Different Ugliness, Different Madness by Marc Malès (2004). Translated by Jonathan Tanner. Humanoids/DC, 2005. 128 p, black and white, $14.99.
This Humanoids release is completely different from the last one I reviewed, it is neither science fiction nor a slickly painted graphic novel. Marc Malès Different Ugliness, Different Madness is a historical fiction drawn in black ink with a style that mixes precise linework with fluid blacks, reminiscent more of Milt Caniff than of most other bandes dessinées I’ve read.
The story here exists on a few narrative levels, each in its own time period. The book starts with a 50’s television program where a man discusses his book on radio stars of the 30’s and a particular radio star Lloyd Goodman, who disappeared from the airwaves for a year at the height of his popularity. The story shifts back to the thirties and a discussion between radio executives about Lloyd. Then, in what could be the present (perhaps the 80’s or early 90’s), an old woman named Helen and her daughter visit a train station. Helen reminisces about her life 50 years ago.
Most of the story unfolds in the 30’s as Helen, travelling aimlessly for unknown reasons, finds her way to the isolated home of a man. It is quickly obvious that there is something mentally wrong with Helen. She talks to herself in the mirror of a restaurant, calling herself by another name. The man she meets, though talented in a number of ways, is self-isolated because of his physical appearance. Malès draws him as a tall man with a thin head, big ears, big nose, big mouth, not a freak but neither is he particularly goodlooking.
What follow is the two characters interacting and discovering that each of their supposed defects is not as hindering as they think. The story is well-told and information is given out in such a way that the story is only completely evident at the end. Unfortunately the story’s final reveal suffers from what I consider a rather sexist point of view, though it could just be relevant to the time period.
(Spoilers in this paragraph is you care to remain in suspense)
Helen tells Lloyd how her favor said that everyone has a “magic power” that they can only use once. In the end Helen decides her power is using sex to give Lloyd a night of happiness. I find this concept problematic, as if sex is her only special function. One could say that it evolves from her image of herself in that time period, but she is also shown early on as someone outside the norm. She travels by herself, hitchhiking a lot, through the country and is shown being able to take care of herself (some men harass her and she pulls a gun on them to scare them off).
Malès art is what saves the book. He combines a thin controlled line with fluid blacks that makes the pages visually dynamic. He also makes frequent of very simple markings to create various patterns. His compositions are skillful.
There is an amazing 8 page sequence towards the end of the book. Helen is sitting on a bench at a train station, smoking a cigarette. Each page has three wide panels that show Helen. At the start of each new page the point of view gets a little closer to her. From the first to the eighth page the viewpoint shifts from her full figure to a close-up of her face. Throughout she smokes; Malès shows the small movements of the activity. The sequence slows time to a crawl and the reader knows that Helen is contemplating something, the plan that is the central part of the events.
It’s an interesting book worth picking up at a discount if you see it somewhere.