Get a Life
Get a Life properly introduces Mr. Jean to English-speaking audiences. Lengthy stories featuring the character, written and drawn by Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian (who both do each), have previously appeared in Drawn & Quarterly anthologies, but this book collects the earlier work where a younger man struggles with his life decisions.
Jean is a novelist living in Paris. He’s gone to the museum because a friend is supposed to meet a woman there, but the friend ducks out on him. Jean goes ahead into the exhibit, where he meets an old girlfriend, now in a new relationship and pregnant, which causes him to remember what had been, contrasted with the different now.
In subsequent chapters, Jean tries to meet women, vacations with a movie producer, ponders the nature of friendship, worries about feeling his age, takes a disastrous publicity trip to another country, tries to manage his freelance work schedule, and puts up with the children of friends. These are important, basic decisions, relating to career, love, and life. The setting blends material anyone can relate to with the exotic veneer of artistic life in urban Europe, a combination that keeps events fresh and funny. Especially with the running gag about the hippos in love and the anchovy pizza.
Relationships are never easy in these stories, especially when children (or the decision or desire to have them) are involved. That’s true even of non-romantic relationships. Jean struggles with his concierge, an unpleasant woman who spies on him and withholds his mail, in a recurring series of short strips that break up the longer stories. But when things go well, there’s still uncertainty to manage, since you never know what others are feeling or what motivates them to make the choices they do.
The cartooning is superb, with distinctively exaggerated characters (Jean is distinguished by his huge nose) that are still recognizable as people you might know. The lines are deceptively simple, true of much European work. They demonstrate the years of experience it took to put them in just the right place. The rich colors are particularly astounding. I don’t see a colorist credited, although I know the creators have used one before, so I don’t know who to thank, but the beautiful, realistic tones and shading really ground the stories.
I’m reminded of the best parts of Seinfeld, where an urban regular guy gets through everyday life with his friends. Jean is constantly sandbagged by his memories, or the contrast between what he thought life should be like and what it is. He’s very human. His experiences will cause the reader to ponder their own life choices and give them more insight into human nature, all under an attractive Parisian veneer.
Mr. Jean stories were included in the Drawn & Quarterly anthologies Volume 3 and Volume 5. They’re now more resonant to me, having read the earlier tales that brought him to where he is in them. There is a preview of Get a Life at the publisher’s website.
The companion volume, Maybe Later, is a black-and-white journal about the artistic process where each creator works separately. Anyone’s who read about the life of an artist will find the material already familiar — the creative type isn’t taken seriously, because it’s assumed anyone can do it. I had hoped there would be more material on what makes this partnership special. There are many writer/artist teams, but few where both do both tasks. That’s touched on lightly, but I wanted more.
An autobiography runs the risk of becoming tedious, as incidents are retold as they happened, but they might not have as much significance to the reader as to the person they happened to. This volume disappointingly flirted with that flaw. Berberian starts off, and his section resembles a Mr. Jean comic, with similar themes and approach, including chapters. When Dupuy takes over, he notes that as well, although I could very much appreciate Berberian’s section on the reasons for and problem of being a collector.
Dupuy’s section is even more scattered. There’s an argument over a scene from the other book that will make the most sense if read along with it. There are two sections about deciding which publisher in France will put out this book that gets much too far into industry politics for the non-familiar reader. In short, I didn’t get the insight into their process I felt I was promised. It was too unfocused. Find out more about it at the publisher’s website.
Reading Get a Life brought home to me in two ways how important timeliness is. First, there’s Jean, pondering major life choices, illustrating that time keeps passing as one grows up. More importantly, I first reviewed this book near the end of 2007, although it came out in 2006. It’s still a terrific read, but it would have definitely been one of my Best of 2006 if I’d read it in a more timely fashion.