French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim brings a darkly humorous book to Fantagraphics with the publication of Ralph Azham 1: Why Would You Lie to Someone You Love? Trondheim previously worked Bourbon Island 1730 with co-writer Appollo, on the long-running series Dungeon with Joann Sfar, and has a number of other titles not yet available in English. Ralph Azham was previously published in French, and Book 1 translates the first two issues of the original series into a landscape-style 8.5″ x 6.625″ hardback.
The most obvious difference between Ralph Azham and other books I’ve talked about so far is the “cute animal” drawing style. Even Ethan Young’s Tails, a story about superhero animals (among other things) had a classic illustration style. You’d expect Ralph and his fellow villagers to appear in the Sunday Funnies section of your local paper:
They’re talking animals with loose, rounded edges. The big guy is a cat. A fuzzy, whiskered, kitty! Surely, this is a comic for kids, filled with situation humor and one-liners, right? Well, no. See that Ralph character, the one who looks like a duck who needs a haircut? He’s got … special powers.
Which no one appreciates. He’s constantly picked on, locked up, made the scapegoat for all of the town’s ills, and even gets in trouble simply because a girl showed an interest in him. Her interest was more financial than romantic, but that’s not the point, as far as the other villagers are concerned.
In a way, though, it is the point. Everyone wants Ralph for what he can do but not who he is. Trondheim wants you to know how bad Ralph’s life is so you fully understand the choices that he has to make. This is no cutesy funny book. This is life and death. Village wise women mixing up potions to rid girls of unwanted pregnancies, ominous prophecies hanging over everyone’s head, and the ever-present threat of bad guys.
Very bad guys.
The plot is clear but complex, and twists in a way I can’t describe without ruining it for you. Let’s talk about what I can tell you:
There’s nothing flashy about Trondheim’s story or illustration style. It’s bold, and sure of itself, but not over the top the way you’d expect from looking at the first few pages. He’s drawn similar characters for long enough that they’re solid, consistent. His humanoid animals, a staple of his work, place the story squarely into fantasy – along with the medieval-esque village and the magic – but the wry humor gives the story a modern feel.
The colors by Brigitte Findakly are gorgeously suited to the artwork, and adds to the surrealism of a candy-colored world so filled with nastiness and grief. The watercolors are slightly more muted than computer-colored images would have been, lending an aged appearance to the work that makes the time period a little more believable.
It’s easy to get into, this weird story, and hard to put down once you’ve started. If you’ve liked some of my other recommendations but were waiting for something a little more epic, a little more high fantasy, this is your book. Ralph Azham is your hero.
Next week: The absolutely brilliant Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan.
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