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The Salon

Written and illustrated by Nick Bertozzi
St. Martin's Griffin
192 pages, $19.95
ISBN-10: 0312354851
ISBN-13: 9780312354855

 

Georges Braque, meet Erik Satie. Sequence from The Salon, ©2007 Nick Bertozzi.

 

Someone is killing the artists of Paris and their hangers-on. Someone blue: a woman who looks suspiciously like she'd just stepped out of one of Paul Gauguin's paintings. Alarmed by this turn of events, expatriate writer Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo assemble their circle of cutting-edge artist friends — Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollonaire, Erik Satie and, along the way, an heiress named Alice B. Toklas — to discover what sits at the heart of the murder spree. As things progress, a great deal of absinthe will be imbibed, and this will turn out to be essential to the plot.

While it shares some surface similarities to another comics reimagining of Bohemian artistry, Jason's The Left Bank Gang, Nick Bertozzi's The Salon is very much its own unique story, and possesses far more depth and complexity than its publishing predecessor while still retaining the feel of a genre romp through the streets of Paris. Above and beyond all else, this is an entertaining book: The only pretense is in the motivations of the artists who inhabit it, and while there's more than enough cleverness to go around in The Salon's pages, it never gets in the way of a good read. If I were half as much a master of composition as Bertozzi, this sentence would probably use the word "rollicking" in one fashion or another.

 

At least one girl has probably called Pablo Picasso an asshole. Panel from The Salon, ©2007 Nick Bertozzi.

 

Which isn't to say that there aren't extra kicks here for the intitiated. Fans of the Post-Impressionist period of French art will find a great deal of material here that will provide amusement. Nick Bertozzi clearly has a fascination for the time and place under dissection, and makes offhand references to everything from the controversy over Eduard Muybridge's more controversial nude photography, to Erik Satie's asexuality, to Georges Braque's almost scientific mania toward his art, to Gertrude Stein's status as den mother to the rest of her circle of friends. The situations and circumstances are all invented, but they feel real and hit all the right notes.

Likewise, Bertozzi makes intelligent use of the sexual impulse underlying much of the artistic drive, showing, for example, the degree to which Pablo Picasso's outrageous sexual bragadaccio fuels his work and contributes to his "heroic" reputation. The reaction of each of the central characters to a trip to a brothel midway through the story offers an intriguing snapshot into their drives and motivations. Likewise, the budding relationship between Stein and the charming ingenue Alice B. Toklas presents a mirror to both their personalities — you can see how the attraction works for each woman, how each compliments the other, and how their relationship in turn drives a wedge between Stein and her brother, which in turn...

 

Clever dialogue and a convincing setting goes a long way toward making this story work. Panel from The Salon, ©2007 Nick Bertozzi.

 

There's a running gag through parts of The Salon concerning the differences and similarities between comic strips and avant-garde art, and while it highlights the self-conscious thought that has gone into this story's creation, it also in a way spotlights Bertozzi's clever use of drawing style to add grace notes to the story. The careful use of color is extraordinary, giving each scene a mood and feel as carefully composed as a painting. His brush-drawn figures are realistic enough to add grounding to the often surreal elements depicted in the story, yet can take off into flights of fancy and abstraction without destroying the reader's suspension of disbelief. The ability to make visual nods to Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Henri Rousseau in the same story through cartooning — indeed, just to refer to multiple periods in Picasso's artistic development alone — without it seeming forced or artificial does not come easily; to do so in the midst of a fantasy-tinged murder mystery that hinges upon the creator's ability to convincingly depict both the Parisian artistic scene between World Wars and the works that it produced, without requiring the reader to possess a bachelor's degree in art history, is a balancing act worthy of a talented and accomplished cartoonist.

Bertozzi's ability to make all the elements blend together is such seamless fashion is remarkable. The results are entertaining and clever, and if it isn't quite the high art to which artists like Braque and Satie aspired, it's certainly as satisfying an endeavor as any comic strip that Pablo Picasso ever read.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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