Colorist: Pedrosa and Ruby
Lettering: Calix Ltd.
Translator: Montana Kane
Published by: Dupuis/Europe Comics
Number of Pages: 263
Original Publication: 2011
If comics has its own version of Oscar Bait, they’d point right at “Portugal,” by Cyril Pedrosa. To celebrate this achievement, I wrote two reviews of this lengthy tome to best explain my conflicting opinions on it.
What Is “Portugal”? Take 1!
With “Portugal,” Cyril Pedrosa crafts a story of a multi-generational family and all of its realistic squabbles, denials, and troubles. Told in a series of vignettes and slice-of-life moments, Pedrosa drags the reader through one man’s awkward family in search of a greater meaning.
This is not your typical three act structure with predictable twists and turns. This more naturalistic story structure shows us Simon and his family in action. Sometimes, the action is a dinner table conversation. Other times, it happens over a competitive round of rock skipping across the lake.
Simon Muchat is a frustrated comic book artist stuck at a bad point in his life. He doesn’t have the inspiration to do his next book, despite everyone’s urging. It drives away his friends and girlfriend, causing him to take a break in Portugal, where he can hide at a comic book festival for the weekend before heading off to a family wedding.
Pedrosa stages his drama in the countryside of Portugal, for the most part, giving the book a fresher feel than the five millionth semi-biographical look at life in Paris. He works extra hard in the last third of the book depicting a man lost in a country without knowing its language. The way he shows the Portuguese people talking to the French men maintains that uncomfortable feeling, but is still vaguely approachable to anyone who’s learned a Romance language at any point in school.
There is definitely a warming character arc to this drama. You can see how Simon slowly changes over the 250 pages of story in the book, and it feels natural. Given enough space, Pedrosa packs a book filled with little moments and enough verisimilitude to gain the reader’s trust and acceptance. All of Simon’s problems aren’t solved at the end of the book, but it certainly feels like he’s in a better place. That’s enough.
One Book; Lots of Work
It’s obvious that Pedrosa worked hard with this book. He thanks a number of people for their help in getting his Portuguese correct. He must have had an insane family tree drawn up somewhere to look at. The family reunion at the center of the book demands you keep track of at least a dozen family members. Their conversations often turn to how everyone is related to each other.
If you have problems keeping track of cousins and second cousins in your own life, this book might make your head explode. That’s partially the point, though. You don’t really have to follow everything point by point. It’s OK to be as lost as the main character. It doesn’t matter. So is he.
Pedrosa’s his art style shifts across the scope of the book, with special attention paid to the coloring, which is not at all like anything else you’ll see on comic stands this year. He bathes pages in yellow without regard to the lines forming the boundaries of individual items. Then he can use shadows and highlights to describe forms. If you thought his work on “Hearts at Sea” was too slick and cartoony, you’ll love this rawer look, which eschews traditional think-and-think inking for a more lively line that resembles a first draft on every panel.
“Portugal” is a challenging book that causes the reader to investigate their own lives. Are you lost? Are you too comfortable in your current position? Do you truly know your family? This is a book that confronts hard questions in interesting ways. Pedrosa isn’t handing you anything on a silver platter. You have to work for it, and you have to keep flipping the pages to follow this more naturalistic form of storytelling.
What Is “Portugal”? Take 2!
I’m still not sure.
It’s 264 pages of “Is this going anywhere?”
It’s a slice of life comic about a completely unsympathetic loser who happens to be a French comic book artist. He’s an awful boyfriend. He’s stuck in a self-destructive case of “writer’s block.” He’s self-loathing. You just want to smack him and tell him to stop wasting his life and get back to work.
He heads off to Portugal, where his family originally came from, to attend a small comics show. After that, he heads off to a cousin’s wedding in the same country. He decides to stay there to find himself.
This takes 263 pages. When people complain about navel-gazing bio-comics that tend to win awards, this is the exact kind of book they’re talking about.
I want to give it credit for taking its time and building a deep and complex family history, but the reality is just that it’s tedious, way too long, and has a family far too complicated for the reader to ever figure out. The lead character doesn’t even know it, and he’s getting it spoonfed to him in small expositional chunks.
The Art of Pedrosa
I liked Pedrosa’s “Hearts At Sea” an awful lot. It’s another story in a similar vein: young man with parental issues whose life is going nowhere. Except in that book, which is finished in about a quarter of the pages, he actually does something about it, gets caught up in a wild circumstance, and has a credible change in his life. It’s entertaining, which tends to be anathema in a book that serves as “Oscar Bait.”
“Portugal” is a critical darling, and has a far less interesting story than “Hearts At Sea”.
Pedrosa’s art style shifts for this book. For the most part, it’s much looser. It approximates the feel of an on-line web comic diary. The lines are loose and freeform, but the backgrounds are still present and the storytelling is still strong. You can see the underpinnings of his style here, but I much prefer the finished quality of his other work.
Then he goes into full scale critic-pleasing mode with shifts in that style for certain scenes over the course of the book. (No, those shifts don’t indicate much, perhaps, except he’s getting as bored drawing it as I was in reading it.) You get pages where the characters are basically painted into the scene, scenes where secondary characters and random people are meant to be seen through, and then pages that look like an impressionistic cartoonist stayed up way too late last night to draw it.
There’s a book of Pedrosa’s that so far remains untranslated called “Les Equinoxes.” It looks to be along the same lines as this one. It’s 334 pages long.
Even better — it contains essays in the middle of the story. The art seems more stable and consistent through the book (minus some painted framing sequences). I probably wouldn’t like that one, either, but I have to admit I’m very curious to read it. Maybe it’s a best two out of the three kind of thing?
But then, there are also two untranslated volumes of autobiographical gag-a-page comics. Those are titled, fittingly enough, “Autobio.” I’d be really curious to read those, if only to see how much of his own life influenced his other works, like “Portugal.”
UPDATE: Whoops, “Equinoxes” is translated. NBM published it last year. While not available in English on Izneo, it is available on comiXology or in print on Amazon, amongst other places. And, just to prove my “Oscar Bait” theory right, it was nominated for an Eisner in the “U.S. Edition of International Material” category. It lost to Dark Horse’s “Moebius Library: The World of Edena.” (Thanks to MK in the comments for pointing this out for me…)
Not My Kind of Book
Look, this style of book does win awards. Critics love it, often just because it tries to do something different, whether it succeeds or not.
I’m a much simpler man. I like the commercial pop comics that critics usually look down their nose at. I’m OK with that. I make exceptions every now and then for something that strikes a chord with me. (See Manu Larcenet’s “Blast,” for example.) But, for the most part, this book required far too much of my time and attention for what it gave me in the end.
A Little Background on the Book
Cyril Pedrosa has a YouTube channel. On it, back in 2011, he posted this 12 minute video explaining how the book came about, and just how much of it is autobiographical. (Spoiler: It’s not, but he used a lot of what he surrounded himself with for the story.)
I love this video because I recognize so many of the real life places in it that he drew into the book.
Yes. And hell, no! I still don’t know.
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #112.)
Buy It Now
NBM just released an English edition of the book in hardcover. You can order that here:
(I get a small affiliate fee, and it costs you nothing if you click there and order.)
You can find the digital editions at these links: