America came sadly late to the career of Annie Goetzinger. Only two graphic novels from her 45-year career in comics have been translated in English up until now: 2015’s Girl in Dior, her stylish, semi-fictional biography of fashion designer Christian Dior and 2016’s Marie Antoinette, Phantom Queen, a biography/ghost story. The Provocative Colette, a more straightforward biography, arrived in the States, a year after its original French publication and nine months after Goetzinger’s untimely death at the age of 66.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, commonly known as simply ‘Colette’, is considered a national treasure in France. She was a novelist, among other things (an actress, critic, journalist and even a mime), whose career began with a series of shocking-for-its-time novels about a young girl named Claudine that her husband published under his own name. Her most renowned work, the 1944 novella Gigi, has been adapted to stage and screen, but it’s the life she led both in public and private that captured so much attention in early 20th century Paris and, even by today’s standards, seems progressive, edgy and, yes, provocative.
The Provocative Colette covers the years 1893 to about 1930, choosing not to tell Colette’s entire life story but instead focusing on the formative years of her life and career and the cultural touchstones of her era: the 1900 Expo, World War I, the Moulin Rouge, the French “Golden Age”, the rise of cinema and the next great war. It opens with a 20-year-old Colette about to marry a man almost twice her age, a marriage that would transform her from an innocent country girl to a social iconoclast. She tended to push against the social mores of her time, especially when egged on by her first husband, Willy (his own use of a singular nom de plume would be one of many ways he would influence her). Together, Willy and Colette were constantly attracting attention and turning it into publicity for his writing, making them the Kim and Kanye of the Belle Époque. He encouraged her to explore sexual relationships with other women and when their marriage ended, Colette moved in with Mathilde de Morny, a noblewoman who presented as a man. After a brief stint as an actress in the Moulin Rouge, she would eventually marry again, to a newspaper editor, Henri de Jouvenel, with whom she would have a daughter and start her own career as a journalist and critic. But, more scandal would follow when she began an affair with her husband’s teenage son.
With a background in costume design, Goetzinger always focused on complicated, beautiful women and in Colette she found an ideal subject, one who was both a fashion icon and an early prototype for modern feminism. We see her depicted in a variety of fashion-forward outfits that range from shoulder-baring ball gowns (racy for the bourgeoisie at the time) to demure school girl outfits to breast-baring stage costumes. Colette is responsible for creating some iconic looks including the “Claudine Collar” worn by the protagonist of her first novel and Goetzinger seemed to relish rendering every last swatch of fabric.
Her soft watercolor paintings and delicate pencil lines have an art nouveau touch to them. Colette often looks like a decorative model from an Alphone Mucha painting yet Goetzinger managed to always convey the real woman beneath her Parisian counter-culture style. As the book goes on, she ages her subtly around the eyes and mouth, fills out her figure, fades the luster of her hair. She also shows her grow from a young, naive woman making mistakes and giving too much of herself to a man into creative and driven woman who often hurts the people that love her.
Goetzinger, also once a set designer, used a lot of “stagecraft” throughout this book. White highlights glow from the edges of characters’ heads like they are all stage lit. At times they seem to narrate the story to each other like actors in a play. In one scene, a group of Parisian society men act almost like a Greek Chorus, describing with both titillation and snark their knowledge of Colette’s affairs with other women.
These bits of storytelling artifice are probably more a result of Goetzinger leaning into the art form of comics then it is of her mimicking another medium. Page and panel design are paramount and she makes sure each and every one looks perfect and stands on its own as a little vignette. Entire events are sometimes encapsulated into one panel and by shuffling through moments, panel by panel, she was able to cover so much of Colette’s life while still making it a breezy read. It is all quick cuts, much like a Hollywood trailer. There are no establishing shots, scene transitions or any of the languid, natural pacing you might expect in a period-piece biography. It is very much an artist’s approach to storytelling, focusing on the iconic imagery and the stunning visuals and letting them literally tell the story with some word balloons added to give some narration.
The Provocative Colette is a mature conclusion to Annie Goetzinger’s career. It seemed to be exactly the kind of book she wanted to draw and is about exactly the type of woman she wanted to be able to talk about. It is a big step up in comic-making maturity from Girl in Dior which was beautiful but not confident enough to just be a biography without adding in some fictional elements. It is unfortunate that we will not be able to see where Goetzinger would have gone next but hopefully this book finds enough of an audience in America to usher in translations of all of her older works.