I’m constantly amazed that an art museum helps publish graphic novels. That’s just weird and awesome.
The latest comic from NBM, published in conjunction with the Louvre (well, the French original was published in conjunction with the Louvre – I don’t know how much input they had in the English translation), is Eric Liberge’s On the Odd Hours (it’s translated by Joe Johnson and lettered by Ortho), which costs a mere $14.95. Get it today!
On the Odd Hours is only 70 pages long, but like a lot of European comics, each page is packed with content, so it feels longer. Liberge tells the story of Bastien, a deaf student who kind of stumbles into a job as a night watchman at the Louvre – he’s waiting for another internship, but an old man named Fu Zhi Ha takes a liking to him (Fu Zhi Ha is also deaf) and offers to teach him how to be a night watchman. This doesn’t go over well with his girlfriend, Melanie, who got him the interview for the original internship and wants him to be more ambitious. Bastien learns that his new job is a bit strange, as Fu Zhi Ha tells him that at night, he needs to let the works of art come out. Bastien doesn’t know what he means, but then Fu Zhi Ha shows him – the artwork is imbued with the spirit of the artists, and it needs to come alive and run around occasionally, and the night watchman’s job is to make sure they get their exercise, so to speak. The works run around, causing a lot of damage, but as long as the watchman rings the correct instruments (a gong, for instance, is used for some pieces), everything goes back to normal in the morning. Only the museum director knows about this, and he reluctantly allows Bastien to take on the job. Bastien has some issues with anger, unfortunately, and although this is his dream job, he messes up when he punches a dude who got gum on one of the paintings. This leads to a climax that we can see coming, but still has a lot of power.
This is a curious comic, because like many European comics, it feels different than an American/British one, so it’s always good to consider if anything is lost in translation or not. Bastien, for instance, comes across as fairly unsympathetic, and I’m not sure why.
On the one hand, his refusal to “fit in” with the hearing world is fascinating – he has always resisted hearing aids, and over the course of this book he becomes more steadfast in this course of action – and this part of the story feels like it could be fleshed out more. On the other hand, he’s kind of a jerk, and the persecution he’s suffered at the hands of his father doesn’t seem like it’s reason enough to be one. The fact that he’s a jerk makes his final action more impressive, because it certainly stems from his feeling of being told his entire life to force himself to fit into a society that is not really constructed for him, but it also feels weirdly selfish, and this dichotomy is, I suppose, part of the point. It’s also strange that other people in the book seem to be jerks – the director ought to get angry that Bastien punches out some dude, but the dude was, after all, getting gum on a priceless piece of art. Like many European comics that I’ve read, Liberge isn’t interested in delving too much into Bastien’s psyche and making his inner journey one toward enlightenment. Bastien doesn’t change all that much, which makes the way the book ends interesting – he’s still kind of a jerk at the end, but occasionally, that kind of behavior leads to something beautiful. What makes the story so compelling is the way Liberge shows us how difficult things are for Bastien and how easily it would be for him to change, but he stubbornly refuses to do so. Whether it would be better for him if he did is left up to the reader.
Liberge does a nice job with the artwork. He works in with a good, fine line, and he figures out a way to introduce sign language into the book in a way that’s not distracting. Obviously, it’s not perfect, because comics remain a static medium, but it’s as close as we’re probably going to get.
Liberge does a very nice job incorporating photo-reference into the work – the artwork is clearly photoshopped in, but he manages to make it look fairly natural, and usually he uses special effects cleverly to blend the photographs and the pencil work. The special effects are quite good, especially when Bastien pulls his final trick. Liberge does an excellent job incorporating flashbacks into the work, using basic pencils and one color to show the past, while the present is richer, more detailed, and far more colorful. Liberge’s Louvre is a warren of back passageways, rickety staircases, and hidden rooms, and while it’s never sinister, it’s far more convoluted than the actual museum (which is fairly intricate anyway). The night watchmen know all the ways through the grand building, and Fu Zhi Ha shows them all to Bastien.
The comic ends rather oddly and abruptly, and Liberge doesn’t explore the tantalizing aspects of the night watchman job – that the holders of the job tend to succumb to various psychological ailments. Perhaps Bastien’s deafness protects him (and Fu Zhi Ha before him), or perhaps Bastien’s anti-social tendencies insulate him from the museum’s insanity. But that’s just another plot point that is left up to the reader to chew on, and that’s fine. Bastien seems to have found a spot where he can be himself, and that’s all Liberge seems to be heading for – that we all need to do that. On the Odd Hours is a nifty graphic novel, full of fascinating scenes that highlight the relationship people have with art and why we care so much about it. I’d definitely Recommend you check it out. It’s more thoughtful and clever than you might expect, and it’s a gorgeous looking comic book, which goes a long way!