A Strange and Beautiful Sound

A Strange and Beautiful Sound

If a cartoonist strives to tell a mediocre story and is very successful in doing so, is the result of their labor a mediocre comic? This is a question I found myself returning to time and time again when reading A Strange and Beautiful Sound, a thoroughly unsurprising exercise in what might be called summer literature that nevertheless was pleasant to read. The artist, Zep, well known in Francophone Europe for his bestselling children’s serial Titeuf, has more recently taken to doing more mature graphic novels, and you can tell he means business...because all the colors are a muted monochrome and feature grown ups having conversations at tables. As an artist moving into his “please take me seriously” period, Zep’s interests are more low key than, say, a Craig Thompson behemoth, but then the Franco-Belgian comics scene has always been a little more chilled out than the American on the whole.[1] The tone that Zep strikes is pleasurable, yet it is an attitude that would occupy an entire shelf at Barnes & Noble if big bookstores actually sorted their comics section by tone.

Zep’s story is preoccupied with a fixation that many men who would like to be taken more seriously share - the fantasy of escaping the noise of modern society. His protagonist, a Carthusian monk named William, has literally escaped that noise - living in a cathedral far from any sort of urban bustle or suburban malaise, where he keeps a vow of silence and rarely speaks. Narration from his point of view (how ironic that this largely silent man rarely stops talking to the reader!) reminds us again and again that in this silence he is at peace, but you don’t need his words to tell you this - Zep renders William’s expressions and body language with a seemingly effortless calm and poise, communicating a contentment and comfort in the space his physical body occupies so wonderful as to make a reader jealous. Imagine being so clearly at ease wherever you are! Wild.

Over the course of the book, William is dragged out of the serenity of his monastic life, both physically and spiritually. Physically he is hauled down to the streets of Paris by the news of the untimely passing of his aunt Elise, a sort of catty older French aristocrat these classy family dramas always have. The requirement of his presence brings William back to a world of difficult people (not so difficult as to be disturbing) and complicated (not so complicated as to be upsetting) memories he had thought he had turned his back upon forever. The visit also brings him literally back into the real world, alien to him such that he is colored in many of the street scenes with a slightly light hue, setting his form spiritually apart from the rapport of city life.

The spiritual trouble comes in the form of an attractive young woman, in accordance with the demands of dad fiction poetics. The woman, appropriately named Mary for the comic’s monastic flavorings, gets not one but two classic dad fic meet cutes with William, first having a conversation aboard a train and later meeting again when William finds her swimming in the Seine. (The latter encounter is depicted on the cover of the book, beckoning the potential reader that this graphic novel will be classy but also features a cute lady who might get naked). Mary is independent, cosmopolitan and worldly, with many lessons on the pleasures of urban life to pass on to William (for example, that ice cream is good). However, she has a terminal illness, treatable but not without some difficult decisions that William urges her to make, rendering her broadly defined goodness dependent on his benevolence to her. William delays his return to the monastery to pursue a whirlwind romance with Mary, but eventually gives in to his desire for the silence of his holy life and leaves her in a rather absurd climactic sequence where a pile of word balloons full of secular jibber jabber freak him out. Is William a coward to run from her, or is it best for him to return to the calling that gives him purpose and contentment? That question is the literary ambiguity that lends this otherwise fluffy tome an air of legitimacy.

A Strange and Beautiful Sound depicts a fantasy wherein the noise of society is escaped by a perfect man. Zep rarely stops to contemplate the difficulties that may come with embracing silence, depicting intrusive thoughts as something William literally happily sweeps away in one sequence. Imagine, Zep exhorts the reader, living without cell phones and bills to pay, imagine, perhaps, life without a wife who nags.

The serenity of this fantasy often lends itself to very beautiful pages - Zep has a real skill with modulating the weight of his brushstrokes, and the sequences of William happily walking through open urban spaces and taking in his surroundings have an airy blissful quality not unlike the serenity one can find in the later comics of Jiro Taniguchi. But this book is less The Walking Man and more A Distant Neighborhood - For a comic concerned with silence, there’s a lot of noisy plot driven drama to turn through, very few pages free from the burden of narration. The story is never delivered with the gravity required to be great as melodrama, yet we are rarely allowed to see the characters relax from their narrative needs, just sit with them for a bit. As such we never quite inhabit the fantasy, and this may draw the reader’s attention to the patriarchal absurdity underlying those dad fic desires. Nevertheless, the spiritually fulfilled life fantasized about in these pages is genuinely alluring, and Zep’s artistry lends itself well to the pleasure of this low-key escapism. I began by wondering if I should call this comic mediocre, and I think that it is, but I find this mediocrity to be peaceful and often beautiful. It is, in the end, a mediocre comic, but in its mediocrity lies a feeling of something special.

[1] Yes this is a cultural stereotype, but I have a much easier time imagining the average Moebius character chilling out on a beach for a few hours than any person Frank Miller has ever depicted.