“Shackled hopes of freedom we’re now but stolen goods”
Little Tulip is a French graphic novel published in 2014 that Dover Publications brought to the U.S., which was awfully nice of them. It’s written by Jerome Charyn and drawn by François Boucq, with this translation, handily enough, by Charyn himself. This version clocks in at 82 pages and costs $14.95.
There’s a lot to like about Little Tulip, although it’s not as great a comic as it feels like it could be. First of all, it’s gorgeous. Boucq is a very “European” artist, by which I mean he uses a very thin line, not a lot of heavy inking, a lot of fairly subtle hatching to add texture, and he’s very detailed. He brings both 1970 New York and the 1950s Siberian gulag to stunning life, making them beautiful even as horrors occur in both places. As he’s not interested in using thick inking lines, he makes New York gritty by concentrating on showing everything about it, from the trash strewn everywhere (but almost delicately delineated by Boucq) to the finely observed general seediness of the people to the carefully drawn graffiti. In a few scenes, he does use black chunks (mainly because the action takes place at night), and he’s able to show the rot of urban decay a bit better, but for the most part, we get a sense of it from the overwhelming details Boucq draws in every panel. We can smell the food scents mixing with the trash, feel the cobblestones under our feet, hear the obnoxious blaring of car horns, and fear the darkness even before we know there’s a serial killer stalking it. It takes a great artist to activate other senses when we read a comic, and Boucq does it very nicely.
The bulk of the book, however, takes place in the gulag, as our protagonist, Paul/Pavel, is sent there when his father, an American immigrant to Soviet Russia (he studied set decoration with Sergei Eisenstein), is arrested in 1947. Pavel is separated from his parents, and he only sees his mother briefly one more time. He has to learn to survive in the prison, and most of the book concerns his journey as he ages. Boucq even makes the forbidding Russian landscape beautiful – there’s always snow on the ground at the gulag, and Boucq makes it cover the horrors that occur there. He draws gorgeous trees that fill certain panels, creating a natural prison as secure as the man-made one, and he uses beautiful shades of blue to color the snow, contrasting it wonderfully with the browns and reds of the camp, created as it is with wood and heated by fire. As in the New York scenes, his attention to detail makes us aware of the degradation of the buildings and the people, as he draws such different kinds of faces and bodies that we get a sense of who the people are simply by seeing them in a scene, without them talking or interacting with others. We see fat people that we know are getting that way by corruption, and Boucq draws many prisoners almost as skeletons, their situations are so dire. He puts his characters in a mish-mash of clothing, implying that they take what they can get when they can get it. He does an excellent job with Pavel, as he goes into the gulag with wide, fearful eyes and slowly turns into a monster, as he must to survive. After his mother is killed, Boucq draws him very well, as we see on his face the hardening of his soul, until it turns outward into violence. In New York, we can see that this has softened a bit, but Boucq makes it clear it’s always just beneath the surface, ready to come out. Pavel learns to be a tattoo artist in the gulag, and the tattoos are nicely done – Boucq uses purple for all of them, and weighs his line just a little bit so they look both more substantial and more ethereal because of their color on the earth-toned skin of his characters. It separates them from reality a bit, so in the final act of the book, when things become a bit mystical, it’s not too big a deviation. It’s certainly strange, but the purple throughout makes it more palatable.
Charyn’s story is pretty good, but not as good as the art. “Paul” is a tattoo artist in New York. and he also moonlights as a police sketch artist, and while he’s at the station, he hears about a serial killer the cops call “Bad Santa” because he wears a balaclava that looks like a Santa hat. The killer rapes women and then cuts their throats, and Paul is dating a waitress with a teenage daughter, so he warns them about what’s going on. Charyn makes a crucial point when Paul mentions they had already caught a guy who was copycatting the murders, which seems like a throwaway line but really isn’t. Meanwhile, Paul often reminisces about his life as “Pavel” in the Soviet gulag during the Stalin years, where he learned his craft and became, as he puts it, a monster. Charyn does a very good job showing how Pavel needs to become a monster to survive, as he becomes popular because he’s a good artist, and he aligns himself with one of the criminal overlords in the camp, Kiril. The story is a bit clichéd – Kiril is a “good” criminal, who doesn’t hurt women or children or the Jews in the camp, and he’s diametrically opposed to the Count, one of the cruel criminal rulers. Pavel’s mother, of course, is part of the Count’s harem, so they can’t see each other, and that doesn’t end well. Pavel falls in love with a girl, which also doesn’t end well. The psychological aspects of the book – Pavel’s descent into savagery, the mystical aspects of tattooing, which is a “sacred art” to the prisoners – are fascinating, but Charyn does surround them with fairly standard scenes of violence and horror. Charyn’s theme of art being a way to escape whatever prison we’re in is well made (until he decides to make it prosaic), and making it while his characters are actually in a prison gives it both an obviousness and an immediacy, which isn’t a bad way to go. Even the climax of the book is cleverly done, because the serial killer story doesn’t get resolved the way we think it will, even if it relies a bit too much on coincidence. It’s a bleak book, certainly, but Charyn does manage to make Paul’s relationship with Azami, the daughter of the woman he’s dating (she, obviously, is important, but not in the book as much as her daughter, who doesn’t have to work all day), a nice one. She reminds him of his time in the gulag, as she’s just as trapped, in some ways, as he is. It makes the ending more interesting, even as things get a bit weird.
This is a fairly typical European comic, in that Charyn doesn’t spoon-feed us information and something often feels lost in translation (even though, as I noted, Charyn translates it himself) because occasionally the dialogue feels a bit too clinical. But when it works, it works quite well, and Charyn gives us a good look at the way people survive in dire situations and how they can reclaim what they’ve lost when they have to put aside their humanity. It’s a beautiful comic with some good themes running throughout, and while it occasionally dips into clichés, it’s still a pretty good book. You like European comics, right? Of course you do! And remember, if you want to buy it, you can do so at the link below. Even if you get something else through the link, it still helps us! Isn’t that groovy?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆