A year or two ago I was discussing the cartoonist Antoine Cossé with my friend George Elkind. Both of us are fans of Cossé's work, and we looked forward excitedly to his future comics. We agreed that he seemed destined to produce at least one truly great book, something that testified to the high level of talent he hadn't quite been able to fully capitalize on yet. "I think that Showtime thing he's working on might end up being it," George said, and I agreed. At the time Cossé had posted a few fantastic looking pages excerpted from that upcoming work, and their grand scale and imaginative verve teased riches to come.
As it happened, I only ended up encountering Showtime in its original published form quite recently. That form was a digest-sized, Risograph-printed pamphlet comic titled Showtime Part 1, which was sent to me along with Cossé's short story collection Palace. Short stories were what had stoked my enthusiasm for Cossé's work; appearing frequently in top-line anthologies, and occasionally in comic book length titles of his own, they never failed to electrify me in small doses. Cossé's debut graphic novel, Mutiny Bay, while an ambitious book and certainly better than the majority of what's out there, felt limp by comparison, the meaty subject matter stubbornly failing to play to its artist's considerable strengths.
Anyway, I read Palace first, and though I had encountered most of its stories in their original forms, I couldn't help being blown away all over again by knocking them all back in one gulp. I opened Showtime Part 1 with genuine relish... and closed it crestfallen. While at least as visually dazzling as any of Cossé's other work, the nearly wordless comic offered nothing concrete to latch onto in the way of narrative. If this was Part 1 of a longer work, I not only couldn't discern an idea of what was coming next, I couldn't tell what I was supposed to be excited about seeing next. This was no small disappointment. Great expectations aside, Cossé had stuck out to me as worth following in large part because of how rare it is for a young cartoonist possessed of such serious visual talent to also possess such a natural facility for telling a story. Oh well! Maybe Showtime wouldn't be the high point I had been hoping for after all, but it was still a pretty comic, and Cossé was still churning out new work at the same furious pace as ever. I'd pin my hopes on his next book.
The joke was on me. Cossé's next (English-language) book was... Showtime! As it turned out, Showtime Part 1 wasn't the opening installment of the continuing series I'd expected, but an ashcan preview for the full-length graphic novel I swear I'm going to finally get to talking about in a second here. In fact, the pages seen in Showtime Part 1 don't appear until midway through the finished book, in a different order, with some narrative captions added and a few pages and balloons of dialogue taken out entirely. In a way, I'm now glad of the disappointment I felt with Showtime Part 1, because it let me go into Showtime the graphic novel free of weighty anticipation. Spoiler alert: this book is the first great work of Cossé's career, one which not only easily tops the high bar his work to date has set, but trains the reader's eyes on the still higher bars he seems poised to clear in the years to come. If you haven't followed Cossé before now, here's your jumping-on point -- and you'd best jump on, because this book is one of the year’s best.
Narrated by a rat and set almost entirely during a long car trip, Showtime unspools the story of the world's greatest magician as its cast hurtles down the motorway toward the site of his big comeback performance. Cossé pulls out all the stops telling a complex story with many facets: framing sequences, flashback sequences, dream sequences, montages, and a highly unreliable narrator. At its heart, though, Showtime is a cross-pollination of two perennial blooms. It tells the origin story of a man with great and mysterious powers, and it does so while following a driver who's picked up a group of hitchhikers with bad intentions. So engaging are the flourishes with which the reader is let in on each twist of the plot that it's tough to recognize either cliche as such until one has finished the book, and such is Cossé's facility for blending the quotidian with the fantastic that Showtime never reads like the genre comic it is at heart. Rather, it scans like a take on Yuichi Yokoyama's Travel reinterpreted through the hyperactive, goofball Continental sensibility of Olivier Schrauwen. Or maybe an issue of a Golden Age super-mystic comic like Dr. Fate crossed with the post-Tarantino sensibility of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso. There's a lot going on here, in short, but through it all Cossé levitates comfortably above his influences and contemporaries to produce a work that feels like it could come only from him.
From the offset, the reader is put on uncertain footing. Showtime opens with a pre-credits "overture" sequence showing the stage being set for the long-awaited return performance of the world famous magician known only as M. Then, immediately, comes the first sleight of hand trick, as a voice beckons from a subway tunnel and we're introduced to the book's narrator, a rat pushing a soda can up a stairway. We take a detour up the scaffoldings of a theater, and the rat trains a spotlight onto the car where the rest of the book's action will unfold. It's a strange framing sequence that adds little to the plot, but immeasurably to the vibe of what Cossé is doing, throwing the reader headlong into the bizarre world of the comic. Cossé squeezes a ton of juice out of his stage-show setup, finding a natural tie to bind comics to magic in both mediums' vaudevillian origins and penchant for thrilling content that exists adjacent to, but firmly outside the realm of the possible. What we read in Showtime is spectacle, performance, but it also invests in imbuing its performers with humanity, using the desultory conversation of a reporter sent to interview M and the three hitchhiking waiters hired for the show's afterparty that he picks up to dispense with the vast majority of its story points.
In a visually stunning montage we are shown the death-defying feats that won M his fame, and given tantalizing hints as to his humble beginnings. The reporter gives an account of his own attendance at M's last, scandalous performance in a pulsatingly erotic high-speed boat chase sequence (yeah, you're reading that right). This is followed by a recollection of a foreboding dream, dripping with ambient suspense and creepily juxtaposed imagery, in which the enigmatic magician sends an urgent warning. The book's action climax detonates in its most straightforwardly told passage, before its verminous narrator returns to deliver a mysterious postscript. This stew is given plenty of pepper by the interspersed scenes of the car trip backgrounding the whole story, with frank and frequently funny dialogue and gorgeous landscape drawings providing just as much to chew on as the tale of the mysterious stage sorcerer. Cossé wrings plenty of natural interest out of the reporter-on-the-trail-of-a-big-scoop angle, and right at the story's midpoint he uses the classic "are this guy and this girl gonna fuck or not?" subplot like a ski jump to grab some extra momentum and fly into his book's crescendo.
It's a riveting ride, storytelling on a level Cossé hadn't previously proven himself capable of. There's as much love of the game apparent in his slow rollout of this strange tale as there is in his drawings, which is no small praise. Cossé, like Connor Willumsen or Sammy Harkham, has the magic touch: his drawings, no matter what they depict, just give one pleasure to look at. The simpler the subject (the ace of hearts, a Coke can), the more gratifying it is to see his version of it and no other's. Those simple images find counterpoints in Cossé's larger panels, accretions of rounded, bouncy shapes and thin, wavering lines that add up to jaw-dropping master shots. The artist takes full advantage of his fantastical story to put together some truly unforgettable pictures: an ocean liner discharging a volley of fireworks as it floats in the air above a bay; a metropolis drowned in sand; and shot after shot of a car hurtling through different settings, now natural, now urban, each more evocative in its confident, casual minimalism than the last.
Though they frequently muster great detail, complexity, and scope, Cossé's images are always fundamentally cartoons -- that is, simple drawings. If comics demand that the practitioner put only what's necessary on the page, Cossé gets closer to the heart of the medium than most. The same way a great running back like Le'Veon Bell can see holes opening up in the line long before he hits them, Cossé has the vision necessary to understand just how much of comic book imagery as it is typically constructed is extraneous. A car whipping past a viewer becomes one of its passenger's faces, horizontally distended by speed, stretched against the background of a blank page. A sequence of a woman crying as she drafts a letter, looking up to speak, and then returning to her writing juxtaposes three floating heads against the background of one single panel instead of taking up three separate frames. Characters’ faces are reduced to a pair of glasses, a mane of long hair, thick eyebrows and a frog mouth. The moment of sexual penetration is rendered as the rounded shape of inkwashed hind quarters transversed by a shaft of slightly darker ink.
Don't try this at home, young comics makers.
It's that sense of speed, energy, elision hanging about Cossé's ink lines and wash tones and pencil shading that makes a car trip such a perfect setting for his work. The constant movement proscribed by the story is fully mirrored in the art, only rather than the panels beings things that fly by the windows, they are windows that fly by. Showtime is a complex comic with tons of plot wrinkles, but if it takes you an hour to read you're going pretty slow. Books that encourage this much of a breakneck pace and still feel substantial are rare. I tend to prefer a comic that keeps me reading for a long time, but such is the mysterious vibe of this one and the ambiguity of its (still very satisfying) ending that the speed it goes by you with only gets you rereading it sooner rather than later.
So on that note, with my duty to inform you of the appearance of a great new comic to read carried out, I'm off to give this one another flip. As the rat telling Showtime's story concludes his tale, "I'm just the messenger... only the messenger...."