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Kaspar

by Diane Obomsawin

Baloney: A Tale in Three Symphonic Acts

by Pascal Blanchet

If Kaspar Hauser hadn’t actually lived, someone would have made him up. Discovered on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828 by German authorities, the enigmatic teenage foundling quickly became a sensation across Europe, capturing the imagination of a population equally susceptible to Rousseauian philosophy (surely, here was an example of “natural man”) and sensational speculation (was he the long-lost son of the Grand Duke of Baden?). When Hauser died under mysterious circumstances five years later, little more was known about his obscure origins than on the day he first appeared.

In Kaspar, Quebec artist Diane Obomsawin is less concerned with the mythology surrounding Hauser than with retracing the steps of his tentative self-awakening. Drawing on Hauser’s own writings and the accounts of his contemporaries, she depicts the dismal details of his early life (Hauser was raised in a darkened cellar, deprived of “all human and social education”), as well as his life with various guardians, who generally treated him well but soon grew tired of the novelty – and the burden – of his care. Along the way, an unlikely portrait of Hauser emerges as a kind of forsaken everyman, a metaphor for the romantic artist and outsider. “Nature only seems beautiful to me when I look at it through red-coloured glass,” Hauser observes. “The day I see red apples I feel true satisfaction.”

Obomsawin’s simple, stick-like figures and muted greyscale palette are perfectly suited to Hauser’s naive befuddlement with the world. Depicted as an implacable presence at the centre of nearly every frame, Hauser is primped like a toy doll as he’s passed from one guardian to the next. The resulting impression is of a primitive flipbook (Obomsawin has worked as an animator on several NFB-produced films), and the cumulative effect – of life, sped up and in miniature – is oddly moving.

Kaspar’s muted charm couldn’t be further removed from the brash aesthetic of Baloney, Pascal Blanchet’s follow-up to his well-received graphic novel White Rapids, which charted the rise and fall of a fictional Quebec boomtown. The new book, which was actually written before White Rapids and is only now being translated into English, is self-consciously composed as “a tale in three symphonic acts,” with nods to the bombastic styles of composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

While White Rapids was suffused with the lambent light of nostalgia, Baloney – set in a “poor, isolated town on a high, rocky peak” – is overpowered by the macabre. Visually, the book is as eye-catching as its predecessor, composed in a stark colour scheme of black, white, and red. Unlike most graphic novelists, Blanchet works on a computer, and his designs here have all the contrast of a German Expressionist film – an apt approach to this tale about a town improbably sealed off from all sunlight. Blanchet finds much nuance in the charcoal-and-grey shadow life of the town.

But while Baloney is undeniably eye candy, it’s an oddly hollow confection. The narrative lurches around disjointedly, pitting the title character (a lugubrious butcher named “after the saddest of all meats”) against the villainous Duke of Shostakov, who rules over the town with an iron fist. When Baloney’s handicapped daughter and her lover uncover the Duke’s monopoly over the town’s energy resources, their punishment is swift and absolute – but the tragic coda feels perfunctory and unearned. None of this is helped by language that feels wooden (“Tragedy played thief to his love and joy….”) and at times completely superfluous (“He stopped at the butcher’s shop, casting a long shadow over its heavy door, and took hold of the knocker”).

Baloney will appeal to those attracted by Blanchet’s visual flair, but is unlikely to have the same crossover appeal as his previous work. The book is all horn blasts and booming tympana, with no connecting theme.