Comics at their most obscure can be a difficult read but Arsène Schrauwen is perhaps unique in that it’s simultaneously unsettlingly odd and strangely compelling.
Narrated in the third person by the author, the book recounts a journey his grandfather made as a young man. Arsène, the grandfather, takes a ship to a foreign colony, where he’s been dreaming of adventures in a new land, unshackled from from friends and relatives. Even before he arrives, however, he becomes embroiled in the hopes, dreams and prejudices of people around him. From the man on the boat who tells him not to even touch the local water, never mind drink it; to his deeply eccentric cousin, whose vision for building a new city on the island involves ‘bricolage’ constructions that look like giant-sized versions of household objects.
A lot of comics’ usual tropes are abstracted to create an unsettling narrative. There are no speech bubbles, so we rely only on the narrator’s third-hand version of events that, by the end of the book, firmly place it in a world of magical realism rather than traditional fact-based biography. This is no ordinary family memoir.
The panels are monochrome but shift between red and blue, sometimes to mark a change in time, scene or even emotion, but at other times seemingly randomly. The art style is crude, as is the lettering, which looks like it’s been hammered out on a crooked, barely-functioning old-fashioned typewriter.
The compulsion in the book comes from a desire to know what Arsène’s going to do next, or more usually, what someone around him is going to use him for. He accepts his fate for what it is – completely beyond his control – but it can be a frustrating process to witness.
There’s no point taking a look at this book if you don’t want to be surprised and sometimes confused by its bizarre plot and odd styles. But for those that like multi-faceted stories laced with oddnes, it’s spot on.