One of my all time favorite Franco-Belgian comics is Nicolas de Crécy’s 2003 album Prosopopus. It is as demanding as it is rewarding to read. The entire 96-page album is silent: no dialogue, no récitatifs, not even sound effects. Without the intervention of captions, De Crécy weaves artfully and hauntingly between two different time frames and at least three different physical spaces to tell a surrealistic noir tale about art forgery, betrayal, guilt, and madness. Turning around a criminal art forgery operation, the story is fundamentally about visual appropriation, a question De Crécy thematizes by drawing visual connections between seeing and eating, painting and birth, video recording and murder.

Prosopopus tells the story of a con man who falls in love with his victim, an abstract painter whose thumbprint he is hired to steal. When a latex cast of the thumbprint is not enough, and the boss intervenes to have the painter killed, De Crécy’s con man retaliates by shooting the boss. This series of actions leads to the arrival of Prosopopus, a grinning fat cartoonish creature made out of the guilty traces of his crime, of blood, cigar smoke, and semen. These guilty traces themselves feed into an infectious production of visual metaphors that connect blood and paint, gun smoke and cigar smoke, semen and yogurt, sexual penetration and an autopsy, a bullet and a penis, and so on. Juxtaposed panels, and visual comparisons, finally bleed so violently into one another that the con man ends up giving birth to his dead boss after the Prosopopus forces him to ingest jar upon jar of yogurt. The bizarreries continue as the Prosopopus films himself forging a painting using the hand of the con man’s dead lover sewn onto the newly-birthed body of the boss, then forcing the con man to watch, the whole scene a horrifying conflation of every scene, along with every visual juxtaposition, preceding it.

His title and epigraph reflect on the Greek figure of prosopopoeia (“figure through which the orator or writer makes an absent or dead person, inanimate object, or animal, speak and act”). De Crécy seems to suggest that all comics are in some way prosopopoeias. The silent format suggests what may be at work whenever we read a comic, silent or otherwise, is an appropriative process that bleeds in both directions. A degree of violence is required to create meaning out of juxtaposed panels; it is violence that acts on us and shapes us, that fills our guts like the yogurt our con man is forced to eat. In the concluding panels, we see the Prosopopus react with an uncanny shudder as he films into the eyes of the pet dog who has been watching all along. The inhuman watcher finds itself watched by inhuman eyes. Is De Crécy depicting a Lynch-esque descent into madness here or should the Prosopopus be read as a surrealistic figure for the way comics make meaning through visual juxtaposition and appropriation? Could this gleefully messy monster be read in some way as a figure for the comics reader, attached, loving and cruel, but above all a violent conflator of visual meanings?

About Michael A. Johnson

Michael A. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of French at Central Washington University where he teaches courses on French language and culture and Franco-Belgian comics. His research centers largely on questions of gender and sexuality, rhetoric, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis. With one published article on Fabrice Neaud's Journal ("Placing/Facing Fabrice Neaud") and another essay in the works on Lefèvre's and Guibert's The Photographer ("How Not to Orientalize the Afghan") his focus in comics so far has been on questions of autobiography, the ethics of alterity, and the face. He also keeps a food blog (http://letthespiceflow.blogspot.com) and is interested in the growing phenomenon of comics cook books and comics food blogs in the francophone world. His recently finished manuscript, The Medieval Erotics of Grammar, is currently under review.

3 responses »

  1. Barbara Postema says:

    Thanks for bringing this work to my attention, Michael, it looks great (and scary!). I think the question you raise is a very important one, and one that I have also been exploring. I think it’s a question without a single answer, which makes it all the more interesting.

  2. YIKES. I agree with Barbara: just the description of this story has me shaken up.

    I’d really love to hear more about this notion of violence required on the part of the reader to make meaning of the juxtaposed panels. (It sounds like you are getting into something more complex than Scott McCloud’s description of the reader dropping the ax in the gutter!)

    I also wonder about the implications of the suggestion that “all comics are in some way prosopopoeias” based on a comic that is devoid of dialogue and sound. This certainly seems to reinforce claims about the visual as the core of the comics narrative — claims that I have always found persuasive. I have not yet read David Berona’s work on wordless books, but it sounds like his research would offer some insight into this as well.

  3. Antonio says:

    I am interested in the interpretation that Professor Johnson might attach to the “connectivity” aspects regarding the yellow tile that appears in some panels together with the radiator pipes joining different places and then becoming the umbilical cord for the newborn con man. It is, I believe, a very particular case of sequential art syntax.

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