When I agreed to write about Drawn & Quarterly’s collected works of Geneviève Castrée, the much-loved Québécois cartoonist who died at the age of 35 of pancreatic cancer, I didn’t expect the brick that showed up on my doorstep, weighing about seven pounds and containing over 500 pages. It feels like a lot for an artist who produced nonstop but had only one long form graphic novel (2013's Susceptible) widely available in English before she left the world. A second publication, A Bubble, a board book for her daughter, was published posthumously in 2018, completed by Anders Nilsen (an artist who’s experienced intense grief of his own). Complete Works 1981-2016 serves as a documentation of all the things Castrée produced that were contained in those two volumes and many of the things that weren’t: her music, her posters, her minicomics, her poetry, her album illustrations, her ceramics, her notebooks, her stuff that was more traditionally fine art. It’s a labor of love on the part of her husband, Phil Elverum, who contributes one of two brief essays about Castrée’s life and work. More than an elaborate tombstone, though, chiseled out of the pain of the people who survived Castrée, the book is a “what if?” What if she’d lived? What if she’d made more stuff? What if she were around today, obsessing over her drawings and doing things for other people and raising a child?
It’s definitely true that we tend to fetishize artists who die young. Jean-Michel Basquiat, of course, and all the musicians who left the building early, but also Keith Haring, Van Gogh, Masaccio, many others. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries. There are lots of creative folks who live out their days doting on their great-grandchildren, including many a cartoonist, but there’s something about those who seem to burn the candle at both ends that’s a continual attractant. Perhaps it’s that they don’t have time to produce as much work, and what remains is a bit easier to grasp because there’s less of it. They don’t have time to disappoint us by going through a mid-career slump or turning into Trump supporters or even retiring and refusing to make more work.
Castrée’s work barely had time to evolve, although she started out pretty good. But the trajectory of the book feels like a line that slopes upward gently and then stops, not a series of rolling hills. Clearly inspired by Julie Doucet, who writes the other essay (a single page), her early work bursts with angry boundary pushing, like the punk rock scene that welcomed her, but it’s not long before Castrée abandons panels almost entirely. Elverum writes about how she was born Geneviève Gosselin but adopted Castrée (or “castrated”) as her pen name. This combination of gentleness and violence feels like the best description of her work. From the beginning she draws herself as small, with black hair that featured spikes and curls, freckled, often wearing a striped shirt. She walks through the wilderness, encountering animals, sometimes literally aflame. She moves around a lot: jumping, dancing, crawling, climbing. It’s as though she can’t be still. This stuff runs throughout her work from beginning to end.
The work is a combination of polished visuals and flawed narrative. I remembered loving Susceptible, but collected here it’s more of a mess than I recalled; a good book but not a great one that belongs stylistically in the company of Julia Wertz’s and Nicole Georges’ memoirs, but isn’t as neat as theirs. The story is like a series of short dreams on the same subject that the reader is responsible for knitting into a bigger narrative. We open and close our eyes repeatedly. How long will a segment last? We don't know, so we grasp at it, trying to hold onto it and figure it out, but mostly we're left with a feeling rather than a thought or a structure. But is this, in fact, a failing, or is it just how life is: a series of loosely connected scenes that our self-reflectiveness makes into a neater story, beads on a thread that become a whole just because they hang together? Perhaps that's part of the impact of Castrée's work, the feeling that it could gutter out at any second, especially given that it did.
That feeling of not being entirely grounded might also result from her slipping between three languages all the time: Canadian French (her mother tongue), English (acquired later in life, despite it being her father’s language) and art. The latter is the clearest, always, and the feelings it communicates have more oomph than the ones she sets down in words. Even as Castrée moved among different formats, her painstakingly painted images feel earned. Her desire to produce can feel like something was eating her up from the inside her whole life, scrabbling to get out. The flush that paints her protagonist’s cheeks seems like a fever produced by the world, a heat that had to burn its way out through making things.
Trying to put the pieces together from this very big, very nicely produced book is hard. More essays might have been useful, although I understand the desire to let an artist speak for herself. It helps to read a little French so that you can figure out the translations in the margins and sometimes go beyond them (not everything is translated). The footers that give years and guidelines for what you’re looking at are great. D&Q never half-asses its design, and that design always, always serves the book rather than distracting from it. As a result, the book doesn’t feel too long, except when you’re trying to read it in bed and it leaves a mark on your legs. It’s probably not meant to be read straight through but instead to be consulted when one needs inspiration or to remember something. Does Castrée’s work deserve this coffee table tome? I'm inclined to say yes because many less-deserving male artists have gotten the same kind of treatment for years. We don’t know what she would have done over the decades she didn’t get, but based on A Bubble and on “Blankets Are Always Sleeping” (a beautiful eight-pager made for D&Q’s 25th anniversary book from 2014), it probably would have been dreamlike and colorful, heart-driven and unexpected, beautiful and uncompromising.