Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Asphalt Blues’

“Day-Glo Jesus on the dash, scorch marks on the road ahead”

Humanoids brings us Asphalt Blues, which has very little to do with asphalt, or highways, or even that Mustang on the cover. There’s a little bit – the Mustang is driven in the book – but it’s an odd title. It’s by Jaouen Salaün, who wrote and drew it, it’s translated by Montana Kane, and the English edition is edited by Jonathan Stevenson.

This is a good comic, but it’s a bit odd. In the back of the book, Salaün writes about wanting to do a book about a couple that breaks up and what happens afterward, and we get that, but it also feels like he wanted to write about several other things, as well. This is an environmental thriller, to a degree, and it’s a psychological drama, and it’s also not really about what happens after people break up … at least not the immediate aftermath. So it’s a bit unwieldy, even though it’s an interesting book.

We begin with Michael (Mickey) and Nina. Mickey is in an ocean rescue group, and he works too much, apparently, as he’s always missing plans with Nina. They don’t seem to have the worst relationship, but it’s not great, either, and Nina decides to end it with him. They part. Then we jump ahead 13 (!) years, which takes us the year 2038. See what I mean about not really dealing with the immediate aftermath of a break-up? Mickey is a lifeguard, married with kids, while Nina is a fashion designer who lives with a dude who works for a company that produces desalinated water and lobbies the government on their behalf (it’s unclear if he actually works for the government, as well, as the lines between business and politics have been blurred considerably in this future, even more than they are today). Early on, Mickey’s wife is in a car accident, and during her rehabilitation, it becomes clear she’s suicidally depressed, which Mickey doesn’t handle poorly, exactly, but not terribly well, either. It’s also cripplingly expensive for him, which is why he gets involved in a plot to destroy the desalination plant … which of course means his story comes closer to Nina’s. Her lover, Tim, is having issue with the government and his bosses, because the plant was supposed to be environmentally friendly and, of course, it isn’t, and that fact is starting to leak out. Meanwhile, Nina is feeling the strain of producing clothing for people with no taste, all while her budget is being slashed. Tim is wildly jealous, which means Nina doesn’t even feel comfortable because he doesn’t trust her or men she works with. There’s a lot going on, in other words.

Salaün is a good enough writer that the disparate threads of the story don’t feel too weird and off-putting. If he doesn’t quite do what he claims he wants to do – examine the aftermath of a break-up – he does give us interesting characters who do things that make sense in context, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Mickey’s wife, Helen, thinks he’s never gotten over Nina dumping him – she even says so at one point – but there’s no real indication that he hasn’t gotten over it. He’s still kind of a dick, but not an insufferable one, and he does try hard with Helen to figure out why she’s suicidal and what he can do, even as he has to learn he can’t really do anything. Tom’s jealousy is odd, but if we look at it in the context of his job and how he has to navigate between powerful forces and wants to feel like something he’s worked on is really his, it becomes more understandable (if we ignore that he views Nina as something he’s worked on, which it’s kind of clear he does). It’s not a very nice emotion, but it is an honest one, and it turns out he’s not completely foolish to feel that way. Mickey comes to his violent activism honestly, as Salaün makes nice points about the cost of health care in this country and what is needed for people to feel whole again – Helen is a dancer, so the rehabilitation she has to go through is even more important to her, and she begins to consider other options. Tim begins to have an existential, mid-life crisis that leads him to some dark places, while Nina has to reconsider what she’s doing with her life. As I noted, the plot threads converge somewhat, and we’re left with an odd image on the final page that seems to imply that Helen is right and they’ve never gotten over each other even as Salaün seems to imply they have. I don’t mind ambiguous endings, certainly, and I don’t mind this one, but the frustrating thing is that it doesn’t feel as ambiguous as it could be – it seems to point to something that would make both characters’ trials and tribulations a bit worthless. It’s frustrating. Not the worst thing in the world, but a bit frustrating.

Salaün’s art is marvelous, which makes the book work well, too. I’m not sure if he’s using models, but his people are beautifully rendered, as he obviously uses digital coloring to add wonderful nuance to the shading on their faces and clothing. Just a bit of tone changes the way we see certain people at certain times, as Salaün can shift the tone of the panel very well with just a bit of a different hue. He uses light and shadow very well – it’s usually not a dark book, despite a good amount of it taking place at night, because Salaün knows how to use streetlights and chrome and other reflective surfaces to pierce the darkness, and he knows that even at night, our world is usually not too dark. His color choices are often stunning – when Tim has a dream about Nina, he uses sickly greens and striking reds and blues to heighten the unreality of the scene. He creates a slightly sleeker world than the one we inhabit, one that might be a bit too sleek for less than 20 years from now, but still a world we can believe would exist. The details of the art are amazing – he gives us Tim and Nina’s beautiful apartment, which feels icy compared to Mickey and Helen’s more lived-in space; he gives us blasted landscapes that haven’t survived climate disasters; he gives us a wonderful scene at a pool early on in which Nina swims away from Mickey, bubbles trailing in her wake, and Salaün’s delicate touch with the colors make it a beautiful scene even though it’s a sad one for the participants. It’s a beautiful book – Salaün gets so much of the characters’ emotions simply through the artwork, which is crucial in books like this. It makes the story work much better than if he hadn’t been able to do that.

Asphalt Blues is a nifty comic. It has some issues, but it’s still quite a good book, with beautiful art. It might not be exactly what Salaün claims, but it’s still a good read!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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