REVIEWS

Francine

Dutch cartoonist Michiel Budel’s wildly idiosyncratic webcomic Slechte Meisjes stars a rotating cast of Lolita-esque girls in surpassingly strange, hilarious, often Sapphic adventures that are mixed with political allegory. The comics first made it to U.S. shores in two full-color comic books, Wayward Girls and Wayward Girls 2, published by Secret Acres in 2012. Since then, Budel has honed his cast down to one main character, the tempestuous Francine, and her circle of friends and enemies. This new eponymously titled book collects eight issues of Budel’s self-published Franzine, with a few extra one-off strips thrown in. While Budel’s comics are perhaps known and discussed mostly for their seriously pervy qualities, they should also be appreciated for their great humor and wonderfully wrought, even lyrical, dream logic. Many folks will immediately correlate Budel’s work to artists like Henry Darger and Balthus, who also trafficked heavily in pre-adolescent sexual imagery. But like Darger himself, Budel has a guilelessly bonkers sensibility that keeps itself to itself.

In addition to Francine, Budel’s cast features her mom, her Islamic pal Gishlaine and WASP-y buddy Annet; antagonists like Bully Girl, and various boy-toys, including the fickle Pool Boy, and a Spanish fellow, Miguel. Francine, who loves nothing more than sunning herself poolside, is a mercurial girl, with little impulse control; she’s a mash-up of a typical, self-involved tween, blatant seductress, and The Bad Seed‘s Rhoda Penmark. She’s given to such behaviors as faking her own death to avoid an art history test and secretly masturbating behind the couch to an old Richard Gere movie her mother is watching on television. In another story, she takes revenge on Bully Girl, hitting her over the head with a baseball bat, killing her, and then burying her in Bully Girl’s own front yard. But all of these actions are merely starting points, catalysts for all sorts of ridiculous plot twists and mayhem, some with political overtones, many of a sexual nature.

Perhaps my favorite story is “Nautic 2” from the fifth issue of Franzine. It begins with Pool Boy telling Francine in no uncertain terms that he’s breaking up with her and also that “I love your mom now!” Adding insult to injury, he vows to never clean her pool again. Francine’s pool thus becomes so filthy and toxic that a devil from hell (“I’m not Satan,” he reminds her) takes up residence in its waters. To get the demon to leave, Francine offers up Pool Boy’s soul in exchange. Things go in many different directions from there. This episode features Francine at her most ruthless and amoral; it is not for nothing that the devil tells her “I don’t want your corrupted soul!” But she somehow remains likable and highly entertaining anyway, probably due to the sheer unaffectedness of her appetites (it should also be noted that as much as we see Francine, Annet, and Gishlaine nude and/or in sexual situations, they are always presented as in control, never as victims). “Nautic 2” also features cameos from Owl (one of the stars of Simon Hanselmann’s “Megg and Mogg” comic strip) and blues guitarist Robert Johnson, because why not. Budel regularly peppers his stories with mini-tributes not only to favorite comic strips and musicians, but also filmmakers. One story features a sequence in a graveyard filled with gravestones of such luminaries as Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, and Sergio Leone.

The final major tale here, “Francine and Generation French Fries”, is perhaps the most blatantly sexual of the tales, displaying all kinds of intergenerational shenanigans, like a more tonally lighthearted (but still twisted) version of one of Phoebe Gloeckner’s classic Minnie stories. It’s only fair to note here the number of naked men and erect penises in Francine, especially in this story—all in the name of equal opportunity exploitation. “Generation French Fries” involves Francine, Annet, and Gishlaine swapping identities for a weekend anthropology class project (in the absurdist world of Francine, when the girls decide to swap lives—poof! they each instantly become the other, fooling absolutely everyone). This story also features what may be the strongest political allegory, with Francine’s Jewishness, Gishlaine’s Islamic origins, and Annet’s Waspishness getting all mixed together, for better and for worse. (I freely admit here that specific political aspects of Budel’s work generally elude my grasp.)

The expanded format and larger dimensions of Francine feature Budel’s evolving cartooning skills: his line has increased confidence and his storytelling has only gotten more bizarrely assured. Budel’s characters have gotten very angular and his line is much more kinetic than is evident in Wayward Girls. Note in particular how fabulously Budel renders Francine’s tumbling descent down the stairs in panel 4 and her ape-like gait in panel 5:

In the few full-color strips included, Budel leaves visible the patches used to correct errors, which adds to their childlike, drawn-in-a-notebook feel. The book recreates the original zines as they were originally presented on different shades of paper; the pink and yellow issues lending an extra girlishness to the production that is entirely apropos. And Budel’s drawings and use of broken or pidjin English further inject an odd, charming naïveté that belies their more perverse, transgressive qualities. It is, in fact, this tension between the innocent and the corrupt that encapsulates and makes the universe of Francine so fresh, so captivating. And so pervy.

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