This book is brisk and elliptical, so I too will attempt to be brief. Edmond Baudoin's memoir of a cloistered childhood in Nice and the brother he shared it with is a truly beautiful sliver of comics. More than this, it is the rare book in any idiom whose content explains and deepens its formal qualities. Piero is an astonishingly complete work, one that probably functions as its own best criticism. Still, some scattered thoughts:
The superstructure of Baudoin's story does not differ much from the average memoir. Beginning in early childhood with a few scraps of pastoral reminisce, it proceeds through school days and adolescence to a conclusion at the cusp of adulthood. In its particulars, however, Piero is a radical book. The scattershot quality of the earliest impressions Baudoin shares remains even as the memories described move closer and closer to the present. Scenes whisk by in a panel or two, not leading into one another so much as they are placed in proximity. Transitions that jar at first come to feel downright liquid after awhile, with Baudoin's casual narration building up something that feels more like a museum exhibit than a novel, with each individual fixture to be left behind for the next at the moment one's interest is diverted.
This approach speaks to a profound understanding of comics as a medium: true "flow" is impossible in a story collaged together from still individual images, so perhaps it should not even be attempted. Better to display a carefully chosen selection of disconnected narrative fragments, and let the reader's mind stitch them together as it does one panel with the next. Baudoin's one- and two-picture pages and his sparse, poetic narration (translated with panache by Matt Madden) read like someone describing a memory, less to another than himself, attempting to rebuild its ruins as best he can. "We didn't use erasers, we never used erasers very much..." he muses during one of many scenes of the brothers drawing together, correcting a definite statement midstream with one that allows for more ambiguity. Later, when Piero leaves the family circle for art school, Baudoin muses "Maybe we discussed it once over dinner? Or maybe after a Sunday feast? But then again maybe we never discussed it..."
The reason for the book's thick, heavy vagueness should be obvious: it's a middle-aged man's account of a long-ago childhood. But in discussing the youthful development of his impressionistic, scribbled drawing style, Baudoin does something quite extraordinary, giving an account of the impetus for both his book's gestural visual quality and its pointillist approach to narrative. "It's weird," he tells us in an extended scene of his young self copying a black and white photo of Marlene Dietrich from a newspaper, "a photo looks so real, but when you look close it doesn't anymore. If you take a magnifying glass you can see that it's full of little dots. And when those dots cluster together you get black. And when there are no dots you get white. (...) I copied photos, simplifying the marks more and more to see at what point my black scribbles became nothing but scribbles." Baudoin provides a beautiful metaphor for the nonfiction writer's task, the attempt to imbue a scattering of well-placed fragments with the illusion of reality. Piero is a continuation of its author's childhood daredevil act, eliding gouts of information so that the few flashes he gives his audience might combine harmoniously enough to carry forward the stuff of life.
They do, of course. This is a comic possessed of such grace that by the end it almost feels as if one is reading a collection of one's own memories rather than those of a stranger. I wonder, though, if Baudoin's ingenious approach to memoir is itself responsible for the impermeable air of melancholy his book carries. Piero is composed of nostalgic looks back at a happy if insular childhood, but so present in the text is their past-ness, and the forgotten-ness of the moments that bookended them, that it's impossible not to wait for some tragic other shoe to drop. When it does, with Baudoin's brother hit by a car during a teenage moped ride, it feels inevitable, and the author's choice of a single black dot of detail ("as he slid gently down from the hood of the car, his legs didn't only bend at his knees") almost unbearably cruel. Yet Piero survives, recuperates, and goes on to live a life. Is this, then, the tragedy - the white space that this book's black dots surround? That we cannot stop making new dots to replace the old and in turn be forgotten themselves, until they all are gone? A book, at least, can be more permanent, a concrete thing that does not fade away. But Piero passes by the reader so fast and sweetly that one's thinking back on it feels just as vital as the text itself.