Remembering the Jazz Orpheus: Barney and the Blue
Note by Loustal and Paringaux
France, the artist Jacques de Loustal and the writer Philippe
Paringaux collaborate on comic strips that revive an old text/image
arrangement: words appear beneath pictures and there are no balloons
at all. Some critics mention Loustal's and Paringaux's original use
of that text/image combination: Benoît Peeters, who analyzed one
page from their album Barney et la note bleue, describes their
attempts to establish new relationships between texts and images
(91-93). Other commentators like Patrick Gaumer and Claude Moliterni
think Loustal gave comics a literary dimension (403).
Barney et la note bleue was translated
into English (and 8 other languages 2014) and published under the
title Barney and the Blue Note. Sales were unspectacular and the
critics largely ignored it, although Alan and Laurel Clark praised
Loustal's "evocative watercolours" . This article will
encourage a wider appreciation of Barney and the Blue Note among
English speakers, by analyzing the album in translation and by
drawing upon an interview with Loustal. Over the coming pages, the
implications of having no balloons to represent speech and thought
are discussed; I also assess the album's contribution to comic strip
mythology and enlarge on its literary aspect.
Barney and the Blue Note differs sharply
from other comic strips. Nevertheless, it resembles literary work by
French filmmaker/writer Marguerite Duras and French detective
novelist Patrick Modiano, who were both highly praised by Loustal at
interview. Despite the differences in their chosen forms Loustal,
Paringaux, Duras, and Modiano directly engage their readers with
remembering the past. In order to do that, they abandon
conventional, linear modes of storytelling in favor of fractured
narratives; readers piece the narratives together by making an
effort of memory.
When Barney and the Blue Note is pieced together, it recounts the
meteoric rise and fall of a half-forgotten 1950's saxophonist, who
was briefly the darling of the Paris jazz scene before succumbing to
heroin. Loustal said that the hero was loosely based on the
saxophonist Barney Wilen, but added that Barney was mythological:
"There's a bit of Chet Baker and of the jazzman's myth in general" (qtd.
in Alagbé 47).2 To place Barney and the Blue Note in its context,
the history of text/image narratives up to the 1980s requires
revision, with particular emphasis on two artists who influenced
Loustal: Hergé and Moebius.
Pierre Couperie has analyzed the French tradition of telling stories
by combining pictures with words. The nineteenth century Images
d'Epinal, for example, put texts beneath images. In the texts,
omniscient narrators recounted hagiographies, historical events,
folktales, and songs; meanwhile, the pictures illustrated whatever
the narrators described. The pictures thus played a subordinate role
and, for all their charm, they interrupted left-to-right reading:
the reader's eye was constantly pulled from the text up to the
picture and back down to the text again. Words and pictures also
came together in Rodolphe Tdpffer's Monsieur Vieux Bois (1827), a
humorous strip with texts below pictures and still no balloons. In
Tdpffer's work, for the first time, pictures and texts were equally
important to understanding the story. Benoît Peeters and Thierry
Groensteen argue that Tiipffer's interplay between texts and images
make him the first comic strip artist.
In America, texts also appeared beneath pictures in the early
comics, the best known being Harold Foster's Tarzan (1929) and
Prince Valiant (1937).3
The pictures were saved from redundancy
by Foster's highquality artwork. Tarzan had close-ups, panoramic
views, and "motion lines" that created the illusion of objects
moving through space. Prince Valiant depicted the days of Arthurian
chivalry, with a previously unseen elegance of line: bold knights,
beautiful maidens, castles and battles evoked an age of heroism and
Loustal distanced himself from the above-mentioned text/image
stories: "Those strips did not influence me at all. They are like
excerpts from novels, cut out and stuck below a picture. You see
someone opening a door and the text says 'he opens the door'; but
there's no point in showing it as it is written down."
From the 1930s, texts beneath images were largely abandoned in favor
of balloons. Balloons enjoyed distinct advantages. They introduced
an agreeable continuity: as words and pictures coexisted in the same
panel, left-to-right reading ceased to be interrupted. Balloons also
permitted direct speech; consequently, characters' bodies were no
longer cut off from their voices.
In France, Hergé's Adventures of Tintin (1929) were chiefly
responsible for popularizing balloons. Hergé's neat, rectangular
balloons were a distinguishing feature of his graphic style, which
is generally known as "clear line." "Clear line" consisted of
well-documented, scrupulously researched pictures, which produced
powerful effects of reality; detailed street-scenes, landscapes, and
interiors encouraged readers to believe that Tintin genuinely
existed. Loustal, like many of his generation, grew up reading Hergé.
Even though Barney and the Blue Note has no balloons, Hergé is the
dominant influence over Loustal's visually realistic artwork.
New French talents such as Jacques Tardi, Enki Bilal, and Moebius
emerged in the 1970s. Loustal praised Moebius especially highly.
Moebius was instrumental to starting the trend known as nouveau
realisme, which was identified by Bruno Lecigne and Jean-Pierre
Tamine. Nouveaux réalistes found new uses for pictures of that which
is real: genuinely existing places and things no longer
authenticated fiction; instead, they asked where the real ends and
where the imaginary begins.
Moebius' Cauchemar blanc (1974) is an early example of nouveau
realisme. Cauchemar blanc depicts a racist attack in
which a gang of white youths run an Arab off the road, and a fight
breaks out; but that was just a dream from which the ringleader
awakes; he then goes out with his tronies and they run the Arab down
for real. Moebius did not evoke the racist's dream with
thought-balloons; in consequence, the character's dream is
indistinguishable from the outside world; uninterrupted urban
banality provider continuity between external reality and pure
fantasy. Loustal combines nouveau realisme with "clear line." Barney
and the Blue Note has detailed urban landscapes which, in the
absence of thought-balloons, ask what is real and what is not;
readers are not always sure where the real ends and where the
Moebius is better known for his science fiction. His Garage
hermétique (1976), set on a distant planet, has a fragmented
narrative: it is not a series of panels arranged in a logical
sequence (3: 46-144). Like Le Garage hermétique, Barney and the Blue
Note has a nonlinear plot. However, Barney and the Blue Note is more
conventional: each chapter has a single narrating voice and a unity
of place; also, links between panels are more logical than in Le
Barney and the Blue Note coincided with the French vogue for graphic
novels, which was particularly prevalent in historical dramas. The
graphic novelists sought to introduce subtleties of
characterization, plotting, and scene setting, which are normally
associated with literature. Their attempts to make comics literary
met with varying degrees
of success. As Roger Sabin commented: "The best [...]. demonstrated
historian's eye for detail in the artwork, combined with believable
plotting; the worst tended to feature lashings of sex and violence
in a phoney period setting" . Barney and the Blue Note belongs
to the former category: it produced effects previously unknown in
comics, while avoiding the attendant pitfalls.
The Rise and Fall of Barney
Like a novel, Barney and the Blue Note is divided into chapters.
Chapter l's title "Besame mucho" quotes a Mexican Bolero by Consuelo
Velasquez; thus, fictional Barney is authenticated by a real song.
Hergé had used similar ploys by bringing songs into Tintin's
adventures. One example is "The Jewel Song" from Charles Gounod's
1859 opera Faust (Le sceptre d'Ottokar 28).
The first page of Barney and the Blue
Note shows a party at a villa in Spain. The text in its box below
says that Boris is being sick. The narrating voice describes Boris'
unedifying debut, but the picture does not illustrate it; hence,
readers form a mental image of him. This opening page, with its
unorthodox text/image relationship, is typical of what is to come:
pictures and texts give different information; therefore, we
visualize what is described but not depicted.
Although we cannot see Boris we trust the text. That is because the
narrating voice is not attached to a character's body; like a
cinematic voice-over or a comic strip caption, the voice speaks from
beyond the frame. Michel Chion calls that disembodied voice "acousmatic,"
adding that it has tremendous authority as "its word is like the
word of God [. _J. The one who is not in the visual field in the
best position to see everything that is happening". Our trust
seems justified: this omniscient narrator knows the smallest
details; for example, that a cigarette is burning Boris' fingers.
Boris wanders through the party and
notices Barney (see Figure 1). He excitedly tells his wife Pauline;
they try desperately to find Barney, but he has vanished.
Chapter 3 depicts Boris' exclusive residence with Hyperrealism:
open-plan buildings, comfortable furnishings, immaculate lawns, and
a swimming pool. The tall palm trees, cloudless sky, yellow diving
board, and splashing water recall a Hyperrealist masterpiece, with
which Loustal was acquainted: David Hockney's Bigger Splash (1967).
FIGURE 2. Pauline's Renault Floride (24).
The absence of balloons enhances the similarity between Loustal's
panels and Hockney's painting, despite the obvious differences
between comics and fine art. Hyperrealism suggests we are in the
1960s. Pauline's fashionable sports car, a Renault Floride, provides
a further clue about the date (see Figure 2). This is no earlier
than the summer of 1959: the Renault Floride was manufactured from
June 1959 to September 1963 (see "Renault Floride et Caravelle").
In Chapter 4, Barney is in Paris. Losing their Hyperrealism,
Loustal's pictures adopt motifs from film noirs: darkness, rainy
streets, deserted pavements, late-night bars, shadows falling
obliquely across faces. The change from Hyperrealism to film noir
implies that the narrative has gone backwards chronologically, from
the 1960s to the 1940s/1950s. Yet according to the narrator it has
gone forwards: "Perhaps he misses [. . . ] the nights full of
Spanish cognac, and all the years it didn't rain" The
speculative "perhaps" makes the narrator less omniscient. His/her
less authoritative voice, combined with the different graphic style,
suggests that the narrator's identity has changed; someone else has
apparently taken up Barney's story.
Chapter 5 is set explicitly in the spring of 1958. It opens with a
picture of Barney at the Paris Gare de Lyon; in the text a first
person narrator, speaking in a colloquial register, recalls the day
Barney arrived (see Figure 3). Barney comes from an undisclosed
location in Africa. This new narrator is not present at the time;
he/she is imagining what took place. Loustal's graphic style changes
again: it loses its film noir malaise to adopt an innocent-looking
clarity rem iniscent of Hergé. As in the Adventures of Tintin, a
recognizable railroad station makes the hero's journey look
plausible; analogies exist with Tintin arriving at the Brussels Gare
du Nord or at Geneva Cornavin.
Yet Loustal departs from Hergé by substituting speech-balloons for a
In consequence, our perception of texts and images changes: the
action here is not allegedly unfolding in external reality; events
are happening within the narrator's mind. Barney's arrival is being
recalled years later by someone who never witnessed it. Despite the
accurate details, everything is a figment of his/her imagination.
The narrator reminisces about meeting Barney on the Paris jazz
circuit. We see a review of Barney's concert with the
drummer/bandleader Art Blakey, cut out of the genuinely existing
Parisian magazine Jazz Hot (1935 to date); according to Loustal, the
reviewer's initials PK refer to Philippe Koechelin, a journalist
with Jazz Hot (34). Barney meets Boris and Pauline. Boris, a record
executive, offers Barney a contract, but then Barney starts taking
heroin. When Barney becomes addicted, texts and images diverge
again. Barney plays music and socializes, but the texts, granting
Barney a psychological depth more common in novels, explore his
disillusionment with Paris and his dreams of conquering America.
In chapter 6, the first person voice gives way to another third
person. However, the setting, Boris's recording studio, links
chapter 6 to chapter 5 thematically. Pauline has an affair with
Barney; she leaves Boris and her daughter, who looks about five
years old, and she elopes with her lover.
Chapter 7 recounts Barney's and Pauline's love-idyll at a cheap
hotel, in a torrid sequence of texts and images which Benoît Peeters
analyzed (93). The first picture shows Pauline naked. The text
reads: "When the ashtrays are full and the packs empty, he goes to
the café across the street for cigarettes" (44). Neither ashtrays
nor cigarette packs are depicted; they exist only as thoughts in the
Chapter 8 is set in Paris again. It is
recounted by another first person voice and it interrupts the
narrative thread. He/she admits to limited knowledge, saying "I
guess I'm in no position to state this with any degree of authority"
(50). Barney makes Pauline pregnant; he unceremoniously dumps her
and he runs off to America. A description of Barney's onstage
triumphs appears beneath a picture of him injecting heroin alone
(51). The diverging words and the pictures show the gulf between
Barney's public and private personas.
The artwork draws closer to the New Objectivist painters, notably
Max Beckmann, who Loustal cited as the biggest influence over him
Like Loustal, Beckmann depicted small-time entertainers and tawdry
dance halls in a naïve, even childlike graphic style; also like
Loustal, Beckmann combined naiveté with a visual realism which
refused to beautify the subject. Loustal's depictions of Barney's
musical and social engagements recall Beckmann's Dance in Baden
Baden (1923) and Carnival (1942): loneliness lurks behind the
festive faade; stiff, ungainly people have thick, heavy lines;
shadows are gathering ominously in the background.
In chapter 9, we
assume Barney is in the United States. The third panel of the
opening page confirms our assumption at first glance: it contains an
American car a 1959 Plymouth Fury (see Vanderveen 77). However, on
closer inspection we see that "rooms" ("chambres") is written up
outside the hotel in French (see Figure 4). Chapter 9 is set in the
southern French town of Hyères.
Questions arise. Why is Barney in Hyères? Is the narrative thread
broken again? Is chapter 9 a flashback to before Barney's departure?
Is it a leap forward to after his return? Or is there some other
reason? Maybe Barney does not go to the United States after all.
Perhaps Barney has faked his departure, duping the previous fallible
narrator; then he can have a tryst with Pauline at a safe distance
Chapter 9's title "Whisper not," an Art Blakey tune, insinuates that
their meeting is clandestine. Boris arrives unexpectedly and Barney
locks himself in the bathroom. Barney eventually emerges, only to
find that Pauline has gone home to Boris.
In chapter 10, Barney is touring Southern France with a mediocre
band. Following a traffic accident, Barney and Josie, the singer, go
to Paris. An ellipsis opens up in the narrative between chapters 9
and 10, but we can guess what happened: Barney stays on in the
provinces and wastes his talent.
Chapter 11 breaks the narrative thread again: Barney is in New York.
His activities are recounted by another first person narrator, who
does not accompany him. He/she guesses what happened, and admits
that "the circumstances of his stay there remain vague" (70-71). The
account may indeed be exaggerated: Barney jams at the 5-Spot Jazz
Club every night; Barney goes to Los Angeles and kills a drug
dealer; Barney is interned in a psychiatric institution for five
Chapter 11's texts appear beneath the well-documented pictures of
the 1950s America, which again have a meticulously copied realism
worthy of Hergé. For example, on the West Coast, Barney stays at a
Californian beach-front house; 1955 Fords Thunderbird and Fairlane
are parked outside (see Vanderveen 41). Barney also frequents an
African-American trumpeter, who resembles Miles Davis (see Figure
5). As previously, the voice off alters "clear line." Loustal's
realism cannot be taken at face value because this narrator never
crosses the Atlantic: he/she is uncertain about what occurred; for
all the authenticating detail, we are witnessing imaginary events.
Chapter 12 explicitly follows on from
chapter 10, putting chapter 11 into parentheses. Barney enters a
Paris jazz club and plays a barnstorming show. He then goes home,
injects heroin, overdoses, and dies. The narrating voice is cold and
detached; the pictures are concise and sober. The text implies that
Barney is dying for the third time: "When the door begins to give he
jerks the tie loose; it's an easy thing to do for someone who's
already died twice" (83). Chapter 13 is a poignant epilogue: Josie
telephones Pauline and blames her for killing Barney; Pauline goes
upstairs to the little girl's bedroom and clasps her hand.
History, Memory, Mythology
Barney and the Blue Note bristles with accurate, historical details.
Yet it is evidently no standard biography: the facts about someone's
life are not recounted in chronological order by a unifying
narrator; the story ends with the subject's third death; shifts
between literary and graphic styles suggest that different people
are telling the story; various unidentified narrators come and go,
giving competing accounts which may/may not be authoritative.
Readers are expected to weave those accounts into a story. This can
be done by dint of a certain mental effort.
We put aside chapters 1-4 with their 1960s décor and begin at
chapter 5, which takes place in 1958: Barney arrived in Paris, where
he shot to prominence in the jazz clubs; he also met Boris and
Pauline. Now our original reading becomes questionable: Chapter 6,
which is set in Boris' recording studio, cannot follow chapter 5 as
previously assumed. Chapter 6 must take place after Barney came back
from America because of the little girl: as she is Pauline's child
by Barney, she would be about five years old when Barney returned.
Chapter 8, not chapter 6, fits best after chapter 5: Barney made
Pauline pregnant and he ran off to the United States. Now chapter 11
follows logically. Barney stayed in the United States for five
years, where he experienced his first (metaphorical) death in a
mental institution. Barney's return to Europe is neither depicted
nor explained. Perhaps Barney was deported; or perhaps he slipped
out via Mexico (hence "Besame mucho"). Readers decide.
In chapters 1-4, Barney resurfaced in Spain during the early 1960s;
after which, we surmise, he accompanied Boris and Pauline back to
Paris. Chapters 6 and 7 are now inserted: Barney recorded in Boris'
studio in chapter 6; yet unbeknown to Boris, Barney's affair with
Pauline was ongoing. Barney and Pauline eloped and had their moment
of bliss in chapter 7, but in chapter 9, Boris persuaded Pauline to
come home; Barney then experienced his second death. Chapters 10,
12, and 13 bring matters to a close: having lost Pauline Barney
toured provincial France, returned to Paris, and died. The
definitive chapter ordering of Barney's rise and fall is
Anybody piecing Barney's narrative together makes a concerted
attempt to remember, and more than one rereading is required. We
revisit the chapters, trawling through everything that happened and
reminding ourselves of (sometimes minor) details. We search for
evidence to support chronology: the little girl, the Renault Floride,
the two deaths, etc. We bear sequences of events in mind before
inserting them, revising our opinions about how, where, and why they
fit. We bridge gaps by inventing and rationalizing precisely what we
do when we recall the half-forgotten past.
As a result, Barney and the Blue Note engages the reader's memory in
recreating the hero's rise and fall. At interview, Loustal spoke
about his fascination with the recreative powers of the memory:
I always work with memories. I never draw stories with contemporary
settings. That does not interest me, as there would be no
recreation. Recreation comes from photographs and from what people
have told me. I also have an idea of the 1950s from my parents'
experiences, the atmosphere, the objects. I work with that.
Loustal's interests show up throughout Barney and the Blue Note.
This album is not merely the story of a drug-addled saxophonist: it
is a story about recreating the past from memories. Loustal's
balloonless panels work together with Paringaux's fractured
storyline to achieve that effect: Loustal depicts visual memories;
to recreate Barney's story is to order those memories into a rise
The lack of speech-balloons is essential to Loustal's aesthetic: his
sequences of panels resemble memories for two reasons. Firstly,
people we remember do not have balloons protruding from their
mouths. Secondly, in most comics, balloons bring time into the
sequences: each panel lasts the time needed to say/think whatever is
in the balloons. Meanwhile, direct speech establishes temporal links
between panels: speeches flow on from one to the next, as characters
respond to each other. However, a distinctive air of timelessness
pervades Loustal's panels. As they are silent, their duration is
unverifiable; in each one, time is momentarily frozen. Temporal
links between panels are still implied by the unfolding events and
by the narrators; yet, those same links are simultaneously
undermined by the absence of direct speech. Thus, without balloons,
Loustal conjures up lingering memories: he captures fleeting
glimpses of a vanishing era, in which time is suspended.
Loustal's panels further resemble memories because they have no
thought-balloons. Traditionally, thoughts appear inside balloons
with wavy borders, attached to the thinker's head by a chain of
bubbles; the border marks the boundary between subjective thought
and objective reality. But in Barney and the Blue Note there is no
such device. Hence, no visible difference exists between what Barney
did and what the narrators think Barney did. In Loustal's realistic
images, false memories mingle interchangeably with true ones. The
human mind, likewise, is notoriously ambivalent about what was real
and what was not; we are only too liable to remember things wrongly,
but to think that we are right.
Paringaux complements Loustal by evoking recollected sensations,
notably sounds. In particular, Barney's music is described by
synaesthetic metaphors. The most obvious is "the blue note." Such
metaphors are not gratuitous. They allow Loustal to avoid the
standard devices for evoking music, which are inappropriately
caricatural in the context: drawn notes and onomatopoeia.
Furthermore, Paringaux's metaphors resemble memories: they create
pictures which (like memories) exist only in the mind and not in
In counterpoint to the abundant memories, the nonlinear chapters
suggest events being forgotten. Nobody recalls the whole truth about
Barney: chronology is broken up because recollections of him are
fading and fragmenting; gaps arise where things are permanently
consigned to oblivion.
Barney and the Blue Note is designed to activate the process of
remembering. When we piece Barney's story together, we use our own
ability to recollect, we sift through the memories of others, we
imagine; and, as a last resort, we guess. Consequently, Barney is
recreated in the reader's head as if he were a memory: Barney is a
reconstruction of the past by the subject.
Loustal called Barney mythological. If Barney is indeed
mythological, then he is no personal memory, shut away inside one
individual's mind. To be mythological Barney takes his place within
the collective memory. Before discussing Barney's mythological
status, the link between comics and myths requires revision. This
link was first analyzed by Umberto Eco who concentrated on Superman,
although his study applies to other heroes of the same generation,
such as Tintin and Tarzan. Barney's originality stands out clearly
when he is compared with his mythological forebears.
Superman's adventures lead, through a logically linked sequence of
events, to his triumph over evil. The next adventure then begins
without showing that an earlier one had preceded it, and it repeats
a similar sequence. Beginning each new story where the previous one
had ended would lock Superman into time. Not doing so does the
opposite. As Eco says: "In Superman it is the concept of time that
breaks down. The very structure of time falls apart" (113).
Superman's repetitive narrative gives him rite of passage into
mythology: whenever the preordained sequence is ritually repeated,
Superman escapes from "the law that leads from life to death through
time" (114). Thus Superman attains an "emblematic and fixed nature
which renders him easily recognizable" (110); that fixed, emblematic
nature defines all mythological heroes, including Barney.
According to Loustal, Barney embodied the spirit of
jazzmen. Barney certainly embodies a strain of jazz mythology:
Barney's outstanding talent, drug problem, and untimely death recall
John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, and Miles Davis; his dark
glasses and slicked down hair recall Dave Brubeck and Barney Wilen.
Yet Barney also fits a pattern that transcends the jazz age: Barney
is an archetype because he has Orphic characteristics. Like Orpheus,
Barney is a preeminent musician whose background is unclear;
similarly, uncertainty surrounds precisely what he did and did not
do. Orpheus and Barney are travellers and lovers, as well as
musicians: both go to the land of the dead and return, losing the
women they love en route. Orpheus and Barney both experience a rise
and fall: their prodigious talent wins them admiration, but they are
brought down prematurely, by their human failings. Orpheus and
Barney are "the
symbol of the embattled individual f. who dies because he or she is
incapable of overcoming his or her own deficiencies"
Barney's rise and fall happened during the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Yet Barney could have emerged in the 1920s Chicago, the psychedelic
late 1960s, the punky 1970s, or at other times. Barney would live
and die amid different period decor; he would make different music,
wear different clothes, and have different hair. Nevertheless, he
would follow the same trajectory. Barney is a recurring Orphic
figure: the genius on the fringes of society who dies young, a
victim of excesses. He embodies a long tradition, whose
best-remembered exemplars are Robert Johnson, Nick Drake, Jimi
Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain. This list is
far from exhaustive, and future generations of musicians will take
Barney's Orphic path.
Barney passes into mythology through his narrative ritual, but
Barney's ritual differs from Superman's, Tarzan's, and Tintin's. A
fragmented narrative gives Barney rite of passage. There is only one
way to transform Barney and the Blue Note into a coherent story:
constructing it entails systematically reenacting the procedure
which was followed above, in the opening paragraphs of this section;
that same preordained procedure is inevitably repeated (with minor
variations), every time anybody else assembles Barney and the Blue
Note. Barney's ritual differs from that of his predecessors, but its
outcome is identical: the hero escapes from the "law that leads from
life to death through time"; he attains an "emblematic and fixed
nature which renders him easily recognizable." Barney is a jazz
incarnation of Orpheus. Yet Barney's rise and fall must be
reconstructed correctly, according to its proper ritual.
Loustal's characteristic preoccupation with memory is apparent in
Barney's ritual. Mircea Eliade analyzed "the inability of the
collective memory to retain historical events and individuals except
insofar as it transforms them into archetypes". Barney's
peculiar ritual is the process Eliade describes: anyone who turns
Barney and the Blue Note into a coherent story, turns half-forgotten
scraps of history into a myth.
Barney and the Graphic Novel
We must now analyze Barney and the Blue Note's literary aspect. The
fashion for graphic novels proves that Loustal and Paringaux were
not alone in giving comics a literary dimension. François Bourgeon's
Les passagers du vent (1979), an eighteenth century seafaring
adventure, epitomizes the French graphic novels of the day. Les
passagers du vent is a complex intrigue, which hinges on the
heroine's personal relationships, moral dilemmas, and power
struggles aboard ship and in isolated colonial outposts.
Sophisticated characterization rules out simplistic distinctions
between good and evil. A carefully researched setting, drawn in
"clear line," lends the story credibility. To many of his
contemporaries, Bourgeon perfected the genre; Les passagers du vent
was a best seller, and it spawned numerous imitators. However,
Barney and the Blue Note recreates the past in ways closer to
Marguerite Duras and Patrick Modiano, both of whom Loustal admired
Barney and the Blue Note has word/image combinations particularly
reminiscent of Duras' films India song (1975) and Son nom de Venise
(1979). India song is a costume drama, which is set in the dying
days of British colonial India; this is an era which, like Barney's
jazz heyday, is just on the verge of being forgotten. Moreover,
India song and Barney and the Blue Note both break with the realist
conventions, which had dominated since the 1930s: for the first time
since balloons and lipsynchronized soundtracks, there is no direct
speech; instead, words are spoken by "acousmatic" voices off.
Despite the local color, realism's illusion that the action unfolds
in external reality is called into question. A new possibility
arises: namely, that what is seen emanates from within a narrating
subject's consciousness; the scenes resemble memories summoned up by
In India song, as in Barney and the Blue Note, those voices recall
events leading up to the main character's demise, but the voices are
fallible and they do not arrange things in chronological order. It
falls to readers and viewers to piece the story together, by making
an effort to remember: we look back over what occurred, we search
for clues, we weigh up the details, we fill in unexplained blanks by
imagining and guessing. Najet Limam-Tnani suggests that in Duras'
work, reconstructing the past combines ritual with myth. Her
comments are relevant to Barney and the Blue Note: "The attempt to
piece back together events swallowed up by time and generally buried
in the past, [and] the quest for the origin which runs throughout
Ms. Duras' work and gives it life, involve ritual [...]in the
authors' novels and films, myth and ritual have an intimate,
unbreakable correlation" (188).4
Loustal singled out for praise Duras' Son nom de Venise, which
consists of India song's soundtrack played unaltered over pictures
of a decaying palace. As a result, words and pictures give different
information: the soundtrack does not coincide with what is on
screen. The effect is similar to the one produced by the divergences
between Paringaux's texts and Loustal's pictures: words produce
mental images which, like memories, do not exist in objective
reality; meanwhile, pictures are freed from their illustrative
function. Again, Limam-Tnani's comments apply to Barney and the Blue
Note: "This discrepancy is intended [. . .] to change the nature of
representation and to discourage the spectator's desire to see
objects and characters on screen as illustrative. Those elements are
to be seen as reflections, as lingering traces of a story which is
completely buried in the memory"
Further similarities exist between Barney and the Blue Note and
Modiano's detective thrillers. In particular, Modiano's early work
describes (unsuccessful) investigations into the Nazi occupation of
Modiano's La place de l'étoile (1968) is
especially comparable to Barney and the Blue Note: the story is
recounted by more than one narrator; the central character, a Jewish
victim, dies at least three times. As in Barney and the Blue Note
and in Duras' films, events are not chronological and witnesses may
be unreliable; in the absence of any omniscient narrator readers put
the fragments into order, making judgments about what occurred.
Lastly Modiano, like Loustal and Duras, breaks with accepted codes
of realism. Modiano's descriptive passages proliferate with
reproduced details lifted from reality, which traditionally
what happened: recognizable places, real people, period fashions,
identifiable vehicles, popular songs, newspapers, etc. However, as
in Barney and the Blue Note and India song, such elements prove
deceptive: they lend authenticity to memories which may have little
objective value; the distinction between the real and the vividly
imagined is blurred.
Loustal, Paringaux, Duras, and Modiano depict different historical
periods: the late 1950s/early 1960s, colonial India, occupied
Nevertheless, a common thread links their stories: all are quests to
save rapidly receding eras from oblivion. In La place de l'étoile,
this quest ends in relative failure: no definitive version is
recovered and the mysteries remain unsolved. But in India song and
Barney and the Blue Note the quest may yet be completed, by enacting
the appropriate ritual: if readers recreate the story accordingly,
then the hero/heroine enters the collective memory as a myth. We
cannot raise the dead, but, through myth and ritual, we can achieve
a partial victory over time.
2014 Patrick Modiano : Prix Nobel de
& Wikipedia EN
Even without balloons, Barney and the Blue Note is a comic strip:
there is no redundancy; texts do not describe pictures, pictures do
not illustrate texts; words and pictures bear equal narrative
and the Blue Note may look outmoded. However, the album's dated
appearance is appropriate: the text/image arrangement, combined with
"clear line," Hockney, film noir and New Objectivism, evokes
Barney's defunct epoch with archaisms; the past is revived through
styles redolent of bygone eras.
Loustal and Paringaux do not simply rehash "retro" styles. They make
an original contribution to the 1980s graphic novel. Loustal is
evidently influenced by previous realists, particularly Hergé.
Nonetheless his balloonless panels, combined with Paringaux's
fragmented narrative and voices off, conjure up a hero who is on the
edge of oblivion; readers save Barney from being forgotten, by
piecing his story together in their heads. This interest in
remembering distances Barney and the Blue Note from work by other
artists, but brings it closer to Modiano and Duras. To strengthen
the similarity, Duras and Modiano, like Loustal, go against
conventional realism when they evoke the past.
Barney and the Blue Note successfully introduced a literary
dimension. Barney and the Blue Note has a narrative complexity that
exceeds that of most comics. Rather than foregrounding physical
actions, it deals with the repercussions of such actions on the
subject. The hero has exceptional psychological depth. Paringaux's
texts, written in literate French or English, have more space to
develop than balloons permit; literary devices abound, notably
metaphors. Like much literature, Barney and the Blue Note probes the
mind's innermost workings: it emulates the actions of the memory.
Finally, Barney and the Blue Note
brought a new mythological hero into the comic strip's pantheon.
Barney is more comparable to Tintin than to Tarzan or to Superman:
as his world is drawn with documented realism, readers are
encouraged to accept that he existed. But Barney is no embodiment of
triumphant goodness: he is a half-forgotten junky, who is no more.
Moreover as Barney is dead, readers must effect his passage into
mythology: we assemble Barney's shattered life into a rise and fall;
in so doing, we refashion an Orphic archetype from the detritus of
memory. Barney dies three times during the story, but Barney is
resurrected ad infinitum as a myth.
1. Loustal was interviewed by the author in Paris on May 15, 2004.
All following quotations from Loustal come from this interview
unless otherwise stated.
2. Translated by the author: The original reads "On y trouve un peu
de Chet Baker et du mythe du jazzman
3. For more on the French and American publishing histories of these
strips, as well as chose of other strips discussed below, see Gaumer
4. Translated by the author. The original reads "La tentative de
reconstituer des événements happés par le temps, généralement
ensevelis dans le passé, la quête de l'origine qui animent et
sillonnent les oeuvres de M. Duras impliquent le rituel [...] le
mythe et le rite se trouvent, dans les films et les romans de
('auteur, dans une corrélation étroite et indéfectible."
5. Translated by the author. The original reads "Ce décalage vice [.
..] à dénaturer la représentation et à décourager chez le spectateur
toute volonté d'attribuer aux objets, aux personnages produits sur
l'écran, une valeur illustrative. Ces éléments doivent être pers:us
comme les reflets, les traces qui persistent d'un récit complètement
enfoui dans la mémoire."
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