Good sentiments make bad literature, says Zola, and if he's right, Portrait of a Drunk is very good literature, bereft as it is of anything remotely resembling a good sentiment. Things start bad, get worse, take a few detours towards horrifically awful, and end up bad again. It's a journey to the end of the night and back, beautiful and repellent.
The book is co-authored by three people, although two of them may well be considered a single artistic entity for the purposes of this thing. While Olivier Schrauwen needs little introduction (why not have none), Ruppert+Mulot are still largely untranslated. They belong to that small and predominantly European (Kerascoët, Dupuy+Berberian) school of seamless comics collaboration—in an interview with inkstuds (RIP), Ruppert+Mulot talk of redrawing a single object many times, until their way of drawing is unified in studied blandness. The resulting style is perfect for the kind of stories they tell: cold, dark and calmly misanthropic comedies—at least that much I can make out from the only two (out of seventeen) books that have been published in English: Barrel of Monkeys, and The Perineum Technique. The former is a darkly hilarious collection of experimental stories, the latter is a more subdued meditation on sex in the modern age, with a small but noticeable contribution from Bastien Vives, France's prime purveyor of what young people these days refer to as "big anime titties."
The two parties have just enough differences and similarities to make this collaboration feel organic and smooth. Celebration of male idiocy is dear to everyone involved, and in the Portrait of a Drunk it's proudly on display on central stage and on a wobbly pedestal. Guy, the titular drunk, steals, stabs and bullies, and, naturally, drinks quite a bit—enough to blur the realms of life and death in an infernal hangover that teaches him nothing and furthers his decline. The book is built on moments of shining insanity and stretches of quiet unrest, reminiscent of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, another pair of European collaborators. But all perversity aside, there's a fatalistic melancholy about the book that lends a bit of weight to all the misadventures. Also, there's possibly the most sensual depiction of watersports in comics since Blankets.
The book's endlessly indecent protagonist is less a character than a collection of irredeemable vices, somewhat in the traditions of British misery-sitcom (Bottom, etc)—the only glimpse of moral itch comes in the second half of the book when Guy goes looking for his missing apprentice, to no avail and with no later hint of shame or repentance. The book abounds (and delights) in narrative clichés: the entire stock of nautical novels is present here, from companion parrots to cringey exoticism, and all of that is of course violently subverted and mistreated in a number of ways. From this Guy emerges largely unscathed and just as hopelessly immoral. It's a big boozy fuck-you to all McCloudy values, and if you are immune to the seductive nihilism of Céline and co, the book may seem dull, pointless and vulgar. If you know that style is substance, you will find something thrilling on each page.
The authors push their formal experiments from the beginning to the end, so the style keeps changing through the entirety of the book, subtly enough to stay within the set aesthetic vision. Backgrounds and people become more sketchy or disappear altogether as Guy's focus shifts and wanders, and this constant adjustment is one of the most exciting parts of the book—a visual equivalent of Flaubert's gaze, constantly searching and adapting his voice to the movements of his characters.
Elegantly drawn and painted bits sit next to clunky marker scribbles, and everywhere you feel the process left on display. As with the authors' other books, this one is in no small part about cartooning as a medium, its traditions, forms and limitations. While Ruppert+Mulot's process involves a blending of individual hands, Schrauwen doesn't do much to fit in, and his characters immediately stand out with tender awkwardness that shows the skill behind the willful naivety of his style.
The authors clearly were having fun—the entire project has the air of a bunch of mischievous schoolboys piling up grotesque details to amuse the classmates and annoy the teachers. It reminded me of César Aira's more successful ventures, where the towering bits of madness all somehow come to a neat conclusion. At times it almost feels too neat—Portrait of a Drunk is firmly set in their authors' comfort zone, and it is of course unfair to criticize a book for doing well what it set out to do, but it's tempting to expect from such a collaboration something more than a tidy sum of its parts. Still, there's nothing remotely like it, and that alone is cause for violent praise.