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  • A Silly Clown
  • Joe McCulloch (bio)
Arsène Schrauwen
Olivier Schrauwen
Fantagraphics Books
256 Pages; Print, $34.95

It is rare that you will encounter a comic as completely straightforward as Arsène Schrauwen, so comprehensively direct and explicative that its front and back cover are dedicated to telling you exactly what the book means. Cloistered in small diamonds, you find tiny pictures—icons—labeled by what they represent in the story: foaming trappist beer for FREEDOM; a curious cartoon worm for FEAR; a key entering a lock for LUST; a person with a featureless, circular head for THE UNKNOWN; and a funny man smoking a cigarette for ARSÈNE, the errant protagonist of the story and the notional grandfather of its author, Olivier Schrauwen.

I risk offense, of course, in deeming this lineage ‘notional’—A. Schrauwen was, in fact, O. Schrauwen’s genuine grandfather, but the details of his years spent living in the Belgian Congo of the late 1940s, as described in this book, are admittedly sheer fantasy. And again, O. Schrauwen confesses to this immediately: he has turned his grandfather into a cartoon, ARSÈNE, ensconced him in a gem (the suggestion of Congolese diamonds is unavoidable), and set him adrift, on that cover, in a sea of melting patterns, coursing with spermatozoa, amoebae, and primordial grids and shapes as if they have been dug assiduously from the wet earth of comics.

This is a book of imagination and tale-telling. It begins with O. Schrauwen introducing himself to you, face-to-face, because this is his story—lines on paper, drawings of his creation. One might deem it all unsophisticated, as what follows violates a longstanding ‘rule’ of comics: constantly, the artist describes something in narrative captions at the top of a panel and then draws what he has already described below. This often includes metaphors: when Arsène is described as having “an erection that would flatter a randy donkey,” he is drawn, indeed, as a humanoid donkey with an erect penis. Yet the donkey later recurs as a freestanding image of lust, without introduction, as does an ostrich, which represents the looming threat of insanity in this very perceptual work, filled with madmen and the madness of colonialism itself.

All of this is to note that O. Schrauwen has a habit of introducing very simple, basic images, explained thoroughly, only to deploy them later in less obvious contexts. The same goes for his pages, mostly laid out in tidy six-panel grids, which serve as the basis for a ‘reality’ which he can meaningfully disrupt into images of, say, a woman superimposed many times against a colonial estate for two-thirds of a page or the same woman navigating a swimming pool through panels you are made to read clockwise or a long, bravura sequence of Arsène paralyzed with terror in a bungalow during a downpour, circular panels growing smaller and smaller and smaller as he shrinks from leaking water he believes hides deadly parasites, which are represented by funny little elephant worms defined by O. Schrauwen on the cover of the book as FEAR.

He has defined the woman too. She is LOVE. She is also the wife of Arsène’s cousin, who has invited him to his estate in the Congo—or rather “the colony,” as O. Schrauwen purposefully identifies it for most of the book—to witness the farcical erection of Freedom Town, an obviously unworkable architectural utopia to be established deep in the jungle. Arsène does not see the difficulties, though; in fact, he inadvertently names the project, as he is only powered by basic motivators: FEAR and LOVE and FREEDOM, the latter defined, you’ll recall, by trappist beer, which constantly leaves characters in a befuddled state, throughout the work.

What is valuable about Arsène Schrauwen is that the purpose of these techniques, for all the defining and elaborating done by the author, is quiet. The Congo, for Arsène and his Belgian fellows, is a stage for venture: a new future, a potential utopia. FREEDOM, but also THE UNKNOWN. Aside from being scared of water for the first half...


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