“My makeup may be flaking but my smile still stays on”
Monika is a strange two-volume French comic from writer Thilde Barboni and artist Guillem March. Edward Gauvin, a long-time go-to translator (yes, I’ve read so many damned comics I know translators)*, translated this, Lizzie Kaye edited it, and Titan Comics published it. Both volumes cost $16.99. It’s an “erotic thriller,” according to the back of the book, but it’s also very bizarre. You know, because it’s French. Those Frenchies, man. They’re weird.
* I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this before, and now’s not really the place, but what the hell. In the “I read too many comics” category (which, as I noted above, is why I know Edward Gauvin’s name), we find Roxy Polk, editor extraordinaire. At the Emerald City Con in 2016, Jeff Parker introduced me to her, only as “Roxy.” I asked if she was noted editor Roxy Polk, and she seemed a bit surprised (pleasantly, it seemed) that I knew who she was. I pay attention to editors, damn it!
Anyway, back to Monika. This is two volumes for a reason, because while they’re definitely connected, they seem almost to not have much in common with each other, despite the same characters showing up in both of them and several story threads going from one to another. Barboni (whose first name, I assume, is “Mathilde,” a name I love, somewhat inexplicably) begins the story right in the middle, with Monika waking up in her artsy loft and talking to her friend Theo, who’s helping her find her missing sister, Erika. We don’t know when Erika disappeared, what the circumstances were, or if the police are involved – we’re just thrown right in. Theo says that her sister seems to be involved with Christian Epson, a handsome left-wing politician who’s rising rapidly in public life. Monika decides very abruptly to go to a masked ball where Christian will be, and she ends up having a strong romantic attachment to him (even though she initially doesn’t tell him that she’s Erika’s sister). Christian, however, has been targeted by a right-wing group which are also connected to Erika, so things get really complicated very quickly (Erika doesn’t stay missing for long). There’s also a mystery in Monika’s past to do with her parents’ fate – they’re dead – and an art project she’s working on and Theo’s attempts to build a working and independent android. Yep. He succeeds, by the way, but he stole a lot of tech from some shady Japanese cabal, and of course they show up, too (in volume 2, because they’re Chekov’s Japanese cabal!). The first volume ends with very abruptly, and volume 2 begins at least six months later with Monika getting out of prison. Um, what?
The second volume gets more into the android (named Philip) and the right-wing group, which becomes more like a cult as the book progresses, and it also features Monika bizarrely getting conscripted into being a dancer for a band only a few hours after she gets out of prison (before she goes home, even). Christian is still around, and Erika is still around, but it’s a strange shift from a very personal odyssey for Monika in volume 1 into a more action-adventure story in volume 2. In both cases, the story is very sexually charged, but in volume 1, it feels a bit more dangerous, as Monika is toying with Christian while falling for him, while Christian fell for Monika even as he was comparing her looks to the last woman he fell for, her sister (although he doesn’t know that at the beginning of the volume). In volume 2, Monika has distanced herself from Christian (not surprising, as she spent six months in prison), and Philip becomes kind of a surrogate both for Christian and Theo, the proverbial “best friend who really loves the girl but never says anything about it.” Theo gets kidnapped by the Japanese cabal in volume 2, so he and Monika don’t have as much interaction as they do in volume 1, and Monika seeks solace in Philip, which could get very weird but never does, partly because Philip is not equipped with male genitalia and partly because Barboni, it seems, is showing a more thoughtful side of Monika in volume 2. There’s a big confrontation with her sister, in which Philip plays a big role, but in the grand tradition of European comics, it ends somewhat anticlimactically. Such is life.
The plot doesn’t matter too much simply because Barboni is dealing with the book more thematically, which is usually more interesting than straight plot. The big theme in the book is transformation, which isn’t the most unique motif but still works pretty well. As an artist, Monika understands this theme quite well, and Barboni does a good job introducing it into the various scenes in the book. Masked balls are clichés, sure, but they offer the writer an opportunity to make the transformation both metaphorical and literal, as Monika spends a page turning herself into “Kate,” and then another page getting henna-tattooed at the party itself, all to turn her into someone more alluring. A masked ball allows the participant to be someone they’re not, and while Monika herself is no shrinking violet, turning herself into Kate allows her to break even more from society’s norms. It’s telling, though, that when she is dressing for the party, she already has the clothing and makeup she needs, implying that Monika is already well-versed in changing who she is. Meanwhile, Christian is trying on something new as well – he’s a bachelor and therefore his presence at a sexed-up masked ball doesn’t cause a scandal when the news comes out (plus, it’s France), but he still can pretend that his world doesn’t exist when he’s with Monika/Kate. Theo goes through a few transformations of his own – he uses his own personality traits to program Philip, hoping, it seems, that the personality in a new body will make Monika love him (it’s clear he loves her but doesn’t have the strength to talk about it), and later he has to change his appearance to elude the Japanese who are after him. In volume 2, Monika becomes a “vanilla doll” for a rock band, which means she has to turn into a sexualized, infantilized dancer, which she finds disgusting but does as a favor to Theo. It’s telling that the band doesn’t really give her a choice – she’s there, and the lead singer just decides that she’s doing it. All of Monika’s transformations are male fantasies, and it’s interesting that as villainous as Erika is, it’s only when Monika starts emulating her just a little and seizes her independence from men that she can become her true self, which she does after one final transformation at the end. The biggest problem with Monika is that Barboni seems to skim the surface of a lot of things – the sexualized nature of the masked ball and the dancing with the band is glossed over a bit, and Erika’s motivations remain murky, and even Monika’s fondness for an android isn’t explored very well – so that we’re left with an intriguing story about what it means to be a woman in a man’s world, the hypnotic power some people have over others, and even the crazed fear of change in politics, but Barboni doesn’t go into it enough in her attempts to get through the plot. It’s a fascinating but frustrating book.
I liked the sound of the book well enough when I ordered it, but I was really keen on seeing a lot of Guillem March’s art. March doesn’t do a ton of American comics, and when he does, he does books I have no interest in reading, like Catwoman and such. But March is an excellent artist, and his work here is terrific. Like a lot of European artists, his eye for detail is tremendous, as he fills Monika’s apartment with so much stuff, making it look lived-in and comfortable. March takes his time to draw in leaves on trees and flower petals and folds in clothes and the wiring in Philip’s head, bringing a beautiful sense of realism to the art. Because it’s March, everyone is gorgeous, but they still look and move like real people, because he knows how people navigate the world. Early on, he quickly establishes Monika as someone who’s not completely comfortable in her own skin, so after only a few pages, her transformation into Kate is revelatory, even as she can’t shake off “Monika” too easily. Monika is absolutely beautiful, of course, but March is able to show her vulnerability and fear wonderfully, as her face constantly changes to show the emotions roiling within. He’s even able to make her nudity (yep, there’s plenty of nudity in this book) look different depending on the role she’s playing, which is amazing. March shows how she slowly becomes stronger, able to stand up to her sister, even as we see the terror on her face during their confrontation at the end of volume 2. March does an astonishing job implying that the stress of the events in this comic slowly drive her away from humanity, leading to a stunning and chilling final page that is both triumphant and tragic. March draws Christian interestingly, too, as his façade never seems to break down, even when he’s being the most vulnerable with Monika. He’s charming in public, of course, as a handsome politician, but even when they’re alone, he never quite seems to open himself up as much as she does, and it’s a fascinating look at the power imbalance that Monika is trying to break out of and that her sister seems to have. March’s colors are tremendous, as well – there are warm tones when Monika is closest to being herself, usually when she’s talking to Theo, and a lot of passionate red the first time she has sex with Christian, but it’s interesting that the coloring in later encounters remains cool and almost sterile, while her brief interaction with Philip is also in warmer tones. Some years ago, when I reviewed every single “New 52” DC book, I mentioned that March was entirely responsible for giving Catwoman whatever nuance it had. Some people also took exception to the fact that I wanted Selina to be more desperate about her choices, because they thought I was saying that her banging Batman on the roof was an indication that sex = bad. Nothing could be further from the truth, but Judd Winick had made the point that Selina is addicted to things, and banging Batman on the roof, I thought, was an indication of her addiction and therefore wasn’t a good thing. March came close to making it look that way, but he couldn’t rescue that book. Monika doesn’t have the same neuroses that Winick claimed Selina had, but it’s clear that Barboni sees her – and a lot of the characters – as damaged, and March is able to show that in their interactions. Barboni and March handle sex and nudity in a grown-up way, not simply as titillation. March uses it as a metaphor for Monika’s state of mind, and while Monika’s naked body is beautiful (and therefore readers might want to buy this book simply for that, because boobs), there are much deeper themes running through the artwork, and March is able to illustrate that wonderfully. This is why it bums me out that March doesn’t do more good American work. DC will never let him get too psychologically weird on a standard superhero book, and I hope he gets a chance to draw something for an American writer that allows him to stretch boundaries a bit.
While Monika has some problems, it’s still a fascinating comic that looks amazing, and it’s cool to see it published in the States. For me, March was the big draw, but the story has a lot of weird undercurrents that make it more than just a standard thriller, even if Barboni doesn’t do quite enough with those threads. Still, if you’ve never seen March’s art (and you really should), this is an excellent place to start.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆