Lettering: Calix Ltd.
Translator: Thomas Scott-Railton
Published by: Dargaud/Europe Comics
Number of Pages: 206
Original Publication: 2010
Larcenet Goes Literary
What looks to be a simple police procedural story turns out to be a whole lot more. Manu Larcenet goes for something, dare I say it, literary with “Blast.” Larcenet uses a new style in this four volume series, influenced by manga storytelling styles and, I have to think, a touch of Frank Miller.
I’m also an American, so perhaps the Miller influence is me reading too much into things.
What is “Blast”?
This is the story of Polza Mancini, a man the police bring in for questioning for whatever happened to the currently comatose Carol Oakley. The story is purposefully vague on the details at the start.
Polza is going to give the police the whole story, whether they like it or not, and he plans on starting at the very beginning and leaving no stone unturned. Most of this book is the flashbacks of what he tells them happened.
He’s potentially dangerous, mentally unbalanced, but looks very peaceful and calm in the police station telling his story. He almost smiles at his situation. It’a a barely-there Mona Lisa kind of smile, but all the same, it’s there.
Culturally, there’s a bit of resistance in France to the world of manga. Much like what happened here in the States 15 years ago, some saw its presence as a threat to the comics culture, and worried that it would “infect” the regular comics they’ve come to know and love. And, for sure, there are some influences of that style that have leaked into more traditional BD here and there. (You know when it happens because someone will complain about the style looking too much like manga.)
I see a lot of manga influence on “Blast.” This is about as far away from traditional BD as you can get and still be published in Paris. Larcenet plays with his storytelling to incorporate elements of manga that help to tell the story in different ways. That doesn’t mean you’re getting characters with big eyes and small bodies. You’re not getting speedlines everywhere or zip-a-tone or stats of cities pasted into the background.
You do get lots of pages limited to three panels, with large panels that fill silent moments. When Larcenet wants to linger on something, he can do it over the course of three pages. This isn’t your traditional BD where the artist draws half-page chunks and packs them to the brim with panels.
It’s not always something that works, to be honest. Some moments linger too long or linger for no apparent reason. But when it works, it’s very effective and helps to sell the moment. It can be a bit unsettling at times, which might be just what Larcenet was going for, after all. Who knows?
It takes some time to get used to it. You’ll be about halfway through the book before it begins to feel natural. After that, you’ll fly through the pages and the rhythm will feel more natural. It’s possible that Larcenet drew the book in order and the results get better as the book goes along.
With the multi-page scene storytelling style, the book also gets a page count boost. Instead of being 50 pages or so for each album, “Blast” runs 200 pages at a time. It doesn’t take that much longer to read than a traditional album, though. You fly through these sparse pages.
The Art Style
I raved over Larcenet’s drawings in “Back to Basics,” a semi-autobiographical comic strip about Larcenet’s life living out in the country for the first time.
This looks nothing like that. You can see the bones of Larcenet’s style in the characters (particularly the police officers), but this is something new. It’s very purposefully sparse. Pages feel very open, with lots of negative space.
Larcenet fills the void with lots of gray washes and textures. This is a black and white book (mostly), and Larcenet uses the grays to provide shadows and textures and points of interest on the page. It’s an effective kind of watercoloring, almost, that adds some weight to the pages. Solid black areas are few and far between.
Thin lines dominate the pages, with gray textured washes filling things in. It feels like a black and white movie that’s expertly lit.
Polza is a gross exaggeration of a human being. His proportions are crazy, as befit a man meant to be extremely obese. But that beak-like nose is second only to his father’s, who’s seen briefly in flashback and appears later in comparison to a bird.
The police characters, by contrast, are lightly outlined, very cartoony with slightly large heads.
Larcenet often sketches in the backgrounds loosely. You can see it on pages like the chapter break type splashes where there’s a bit of the city at the bottom of the page under the dominant cloud cover of the sky.
Some of the panel designs, angles, and lighting, do remind me of “Sin City” just a bit. There’s an early panel of Polza in a spare room that’s a bird’s eye view from above the single hanging light bulb. The only bits of the wall you see is the graffiti just behind him.
Again, as with the storytelling style, the art, itself, improves as the book goes along, though I can’t honestly tell how much of that is the reader’s acclimation to the style and story. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a book this ambitious, that a lot of it was done out of order. Scenes can easily be inserted into the beginning after the whole book is done to set something up later, or to modify a pace.
The Fantastical Part of It
“Blast” refers to something that happens to Polza a couple times in the book, when a mystical force inhabits his body and — well, I’ll just let him explain it to you when you read the book. It’s a bit nebulous, on purpose. There’s an obvious question as to how much of it is truthful and how much of it is the product of Polza’s possibly deranged mind.
Those segments are the only color parts of the book, as the Blasts are drawn with crayon drawings around Polza.
The reason I call this book literary isn’t just because it’s not filled with explosions and gun fire and fisticuffs. It’s not just because it features a mentally ill man or a potentially grizzly homicide. It’s not even because it unfurls its story at its own pace.
It is a little of all of that, but then Larcenet also dabbles in using symbols and seemingly random things that likely have larger meanings to those who might want to dig into the deeper aspects of the story. The Easter Island heads that pop up are one example. The recurring bird themes, such as the owl who gets two or three pages to blink his eyes, Polza’s bird-like father, and any number of other incidental birds along the way.
This is all stuff that literary critics love to dig into and feel superior to you for understanding at a deeper level than you.
Don’t worry; that’s not me. I don’t entirely get it. I’m hoping the rest of the book helps piece it together for me.
Yes. It’s more literary read than I usually review here, so keep that in mind. This isn’t a fun roller coaster ride of a book punctuated with great laughs, or a taut thriller with likable snarky characters and a smarmy bad guy. This is a deeply personal story about an emotionally disturbed man who asks big life questions about his miserably depressing life.
In the movie industry, they call that “Oscar bait.” (The fourth volume was nominated for the Angouleme Official Selection back in 2014. This first volume won a Bookseller’s Comics Award in 2010.)
I should also mention that some small part of this book comes from Larcenet’s own mental health issues. He reportedly stopped taking his medication while making this book.
It’s deep, but enjoyable. Larcenet did a great job with this one. It doesn’t succeed in everything it tries, but even the attempts are interesting and worth the read.
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #87.)
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