French cartooning team Ruppert & Mulot (whose mamas named them Florent and Jerome) are tough to put a label on. Setting aside the fact that "their creative partnership has grown so organically as to obscure the individual contribution of the work of either hand," per this book's press packet, their published efforts range as far and wide as any more familiar name that I can think of. Their first two offerings to the US market, an enigmatic short in Kramers Ergot and the bizarre metafiction Barrel of Monkeys, positioned them as hardcore avant-gardists, makers of work so full of sharp angles and jagged edges it could cut itself - literally, Barrel of Monkeys invites readers to employ the blade in rendering a magic lantern-type device from its pages at one point. I was genuinely shocked at encountering Le Grande Odalisque, the duo's frothy action-girl series with Bastien Vives, which shows that Ruppert & Mulot have another gear - or a whole different set of them. Odalisque's impactfully staged melodrama plays as well to the multiplex as Barrel of Monkeys does to the gallery space.
The Perineum Technique, which is the first Ruppert & Mulot work you're at all likely to encounter in a regular comic store, squares the circle. This is a very heady comic that's fun and easy to read; unusual to say the least. On the surface it's smooth and sleek, about as far from "experimental comics" as can be, but much swims in its depths. One is compelled to turn its pages over again and again, scrutinizing the smooth shell in search of a chink or flaw that might explain why this fun, easy book also feels so strange.
The Perineum Technique is unabashedly a romance comic, a new entry in a genre that's spent the past half decade poised for a big comeback that hasn't materialized. Romance is a genre comics has always done well, and one where new ground is currently offering itself up begging to be explored. Maybe it's symptomatic of the fact that comic books are mostly made by unlaid losers that the 2010s have delivered so many great comics about Being Online but so few about the way it's impacted modern romance? Regardless, Ruppert & Mulot are on the case with this baldly put tale of a love affair that starts on the apps and spills out messily into rl.
The actual plot mostly feels like it's there to laugh along to: JH, a cool artist, meets Sarah, a cool DJ, on okcupid. They start having regular skype sex. JH wants more, but Sarah demurs before unexpectedly inviting him to a masked swingers' party. They share a marginally satisfying public sexual encounter, after which Sarah says she's uninterested in further physical rendezvous unless JH can abstain from ejaculating for the next four months. Then... we'll see what happens. Hijinx ensue, and that's pretty much it. The story is casually displayed more than told, with no special narrative emphasis put on any one turn of its events, but that's not to say that certain scenes aren't given magnificent visual treatments. Ruppert & Mulot are hellacious draftsmen in a scratchy but open impressionistic style, and their way of using the comics form to mount visually immersive, brilliantly imaginative tableaux doesn't really have a match on either side of the Atlantic. Big gorgeous showpiece panels depict towering fantasy architecture, hot sex on top of Paris's Palais Garnier, and - a Ruppert & Mulot specialty - a roller coaster ride that absolutely nails the thrill and whirl of the real thing. Colorist Isabelle Merlet is a star throughout, whipping together a bright but subtle palette that feels vivid not so much in a superhero-blockbuster way as the way a loud bar full of attractive people does.
In a romantic comedy with a plot as, hmm, workmanlike as this one, it's refreshing to see the sheer amount of effort that's put into developing and using a language of cartoon shorthand. Here it's one that describes the sexual experience, which is welcome. For a medium that's spent decades putting together a dizzying toolbox of ways to describe human bodies engaged in strenuous interaction with one another during fights, comics' sense of the formalistic is still laughably undersexed. Most comics with fucking in them are either prude or crude, turning all the lights off before they undress or shrugging out the same unimaginatively literal drawings of shaking tits and blasting dicks.
By contrast, Ruppert & Mulot and Merlet use their sex scenes as excuses to move away from the way the world actually works, with samurai swords carving long, ribboning marks through an endless paper surface as JH and Sarah work up to their skype climaxes together, or a sudden shower of rain engulfing an elegant dining room as one of its occupants ejaculates, or the background colors of Warholesque identical panels changing with the rhythmic strokes of a handjob. Dreams and emotions are given similarly outre yet intuitive visual treatments - one character's clothing gives way to frenetically fluctuating fetish ensembles as another fantasizes about her, while an actual heavyweight boxer appears to deliver the emotional blows doled out by a bad date with his fists. This is high-level comics making employed in the service of a plot that, again, is fairly boilerplate post-internet romantic comedy fare. But it's hardly wasted effort, as it inarguably makes The Perineum Technique a better book. The moments of absurdity aren't just there to add color, they deepen the story's emotional beats. The unorthodox approach to visualizing sex is far more genuinely erotic and arousing than a literal approach could be. (Indeed, the only other person I know who's read this book told me they ended up finding a utilitarian use for it.)
It also speaks to the authors' understanding of their material: people don't like romantic comedies because of the plot machinations that happen in them, they like them because it's a delightful distraction to be introduced to some new, hot fictional friends and spend a few hours wondering whether or not they're going to fuck each other. Characters have to live in romantic comedies for anyone to care at all, and without attractive, charismatic movie stars to portray them, a comic book doing this kind of story needs to really commit to illustrating its protagonists' interiority. That level of care is unmissable here, both in the elaborate visual treatments bestowed on private physical and emotional states, and in the meandering way the story tells itself, giving time to each individual bump along the road that JH and Sarah traverse in their awkward courtship and leaving plenty of room for the untidy way friends, work, and the erotic attentions of other people slosh into the picture.
But The Perineum Technique is more than a superior entry in a worthy-if-maligned idiom. Ruppert & Mulot aren't just interested in illustrating characters' interior states - those states are the actual setting of this book. JH and Sarah's fantasies often show up on-panel without warning, taking over the steering of the book from the "real" story again and again. As the plot progresses, distinguishing fantasy from reality becomes more difficult. And that's before one of JH's video art projects necessitates the hiring of two actors who are drawn as looking indistinguishable from the book's two leads.
I've long been enamored of the anonymity Ruppert & Mulot's style conveys on their characters, with facial features indicated by no more than a couple of dots or a slashed line. It's a nice way of pleasurably complicating things for the reader. But here, in what's otherwise more conventional work from a pair of weirdos, it's completely essential. A sequence at the book's end which shows a scene we've been led to assume occurred in real life, now re-depicted in one of JH's video pieces, throws everything into question. Do JH and Sarah actually get together after all? Do they even meet irl? How much of this book is fantasy? How much is one of JH's videos? What the hell do the crinkly panel borders that pop up in a few scenes indicate? Jeez - do JH and Sarah even exist? Or is JH's long-suffering assistant (the Nice Girl Who's Right For Him Hiding In Plain Sight we've all seen in these stories before) the actual artist of all the scenes in this story, as seems implied by the final pages? Is everything we've just finished reading just a work of art, a fiction?
Only that last question has an answer, and the answer is, of course, an unequivocal yes.
The meta-textual game this book plays so delicately is typical of its creators, and to me at least, feels very French. At times reading The Perineum Technique I felt like I was reading a less cranky comic book version of Michel Houellebecq, which I say as a compliment and also an opening to drop the other shoe on this review. Romantic comedies aren't sexist and retrograde by nature, but that doesn't mean that a distressingly high percentage of them aren't totally those things. Being that this one is a titillating, unserious stab at the genre from two male authors whose back catalog displays a tendency to push boundaries, it's hard not to read it on high alert.
For me at least, The Perineum Technique's gender politics get a passing grade, if not an exemplary one. An exchange between JH and a gay male friend about how the problems in his love life are obviously because he dates women is cringeworthy in a few different ways, and should have been left on the cutting room floor. Other passages of toxic masculinity are more ambiguous: as I said earlier, most of the stuff that happens in this book is there so you can laugh at it. It really is a romantic comedy. When JH makes an ass out of himself by presuming he's owed something for sticking to the no-fap pact he makes with Sarah, his friends are there to hit the cymbal with amusing face-palm reactions. JH isn't positioned like a Joe Matt or Chester Brown, or even a Ware or Tomine guy - there's nothing nearly so dark or searing on these pages, but Ruppert & Mulot also truly seem uninterested in creating audience sympathy for their characters. Both the humiliations JH endures and the dickishness he sometimes takes refuge in as a response are positioned in the same manner: as reasons to laugh at the actions of, not sympathize with the struggles of, a semi-clueless naif who isn't quick on the uptake.
I went back and forth on whether Sarah's character qualifies for inclusion under the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope. She definitely lives by her own rules, pushing JH out of his comfort zone and into the rush of the story's plot et cetera - but if anything her existence is a more cosseted and less fun one than his, something he works on her to change. Maybe he's a Manic Pixie Dreamboy? I asked a female friend for her opinion, and she pointed out something I'd missed in my scrutiny of JH's shortcomings. Sarah is also kind of an asshole - unilaterally imposing terms on a relationship she's not the only one making commitments to and absenting herself from the emotional fallout - which means both principals in this book are, viewed kindly, at least shitty-adjacent people. Realism!
The Perineum Technique, then, is a truly quotidian romance comic. Everybody's on the apps and the relationships aren't very traditional, catfishing and consent are elephants in every room, people are spending as much energy portraying as they are being, and everyone has difficulty just being nice when their desire is as much a presence as the other person is... which in these panels is often literally the case. It's messy. Its creators' handling of said mess is occasionally less than it should be, and more often depicts less than ideal behavior by characters that isn't pushed back against. This didn't nuke the whole book for me - I don't really see a display of authorial opinion about anything here - but it certainly might for others. Still, the work, the comic part of the comic, is of a high enough quality that it merits reading more than other comics. It's a weird feeling to be excited about the critical reaction to a comic, but Ruppert & Mulot have made a book that's exceptional in many regards. It earns a read, and ought to engender some interesting conversations if enough people pick it up.