Review: Tristan & Yseult by Agnès Maupré and Singeon

I don’t usually review books–mainly because for any given comic there’re probably several reviews out there by actual comics critics, who have far more of an idea what they’re doing than I do. In this case, though, I’m making an exception because the book I want to discuss, Tristan & Yseult by Agnès Maupré and Singeon, is a French-language comic that I’m guessing probably hasn’t been reviewed in English. 

I purchased this book when I was on a recent visit to Québec City, at an amazing bookstore called Librairie Pantoute. I’d not heard of the book itself nor either of the creative team; I grabbed it off the shelf because of its cover, which as you can see is quite striking:

What sold me on the book (figuratively and literally) was the coloring. If you know me via this blog or on twitter, you know I’m a sucker for coloring that’s (1) flat, with little to no rendering, and (b) non-literal. And that’s exactly the way this book is colored. Here’re a few examples:

As you can see, this coloring is exactly up my alley: nary a gradient to be found and the artist’s color choices are as much to convey mood (and maybe just for pure aesthetic interest) as to describe the objects represented on the page. Not atypical of French comics, it’s actually pretty difficult to figure out who colored the book. French comics often don’t specifically credit the colorist, so if one’s not listed it could be that the artist colored the book themselves or that an (uncredited) outside colorist was used. In this case, it seems that the artist, Singeon, (what’s with the single-name thing, French cartoonists?) did the coloring here. 

While I eventually warmed to the cartooning itself, I have to admit that at first glance I found it a bit looser than the type of cartooning that I usually gravitate towards. As I read the book, however, I began to really appreciate Singeon’s cartooning. He’s, for example, really great with conveying subtle facial expressions–something I personally struggle with and always appreciate when I see real masters pull off well (see: Raina Telgemeier, Lynn Johnson). You can see this in the last image above, for example. Even without the dialog there you can get an excellent read on what’s going on in the minds of the two characters. Here’re a few more:

He’s also great at drawing vegetation. The second panel in those color examples is a perfect illustration of this, as are these:

His page layouts tend to largely stick to a basic grid–something I also tend to like in comics. Full-page spreads are used sparingly but when they are, the results are pretty stunning:

I absolutely love how the fish in the top example flow from the bottom panel on the left-facing page into the right-facing splash page.

Beyond any of the particulars of Singeon’s cartooning, though, here’s an interesting thing about Tristan & Yseult aesthetically: it’s one of the very few examples I’ve ever seen of a French comic that appears to be highly influenced by American indie comics, rather than the other way around.  You can see the influence generally in the format of the book: it’s smaller than the traditional European album at just 10.5 x 7.5-ish inches. That smaller trim size necessitates a three tier grid, as usually seen in American comics, rather than the four tier grid that’s common in European albums.

Beyond that, though, the actual drawing in the book isn’t typical of what we in North America generally associate with the European cartooning tradition. Singeon’s thin-ish linework and avoidance of spot black for high contrast shading jibes with the ligne claire tradition in Franco-Belgian cartooning, but that style of linework has also been pervasive in modern American indie comics as well for years via influences like Moebius (and via manga artists like Katsuhiro Otomo for that matter). Curiously, what Singeon’s cartooning most reminds me of influence-wise is David Mazzucchelli.

And that’s odd because I’m hard pressed to think of many artists–even here in the U.S.–who are overtly influenced by Mazzucchelli. There’s maybe Dash Shaw in the indie corner and David Aja on the more superheroish end of things? Yet, Mazzucchelli is a rare figure who’s respected across a broad array of cartoonists–among superhero folks for his amazing work on things like Year One and Daredevil, but also among indie folks for stuff like Rubber Blanket and Asterios Polyp. I may be completely off-base in my Mazzucchelli comparison–god knows I’ve been pegged as being  influenced by people I’ve literally never heard of–but, in Tristan & Yseult we seem to have a rare example of just such an overt Mazzucchelli influence–and, in this case, an influence coming from his lesser known post-superhero work. 

In particular, the drawing style reminds me of some of Mazzucchelli’s all ages comics, such as this one from the Little Lit series:

I see some of his unique color sense throughout Tristan & Yseult as well:

Whether or not I’m correct with the Mazzucchelli influence in particular, there definitely seems to be an aesthetic influence here coming from North American indie comics. As a North American indie cartoonist interested in–and influenced by–the Franco-Belgian tradition it’s fascinating to see the results of these same influences flowing in the opposite direction.

And what about the story? I’ve somehow managed to graduate from a respectable liberal arts college without reading any permutation of Tristan and Iseult, so I can’t say with a ton of authority what elements of the story are traditional and what are coming from Agnès Maupré. The only notable element of the comic’s narrative that I couldn’t find mention of in the Wikipedia entry on Tristan and Iseult nor the Wagner opera adaptation of it was some interesting thematic elements about vegetarianism. In the comic, King Mark is a staunch vegetarian who nonetheless has to lead his court on hunting parties. At the climax of the book, Tristan is mortally wounded during a hunt–again, not something I could find mention of online. 

One thing I really liked about the story was that it didn’t feel the need–as so many stories do–to explain every. single. thing. Yseult’s mother and Yseult herself seem to have some sort of magic powers. Her mother is the one who creates the love potion. And later we seen Yseult compulsively licking blood off her hands. But these elements are simply put there and not explained. Similarly, King Mark has donkey ears that he keeps hidden beneath his hat. You can google to find an explanation for that one, but again, there’s no need to go into it in this story and thankfully Maupré doesn’t.

Tristan & Yseult is a beautifully-drawn (and colored!) adaptation of a classic tale from literature so you’d think it’d stand a good chance of being translated into English and sold domestically. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen, though. Because of our peculiar American attitudes about sex, nudity, etc. this book is probably off-limits for most U.S. publishers who otherwise might give it a shot–I’m thinking of entities like First Second here. (If it “only” had a lot of graphic violence, that of course would be no problem at all here in the good ol’ USA.) So, I’m glad that I took the effort to struggle through in French.

And speaking of French, a few notes on language for anyone considering reading this: My French, such as it is, is pretty bad (a generous assessment). I have to have a French dictionary at hand and Google Translate open on my phone to get through much of anything. That said, the French in Tristan & Yseult isn’t too complex. As you can see in the sample panels I posted, the volume of text  per panel is reasonable (aside from one big splash page toward the end that’s all text). There are also relatively few weird idomatic expressions in the book–and the ones that were there I was able to figure out relatively easy via Google or by asking about it on Twitter. There are a few instances of wordplay–such as when some courtesans are making cow/animal allusions about Yseult–that I struggled with a bit, but generally most of the French can be popped into Translate as a last resort and will yield something vaguely coherent. Oh, and also: for some reason they talk a lot about butts in the book, so you’ll learn two or three different French words for butts, butt cheeks, etc. Bonus!

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  1. […] Ben Towle reviews Tristan & Yseult by Agnés Maubpré and Singeon over at his blog, […]

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