What’s considered new and innovative in comics in the US is relatively old news.
Barrel of Monkeys is the first English translation of a collection from the French collaborative duo, Florent Ruppert and Jerome Mulot. Originally released by Lâ€™Association in 2006 (Panier de Singe), the book also marks a first for new publishing endeavour by Brooklyn based comics polymath Bill Kartalopoulos, titled Rebus Books.
Barrel of Monkeys is not a book that I recommend for the lighthearted viewer. The enjoyment and occasional laugh out loud I gained while reading it also made me sick to my stomach. The violent, slapstick comedy is an admittance of the darker contours of human behavior. Crude transgressions committed between it’s covers include bestiality, abusive parenting, colonialism, and suspected suicides. This is disturbing story-telling at its best. The kind that will slap you around in a dangerous back alleyway that lacks the safety of ethics or morality and will abandon you on the pavement, disoriented and wounded, yet utterly loyal.
Ruppert and Mulot have carefully composed a fragile yet brutally playful world. Characters’ bodies are easily cut-up, maimed or discarded depending on the ruthlessness of the punchline. Their collaboration is seamless and it’s virtually impossible to decipher where Mulot begins and Ruppert ends. Their drawing style is both gestural and scratchy but devoid of the extraneous. Characters’ faces are abstracted, sometimes depicted as a single V, disallowing the viewer empathy and forcing them to rely on external emotional cues such as body language.
The story’s two protagonists are mean jerks – voyeuristic portraitists – that double as schematic surrogates for their authors. They turn their camera loose on a variety of distasteful situations including a late night bestiality party at the zoo (the highlight being an elephant), an S&M sword swallowers conference, and a masquerade for the maimed and disfigured. The running gag being the photographic finish of something horrible that’s happened to the person(s) getting their picture taken. The lack of close-ups or dramatic shifts in the story is telling of Ruppert and Mulot’s interest in playing with the formal aspects of traditional cartooning rather than imitating the cinematic. In the case of The Portraitists, this resonates on a similar level as an airplane safety diagram, maintaining an oddly cool, clinical posture in the midst of awful tragedy.
While topics touched in the book are probably unpalatable to most, the page layouts are complexly dazzling. Phenakistoscopes and other visual tricks become integral strategies for storytelling (and they WILL melt your mind). Animations and printouts of which can be found on Ruppert and Mulots website.** I advise readers to view the animal sex acts at their own discretion with the warning that they are downright obscene and nasty. They are great drawings though, and me being able to think that probably satisfies Ruppert and Mulot’s insistence that we are all capable of something downright terrible at some point or another.
The Grand Staircase: Kramers Ergot 7. Buenaventura Press 2008*
(Unfortunately, reading this comic online is a disgrace to how good it is to scale)
Barrel of Monkeys
Rebus Books 2013
6.5 x 9.5â€ b&w softcover
* Special thanks to Anders Nilsen for photographing pages from the massive beast that is Kramers Ergot 7 and for general affirmation