The first thing you notice about Victor Hussenot’s The Spectators is the color. A blocky face juts out of the cover, composed of myriad other faces, all represented with different colors, unified by bright white cylinder eyes, interrupted only by the blocky man shape’s mirror eye, a spot intended as a way for you to insert your own face, your own eye, your own habitat. The Spectators is a love letter to the composition of the city, the millions of experiences and colors and faces every bustling metropolis has. It is not the grid work of a Chris Ware story nor is it the detached modernist philosophy of something like Tom Kaczynski’s Beta Testing the Apocalypse. Instead, The Spectators asks you to shed your skin and assume other identities as you take a tour through the soul of the concept of the city itself, its interconnectedness, its vitality and mass isolation.
Hussenot’s basic approach to The Spectators’ story isn’t too dissimilar from Holy Motors, only here it’s a vague everyman assuming the identity and form of others rather than a possibly inhuman sprite. The wraparound interior binding of the book shows off a number of silhouettes that actually play into the story, a sly throughline to the fixation the “protagonist” has on the shadows he sees all around in the city, wondering what their stories are before they finally come into view. The protagonist’s natural form is of a silhouette itself, slipping into skinsuits of other people, occupying a number of personalities, identities, backgrounds, what have you. There’s not necessarily a “narrative” to The Spectators, so outside of its aesthetic uniqueness, this constant character switch over gives a handily flexible framework for The Spectators, allowing it to have the looseness of an anthology work except with the unification of an auteur.
The looseness extends to Hussenot’s art, which combines art deco commercialism with airy watercoloring and abstract expressionist flourishes. You can see the impact of Hussenot’s modern art influences on his style but this isn’t a throwback work, this is a comic that stands out as utterly unique, revitalizing in its fluidity, comforting in its warmth. Hussenot also works in a number of everyday city symbols, like subway warnings and city planning grids and figures but what separates his approach to this from, say, Ware, is an organic sensibility, the soft texture of the watercolors and even Nobrow’s pulpy printing allowing The Spectators to engage you on a truly tactile level rather than an almost inhumanely precise, borderline mathematical level. There are still mathematics in The Spectators’ use of patterns, from the way the “vignettes” are separated by panel-less mini-vignettes showing the switching of skins, to geometric motifs like the story of a coin’s theoretical travels syncing up with characters’ eyes or a bit about insomniacs watching windows flicker on and off with energy and light, ultimately coming together to form a human shape.
Hussenot’s point with this is that while cities are planned and built on grids, utilizing architectural guidelines and other organizing principles, it’s the chaos of humanity that gives them character and allows them to stretch beyond order. Towards the end, Hussenot directly compares the life cycle of the city to the life cycle of a person, commenting on the way we are less capable of noticing our own aging over the aging of our friends and surroundings. Hussenot takes it further, artfully rendering the experience of walking through a city and seeing new faces who are frozen in our minds in their present incarnation. We usually never see these people again, so they become immortal, always remembered as that old man feeding birds at the park or the young girl holding hands with her parents on the street. It’s a simple notion and it’s depicted equally simply, but at heart it’s an urban Schrodinger’s Cat, a way of plainly stating a concept we can spend our entire lives trying to decipher. How many other people see us this way? How many times a day are we immortal to a stranger we pass by without another thought?
By taking us through a guided tour of some of these strangers’ lives, Hussenot asks us to open up our minds to the humanity surrounding us, to engage with and be enlivened by the lifeblood of our home towns. Hussenot gives The Spectators blank faces and ample white space in order to help the narrative merge with our personal experience, allowing room for projection to occur organically. A beautiful work of stunning color and subtle complexity, The Spectators establishes Hussenot as one of comics’ great humanists, an artist who asks great questions with an intuitive grasp of their innate simplicity. This is a work that asks you to not only engage with it on an intellectual level but to open your heart to it.
The Spectators is out now from Nobrow.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover