Back to Basics v1 cover detail by Manu Larcenet

Back to Basics v1: “Real Life”

A Brief Detour Before the Review

I didn’t grow up with comics. In fact, I didn’t start reading them until I was 13 years old.  Most people in my generation started with the G.I. Joe cartoon series, and the comic book ad Marvel had with that.

I was a late comics bloomer.

But through the 1980s, I was a big comic strip fan.  My parents always had a newspaper delivered to the house, and would also often go out and buy one of the New York City newspapers from the local newsstand.  So I had the Post and the Daily News passing through my house as a kid a lot.  They carried a variety of strips.

And I devoured all of them.  Back then, each newspaper would have at least two full pages of strips.  I always went for that section first.  I read the humorous ones, but also followed some of the adventure strips, from “Mark Trail” to “Dick Tracy” to “Mary Worth.”  (I was desperate for reading material, I guess.)

“Far Side” was my favorite by far.  Later on, I discovered “Fox Trot” at WaldenBooks.  My local paper didn’t carry it.  I found the book compilations and that’s how I read the first few years of that strip.

I also regularly read “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Bloom County,” of course, along with all the other generational strips like “Hagar the Horrible” and “Blondie” and whatnot. “For Better or Worse.” “Snoopy,” of course, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it as a kid.

I drew my own strips for fun, none of which thankfully exist anymore.

I suppose graduating to comics books was inevitable for me.

I don’t read any strips these days.  I have the complete oversized and hardcover editions of “Far Side,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” and “Bloom County”, but I don’t regularly buy a newspaper or seek those strips out on-line.

Back to Basics v1 cover

This is a long way to say that “Back to Basics” is a fun throwback to my days as a comic strip junkie, because it feels like each gag is a funny Sunday strip.

So let’s get to it.

 

An Autobiography Written By Someone Else?

“Back to Basics” (originally published 15 years ago) is the autobiographical story of Manu Larcenet, and his move from the city (Paris) to a more rural location. He and his wife/girlfriend/partner (it’s unclear) sign a one year lease on a house in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, pack everything up into comically large boxes, and change their lifestyle.

Larcenet is only drawing the book, however. It’s written by Jean-Yves Ferri, who is best known these days for being the guy writing the new Asterix books.  (And I hope to be reviewing one of those here soon…)

So how does that work?  How is Larcenet’s autobiography being written by someone else?  Here’s a strip from the second volume in the series that kinda sorta explains it:

 

How Manu Larcenet and Jean-Yves Ferri do "Back to Basics"

So, the loose details are the true part: Boy and Girl move to country. They learn to adjust.

The comedic parts of it come in the form of the supporting cast and some of the exaggerated stories that come from Ferri, perhaps inspired by things Larcenet has talked to him about. It’s obvious when you read the book that a lot of it is made up/exaggerated, but the core elements feel real.

The feels are real, folks.

“Autobiography” might be the wrong word. Just go with it.  It’s a fun book.

 

City Mouse, Country Mouse

For Manu, moving to the country is not an easy transition. He’s a city guy.  He’s an artist.  He’s a tech guy.  He wants to walk down the street for a baguette and then come home and draw all day.  His computer is the first thing he unpacks, while Marietta handles all the more logistically necessary things, like dishes and chairs and whatnot. Even then, the boxes never truly go away. They function as end tables, hideouts, space fillers, and more.

The empty cardboard boxes fill up their new rental house.

On their first walk into the nearby fields and forest, he’s seen dragging his giant CRT monitor and keyboard with him.  (This book was originally published 15 years ago.  LCDs weren’t the norm yet, let alone Wacom Cintiqs.  It also helps to explain the reliance on the landline phone at the house and no cell phones.)

The town they move into is not without its quirks.  Their landlord, Monsieur Henri, is a large, quiet man who shows up when you least expect it, and makes his own alcohol that’s ridiculously strong.  There’s the unnamed hunter in the woods Manu comes across during his walks.  There’s the scary woman who always leans on her shovel, there to scream at you and warn you of impending doom if you’re unfortunate enough to walk past her.  There’s the naked man with the long beard who lives in the trees and is the guru.  The unseen bakery woman is a cutie who makes really good bread.

The best part is how these characters recur almost at random through the strips and become running gags all their own.  There is an odd sort of continuity in this book, as gags build upon themselves over time.

“Back to Basics” is to comics today what the “Newhart” television series was in the 80s. It’s the story of a city guy who’s moved into a small town and finds himself surrounded by crazy people.

Friends of Manu Larcenet stop by for a visit, including Lewis Trondheim and Jean-Yves Ferri.

Near the end of the book, Manu invites some of his comics creating friend out to his house for a good time.  Included in that group are Lewis Trondheim and Jean-Yves Ferri. It is at that party that Ferri suggests doing the book that becomes “Back to Basics,” immediately whipping out a sketchbook and getting to work.

The Art and Layout

Larcenet’s art is deceptively simple.   It’s wide open with few black areas, just the same thin line that wiggles and wavers where you might expect sharp edges, like on the sides of a desk.

I’m always fascinated by artists who can draw things like boxes and pieces of furniture freehand and make it look right.  When I do it, it just looks sloppy.  I haven’t quite cracked the code of when lines that aren’t perfect are “good enough” or “stylistic” enough.  Check out this desk and computer:

Manu Larcenet draws imperfect things, like this desk and computer, for example.

Not only is it not perfect, but Larcenet redrew it in each panel slightly differently. (Look at the shape of the screen or the scratch lines under the desk’s side there.) There are no stats. The original art must look 10x better for that.

I could get lost in this stuff all day.  Everything feels animated.  There’s no stretching and squashing, but the proportions of the characters and the way they move across a panel and a page is delightful to look at.  They are all about three heads tall in a more traditional Marcinelle School/Big Nose style.  Yes, I’m pre-disposed to like that style.

We know Larcenet can draw in other styles, too, and those comes out on occasion in the book, such as when his avatar in the book is drawing something, or on the occasional single panel piece where he’s drawing the detail in the forest on purpose to contrast it against the characters.

Everything is in full color, by Brigitte Findakly, who is married to Lewis Trondheim (also pictured at the party above). The colors are great. Everything is simple, slightly muted, and colorful.  Occasional gradients help to fill in backgroundless panels. The art is always easy to read and pleasant to look at.  There’s no muddying up of the art to look “real” here. It’s a great look.  I even prefer it over the colors in “Ordinary Victories,” which I think were a bit too bright at times.

 

Recommended?

Yes, absolutely.  If you like good old fashioned funny comic strips that use both the visuals and the writing to carry a story and a series of gags, this book has something for you. If you just want to see quirky people in a quirky town have the kinds of doubts you could imagine yourself having in the same situation, this book will be a great mirror.

 

(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #19.)

 

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