Some graphic novels demand you slow down. Some graphic novels unravel at their own pace. Some graphic novels don’t always use words to get where they are going. Bastien Vivès’s A Taste of Chlorine springs to mind as a good example. Parts of Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Parts of Craig Thompson’s Blankets. To this lofty company we must add Hubert by Ben Gijsemans. A simple story, beautifully told.
The canny reader will eventually see that the Gijsemans makes every page work. We see our eponymous here on the cover looking at art. We open the cover we see a hundred images composed of the same two artworks. This is how we interact with museum art to a greater or lesser extent. We stand, we glimpse or we look or we watch and we study and perhaps we wonder how long we should stand and watch or perhaps we stand and are absorbed and lose track of time. We turn a page, we see another piece of art, this time used as a laptop screensaver. Another page and the laptop screensaver is being used an aide memoire while Hubert paints a copy. This, we learn, is what he does.
When the graphic novel begins for real, we have a small number of pages in which a large piece of art is beautifully interrogated. This, we start to realise, is what Hubert does. He pores over squares. He examines. He breaks down the whole. He gets into the detail. Then we stand and watch him as people come and go around him. We get the chance to study him, a little (and what would we say? – a gentleman in his late forties, possibly, bespectacled, losing his hair, slightly overweight, alone). He walks around a museum, he looks at art. A couple passes by (Gijsemans is never so crass as to show us Hubert directly looking but given the fact that he looks so hard elsewhere, we get the impression that there isn’t much he misses). A child mocks him. The world is a very ordered place, a least until he steps outside. Belgium itself, where the story is set, appears to us as a fractured mess. Real life, we gather, is not something Hubert feels particularly adept at.
More broadly, Hubert tells of an infatuation of sorts (a light infatuation, a possible fellow feeling, a desire for more – Hubert is distinct from, say, the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in Todd Solondz’s Happiness). Around him, others are lonely and look to Hubert for love, but it isn’t something Hubert himself is looking for. Not in that way. Gijsemans is good at sowing the seeds of his story early on. We see a picture of a window, a flowerbox, a half-closed curtain, as Hubert emerges from the first museum into the chaos of Belgium (and quite possibly that is the first time those four words have ever been written down) – and again we gradually come to learn that the image of the window, even without his neighbour watering her plants, is a solace.
There is more, though. Hubert is a copyist. He has canvasses piled up around his neat and clean apartment. Hubert (the graphic novel) is as much about Hubert’s journey to become an artist as it is about unrequited (or requited) love. And does it seem to posit, in a way, that age-old standard that suffering is good for the artist? Quite possibly but it isn’t anything we are going to hold against the book. This is a debut (and we write those four words with such surprise). This is a debut and it has blown both of our socks off. It’s a truly beautiful piece of work. It looks good, it has an elegant pace and it tells a good story, well. We are already looking forward to what Gijsemans does next.
Any Cop?: The first great graphic novel of 2016 everybody.