This review is a little outside my area of expertise. But I don’t think that makes it a less useful endeavor. I tend to take the view that if the uninitiated can appreciate something in an extreme niche, then there is something fundamentally worthwhile about the work. In this case, even though the works on display in “The Green Hand and Other Stories” are pretty alien by the standards of modern comics, particularly superhero books, there is a direct line to be traced from Claveloux’s cerebral, surrealist panels to the modern works of artists like Simon Roy or Christian Ward.
Written By Nicole Claveloux with Edith Zha
Illustrated by Nicole Claveloux
Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
English Lettering by Dustin Harbin
Introduction by Daniel Clowes
Nicole Claveloux’s short stories–originally published in the late 1970s and never before collected in English–are among the most beautiful comics ever drawn: whimsical, intoxicating, with the freshness and splendor of dreams. In hallucinatory color or elegant black-and-white, she brings us into lands that are strange but oddly recognizable, filled with murderous grandmothers and lonely city dwellers, bad-tempered vegetables and walls that are surprisingly easy to fall through. In the title story, a new houseplant becomes the first step in an epic journey of self-discovery and a witty fable of modern romance–complete with talking shrubbery, a wised-up genie, and one very depressed bird.
This new selection, designed and introduced by Daniel Clowes, presents the full achievement of an unforgettable, unjustly neglected master of French comics.
Nicole Claveloux’s art is firmly in the style and genre of ’70s psychedelia and her work as a comic artist is contextualized by the French comic anthology magazine “Métal Hurlant.” While I wouldn’t describe her work as typical of that magazine, or the more familiar US edition, “Heavy Metal,” her use of bizarre, evocative imagery is certainly on-brand. Where “Métal Hurlant” trended more toward science fiction and epic fantasy, Claveloux’s subject matter is more psychological. The works collected in “The Green Hand” are some of her most direct, explicitly tackling issues of sexuality, relationships and gender identity through thinly, or not at all veiled visual metaphors.
The imagery on display in this collection is nothing short of mesmerizing. To prepare, I did some research into some of Claveloux’s contemporaries, trying to get a feel for where her style evolved from and, to be totally frank, I’m a little out of my depth. There is a lot of fascinating art history here for further reading, from the early swell of psychedelic pop art in the early ’60s and the related French Nouveau Réalisme, to the more visually similar designs Heinz Edelmann, designer behind Yellow Submarine, and American cartoonist Robert Crumb.
Pieces of these artists and movements are present throughout the book, but Claveloux resists any single particular influence. The pages of the five-part “The Green Hand” story pop with the colors of Edelmann and the whimsy of Nouveau Réalisme, but also feature some distressingly realistic panels, particularly when it comes to the close ups. Some of the other stories collected here have less varied artistic influence. The quite disturbing serial, “No Family!” is essentially eight Cubist posters, featuring murderous family members against a backdrop of their distressingly artistic kills. The very next page of the book sees a total shift from Cubism to a rigid, hatched style that feels like a more cartoony version of M.C. Escher than anything else.
This is all by way of saying that there is a lot going on here artistically. And probably a lot more that I can’t really cover given my background, which leans more towards the literary. On a purely emotional level, I find Claveloux’s art sits somewhere between disturbing and awe-inspiring. If you’re looking for a contemporary reference point, I think Christian Ward’s work on “ODY-C” is probably the most directly relatable. There’s a shared emphasis on exploring the female form in a medium that is both brightly colored and substantially surreal. There’s also a similar emphasis on exploring the role of gender, both visually and through the text, though there’s very little else similar about the text.Continued below
About half of the collection “The Green Hand and Other Stories” is actually written by Nicole Claveloux. The other half, including the actual story “The Green Hand” was penned by Edith Zha, a friend and longtime collaborator of Claveloux’s. She also wrote Morte-saison, another comic collaboration with Claveloux that ran in Métal Hurlant but isn’t included in this anthology. Zha’s writing in “The Green Hand” is little more than a sketch for Claveloux to fill in with her illustrations. While something was almost certainly lost in the minimalist translation from French to English, Zha’s dialogue and narration is sparse at best, and jarringly absent at worst. So Claveloux’s art has to do the heavy lifting, filling in emotional subtext with vibrant colors and heavy, sharp-lined shadows. The art is more than adequate for the task, but the prose is truly underwhelming.
Contrast this to Claveloux’s own writing throughout the rest of the collection, which feels more robust. There’s a sharpness to her voice that pairs well with her uncompromising visual explorations. Her story, “The Little Vegetable Who Dreamed He Was a Panther,” is the best example of this interplay. On the surface, it’s a fable about overcoming obstacles in your life, but the dialogue and the imagery work together to transform the story into an allegory about the struggles of being transgendered. The allegory becomes incredibly obvious and even ends in a sendup of drag culture.
There is a tremendous amount of nuance on display here. It rewards re-reading and careful attention to the rich visuals. There’s also something truly unafraid about the way Claveloux tackles her chosen subject matter, uncomfortable as it is. I realize there are differences between how the French and Americans treat sexual subject matter, but her approach still feels refreshingly direct. Again, I compare it to “ODY-C,” where the feminist subtext is pretty much just right on the surface.
The anthology wraps up with a nice little interview of both Claveloux and Zha, focusing on how they got involved with comics and the French art magazines the two of them would do most of their work for. Claveloux’s answers are particularly interesting, offering her insightful perspective on the world of comics as someone who was primarily an illustrator, and a stranger to the world of Métal Hurlant. She would go on to do a lot of work as an illustrator of children’s books, but as the introduction by Daniel Clowes (creator of “Eightball” and “Patience,” among others) reminds us: “[S]he deserves far more recognition for her comics work.” “The Green Hand and Other Stories” is not an easy read, but it is one that is well worth the effort.