While we all would think of books like Maus, Dark Knight Returns, or Watchmen as comics “canon,” there are a growing number of books that I am coming to think of as, if not canonical in and of themselves, then at least “must-read” books. Maybe they’re still too new, or their influence has not grown enough to be considered part of a comics canon–but in an age with more high-quality literary comics than ever, it follows that the canon will eventually grow and adjust to this new influx. So, for now: The Beta Canon, or at least my version of it.
(NOTE: I’m having a hard time getting WordPress to let me post these images below in a way so when you click on them, they expand to a readable size, BUT if you right-click and choose “Open In New Window” or something like that, that should work.)
Gus And His Gang, by Christophe Blain, came out in 2008 here in America, although I think it was published first in France in 2006 or 2007, and possibly (probably?) in a different form. When the book came out I was already a fan of Blain’s work, having read his two volumes of Isaac the Pirate and his (even-better) graphic album The Speed Abater. I say “liked,” which is correct–they are enjoyable books, good but not really earth-shattering. So when Gus came out, with its garish safety-orange cover, and its Wild-West subject matter, I looked forward to reading it but wasn’t really peeing myself or anything. This seems to be the opposite of a lot of people more connected to European comics than I am–some people were let down by it after all the hype it received, and a lot of people didn’t notice it at all.
But when I grabbed it one day on the way out the door for lunch, needing something quick to read… well, by the end of the first story I was in love with it, and by the end it had become one of my favorite comics EVER.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why, which is the strength of Gus, and maybe its weakness for others. Some books just resonate with some readers; there’s something ineffable there that hits just the right combination of notes to form that perfect chord. You know what I mean? Like you can feel it happen and then hear that vibration for the rest of the reading experience. Most of my favorite books do this, and Gus for sure caught me off guard.
Moreso than Blain’s other books, Gus And His Gang employs a really gestural, expressive art style–similar to the kind of high-energy, fast style of fellow Frenchmen Joann Sfar and Manu Larcenet. What looks at first to be rushed or even sloppy, reveals itself to be well-planned, well-executed storytelling, without a lot of the fussiness that often gets in the way with lesser storytellers. You can almost FEEL the artist making his brush strokes and pen lines on the paper, you imagine him bent across his drawing board, making decisions, deciding when a panel is done, how much nuance is enough…
It’s organic, I guess. It’s like the book has just grown right up in your hands, that if you were to mash your nose into it you’d smell the rich loamy earth of France itself. It’s constructed in the same way–the overall story (so far) seems less like a linear a-to-b progression, and more like an aggregation of story, like a herd of cattle stretched across some plain. Ditto for the way the action can skip from action to humor to death to sex, at once silly and and serious enough to keep you worrying about the characters from moment to moment.
In fact, while the titular star of the book is Gus himself, most of my favorite stories center around the more taciturn Clem, he of the red broccoli hair. Where Gus will say and do anything to achieve his ends, be they love or money, Clem is more complex, has some scruples (though often violated scruples, even so). Clem is no less a philanderer than Gus, but Clem is haunted by his own guilt, in the form of a towering one-eyed version of himself that haunts his spiciest moments. Through Clem we meet Isabella, whose appearances are SO spicy, I had a hard time finding a page I could even show on our blog that wouldn’t set off alarm bells.
Which makes writing about it even more challenging–Blain uses the cartooning form brilliantly to show the various moods and inner thoughts of the characters, not only through body language but the use of what cartoonist Mort Walker called “emanata”–the various stars, sweat beads, squiggly lines of frustration, and other abstract marks that tell the reader what’s going on without using boring old words.
It’s the CONFIDENCE of Blain: his drawings seem effortlessly made, almost gestural. Instead of fussing with getting this line or that just so, he concentrates on the subtleties of posture and the “acting” his figures are doing on the page. In the page above, Blain takes a simple moment and stretches it into 8 mostly-silent panels. Look at all the information you get there: though there’s no establishing shot or other reference to location on the preceding page, it’s easy to imagine where Clem and Isabella are. Even more impressively, Blain indicates the blocking of the scene itself without hardly moving his “camera” at all.
Isabella comes in, moving to the right (the way the eye is moving as well, left to right, as it reads), then looks back (against the “flow” of the reading) towards Clem. This has the double effect of telling us where the two are in relation to each other, again without any single shot containing both of them; AND it increases the importance of her look because the speed of our reading is interrupted by the reversal of the regular left-to-right flow by her look back.
From there it’s perfect: beat, beat, then boom! Clems’s eyes open up and he’s in love. Isabella continues moving with the flow of the eye and our special moment is ended. I love it!
But I think maybe my favorite thing about Gus & His Gang, or at least the thing I find myself thinking about the most, is the colors. The palette the colorist uses is just crazy, all these bright colors from all over the spectrum. He goes from super bright, almost magenta shades to electric blues, but it’s never noisy, everything always makes sense. And the pages are so BRIGHT. He’s also not afraid to just leave a background totally white–the pages seem to breathe, everything seems so airy. It might even undermine the overall sense of danger that most “Wild West” stories have, but I guess I don’t mind much. I’ve definitely tried as hard as I can to appropriate this palette for myself in my own humble efforts, but so far without the grace and panache of the colorist, whose identity was kind of hard to figure out for awhile. But Gina Gagliano over at First Second informs me it is “Clémence”, and worked closely with Blain himself on the palette. Thanks to Gina and especially Colleen AF Venable for helping me get all these images together real easy. The best!
I’m not sure if this is the first volume of a continuing series or not. Jeez, I sure hope so; I love it so much. It is hard to imagine a book that’s come out over the last couple of years (a time RIFE with incredibly good comics) that has influenced me more that this one. Although I will try in the coming months, as I write further on my choices for this “Beta Canon.”
Have you read Gus or any of Blain’s works? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section. Let’s hear it!