Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Grande Odalisque’

“Feel like I’m looking for my soul, like a poor man looking for gold”

I apologize for the fuzziness of the image; it was too big to fit nicely on my scanner!

Ooh, a French heist comic! They’re going to steal someone’s beret while that someone is distracted because his unfiltered cigarette isn’t quite unfiltered enough!!!!!

Yes, I joke, but this is a heist comic, and it is French, even though it’s been translated and published in the States by Fantagraphics. I love the credits on it: “Vivès/Ruppert + Mulot.” Sheesh, be weird, why don’t you? That would be Bastien Vivès, Florent Ruppert, and Jérôme Mulot, all of whom write and draw, so who the hell knows who’s doing what in this book (I would imagine they’re all doing writing and drawing). Meanwhile, Isabelle Merlet colors this, and Montana Kane translated it.

If you know anything about art, you may know that the title of the book refers to a famous painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and that it hangs in the Louvre. Our heroes, Carole and Alex, are offered the job by their fence, who says he has a client who wants it. They’re coming off a heist at the Musée D’Orsay (I went there in 2018, and it was kind of fun seeing it depicted here) and Carole, the senior partner, doesn’t want to take it on, but she finally relents. They need a third partner, so they bring on Samantha, a skilled motorcyclist who seems to enjoy danger more than even they do. So the stage is set!

This is an odd comic, because it doesn’t feel like a comedy, but parts of it are funny, and Carole and Alex are such terrible thieves that I wonder if it’s all supposed to be funny. Humor is the most difficult thing to translate, so maybe the French find this kind of thing hilarious, but it’s tough to really get into the story because the two protagonists (Sam is an integral part of the team, but she’s not a lead) are so inept that it’s hard to believe they accomplish anything except by luck, and their luck does run out a bit at the end. I mean, their first heist, at the D’Orsay, almost gets thwarted because Alex is ignoring Carole because her boyfriend is dumping her via text at that moment. It seems insane, but there it is. I get that the creators want to show us that these women aren’t exactly professionals, but I mean, they shouldn’t be this inept, either. Carole feels like an older sister toward Alex, so she doesn’t want to break with her (even though she threatens to), but her blind spot with regard to Alex gets her into trouble. Alex is a bit crazed, as she goes off to Mexico to rescue a gun runner who was going to help them on the heist and got himself captured by a drug cartel, so a good amount of the book is the three women taking on the cartel, which feels odd. It’s a scattershot plot, in other words, and while it’s certainly not bad, it feels unfocused. Carole’s point is that she loves Alex, so even though things get crazy, she would rather live insanely with Alex than sedately without her. Alex feels the same way, leading to a tremendous scene near the end where they talk on the phone and the writers wisely let the art do most of the expressing. It makes the rest of the book worth reading.

It’s still a strange book. The writers want to make it a character piece, and when Carole and Alex (and to a lesser extent, Sam) simply talk to each other, the book works really well. With very little effort, the writers get across the complex relationship that Carole and Alex have, and it makes it easier for us to understand why Carole doesn’t dump her. Alex’s desperation to be loved comes through nicely, too, from the way the two meet to Alex ignoring Carole during the first heist to Alex jetting off to Mexico to save a dude who probably doesn’t care about them at all. Alex is still young (she’s 24), and wildly immature, so it’s not surprising that she acts this way, and Carole tries to steer her without reining her in too much. The nice thing about European comics in general is that relationships between people are usually handled much better, so there’s no jealousy or pettiness when Sam joins the group, Carole and Alex never become part of a love triangle, and the characters speak frankly about sex. The relationships in this book, as goofy as they can sometimes be, feel more real than a lot of fiction in the States, because the people just talk instead of making big pronouncements. It’s not a bad way to write!

The art is a bit sketchy, but not bad. The biggest problem is that lack of fluidity in the line work, which makes the action scenes a bit stiffer and jerkier. Due to the fact that there’s a good amount of action in the book, this is a bit annoying, but not too much. The artists do choreograph the action well, so despite the stiffness of the characters, the action plays out well. The characters are much better done when they’re talking or not moving as much. The artists don’t over-hatch, so they rely on the smallest of gestures to relay what the characters are thinking and feeling, and they do it well. Alex always seems to be ready to move, and her face always looks a bit impatient, while Carole’s body movements and facial expressions show a more relaxed, calmer person. Sam seems a bit bemused by their dynamic, but she keeps her thoughts to herself. When the heist starts to go wrong, Carole remains in control while Alex starts to get hyper, as befits their personalities. The scene toward the end, when they speak, relies on the art, and it’s a beautiful moment, as the artists slowly shift the face of one character while focusing on the mouth of another, a nice choice that lets us see how much these two mean to each other. If the action parts of the book aren’t the strong suit, the art is still very nice because the focus of the book isn’t just the heist.

As I’ve noted, this is an odd comic, and it’s hard to love completely. It’s somewhat fun and gives us two (and even three, although Sam isn’t as well developed) characters whose journey through life is interesting to follow. The writers don’t get into why they’re thieves in the text, but we get why they do it just from some of their ancillary actions, and it’s far better than if one of them broke down and told another character. Even if they don’t always act logically, they act like real humans, which is why it’s not the worst thing in the world that they seem not great at being thieves. I do wish they had been a bit more competent, because it strains credulity to think they haven’t been caught yet (unless the joke is that the French police are just that stupid), but it’s not a deal-breaker. I enjoyed The Grande Odalisque, but I don’t think it’s a great comic. As heist comics (which I dig) go, it’s a bit more unusual than your standard ones, and for that, I dig it. I just wish it stuck with me a bit more. I have linked to it below, so if you’re interested, click there. Even if you buy something else, using that link helps us out!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.