Today’s Yellowed Pages isn’t a standalone graphic novel or miniseries but instead a collection of material Claire Bretécher created at the National Lampoon. RJ Casey argues that Bretécher is a remarkable comics creator who has been overlooked by history, and he hopes you’ll be moved to explore more of her sharp, observant comics.
You know that feeling right after someone says, “We need to talk?”
That low in your gut, high in your throat tingle; that eye-rolled deep sigh; that better stretch out because you’re in it for the long haul ennui? Those are the only sensations Claire Bretécher explores, the only ones she cares to explore, and she does it with witty proficiency and pitiless prudence. Claire Bretécher makes comics for adults.
National Lampoon Presents Claire Bretécher is a collection of this French cartoonists’ best pages that appeared in the titular magazine. For all the ham-handed controversy NL tried to intentionally stir up with its articles, its comics page was far ahead of its time. It was anchored by three female boundary-pushing craft masters (Bretécher, MK Brown, Shary Flenniken), an old Portuguese grump (Charles Rodrigues), and whatever Vaughn Bodé was and wanted to be. Bretécher stands out because she’s the least esoteric.
Bretécher explores a unique form of late ’70s arrested development in each of her one-page stories. Her characters aren’t afraid to grow up; in fact they’re fully embracive of this stage of their lives. The step from one phase to the next though, it’s a doozy. In one story, Bretécher has three zenned-out suburbanites argue about Christmas traditions at a Buddhist meditation camp. Another sees a woman unknowingly transition from counterculture hellion to helicopter mom. Bretécher’s characters, for our sake and amusement, seesaw between being uneasy and unself-aware. The only solution to their problems is to “talk it out.”
And do they ever talk. Half of Bretécher’s panels are usually filled with text. A rich cursive lettering not only augments Bretécher’s linework, but also beneficially slows you down as a reader. These are not throwaway gag strips, but slow burns that power pinch your backbone. National Lampoon Presents is only 90 pages, but it took me over four days to read. The text-heaviness fits Bretécher’s theme of high anxiety. No one I know sits through silence successfully. These aren’t Chris Ware comics where a man posts up in a hush contemplating his childhood lunchbox or some shit. Bretécher’s people nervously talk in, over, and around each other, weaving a wicker basket of empty platitudes to discontinue any potential discomfort. Bretécher draws people who talk themselves out of things, people who manipulate loved ones, people who are flawed, nervous, and shaky.
Those in the “let it breathe” camp of comic construction might find Bretécher’s work too stifling, but that belief is overrated anyway. Empty panels are usually a self-indulgent crutch. I was reading a comic last week where half the panels were without dialogue or narration. It confused beauty with worth. It was bad storytelling under the guise of dreamlike science fiction (subreview finished!). These comics couldn’t be further away from that. Bretécher focuses on pacing and page economy and nothing is wasted. Funny faux empathy and embarrassment over etherealness, I say.
Bretécher’s figures are sketchy and exceptionally unproportional. Through black and white pen scratches and slightly wavy, uneven panel borders, she renders feet like long lumps that are the length of her characters’ torsos. Everyone has 90-degree noses bookended by dark semicircle bags under their big, beady eyes. These aren’t undercut cuties or pencil-smudged cubs that currently make up indie comics’ general population. They’re people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who are a little worse for wear, a little too overeducated, a little too insular in their thoughts. We know these people. They might be your parents. They might be you.
There are so many great cartoonists who have been lost to time, or deleted from the conversation. I think many of these artists, especially the women creators like Bretécher, are “intentionally” vanished by both the people who want to maintain a semblance of a status-quo canon and by people on the lookout for marginalized voices in comics, but aren’t willing to appreciate artists from even a few decades ago. It just doesn’t fit the narrative.
Bretécher doesn’t draw starry-eyed sparkle cheeks. She only deals in clear-cut politics, pessimism, and hilarious pathos. That’s why National Lampoon Presents Claire Bretécher is so excellent and that’s why we can’t afford to disregard her, or older female artists like her, anymore. They’re too important.
RJ Casey is a writer and co-founder of the small comic book publishing behemoth Yeti Press. He lives in Seattle and works for Fantagraphics Books. His musings on art can be found on his blog “I Like That” and follow him on twitter at @rjcaseywrites