Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘River of Ink’

“I must be looking for something; something sacred I lost”

Our latest book is River of Ink by Etienne Appert, which is published by Humanoids. It’s a French book that has been translated by Ben Croze. Let’s have a look!

River of Ink is about why we create art, or more specifically, why we draw. Appert is the main character, and on the first page, a random boy asks him “Why do you draw?” He does not know this boy, but because it’s an intriguing question, he and the boy get into a boat and float away to find out the answer (you know this is fiction because Appert is not arrested later for kidnapping). They meet up with Appert’s own grandfather as a boy, and the three of them float around, examining why people draw. Along the way, Appert tells the story of the first artist (according to Pliny the Elder, whose wisdom we should take with a grain of salt because he didn’t think inhaling shit from an erupting volcano would kill him, but still), a woman in “antiquity” who was peeved that the young man she dug was going off to war, so she “captured his shadow” on the wall and used soot to draw his outline, adding interesting details along the way. Appert also tells about his grandfather waiting to hear word from his father, who was fighting in World War I and was also an artist. He also “interviews” Edmond Baudoin and François Boucq, two French artists, about their drawing, and for the American version, he appends a section with Scott McCloud. So it’s part fictional story about the origin of art, part family history, part memoir, and part psychological examination. It’s pretty keen.

Appert looks at how children, generally, draw, but most of them abandon it as they get older. When kids are young, they draw to escape their lives, but also to make sense of their lives, and those who don’t abandon it are partly still trying to work out what their lives are supposed to be. Appert also points out that humans create art partly out of fear – fear of being forgotten after they die. Art allows them to become immortal. His great-grandfather drew to communicate with Appert’s grandfather, showing that even in the midst of war, he had a safe place where he could dream of returning to his family. Saminia wants a way, in a pre-literate society, to remember Saurias, even though she thinks he’s foolish to go off and fight wars for old men.

The best part of the book is the story of Saminia and Saurias, because Appert can turn his philosophical musings into a story and the themes can come out without him saying them. Saurias does return to Saminia, and we see how their romance plays out through her art, but also how knowing art can make both of them seem too exotic for the people around him. Art has always been linked to less-than-savory people, because despite the fact that people love art, they’re also suspicious of it, and Appert does a nice job with that part of the comic. He juxtaposes the urge to create with the urge to destroy in both Saurias’s tale and that of his great-grandfather, who looks for art in the carnage of World War I. Appert also gets into his own past as an artist, examining some of his very early work and speculating about the same thing – the creative/destructive urge in people and how to express it without, you know, killing everyone. He gets into the idea of art as a solace, a place for those who live slightly out-of-tune with the rest of society to find stillness and comfort. It’s an interesting book, and it’s interesting that Appert not only works out his own feelings about art, but gets the input of some others, because while the message is similar, the way the other artists express themselves is, naturally, different. So we get some different perspectives, which is nice.

Appert’s art is very good, which always helps when you’re writing about why you draw. He has a strong, slightly thick line, which he modifies quite well to show different time periods and moods. When it’s Appert the character and his two companions, he usually keeps it relatively clean, with a cool blue palette. His blacks are tightly delineated, forming a stark landscape through which the characters travel. When he draws Saminia and Saurias, he still uses strong lines, but his blacks are smudgier, showing a bit more of the rudimentary nature of the society in which they live, which also allows Saminia’s beautiful artwork to stand out a bit more. He uses a gouache effect on some of the more outlandish creations, including a mythical animal that represents the power of art. When he draws war, he really smudges the colors and the blacks to make the artwork more brutal and violent. It’s a very nice-looking comic, and the visual part of it goes a long way toward making Appert’s point. Which is the point, I guess.

River of Ink is an interesting and thoughtful book. You might not agree with everything Appert says, but the point is, this is what art is for him, and I find it pretty fascinating to read about why artists create and what goes through their minds when they’re doing it. Maybe that’s not something you find interesting, but that’s life. If you are one of those people, this might be a comic for you!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆


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