Beaucoup de Femmes, Un Artiste: Focalization Cues in the Graphic Novels of Bastien Vivès by Gwen Athene Tarbox

08 Feb

In 2007, Elle(s): Alice, Charlotte et Renaud, the first long-form comic by Bastien Vivès, debuted to critical acclaim and commercial success in the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée market, laying the groundwork for a career that has seen the publication of a number of texts in French, including Le goût de chlore (2008); Dans mes yeux (2009); and Polina (2011).[1] In 2011, Le goût de chlore, which won multiple awards at the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d’Angoulême, was translated for a North American audience as A Taste of Chlorine, and given Vivès’ continued prominence in Europe, his work is likely to become widely-known in the next decade by English-speaking readers, especially as cross cultural arrangements among publishers in Belgium, France, Canada, and the US are becoming more common.

Three themes have characterized Vivès’ comics to date: first, the difficulties inherent in male/female communication; second, the loneliness that attends entering a new culture or milieu; and third, the triumphs and indignities involved in the coming of age experience itself. Although Vivès is noted for utilizing a number of drawing styles, his depiction of young women has been a constant in all of his texts. As such, his work resembles that of North American comics creator Daniel Clowes, who has frequently depicted female subjectivity in comics written about young adults. Of course, while Clowes was an experienced comics artist at the time of the serial publication of Ghost World, Vivès was only twenty-three and still in art school when Casterman published his first graphic novel. While it is still too early in Vivès’ career to make generalizations about his work, it is possible to trace the ways in which he has used various techniques, including focalization cues, to depict women in his mainstream comics published since 2007.[2]

In a recent article on the complexity involved in transferring our understanding of focalization from text-only narratives over to the multimodal realm of comics, Kai Mikkonen observes that “the processing of narrative information in graphic storytelling involves paying attention not just to the distinction between who perceives? and who narrates?, which is relevant in …[many] literary narratives, but also to the interplay and changing relations between various elements in different media to propel a common narrative…. [In comics], written language and visual focalization interpenetrate each other and thus allow for multiple perspectives by way of typography, page and panel set up, and other means” (71).

Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels have gained general popularity, as well as the attention of literary scholars in part because these comics creators have chosen, as memoirists, to use a prominent narrating-I, whose textbox directions provide the reader with very clear cues indicating whether an image is being focalized through the narrator or through the character.[3] Spiegelman’s Maus offers another layer of complexity in that there are two narrators – Artie and Vladek – as well as stories that occur in multiple temporal frames (Horstkotte and Pedri 339). At the other end of the spectrum, the success of Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel (or picture book) The Arrival provides an instructive example of how focalization can be determined via the reading of visual cues alone.[4] In the absence of a verbally constructed narrative presence, “indicators of the direction, object, or field of a person’s gaze can give us a strong sense of perspective into the space of the image” (Mikkonen 74). As these diverse examples demonstrate, picking up on focalization cues is a complicated process that varies depending upon the comics creator’s choices regarding the mix of verbal and visual markers.

Out of the complicated field of questions and approaches that this brief overview of comics focalization suggests, I will limit my analysis in this essay to a consideration of focalization cues that enable narrative perception, the process through which “vantage-points on situations and events in the storyworld are encoded in narrative discourse and interpreted as such during narrative processing” (Herman 122). In Vivès’ early work, focalization cues encourage readers to interpret the storyworld via the reactions of male protagonists to the women in their lives; as such, women typically serve as focalized objects. In his most recent mainstream text, Polina (2011), Vivès uses focalization cues to enable the reader to enter the storyworld either via a covert, nongendered narrator or via the consciousness of a female protagonist.[5] This shift increasingly brings the inner lives of female characters into the center of Vivès’ storytelling project.

Figure 1. Used with the permission of the artist.

Figure 1. Used with the permission of the artist.

To begin, I would like to consider specific instances of narrative perception located in Elle(s): Alice, Charlotte et Renaud (2007), a novel that chronicles the lives of a group of college-aged Parisians. The cover image, which portrays Alice and her friend Charlotte dancing in the foreground, facing the reader, but looking away, presents Renault in the background, sitting on a couch and looking directly at the reader, with an anxious look on his face (Figure 1).[6] This tableaux offers, in condensed form, the overarching theme of the text: Renaud’s confusion and frustration with what seem to be the alluring, yet inscrutable actions of the women in his social circle. The title of the novel, Elle(s): Alice, Charlotte et Renaud, underscores Renaud’s complicated position in the women’s lives, and while the majority of Elle(s) is presented via a covert narrator, when the focalization cues indicate that the perspective has shifted to that of a character, it is most frequently the perspective of Renaud that is put forward.

Figure 2. Used with the permission of the artist.

Figure 2. Used with the permission of the artist.

Although the cover prepares the reader for encounters among Alice, Charlotte, and Renault, the actual meeting of Alice and Renault occurs near the middle of the text, and Renault’s reaction to Alice’s physique, chronicled on one page, presents a fascinating example of a woman as focalized object (Figure 2). The hyperframe of the page is divided into four stacked panels of equal size, with the first three panels presenting a close-up image of Alice’s lips, breasts, and crotch, respectively. Alice is clothed, of course, but each of these panels focuses solely on one of Alice’s erogenous zones. The shift in perspective occurs in the final panel with a reaction shot of Renault, staring in undisguised shock and appreciation. This panel not only provides the cue that Renaud is the perceiver, but also offers the reader a glimpse into Renaud’s thoughts. He is the viewing subject, and, at this point, Alice is the object, whose thoughts are unavailable to the reader.

Obviously, this sequence of panels is meant to imply the manner in which Renaud notices what is important to him regarding Alice, but although the reader knows that Renaud is staring at Alice and is serving as the focalizer, in reality, as with the cover image, Renaud’s expression is also there on display for the reader, and the emphasis on Renaud’s eyes draws the reader in. In fact, Renaud’s reaction to Alice may serve as an echo of the reaction of at least some of Vivès’ intended audience, young readers who would have first seen Alice’s unified image on the cover of the comic and who may have initially engaged in the deconstruction of her body that is featured in the first three panels. Renaud’s focalization, at least for this segment of the readership, has the potential to “create an effect of shared subjective perspective” (Mikkonen 86). Throughout Elle(s), Vivès uses images such as these to position Renaud as an “every man,” whose reaction to women might be interpreted by his young readership as being both normative and expected.

Figure 3. Used with the permission of the artist.

Figure 3. Used with the permission of the artist.

In Dans Mes Yeux (2009), nearly all of the storyworld comes to the reader from what would be termed, in the cinema, a point of view shot. (Figure 3). With only a few exceptions when Vivès presents an omniscient portrait of the characters from the perspective of a covert narrator, the reader’s access to the narrative is limited to what is seen by the protagonist, an unnamed male university student who chronicles his love affair with a woman whom he meets in the library. The only time the reader sees the young woman is when the protagonist sees her, and the reader never once sees the protagonist, except from a distance that obscures his features.

Vivès’ decision to portray a love story from the perspective of a protagonist as the sole focalizer offers a significant attempt at verisimilitude, because, after all, how can one become acquainted with another person – especially early on in a relationship – except via what is seen of her or him? What is missing, though, is a concomitant window into the young man’s thoughts. On the back jacket of Dans Mes Yeux, the first person narration reads, “from the moment I saw you at university, I wanted to kiss you. We talked, we talked, but you have not kissed me…”. This text is accompanied by the image of the young woman’s mouth in an attitude that suggests she is the “you” whom the male protagonist is addressing, but this is the only time that the protagonist’s direct thoughts are made manifest to the reader (Figure 4). In the novel proper, what little the reader learns about the man’s thoughts comes via the woman’s verbal and visual reactions to him.

Figure 4. Used with the permission of the artist.

Figure 4. Used with the permission of the artist.

The young woman is most certainly the object of male focalization in Dans Mes Yeux, and the idea, established in Elle(s), that young men often struggle with their reactions to and feelings for young women, is reinforced by the manner in which the story is focalized. However, because the reader ends up learning about the protagonist through the woman’s reactions, she takes on a dual role. Her return gaze and her speech provide cues not only into her own attitudes and thoughts as seen by the young man, but into the attitudes and thoughts of the young man himself. As such, the text represents Vivès’ movement towards a more complicated use of focalization in the depiction of young women, one that encourages the reader to acknowledge two narrative tracks: the visual, provided solely by the male protagonist, and the verbal, provided solely by the female focalized object.[7]

Vivès’ most recent publication with Casterman, Polina (2011), has been widely praised for its sophistication and for its scope. The text won the critics award at Angoulême in 2012 and inspired a large-scale exhibit of Vivès’ work at La Galerie 9ème Art in Paris; the British publisher Jonathan Cape will release an English language version in 2013. A traditional Bildungsroman, Polina follows the career of the Russian protagonist, Polina Oulinov, from her first ballet audition at age six through to her life as a professional dancer. Central to the narrative is the relationship between Polina and her first dance instructor, Professor Bojinski, a relationship which Vivès depicts as a contest of wills, in which both characters employ the gaze as a mode of powerful, wordless communication which also serves to cue the reader’s perceptions.

Figure 5. Used with the permission of the artist.

Figure 5. Used with the permission of the artist.

In the introductory spread, six-year old Polina stands with dozens of hopeful dancers who are competing for a few open spaces at the prestigious Bojinski Academy (Figure 5). Their nakedness underscores their vulnerability and the manner in which their bodies – from the very first moment in the dance academy – will be open to scrutiny and to judgment. In the first panel on the left side of the spread, which is focalized through a covert narrator, the reader sees Polina as she watches the other girls audition; the second panel depicts a young dancer from Polina’s perspective; the third panel shifts to back to the covert narrator, as Professor Bojinski is shown scrutinizing the young dancer; and the fourth panel provides the reader with a sense of what the young dancer sees – her apprehension renders Professor Bojinski and his associates into eyeless monsters. All of these panels prepare the reader to understand what Polina faces, when she is called to audition (Figure 6). I find it interesting that in the second panel, the girls to the left and to the right of Polina look apprehensive when her name is called, but Polina is shown to stare straight ahead, seemingly emotionless. In the bottom two panels Polina and Professor Bojinski contemplate each other, and because of the way that Polina is drawn, although the reader knows that she is a small child, she is on level with Bojinski as he is positioned in the right panel. Later in the narrative, Bojinski will tell an adult Polina that he had never met any student who immediately and consistently demonstrated as much dedication to dance, as much passion, and as much drive, a reaction that is underscored by Vivès’ positioning of their bodies in panels within the hyperframe.

Figure 6. Used with the permission of the artist.

Figure 6. Used with the permission of the artist.

Throughout the entire narrative, Vivès draws Professor Bojinksi’s eyes as blank frames in front of an imposing countenance; it is not until Bojinski tells an adult Polina that she has surpassed him in terms of her talent – in other words, he relinquishes his place as her mentor – that the eyeglasses momentarily are set aside, and the reader sees what Polina sees – Bojinski’s eyes, and all of the vulnerability that his gaze conveys (Figure 7). In a text that focuses on a highly public art, one in which scrutiny and performance are intermingled, Polina’s maturity is linked to her ability to see her mentor clearly and to accept that his teachings are only one of many influences that she must let into her life. The fact that the reader is invited to see Bojinski as Polina sees him – as a focalized object of her perception – is significant. Indeed, Vivès’ choice to depict two characters – a woman and a man – whose perceptions and subjectivities are given equal consequence in the narrative represents the most nuanced portrayal of human relationships in his work to date. In Polina, focalization cues enable readers to gain access to female subjectivity, creating an intimate and unforgettable portrait of an artist coming of age.

Figure 7. Used with the permission of the artist.

Figure 7. Used with the permission of the artist.

Works Cited

Herman, David. “Beyond Voice and Vision: Cognitive Grammar and Focalization Theory.” Point of View, Perspective, and Focalization: Modeling Mediation in Narrative. Ed. Peter Schmid Hühn and Jörg Wolf Schönert. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009. 119-142. Web.

Horstkotte, Silke, and Nancy Pedri. “Focalization in Graphic Narratives.” Narrative. 19.3 (2011): 330-357. Web.

Mikkonen, Kai. “Focalisation in Comics. From the Specificity of the Medium to Conceptual Reformulation.” Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art. 1.1 (2012): 70-94. Web.

Vivès, Bastian. Dans Mes Yeux. Brussels: Casterman, 2008. Print.

—. Elle(s): Alice, Charlotte et Renaud. Brussels: Casterman, 2007. Print.

—. Polina. Brussels: Casterman, 2011. Print.

Dr Gwen Athene Tarbox is an associate professor of English at Western Michigan University, where she teaches courses in children’s and YA literature, comics studies, and gender studies. Her scholarly interests combine cultural history, visual theory, and children’s literature, and her dissertation was entitled ‘The Clubwomen’s Daughters: Collectivist Impulses in Progressive-era Girls’ Fiction’. It uncovered the way that the first college-educated, politically-active US women modeled their lives and their interests in series books written for girls — books such as The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. In 2000, The Clubwomen’s Daughters was published by Routledge and was designated as a Choice/ALA Outstanding Academic Title in 2001. Since that time, Dr Tarbox has published on 19th and 20th century children’s literature and on the Harry Potter phenomenon. Her current research projects focus on the portrayal of adolescence in French, Belgian, and North American comics, as well as a continued focus on girls’ studies and culture. To learn more about Dr Tarbox’s teaching and scholarship, see her personal blog here.

[1] – A longer version of this essay was given at the Children’s Literature Association Conference in Boston, MA in June 2012. Travel associated with collecting and studying Franco-Belgian comics was made possible by a Children’s Literature Association Faculty Research Grant, a Haenicke Instititute International Faculty Development Grant, and a Western Michigan University College of Arts and Sciences ASTRA Grant. I am grateful for the opportunities afforded by these institutions.

[2] – I want to point out some of the difficulties involved in working with popular artifacts written by living comics creators. Obviously, Vivès’ canon is continuously expanding, so one’s ability to pin down trends is impacted. Two weeks after my last research trip to Europe in November, 2011, Vivès announced on his Twitter account that he was releasing an independent comic with BD Cul, a publisher that features parody and satire along the same lines as that published in Mad comics. Vivès’ new book is the fourth published by ‘Les Requins Marteaux’ in that collection. When I followed the link in Vivès’ post, I learned that the text, Les melons de la colère, or The Melons of Wrath, a nod to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, had been designated as pornography. In my next research trip at the end of January 2013, I plan to obtain a copy of the text. The informal reviews of the text seem to indicate that it includes an indictment of 19th century French cultural mores. Although I cannot comment on the depiction of women in Les melons de la colère until I have read it myself, I wanted readers to be aware of its existence, should they wish to access it.

[3] – For a thorough discussion of the way that perception and cognition can be applied in comics under the umbrella term “focalization,” see Mikkonen, “Focalisation in Comics. From the Specificity of the Medium to Conceptual Reformulation.”

[4] – In the Winter 2012 issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, a section of essays is devoted to the topic “Why Comics Are and Are Not Picture Books.” Particularly relevant to a discussion of Tan’s text is Phillip Nel’s “Same Genus, Different Species?: Comics and Picture Books.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 37.4 (2012): 445-453.

[5] – The term “covert narrator” is the equivalent of an omniscient narrator. Given the visual nature of comics, the use of the words “covert” and “overt” take on a deeper meaning, based upon the corporeal nature of the medium.

[6] – The images in this essay are used with the kind permission of the author, Bastien Vivès.

[7] – The only time the reader directly “sees” the male protagonist’s words is if the young woman repeats them back to him verbatim.

1 Comment

Posted by on 2013/02/08 in Guest Writers


One response to “Beaucoup de Femmes, Un Artiste: Focalization Cues in the Graphic Novels of Bastien Vivès by Gwen Athene Tarbox

  1. @Desautomatas

    2013/03/18 at 07:43

    Reblogged this on Desautomatas and commented:
    Great review of the fantastic artist Bastien Vives and two of his best graphic novels.



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