cultural standards in America versus the rest of the world and sex versus violence and all the rest. It is what it is, and we move on from there.
This book is open and honest about its subject matter. There’s a lot of topless women in this book, for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of situations. It’s not a titillating book or a gratuitous one, however. The book is in no way pornographic.
Because of the “graphic” nature of the book (and a fair amount of four letter words, to be honest), it isn’t available on Comixology, which doesn’t usually carry French material that’s beyond a PG-13 rating. You need to pick this up on Izneo.com. They are far more nipple-friendly.
The Fragments of Stories
It’s minimizing the stories too much to call them all slice of life stories. One or two of them might deserve that, but the rest feel a little bigger than that, to be honest. Let’s just run them all down. They are named after their central characters, and each runs approximately 14 pages:
“Chloe”: Teenaged girls can be so catty. This one appears to be about a group of teenaged girls obsessed with their growing chest sizes and the boys they attract, but it’s really about Chloe, the flat-chested girl who weaves around them until an accident at the pool brings things to a head. And then there’s a twist, which is satisfying in the way it knocks down all the assumptions of teenage life.
“Mathilde”: A woman leaves her husband, who is your stereotypical stiff, worried more about his appearance to the outside world than his wife’s happiness. She explores her lesbian side, goes bra burning (in a Les Miserables-looking moment), and revels in the excitement of being rid of him and free of the way he made her feel so trapped.
The whole story is her “Dear John” letter, justifying her every action and inspiring her own daughter. It’s likely the most anthemic story of the lot, and one that doesn’t call to me specifically. It’s just too obvious.
“Alison”: If the man in the last story was the evil stereotype, this one goes straight to the casting couch and all the ills of Hollywood. Alison is an actress who doesn’t want to do a nude scene in the movie and walks off the set. When the hits just don’t stop coming, she gives up and sets herself free on a new adventure.
Honestly, this is the point in the book where I was afraid a pattern was developing. The men in this book were going to be all jerks, and every story would be about a woman shaking them loose and walking away, pursuing her own lot in this world and leaving all the sexual harassment behind. It’s every cliche in the world piled up into one short story.
I don’t mean to minimize the struggles and how real these situations have been, but when the stories start getting this cliched and predictable, they get boring. It’s almost to the point where the message is starting to overwhelm the story.
Thankfully, the very next story spins off in another direction.
“Sylvia”: This the story of the woman who grew obese in the years since her marriage and whose husband started to play the field. This story is her reaction to the proof of that affair and how it sets her on the path to a most creative revenge. Didn’t see it coming, but the story did make me laugh in a good way when she makes her move.
“Faith”: This is the one. This is the one that even if every other story in the book was crap, it was all worth it for just this story. A woman walks off the street to volunteer to pose for an art class. That’s all I’m telling you. It’s a charming and heartwarming and heartbreaking story all at the same time. I almost wish they’d release this story as a sampler for 99 cents and I’d recommend it on its own for one and all.
“Elikya”: An African village is in trouble from a drought. A strange woman stumbles into the village. The boy who finds her sculpts a statue in her likeness. It’s cute, particularly in the way the young boy is overwhelmed at the vision he has of the woman, and how he represents it.
“Fleur”: The final story of the book tells the tale of a lingerie shop in a small French town. A classic case of a successful small business, its owner personally helps everyone in town deal with issues like their bra sizes, the appropriate garb to match how they feel or what they’re doing, etc. The town knows, likes, and trusts her, and so her business survives, even in the shadows of the big box stores.
When tragedy strikes, her vow to rebuild is helped in a surprising — thought not terribly surprising, in retrospect — way. This is my second favorite story of the book right after “Faith.” Maybe it’s my entrepreneurial side, or maybe it’s just the feel good small town story, but I love it. It just happens that the decoration around the central thesis of the story is a woman who knows everyone’s bra size in town and their preferred lace.
The Art of Olivier Pont
The thing that attracted me to this book in the first place — even before the “Women Who Changed the World” sale this week — is the art of Olivier Pont. He has thin lines and an angular style. It works well combined with the openness and airiness of the art. That lets the coloring in to do a good piece of the work. He sticks to a strong grid, with all perpendicular gutters. There’s nothing flashy in his layouts or his art. He doesn’t need that, since his art is so strong.
His style reminds me in part of Jason Howard’s work on “Trees” with a little bit of Nabiel Kanan’s stuff mixed in. It has its quirks, but the people look real and their faces tell the story well. In fact, some of the stories rely almost entirely on the looks you see characters giving each other. It’s an important part of the book that Pont can handle. In the hands of a lesser artist who couldn’t draw that kind of acting and facial emotion, most of this book would fall flat on its face.
The colors are muted and limited. There’s nothing terribly bright in the book, as if everything was colored and then a dull gray filter was placed on top. I love the way it looks. It’s an interesting palette of colors without the usual bolder prime colors. There are no fancy computer effects — no fancy gradients or lens flares. It’s a lot of amber and blue (like Hollywood loves so much), but without feeling cheesy and cliched like it does on the big screen.
The colors do change slightly for the stories. In the case of “Mathilde,” set in the 60s, the colors grow a little more rustic and sepia tone, evoking the past. Alison’s story, set in Hollywood, pushes the colors a little brighter on sets, and then a little more golden outside. Pont works a neat trick on the last page of that story to show a specific transition.
Along with that, I’m reminded of the gag credit at the end of one particular episode of “Tiny Toons”: “Secret of Good Quality Animation: Lotsa Shadows”
That’s what this graphic novel looks like. It reads like a quality animated series, with carefully considered and reliably rendered shadows. Yet they’re simple. There’s no fancy gradients or air brushing going on. This is more like cel shading. It’s just a strip along the opposite side from the light that is a shade darker. The shadows, however, integrate so naturally into the art that they feel all of the same piece, and not like one artist coming in and trying to “save” the art with his magic Photoshop brush. It integrates well.
Lettering With Character
I also love the lettering in this book. The oversized balloons and the stubby tails fit the open art style and contain the bouncy lettering strongly. The original French production of this book was, indeed, hand-lettered, It looks gloriously uneven, with letters that have bold thicknesses in along the bottoms of the strokes.
The font used in this English edition has that all-caps hand drawn feeling that I love so much in Franco-Belgian comics. While it’s clearly a computer font, it attempts to mimic hand-lettering and succeeds in adding a warmth to the lettering that too many fonts lack.
Too much regularity and uniformity can make things look cold and sterile. That’s always been the hit against computer lettering. This book uses a font that does a pretty good job in maintaining that irregularity to make things look natural.
The balloons even have a varying thickness to them that give them some interest and dimensionality.
This is a short story collection. Not every story is going to strike the right chord for you. If you can like something more than a majority of the stories, you’re in good shape.
That’s why I can recommend this book. While a couple of the stories flirt with cliche, there’s nothing bad in this book. As short stories, most of them work; they pay off very well. One or two of them are going to shine, too. I know which ones those are for me. (“Faith” and “Fleur”)
Pont’s artwork is beautiful. It has a very light touch, animating its range of characters (young and old, skinny and, er, not so skinny, well-endowed and not-so-much) with confidence and poise. Everything from a technique point of view works for me here, including the lettering and the coloring.
And since today is International Women’s Day, I have a good thematic excuse to read it and review it. It’s been a good day.
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #29.)