A Quick History Lesson
It might help to know a little bit of French history from World War II before reading this book.
The French fought with the Allies, but got overrun by the Nazis. The stories of the Nazis marching through Paris come from this time, obviously.
There was some resistance to the Germans in the country in the form of The Resistance, fighting back in covert ways.
This story is set in 1943, so it’s still a few months before the landing at Normandy, after which the Allies would make it across France as fast as they did thanks, in part, to the Resistance.
That’s probably all you need to know.
“The Reprieve” is set in a small French town that looks a lot like the village that Belle lives in from “Beauty and the Beast.” (The animated one.) It’s not actively occupied by the Germans.
Enter Julien, a young man on a train set to go off to war for France. He has cold feet, and literally jumps off the train when nobody’s looking. He makes his way to his aunt’s house in the small town, where he plans to hide until the war ends.
When he first arrives, he’s a bit skittish, but is also a bit smug and intolerable, to be honest. I mean, he just bailed on all his fellow soldiers to go hide. Look at the look on his face here:
“I exempted myself.”
In the course of the book, he comes to learn a bit of the price he’s going to pay for this, thankfully, in the form of his isolation and more.
The Ultimate Voyeur
Julien takes up living in the apartment of his old high school English teacher, who abandoned the apartment when he was arrested for suspicion of being a communist.
The apartment sits high above the town, but right off the circle in the center of the town. He can see lots of interesting things from there, and does. He spends his days spying on the town, learning what its inhabitants are up to.
He sees the good, the bad, and the ugly, including one awful visit from the Nazis, the Resistance’s repeated quiet visits to town, and the life choices of Cecile, an old flame of Julien’s. When two French soldiers return to town after being released by their Nazi captors, Julien can’t help but think one is making the moves on Cecile, and it’s distracting to him.
But there’s nothing he can do about it without revealing himself to be the deserter he is.
Suddenly, his voyeurism takes a turn into suspicion and heartbreak. His aloof ivory tower point of view gets much closer to the situation.
It’s a fascinating turn in the book when this starts to happen. It makes Julien a weaker man and a more conflicted person. There’s nothing he can do about this, because nobody can know he’s living up there in the tower. He has some hard decisions to make, ones which will change the course of his life — in the second volume of the story…
The book, itself, is rather slow. It takes measured paces in its storytelling. We see the town through Julien’s eyes, deliberately, and often not in the most dramatic of times. Some people are more sympathetic than others, but there’s not too much terribly exciting going on here.
As a reader, you’re getting a glimpse in a town during a specific period of its life. You are not getting a thriller, where the voyeur is witnessing crime that forces him to reveal himself. You’re not seeing matters of life and death. You’re not worried, really, that he’s going to get caught. His bases seem pretty covered. There’s no ticking time bomb in the book to force people to act.
Until there is. A change in his living arrangements at the end of this book means that he has to scramble in new ways to survive. It’s a big wake-up call.
But then it’s done. The second and last part of the story is available now also through comiXology.
The Art of Gibrat
Gibrat’s art carries the book when the story might seem slow. He paints the entire book, evoking a period piece feel with lots of costuming and small details from the era on display to help sell the piece. And since so much of this book is about one man’s view of the world, getting all those little details right is key.
Two things Gibrat is particularly good at is composition and lighting. Take a look at this panel, from the center of the village at night, when Julien and his aunt are passing through.
I love the way Gibrat pulls you into the scene by including things very close up on the outer edges and then leading your eyes into the center of the panel with the buildings on either end heading that way. The water fountain’s edge along the right helps push your eye away from the right side of the panel, and just above it and to the left where the characters are speaking.
He also uses color and lighting well. This is a night scene, so he uses a cool blue color to represent that. Past that, he’s very careful with the placement of the shadows. He’s not using solid blacks here. Rather, he’s using darker shades of blue to light the path the eye should take to the characters. Everything along the outer edges of this panel is darker, with lighter colors happening where the moonlight is hitting.
The only thing that soils the art is the crossbar-I in the lettering—
Nah, you don’t want to hear about that again, do you? Trust me, it’s there. I ought to start including a graphic at the end of each review to congratulate the books that get it right. Sadly, I wouldn’t need to use it too many times…
If you’re a history buff, you might enjoy this one. If you’re a Hitchcock fan, you might want to see a different take on “Rear Window.” The art and its attention to detail is captivating, but the slow story might turn some people away.
I’m also interested in reading the second part soon to see if that completes the story in such a way that reading the first is (a) worth it or (b) has a new light shining on it. When I do, I’ll come back for another review.
One last note: Gibrat was a featured artist in Christie’s Franco-Belgian auction last fall. See more of his images in my review of that.
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #26.)