To coincide with the English publication of Winshluss’ Pinocchio the original art is on show in the famous Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London. The summarizing, wholly un-ironic tagline suggests that the exhibition “…will fascinate and enchant both children and adults alike.” I could not construct a more ill fitting line if I stayed up past several bedtimes getting giddily drunk on cough syrup.
Not that children wouldn’t like it – it’s bright, cartoony, and incredibly beautiful – it’s just that they probably wouldn’t know what to do with the seven leather-clad dwarves raping the unconscious Snow White, nor the bloody dismemberment of Geppetto’s bored wife after she has sex with Pinocchio’s flame-throwing nose.
Winshluss, the pen name of Vincent Parannaud, states at the very beginning that this is a “very free” adaptation of the eponymous novel by Carlo Collodi. A man constructs a boy, some characters live inside a whale for a bit, and there’s a small insect called Jiminy – but that’s about the extent of the relation. For the most part it is a wordless comic and everything is rendered even more horrifying and grotesque in its silent, exaggerated mime. Pinocchio himself is not a wooden toy in this version, but a mechanized soldier built for warfare – mute and impervious, never blinking. He’s a blank canvas against which everything plays out as high drama. It’s little wonder the Angoulême Festival described it as an “opera” when they awarded it the Prize for Best Album in 2009 – no other word could encompass how intense and unrelenting this thing is.
It’s brilliantly macabre and very funny, too – with the endless smashing of taboos in the name of humour the book feels like it crawled out of the same murky gene pool as Mad. What saves it from being an exercise in how-far-can-you-push-it-before-it-breaks is the incredible array of artistic styles Winshluss demonstrates, chopping and changing as quickly and dramatically as if he were let loose in the costume department of MGM. They may not be the most original of styles or images – everything tends to remind you of something else, be it underground comix or the work of Georges Méliès – and the cast of characters Winshluss is playing with are deliberately off the rack. Some might regard the recycled styles as a negative, but I think it works as a shorthand in the silence – a familiar log to cling onto throughout the flow of absurdity. Boxes ticked include an early Disney animation style, which – much like Al Columbia’s Pim & Francie – only seems to make everything more sickly.
The most classic of Winshluss’ style variations is employed only for the parts of the book about Jiminy Cockroach, a no-hoper who was fired for sleeping on the job behind the oven and swiftly took up residence in Pinocchio’s cranial cavity (“Wow! A flat with a sink view!”). In dirty scratchy ink like the splatters of week-old oil on a stove top, it has all the grimy character of George Herriman’s illustrations of Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel, which is fitting given the head-dwelling cockroach’s failed literary ambitions. Jiminy Cricket in “Becoming Conscious Of The Genius Of Another Allows Us At The Same Time To Measure Our Own” is the stand-out page: having just slammed shut the final page of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, the cockroach’s face is a bulging picture of sickening realisation. He uses the novel to beat his typewriter to death before placing it back on the shelf and slumping defeated in front of the TV with a beer.
Jiminy and Pinocchio don’t interact as they do in the Disney animation version of the story, which has undoubtedly usurped the original novel in the public consciousness. They are two entirely separate stories running concurrently, occasionally overlapping like a comic book crossover, though I tend to regard it as an old-fashioned topper, like Sappo was to Popeye – it’s a treat, and in my opinion the best bits in the whole book. When Pinocchio is summarily fired from his job on a toy production line and thrown into a fiery oven, Jiminy wakes up in the night sweating buckets. Convinced of his own imminent lonely death by malaria, cancer or AIDS, his whole sorry life flashes before his eyes: caught masturbating by his mother, drunkenly puking through his nose, the cash lent to a friend and never returned. He’s the anti-conscience; the voice in your head at 3am.
The 200 pages hurtle by in an entire rainbow spectrum of perversion and the surreal, before finishing on a quiet ECG flat-line – a Lynchian scene of an insane mother kissing her robot boy goodnight. She turns off the light and his unblinking eyes burn through the darkness like flashlights. You can almost hear the quiet metronomic tick-tock of the clock in his mechanically sleepless night.