Most of us in the States haven't seen much of Frederik Peeters since the 2008 translation of Blue Pills. And so there may be some surprise to readers familiar with that earlier work's style, both textually and visually, upon picking up Pachyderme. But for readers in the Francophone comics community, the transformations in Peeters' work from Blue Pills, originally published in 2001, to his most recent work will be quite familiar.
Indeed, Peeters is a reminder of something I talk about at some length in a recent piece at Public Books: the fact that living, as we do, in a relatively golden age of Franco-Belgian comics in translation serves only to remind us how much amazing work still remains inaccessible to English readers. Aside from the translation of Peeters' 2001 book and his collaborative work with Pierre Wazem on Koma, we have little sense of the Swiss cartoonist’s career on this side of the Atlantic (and Koma, a dizzying and moving dystopian fantasy, received shockingly little attention when Humanoids published an English edition in 2012). Fortunately, SelfMade Hero is going to change all that, having picked up the English-language rights to his celebrated sci-fi series Aama, already out in the UK and making its way to these shores in the spring.
In the meantime, however, there is more than enough to bring stateside readers up to speed with the range and talent of this cartoonist, whose Blue Pills, engaging as it was, now looks a bit like juvenilia in comparison. It feels almost hubristic to offer my own thoughts on a book endorsed in glowing, if somewhat mystical, terms by the late, great Moebius in his preface. But Pachyderme is itself a work that celebrates and perhaps inspires hubristic flights of fancy, so that will serve as my excuse. Telling the story of a young wife dreaming-walking her way through the tail end of a marriage towards the realization of dreams long deferred, it is a book about claiming confidence and embracing dreams, however messy they turn out to be.
And our protagonist’s dreams are messy indeed. Beginning with a traffic jam extending for miles down a country road, we meet our heroine striding purposely past the fallen elephant which lies at the center of the chaos, confronting a policeman attempting to bring order to the madness, and then taking an expected detour into the woods in search of an elusive hospital. There she will meet a blind shepherd and his pigs and a mutant fetus-baby before finally arriving at the hospital where her husband has supposedly been taken. And that is when things start to get really strange.
All of it has the feel of a hallucinogenic fantasy straight out of the acid-trip travelogues of the late 60s. But from the start, the linework, framing, the misé-en-page, and the carefully modulated expressive coloring all serve to assure the reader that a storyteller is very much in control here, inspiring confidence seemingly simultaneously in both reader and protagonist, as together they delve deeper and deeper into the mysteries that surround her, in search of a key that will unlock the door through which the larger reasons for this voyage will at last be clear. For both the reader and the protagonist, the payoff is in every way worth the confusions and frustrations that arise along the way.
The book is a testament to the power of graphic storytelling. But it is also a declaration of an artist who has arrived at the height of his powers and is, like his protagonist, ready to show of the full strength of his artistry.