In the fall of 2011 we did a comics reading series at the Brooklyn Public Library. The third book we read and discussed was Lucille by Ludovic Debeurme. Here is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion that Sunday afternoon.
Meeting 1: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Meeting 2: Ice Haven By Daniel Clowes (to come) (We did these a bit out of order, but what the heck, this thing is ready!)
Meeting 4: Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (to come)
NOTE: there are quite a few spoilers so make sure you’ve read the book first!
Lucille by Ludovic Debeurme
Matt: We talked earlier about different drawing styles and formats, and how those can have historical associations and can be used, particularly in Ice Haven, to create part of the subjectivity of the different characters. Today I want to talk about the page and the layout of the page.
The vast majority of comics are arrayed on the page in a series of panels, usually boxes. Sometimes, they can be structured in a grid; nine panels, six panels, or eight panels being the most common arrangements. This dates back to the beginning of the form, really, and even into the prehistory of it. …Here’s an old Popeye comic from the ’20’s or so.
The page layout is very simple. It’s almost like a regular grid of little windows or stages. A lot of the early comics were heavily influenced by vaudeville. Popeye was originally titled “Thimble Theater”.
This is an old “Tintin” page out of the traditional French and European comics tradition, and it has a similar layout of pictures and boxes arrayed in a grid across the page. You can see here it’s not necessarily like a symmetrical grid. There are different sized panels, the arrangement varies, but it’s still pretty straightforward. And there’s a real reason for that. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, that sort of thing. You put stuff in boxes in a series in a row, and it gives you a really pleasing visual effect.
There’s a nice symmetry and asymmetry going on in this Jack Kirby “Captain America” page. It gives you a really strong underlying rhythm… like a backbeat to your storytelling that’s very powerful.
Jessica: I want to add to that there’s a lot of new kinds of approaches to designing pages and laying out panels, but the traditional grid-based system that we’re looking at here is nearly invisible. I don’t know how many of you guys last time when reading Ice Haven were going “Wow, what a grid!”, you know? “He’s using those rectangles! Why?” It’s kind of this unquestioned background of comics, and they really become invisible. They just disappear.
M: Except that I would say in Ice Haven that grid, that meeting and the change of styles has an immediate effect, like in the Random Wilder sequences, you have a kind of fairly organic division of the panels, whereas a lot of the Charles segments with the child are in these smaller, more tightly gridded kind of pages.
J: It’s not that it doesn’t have some kind of aesthetic effect, but it’s not something that springs to the forefront.
M: Right, you don’t question that it’s there. Two or three times, Clowes uses circular panels, which is one variation you see sometimes. So in other words Superhero comics, newspaper comics, European comics, and most contemporary comics, you still basically see panels on a page. All along though, there have been some variations, some exceptions, most notably George Herriman, who did a comic strip called “Krazy Kat”, which ran from the late ’20’s to the early ’40’s. It’s one of the great masterworks of comics, and you can see here in this page, which is from the ’20’s, he’s dispensing with a lot of the panel borders, or in the middle he’s using a very thick black border.
It really changes the immediate effect when you see this page along with the Popeye page where it’s a regular grid of little panels, it’s kind of shocking.
J: And these comics were coming out at the same time.
M: Yeah, these pages would have been all coming out together, and that’s what comics looked like then. Even weird, psychedelic strips like “Polly and Her Pals” and other works like that. So Herriman was really one of the only people who started to play around with the basic page and how that could be divided or less divided up. He would get rid of panel borders altogether to make transitions more fluid. That said—and I think this is generally true with what we’re talking about here—a comic might use less panels or borders or use canted angles like in this one and it can feel a little bit more random.
But often when you analyze it, like the Krazy Kat page, you can see that there is a very strong underlying structure. And that’s very important because that’s how we know which direction to read and how to process the narrative in the right order.
So there are tons of possibilities for laying out pages using panels. Sometimes they can be purely decorative, sometimes they inform the narrative, like in this bottom middle row there’s the page full of polaroids. You could make that work as a comic, but it could also be a series of snapshots that are part of a story about someone remembering lost love, or a family vacation.
So it’s pretty rare to find people who very self- consciously reject that tradition, because it is a very sound basis for making comics. One notable variation is Chester Brown, who was doing autobiographical comics in the early ’90’s. He was very influential, and was actually one of the people who made me want to start doing comics. He started with a pretty traditional grid structure, but at a certain point he started drawing his panels—partly because he was living in a little rooming house in Toronto and drawing on his lap—he started drawing panels individually on index cards, and pasting them up on a big sheet before bringing it to the publisher or the printer.
So that allowed him to play with a much more intuitive layout, but there’s still a clear reading order. The actual placement is much more variable, so you get more interesting, different shapes of panels, interesting negative space around the panels that create a very different mood. Of course the fact that it’s on a black background adds to that as well.
There are cartoonists who are really pushing the limits of storytelling and moving in the direction of visual poetry. This is a page from a comic by a guy named Warren Craghead, and he comes from more of a fine arts and poetry background. His work, you can barely recognize it as comics. He’s got sound effects, word balloons, and a kind of movement across the page that’s similar to comics, but it’s really pushing it into another organic and fluid visual form. And that brings us back to Ludovic Debeurme’s Lucille.
Debeurme’s first comic wasn’t published until 2001, and these are two pages from it. The drawing is much more heavily rendered, and if any of you did any research on him online he does oil painting, and he’s a very accomplished illustrator.
He’s using a very strict, four panel per-page grid for this story. So from that, and this was back in 2001. He started working on this book, Lucille, that we’re talking about today. This simple style that he’s adopted for Lucille is a very deliberate choice, as is the page layout. These are some pages from that, and you can see they have a very different visual effect.
Certainly that’s part of this more simple drawing style, and especially I think this lack of panel borders and a more fluid layout. I think a good starting question, and I’ll open this up to the floor here, is why did he do this? And what kind of effect does this have on your reading experience of the work?
Audience member (AM): One thing that struck me was I thought about a sort of lightness of the page as opposed to the darkness of the story. Thinking about it now, the way that a lack of order kind of pulls you along produces an effect of space so that you have a lot of very still moments. Such as the parts with Lucille by herself brooding. And the duration of the time is very clear in the way that the images are laid out. But at the same time, it’s not an agonizing process reading through her depression.
M: Right. That kind of economy of drawing, where there are scenes that are just heads floating in the air talking, or Lucille writing in her diary, you get that sense of intimacy and time passing, but a a reading experience it’s also very fast. There’s no extraneous detail.
J: I feel like that maybe the lack of word balloons contributes to that. There’s a page like this one, for example, I just flipped this open…there’s a ton of text on this page. But if you were to surround everything with panel borders and word balloons, it might look like there’s more text, or you’d notice how much text there is in a way that you might not. Speaking as a cartoonist who uses a lot of text, people can sometimes look at your pages and go “I don’t know if I’m up for that right now”. So perhaps this is something that was a conscious strategy. I’m not sure how much of this book was a conscious strategy, that’s another question. But certainly it is a strategy that seems to work.
AM: For me it was a very cinematic reading experience. I felt going from the wide, medium, and close-up shots was very fluid. There was a creative sense of tempo, that may not have happened with panel borders. I think by not having borders it drew you in much more easily. It wasn’t a story that was being presented, it was just the characters coming off the page. The sense of a narrator was less present.
AM: I find that just looking at it just held my attention more than a regular comic strip. I feel like the fluidity of the characters with no borders, it all fell in with one another.
J: So are we sort of saying that panels and word balloons can be a distancing mechanism? The same way we were talking about panels as a window between you and the world, in this space there is no window, you’re just in the world and in the space with them.
M: In illustration, a drawing with no border is called a vignette. So these are all vignettes. And that’s something you see individually in a lot of comics with panels, but sometimes the panels will fall away leaving a vignette moment. it’s often used precisely for that effect of immediacy, or it’ll be used for a flashback or a dream or something.
J: Frequently also for a sense of eternity. Like, if a character walks out of a building into a post-apocalyptic situation, and everything’s dead, there’ll be no panel borders so it seems like it goes on forever. It keeps running because there’s not an edge. And that’s a silly example, but you can obviously do that very seriously as well.
M: I think you’re observation that it’s very cinematic is interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of that, but I think you’re right, actually. It’s very non-cinematic in the sense that there are no panel borders, and those act like windows the same way a movie screen does. By getting rid of that, and by varying the size and shape of all the drawings he does, and the way he crops them, it makes it feel in one way very native to drawing…like sketchbook drawing than something we watch on the screen. But you’re right that he does use a lot of cinematic language in his storytelling. There’s close-ups, there’s medium shots; he uses tracking and moving shots in a way that’s very cinematic.
J: I also think that when you watch a film in a theater, I, at least, am not that cognizant or sensitive to the edges of the film or the screen. I feel that when you’re in a situation that’s being projected really large you’re more “in” it, more inside it. So maybe thats a cinematic thing as well.
AM: That goes along with the idea of the vignette if you think of the iris as the window. All of Debeurme’s drawings have a very central focus, so they get fuzzy or less specific towards the edges.
J: It mimics the way we focus.
AM: Yeah. We know what the clear focus of the vignette is.
AM: I also agree. It was very cinematic for me, but not because it looked like a storyboard, but because the flow worked for me as a viewer. No panel borders also allowed him to play with sound, like there’s one particular scene where in the hospital Lucille goes into the bathroom and we can hear the conversation with the daughter… and that really only works because of the lack of borders as opposed to having the different dialogue in different panels. There’s just one big image of her listening to all this, and it’s visually crowding her. That creates the sensation of all this happening at once as opposed to something more linear. So yeah, that added to the cinematic experience for me.
J: That spread stands out a bit because theres a lot of text on it. I get what you’re saying, but I sort of disagree because there’s too much that happens in that moment of time where she’s in that position. They need to be broken up a little bit more to feel it…maybe not tiny bits, but a little speech and a little speech and she moves a bit or something. I think it would work better for me that way.
AM: Do you know why there are no page numbers?
M: If I were to guess, it would probably be that he’s trying to get rid of all extraneous detail, in keeping with the rest of the work. I’m not sure I think that’s a good idea. I’m a real stickler for keeping pagination.
AM: Two things struck me in terms of the lack of borders…it seemed to me that the character’s lives also had problems with borders and with loss, so I think they lend themselves to that.
M: If you looked around online, there’s a short documentary on youtube that the American publisher put together when it came out, and Debeurme mentions that it’s not autobiographical but he did have a girlfriend who had anorexia. And that was the parting point of this book. To try to get into her head and understand what that feels like. I think that’s why he chose the specific art style he did for this book, this kind of very simple, sparse style in a way of expressing that.
J: They talk about how she’s sort of diaphanous and delicate, and if you can say one thing about this art, it’s that it’s delicate. It has this very fine line, and it feels like tracery in a way. And that reflects her state.
AM: And even though she is the title of the book, there’s really two protagonists. I wonder if the delicacy reflects in both of them?
J: That’s a good question. He presents himself as not delicate, but I think the whole reason she appeals to him is because he’s fragile in a different way. That may be pushing the analogy a little far.
AM: Is the gentleman in the story supposed to be the writer?
M: I don’t think so in any direct way. One clue I’ve figured out is to look at the title of the book and his first name. Ludovic, Lucille. And also Ludovic is a Polish or Slavic name, and Arthur/Vladimir is from a Polish family living in Britanny.
J: And Ludovic is from Britanny.
M: Right. There’s clearly a lot of personal experience, as well as a knowledge of the landscape and towns and the channel.
J: When he did this book he was probably around thirty, and he was dealing with the anorexic girlfriend at that time. He was not a teenager who ran away. This is not an autobiographical book, but he is using elements from his life to build the characters.
AM: I think that’s evidenced in how the character doesn’t really know where he ends and his father begins, but he does, but he doesn’t…I think those boundaries and borders are very fluid in him as well. As a character he starts in the first section where he’s…
M: …Where he’s a pretend satanist?
AM: Yeah, and that never comes back.
J: That bit is strange. He’s made out to be a pretend bully, but it all gets tossed out. I mean, I get that in the macho culture he’s in he might get some sort of posturing in various contexts and wouldn’t be delicate until he’s with Lucille, but the whole “I was a teenage satanist and then I wasn’t and I don’t ever mention it again” is kind of weird.
AM: But for me the idea of the borders and boundaries is more resonant than the delicacy even though that’s very strong, too. Because neither really seems able to say no to the other, and at the very end she goes with that guy…I couldn’t tell if she was slightly interested in him or just couldn’t say no. So again, it’s the boundaries and the inability to kind of make a decision. She just does these actions regardless.
M: Well if you remember before the attempted rape, at the end when Lucille and Vladimir make love, it’s not clear if it’s in a dream or fantasy, but he turns into the Italian guy while they’re having sex, suggesting that on some level that she is attracted to him. Whether it’s just physically, or whether she’s attracted to the fact that he’s attracted to her. But I think that’s a key thing. The borders and boundaries, I mean. Because Lucille doesn’t have any social contact, she’s kind of a shut-in that lives with her mom. And maybe the thing about the satanist and the bully is there to show that Arthur’s involved in so many people’s lives but not able to find his own place.
J: And just being a sailor in this town, he’s intricately involved with all these people. The kid he bullies at the beginning is the son of the man who dies, so it weaves together in that sense. It doesn’t get brought up though. That’s another thing about this book that according to Debeurme, it’s improvised. The story itself is improvisational. I think about the way I did my big graphic novel which wasn’t improvised, but wasn’t finished [being written] before I started [drawing]. There’s all this stuff at the beginning that I thought I was gonna use and never did. So they never paid off, and it might be one of those things where he was trying to build this character, and had an idea of the character, but it didn’t play out that way.
M: In that video he talked about his compositional style, it’s to just start drawing. If you look at the first drawing on the first page of the book, it’s Lucille walking. He says that that’s how he often likes to start a story out. Drawing characters just walking, and sort of following them to see where they’re going. I think it’s sort of a metaphor for how he’s creating.
AM: I was going to say that an interesting part of this that he begins and ends with the same thing, which is Lucille’s glasses. And we’re reading what the glasses mean to her.
J: That’s really interesting, yeah. Because that’s her interface with the world, it’s where she sees things clearly.
AM: But at the beginning she’s not wearing them, and it can make her appearance discomforting.
AM: She says she can see fine, but I got the feeling that was a lie.
M: Yeah, I think the implication is that it’s a lie. He draws her with her eyes tightly shut at the beginning, so I think she’s actually pretty blind, and does need the glasses, but she’s so determined to not show any signs of being unattractive that she takes them off whenever she’s out of the house.
J: It seems like the way they’re drawn at the beginning…it looks like they’re bifocals? And you don’t see it after a while.
M: That might be the drawing style evolving, and the way he’s drawing her lids and her eyes.
AM: That’s something she shares with her brother, the enormous, strange glasses. They’re so giant they’re like a mask.
M: Someone mentioned that there’s no narration which is pretty different from the last two books we’ve read. Fun Home and Ice Haven rely heavily on narration by multiple different characters. How did that change your experience of reading this book?
AM: It makes it so it’s the kids’ stories. There is no authority except for authority as they see it. They’re antagonists during the course of the books. If there was a narrator they would have to be judged in a certain sense just by the word choice.
M: There’s no omniscient point of view. Maybe that comes back to the drawing and the drawing style, the fading and the “camera lens”, or the mind’s eye. It’s like things fade out around the edges, and although I can see it I don’t focus on the details around me. It creates a very subjective, kind of optical experience.
AM: Recollections of your childhood then, it’s more…for his recollections he’s telling the story from the point of “I was a boy…”. He actually recalls his childhood and there’s some narration in there.
J: When he’s telling her?
AM: No, when he’s not talking to her. That’s the whole point. I was kind of thrown by that at first. Later you hear them say “Hey do you remember when we met that guy” and that kind of stuff, but there’s a moment where he says “When i was a little boy my Dad…” later he mentions when his father gave him the toy, and it’s him recollecting.
M: And he’s just saying it?
AM: Yeah, he’s just speaking to us. Whereas Lucille…
M: Lucille either tells Arthur or we learn it through her diary entries. All three of these books have featured female characters writing in diaries as a literary device. I’m not really sure what that implies.
AM: She is narrating here, but there’s one later on where there’s this little girl…this one is a personal experience identifying with being overweight, but there’s another where she’s in this field with her father…
AM: But there’s also an episode much later on where there’s a flashback that’s told about his life, but it’s not narrated from his perspective. His father is saying : “See those cliffs? They’re gonna go. The sea will wash them away.”
J: It’s just a flashback, but with no distinction?
AM: It’s a two page spread, but it’s not framed by Vladimir saying that. I think the way we feel the artistic choices here are most in the colors. Specifically the use of the gold and the black, and when they put human heads on the insects. And there are places where they appear in succession, like where she discovers him having slit his wrist there’s a black page, but right before that there’s a gold color.
M: Like a fade to black in film.
AM:[Speaking of the] colored pages, the “Sailor meets a sailor” [sequence], all in gold, which is the one place where the drawing style entirely changes, it’s not a dream sequence, it’s a sort of a flashback vision in Vladimir’s head as he’s running to rescue Lucille.
AM: Going on to the next page I figured it was sort of a play for the toy…
AM: Yeah, it’s his childhood place, so the subjective shift of the drawing style to match this memory is weird, but it’s the only place it happens.
M: It’s the only place in the entire book, so what’s so important about that scene? Maybe it’s the improvisatory thing where he said “Oh, maybe I’ll do some color here”, or there’s something else going on.
AM: Does it connect to the severed doll?
M: I think it is the same doll that gets beheaded, and the Dad puts a nail in there to fix it, and it’s what he (somewhat improbably) slits his wrist with.
AM: Is the sailor theme a Popeye and Brutus nod?
J: I think in terms of the design there’s a nod to Popeye, but I think it’s about him and his father. It starts with the two sailors talking to each other and who’re both the same age essentially, and it says “What are they talking about?” and then they have a fight and one says “You bastard, you fucked up my head, I dream about you every night?”, I think it’s clear that it’s his father, and that he’s dreaming about being hit and beat up over things.
M: And that’s what the guy says when young Arthur cuts his face open in the bar fight. He says ” Oh shit, you fucked up my face”. It’s slightly different but it’s using the same quote, and the same trauma. That implies a childhood memory that is also being contaminated by recent events.
J: Also where he says “Hey your wife is looking for you”, it harkens back to his job being to go get his Dad from the bar and drag him home. Instead of “Hey your wife”, it’s “Mom is looking for you”. It feels like some kind of fever dream or something. I don’t think that he’s even directly thinking it, but it’s a visual analogy to the multiple layers of meaning that go with this little sailor doll.
AM: Well why there? Why put it in the middle of the rape scene?
M: Does that actually happen in the middle of the rape?
AM: Yeah, it does.
J: But as soon as you get out of that scene there’s the flashback to explain what this doll is, and you see him appear. Again, I think it’s an analogy to show what this means to him, at a guess, to give the background to this thing. You don’t know why you need to know about the nail yet, because he doesn’t use it when he beats the guy up. It’s just background.
M: I agree with you. The placement right in the middle of the rape scene is a bit of a weird one. It doesn’t really follow from where he gets left off with the jealous sister who says “You’re girlfriend is off with my brother. If you don’t believe me check the overlook.” And he says “What? Bastard!” and runs off. To put the comic in there implies…associating running out the door with running to the bar to get his Dad when he’s drunk but that doesn’t really match particularly.
AM: Another possibility is that it could’ve just been a childhood play thing. You know how you play with your toys? Maybe that’s what he was doing with that toy.
M: …Play acting.
AM: Maybe he was acting out with it and then right after when he says “Dad, I broke it”, maybe that was him acting as a child.
J: There’s an element of that but putting it right in that scene is a little bit strange. I would read it more clear at the end of the scene. Then it’d click into place, but he doesn’t put it there.
AM: One thing is to consider is what the doll means to him…it’s his father’s caring. It’s one of very few moments of tenderness and protection from his father towards him. And the scene of the sailors beating each other up and the scene were getting to of Arthur beating this guy up both go back to the scene in the bar of Arthur jumping in to protect his father.
M: And not being able to control his rage, in some sense. I don’t think he expects to cut that guy’s face open so severely, but he’s got that in him. So you’re right, that kind of foreshadows a bit that he might kill this guy.
AM: I think it’s sort of there to justify or put in context Arthur’s violence, so we see him as both someone who can be dangerously violent, but he’s only seriously violent in the story when he’s trying to protect someone.
AM: As opposed to the advice his father gave him…
J: Did anybody find his sort of vague and improvisational nature of the story problematic at all? Was it a struggle? It seems like most of you guys got totally gung-ho about it and just got into it.
AM: It kind of struck me…not so much the vagueness of it but the fact that there aren’t many tonal shifts except for that two-page sailor cartoon. The same goes for the pacing of the story. You have this long, slow, character-driven first half of this book that discusses you know…who is Lucille? Who is Arthur? And then the two of them meet up and suddenly there’s a plot.
J: I think that’s a really good observation, because for me that’s the point where I think “Woah, we’re going!” And they’re on the road, and there’s the murder mystery…
AM: I think that’s where the emotional power comes from, you know? We’ve been allowed to slowly take in these characters without a very clear narrative that’s step by step, where we see them in a day to day manner, so then when they meet up and they reveal parts of their natures and their traits, that’s when I realized I was becoming more emotionally invested. Whether it was conscious or not, the effect helped to make it a more powerful experience for me.
M: That’s definitely one advantage to this kind of free-flowing narrative structure. You can really take the time to observe the characters interacting, or linger on some of the side characters. One of my favorite parts is towards the end, those short, sad, drunken conversations with the family patriarch complaining about his son and his acting classes… and their employee who’s practically their servant, who’s father and father’s father all worked for this same family. And he’s got his little plot of pine trees, and he doesn’t even know what to do with them, but there it is. Those are really moving and wonderful parts that don’t have much to do with the story, but he went with it, and there’s value in that visual meandering.
AM: That’s kind of how I felt about the scene where you first meet Arthur. I actually didn’t like it because in context with the rest of the story it doesn’t really fit in but when i first saw it I thought it was an interesting little study on how cruel children can be…you don’t see moments like that with children very often. And then later on nothing was done with that, so maybe it was him trying to be controlling, or it’s an extension of his own OCD, but it really didn’t work for me in that particular part. When he’s introduced you don’t just think he’s a bully but also maybe even a villain, especially from the way he draws his eyes.
M: Again that’s kind of an artifact of him making it up as he goes, because Arthur changes a lot in his basic character design.
J: Although any book this length that’s worked on chronologically, you’ll see changes in the way characters are depicted. It’s not something you pay a lot of attention to, but take a look at the first few pages of Lucille, with her weird hair kind of standing out in this pyramid shape around her head, and then at the end, she’s really graceful. And it’s partly that his drawing gets more graceful as he’s going, but it’s probably also a choice.
AM: I thought of that while I was reading. I was wondering if it was her self-esteem growing so we’re seeing her as a more beautiful girl now?
M: Although the exposition is a bit fuzzy, at some point she resists taking her medicine, and then she’s getting better so her body starts to look more healthy, but she backslides pretty quickly. There’s the part where she’s hiding the croissant in the hotel pillow.
AM: I also read the difference between how they look at the beginning of the book and how they look later on as being about the passage of time. That’s left a little ambiguous, so I’m not sure if that’s correct, but I see Arthur at the beginning almost looking several years younger than when he meets Lucille. It’s not clear how much time passes between the first image of Lucille we see and when Lucille ends up in the hospital.
J: Clearly there are years passing and I think that plays a part, but I also think if you draw 400 pages or so of something, you get better at it. The fluidity of the poses increases. At the beginning it’s not bad by any means, but it doesn’t have the same kind of motion and sensuousness that it has later. I don’t think that relates to their ages, but instead of getting to know the characters, the drawing style, and getting better at drawing from doing it so much.
M: I was thinking style more than the drawing itself. The boat scene is beautiful, and it’s amazingly done, but it’s a rougher kind of rendition. Towards the end of the book, there are some incredibly lovely drawings and this sort of gracefulness that sets in, especially as you get to know the characters. but the power of the boating accident…
J: When he was doing this book he was in his early thirties, basically, and although that’s not that young for a filmmaker or musician, that’s really young for a cartoonist in terms of development. You keep changing for so long. Most cartoonists don’t really stop developing, but they settle into a style that they can snap to. Especially adopting a new style as he did for this book, there’s some serious fluidity there.
M: I do think that some of it is intentional. In this one scene here…it’s past the middle of the book. It feels like he’s drawing them both much more childlike. The style is more playful, because they’re happy and swimming in the pond, and this is where Lucille is the most healthy. She’s out of the hospital and she’s eating and taking her medication…speaking of which, was the anorexia or the OCD was that distracting to you guys, or did you feel like it was an issue book? He set out to write a book about anorexia, so…Did it feel like a real teenage girls’ diary? Like she was expressing herself or interacting with the world? I know he was very concerned with that. Whenever you’re writing someone who’s another gender or another race you have to take that into account.
AM: The diaristic stuff at the beginning when she talked about going to the mall…that didn’t ring true. I wondered if maybe that was a translation problem?
J: That could be the case. Translation is a difficult task.
AM: But that bad voice in her head, and how she heard it in her head…from people I know who’ve suffered from anorexia, that seemed right on. It echoed some of the things they would say about how they were feeling.
J: I think it took him a little while to hit his stride with her, but he did. What I liked was that there wasn’t a lot of diaristic stuff. If there had been a lot, I think I would’ve been very unwilling to go there with him. Mostly she simply acts; eats, doesn’t eat, puts herself in difficult situations with people. That seemed very right to me, the way she was behaving.
AM: It seemed right, especially the bits with her mother. Her sort of compassion and her issues with her mother… that seemed very true and sweet, and I was glad he put it in there.
M: It’s a very complex relationship. We’re never really sure why the father left, or if he’s still alive…I’m pretty sure it says they got divorced in there, but he’s never around in the whole book. Lucille clearly feels bad about that, but she also sort of resents her mother. When she’s watching the TV talk show, and there’s the obese woman on it who’s confronting her mother on air, and she kind of identifies with it. That whole issue was very complicated in the book, whereas I thought that the OCD was underplayed. It felt like part of Arthur’s character, but…
J: …I kept forgetting about it.
J: The issue with the numbers would come up and It’d take me a minute to remember exactly what that was about.
AM: One thing I liked was the part where she hides the croissant. I know people with eating disorders, and that’s what they do. It seems so obvious, but they really try to hide it even though they’re so skinny.
M: Arthur’s understanding of that, and maybe even his acceptance of her disorder is another thing that doesn’t really get resolved. We’re never sure how much he knows that she’s anorexic, even though he clearly wants her to eat and recognizes that there’s something going on. There’s some instances where he actually does think that she’s eating, but she’s not. And it’s sort of left up to us, because the story goes in a different direction.
J: There are moments where it feels like he’s actually starting to turn into her mother a bit. He’s trying to get her to eat, and she’s pushing back. There’s a little twinge of where that could go.
AM: On the flip-side there’s the connection between her anorexia and her sexuality. There’s that scene where she’s touching herself, and she’s kind of embarrassed but she’s hiding her own shame. I saw a similarity between the two situations.
J: I was looking at the scene where she’s dreaming or fantasizing about the Italian guy, and her mother comes out of his mouth. And it’s possible that’s she’s masturbating here, because her arms are under the sheet in that same way, and she looks very tense.
AM: Kind of going back to what we talked about early, with the lack of panels, what Jessica was saying was that it made it seem lighter, but my feeling was the heaviness of it because they’re carrying around their entire past. There wasn’t a division between then and now, and the whole story seemed weighty because of the continuous burden.
J: Especially with the flashbacks. Usually there’s some sort of division between past and present sequences in comics, but there isn’t any in the book.
AM: What about these two birds? They remind me of the two old guys from the Muppets. They fly together and chit-chat, and then they disappear, but then they come back.
M: That’s possibly my favorite sequence in the book, where they’re talking about flying and they see that little figure on the cliff. And he jumps off the cliff and he’s flapping his arms. That comes back later, it’s all part of Arthur’s imagination…wanting to fly and escape. It’s one of those changes of register, like the sailor sequence. And you’re right, they are sort of these crotchety, complaining birds. And he explains later that he’s always wanted to fly…depending on the mood it might be something he improvised or just kind of put in and didn’t develop carefully into the narrative.
J: And what about these various title pages with characters—many of whom I don’t recognize—on bee bodies. Is there anything in the story that that relates to? Looking through, several of these bees I don’t recognize. I was looking for them but never found them. Mostly it’s Lucille and Arthur in the second half of the book, but there’s this one page where Lucille is a flower and Arthur is a bee. The last one is Arthur the bee flying away by himself.
AM: What do you think about web comics and digital comics?
M: I’m all for digital format. In fact, Top Shelf just announced that they’re making all their work available on multiple platforms. I hope and believe we’ll still have comics available as books, but I think that digital formats are very useful and easy ways to get things out there.
AM: Do you think it alters the way you read comic books?
M: Yeah, it’s different.
J: Totally different. There are a lot of disadvantages artistically speaking. When you look at the book of Lucille, you’re seeing these two pages juxtaposed, and this image you’re looking forward to reading. On an iPad or something similar, you’re going to see one page at a time, but you won’t see spreads. You won’t be able to see where you are in the book. There’s a kind of tactile quality that you don’t get on a website or webpage. There’s an abstract, digital structure instead of something you can hold.
M: You savor that moment when you’ve gotten really far through a book like Lucille. You get to breathe and realize you made it through the whole thing, and that’s why there are a lot of great things about physical books.
J: There are nice formats available, and if you have Lucille and Big Questions and Asterios Polyp to read, those are really large books. You don’t want to carry them around with you everywhere. So there are some advantages to digital formats.
(All Lucille images taken from the Top Shelf edition.)