Thirty-some-odd years ago, Will Eisner, in an effort to legitimize comics as a serious art form, pitched his collection, A Contract with God, as a “graphic novel”. Eisner didn’t coin the term, but he definitely popularized it, and while many comics scholars now recognize (rightly, by my estimation) the term as a misnomer, it’s hard to argue against its influence in overturning a long-prevailing stigma against the comics form. But this is old news, isn’t it? Of course it is. Comics have been enjoying an ever-increasing degree of both popular and scholarly attention for years now. For heaven’s sake, Maus won the Pulitzer prize over twenty years ago! Yes, yes, I think we can agree that comics are smart and cool, now. And yet, even as I type this, it feels important to account for the now, to recognize, however obvious, that comics have never been more lively, more inventive, more exciting than they are right now.
Can you tell I’m excited? Let me tell you about Marion Fayolle’s book, In Pieces:
2013 was a great year for comics—the last few years have been—with several works that seemed immediately important, classics, easy examples of the artistic integrity and ingenuity of the form. But even with so many great titles filling up year-end lists, In Pieces stands out. A part of this is that Fayolle’s book doesn’t fit in so tidily with the other “graphic novels”. This is because Fayolle’s work, like Eisner’s A Contract with God, consists of short stories. Though Fayolle’s literary equivalent is closer to flash fiction, or, better, the prose poem, her poetic narratives often completing within a single page.
The other part of it is Fayolle’s atypical form. Eschewing traditional comics panels altogether, Fayolle’s characters, “almost all adults of a certain age, race, class, height and weight,” as the introduction points out, crowd together on a mostly empty background—the white page—the gutters in the space between each character and him or herself repeated. In the majority of these, the characters are laid out in four lines, shifting moment to moment in each iteration, the often subtle change from one image to the next creating a more rigid, surreal movement than what we experience in more traditional, action-oriented comics (using Scott McCloud’s terminology). And with it, this sense of movement, using Fayolle’s idiosyncratic pictorial grammar, In Pieces seems to be generating a comics poeticism that’s all its own.
There is something to be said about the book as an object, too. Fayolle’s work is presented beautifully, her comics given ample room on pages that push towards 10” X 13”. London publisher, Nobrow, are no strangers to beautiful objects, and In Pieces is given an amazing treatment: a luxurious, sturdily bound hardback. When considering the many large illustrations interspersed within In Pieces, filling two-page spreads, Fayolle’s book as much resembles a fine artist’s book as a comic book, would fit readily in a MOMA’s gift shop (more readily even) as a comics shop. In fact, visually, In Pieces feels like it has more in common with fine artists like Amy Cutler and Marcel Dzama than comics artists like Alison Bechdel and Chris Ware. And this may be, partly, that Fayolle’s work is “silent,” lacking any word-bubbling dialogue or narrative boxes, the only language lent being the often spare story titles: “Playing with Fire,” “Halves,” “Red-handed,” “The tablecloth.” So it’s the silence, and the single-paged narratives that feed into this fine arts relationship, but it’s also something of the style and Fayolle’s composition on the page—she is among a small number of comics artists whose work I can as readily imagined framed and hanging on a gallery wall as presented within a book.
All of which leads into the imaginative narrative spaces Fayolle conjures, spaces where the dreamlike and surreal intersect with the lives and relationships of men and women, often with simultaneously bizarre and illuminating results. I remember a long time ago hearing the criticism that comics artists were missing the mark by failing to utilize the great strength to their form: the visual pun. Whether or not that holds any water, Fayolle’s work in In Pieces expertly employs and subverts visual puns, as, for example, in “Red-handed,” the narrative of a mustached lover’s infidelity, his hands blue from the dress of his encounter, and the red hand-mark left on his cheek when his lover discovers and slaps him. Elsewhere, as in “The Separation,” “Joint Custody,” and “The Half Sister,” families are literally pulled apart; children bisected in divorce, and then reassembled with the halves of the step siblings in remarriage. The world of In Pieces, is a world of children over-watered, outgrowing they’re parents and into giants; a world where the skirts of women’s dresses cage men; a world where bathing constitutes erasure. Individually (story by story) and as a whole, Fayolle’s art is not only visually arresting, but art that leaves the reader intellectually invested, the mind turning over the images, narratives, and often brutal depictions of what we do others and ourselves. Empty, these stories are not.
All of which is to say, In Pieces is a glowing example of what comics are and can be; evidence that the comics medium, in this moment, is perhaps more vibrant and exciting than any other. Officially, comics historians have already pronounced a golden age, but I would argue that there has been no better time in comics than now, and I would stand up Marion Fayolle’s In Pieces as signal to that effect.
In Pieces, by Marion Fayolle. Nobrow. 64 pages. $23.00, hardcover.
Nick Francis Potter is a multimedia artist and writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. His website is nickfrancispotter.tumblr.com.