Friday, June 3, 2016

Going Graphic with the European Union: Exquisite Corpse by Pénélope Bagieu

Image from First Second
Over the past few decades, graphic novels have become a respected form of literature. Europe, in particular, has published a wide variety of graphic novels, and these works have become available to wider audiences due to the growth in popularity. In this summer series presented by the EUC, graphic novels from a wide variety of EU members will be reviewed and discussed. 

By Rachel Johannigmeier
According to the Museum of Modern Art, the term “exquisite corpse” refers to “a game in which each participant takes turns writing or drawing on a sheet of paper, folds it to conceal his or her contribution, then passes it to the next player for a further contribution.” When the game is complete, a finished work is revealed to all the participants. In her graphic novel Exquisite Corpse, author Pénélope Bagieu replicates this game through her art and characters as the plot unfolds. In a sense, Bagieu allows the reader to become an observer of this game, a role that the reader may not be aware of until the final image of the story.

Image from First Second
Story Information

Title: Exquisite Corpse (Original title: Cadavre exquis)

Storyteller: Pénélope Bagieu

English Translation: Alexis Siegel

Publisher: First Second (2015, American edition); Gallimard (2010, French edition)

Audience: Adults

The story of Exquisite Corpse starts with Zoe, a 20-something, who is going nowhere in her job as a “booth babe” and in a poor relationship with her boyfriend. It is by chance that her life changes while on a lunch break; in the building across from her, she finds a man peeking out at her. Her curiosity leads her to meeting the mysterious man, who is named Thomas Rocher. In their first meeting, he is surprised (and intrigued) that Zoe does not recognize him as an author. A relationship begins between the two, and while at first it starts out pleasantly, Zoe begins to wonder why Thomas never wants to leave his place.  She also begins to wonder about the relationship Thomas has with his publisher (and ex-wife) Agathe. In time, she learns that not only is Thomas Rocher a renowned and famous author, but that everyone else believes him to be dead. By faking his death and publishing “posthumous” works, Thomas gets the recognition he thinks he deserves, and Zoe learns she is his new inspiration. After this is revealed, Zoe begins to want to live her own life rather than live with a “dead” man. I do not wish to spoil the ending, but readers need to pay attention to all the pieces of art and dialogue to fully appreciate how the story pulls itself together.

In the story, Bagieu paints a Paris of many colors, and it stands in contrast to the monotones of the closed world of Thomas Rocher’s apartment. Bagieu also demonstrates a strong ability to capture the unique emotions and feelings of her three main characters. This work manages to create an experience that leaves readers intrigued and invested in the story.  It is also a story with a message as it weaves a tale that critiques the fictional trope of a young woman serving as a muse for an author throughout. 

This is my second time reading the graphic novel, and in a second reading, I gained a new appreciation for the story. As a narrative, it is worth the time to read a second time to fully appreciate the effort and work put into the story.  My major concern is the brevity of the final act; it is the section that is the most powerful, but it is also too brief in comparison to the build-up.  If you are interested in stories that are romantic but not traditionally romantic, this graphic novel is a recommended read.

Join me next week for another review for Going Graphic with the European Union!


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