Angoulême 2009: Enter the Cartoon Cathouse

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La Maison close is Florent Ruppert and Jerome Mulot’s latest concept comic, and it’s about the most impressive cartoonist’s jam I have ever seen, at least in terms of inventiveness and resonant coherence. Also, it’s pretty hilarious at times. It’s made especially for the Angoulême festival and can be read on the festival site. It unites a couple dozen cartoonists, half male, half female and sets them up in a whorehouse designed by the project masterminds. The idea, briefly, is that the female cartoonists are prostitutes and the male ones johns. From there on, things get unpredictably interesting…

Basically each contributor injects his or her own cartoon personality into the proceedings — we get Anna Sommer’s sassy twinkle, Tom Gauld’s inhibited nerdiness, Caroline Sury’s brute cool, etc. But, at the same time, a pretty impressive synthesis between individual idiosyncrasy and the master plan of the gamesmasters is achieved. The performative cool and slightly demonic manipulation of Ruppert and Mulot remain the determinant force. Individual narrative strands intermingle as the characters interact across twelve separate segments, with each cartoonist drawing his or her cartoon self on standard backgrounds provided by the hosts.

It’s remarkably consistent; even objects — such as a champagne bottle — handled by the characters around the whorehouse remain as drawn by Ruppert and Mulot, which must have required a lot of collaboration between the cartoonists. I guess we have the wonder of the internet to thank for this comic, not just in terms of its delivery platform, but also its creation.

Naturally, not every story thread is equally interesting or successful, but the fact that it’s so well managed integrates the weaker parts well into the overall panorama without ever unseating it. And yes, La Maison close a panorama of gags — mostly character-driven — and storytelling ideas, rather than a regular story, and as usual with Ruppert and Mulot, one wonders whether there is a point beyond the sheer vaudevilla(i)n dazzle of it all.

One might expect this kind of exercise as some kind of commentary on gender roles and relations within the comics world — or more generally — or that the time-honoured device of uniting a heterogenous cast of characters in a “hotel”, with all the requisite mystery, intrigue and murder, could be read as allegory or event comment, but no. This is just balls-out fun, with more than a hint of ostentation in its sheer cleverness. That being said, the pair are becoming such masters of mise-en-scène that it’s hard not to just buckle down for the ride these days.

And here they are helped by an impressive trust of cartoon talent, with Catherine Meurisse, Boulet, Killoffer, Anouk Ricard, Boulet, Nadja, Peggy Adam and Emile Bravo delivering standout performances. Lewis Trondheim as the cheeky straight man, acting as the bordello’s reluctant bouncer, and especially his Hydean alter ego Frantico manipulating a Zep puppet, are also great moments of canny inspiration. And lest it seem entirely frivolous, there are also moments of genuine horror and even a measure of transgression that renders the basic premise a certain justice, beyond the general intoxication it delivers with such bravura.

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I shall be interested in seeing whether Ruppert and Mulot will be providing a grandeur nature extension of this project at the actual festival which starts on Thursday. The Bunker will be there this year, so stay tuned for our live reportage.

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