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Nogegon by Schuiten and Schuiten

Nogegon by Luc & Francois Schuiten (1990). Translation by Julia Solis. Humanoids, 2000. 72 p, approx. 9.25″ X 12.25″, full-color, $14.95. ISBN: 1930652208. Also available as part of The Hollow Grounds (DC/Humanoids, 2004) in a smaller size.

DC’s experiment with publishing work from Europe’s Humanoids Assocation, a publisher of mostly sci-fi/fantasy bande dessinee, has already ended and now I have reviews of a few titles coming up. In this case, I bought the Humanoids original edition rather than the DC. Though the latter includes the whole “Hollow Grounds” series of stories, the reproduction size is smaller, and apparently the reproductions are rather poor. This edition is a beautiful large size hardcover, full-color, nice paper, very subtle color reproduction.

I picked this book up after reading about its formal characteristics in the Benoit Peeters book I read recently (who incidentally has done a series with Francoics Schuiten (the artist)). The book is organized as a palindrome, not like those from Oupus 3, but rather the panel layouts are reversed, the images in the panels are altered versions from one half to the other (foreground characters become background characters, left becomes right, up becomes down, etc.). While this constraint is not followed strictly, it is done quite skillfully.

One of Jacques Roubaud’s laws of constraint is “A text written under constraint often mentions this constraint.” In this case Schuiten and Schuiten have constructed a story that not only follows this symmetrical layout but also is about such organization. I really didn’t know what to expect of the story, having never read either Schuiten. Both are highly praised for their work, and this shows why. The whole package, story, art, layout, design, is quite impressive.

This is a science fiction story. It connects some how with the other books in the series, though all I could gather is that the main character Nelle has followed the trail of her friend Olive to a world called Nogegon. What follows is Nelle’s path into and out of the world, into and out of her own version of Olive’s story, concentric circles.

The world of Nogegon is ruled by symmetry. People have symmetrical names (Nelle becomes “Nellen”, Olive “Olivilo”). All events have a symmetrical opposite. It is both religion and law for the inhabitants of the world. They even have an area of “rejects”, non-symmetrically living people, to balance out the order of the symmetry. The story of Nelle’s journey into the world and its city rises to a conflict, in the middle pages, with a sculptor who was Olive’s lover and then it falls away until Nelle leaves the world. Late in the first half we see Nelle’s conflict with the sculptor, early in the second their reconciliation. In the first half entrance, in the second half exit. In the first half searching, in the second half discovery. Scenes are revisited in a way that is almost opposite. In the end, Nelle wonders how her story became symmetrical: is it in nature? is it just a trick of memory? A policeman accompanying her for awhile admits that symmetry is boring and predictable, like a copy of an original. In the narrative sense this book’s symmetry is controlled by nature, the artists’, but is not predictable or boring.

The palindromic form of the book is what really brings the story to life. The panel layouts are all in pairs, one page being the reverse of another page at the opposite end of the book. The pages are numbered 1 to 36 and then from 36′ to 1′ (for those who don’t already know about the formal element this is a good clue). Even the front and back covers are opposite in their own ways (location of title, characters, background). The opposing/palindromatic elements of the work are not strictly applied at the panel level, but they are evident in every panel pairing. For instance, if we look at pages 30 and 30′ (note these pages are not juxtaposed in the actual book) (Click for larger image):

It’s easy to see the way the panels are organized in palindromic sequence. The location of the characters in the panels is also quite easily recognized as opposites. The center panel in page 30 shows the sculptor standing in shadows over the fallen Nelle, while the center panel in 30′ shows Nelle in shadows atop a statue over the crouching sculptor. Both lower characters even have a little iconic squiggle over their heads. Thematic mirroring can be seen in the first panel of page 30 and the last panel of page 30′. In the former Nelle is destroying a sculpture, in the latter the sculptor is creating.

The artwork itself is done in a realistic style that I equate with conventional sci-fi bande dessinee. It’s technically well done but also a bit soulless, lacking in expressive emotion. All in all a very interesting example of a formally constrained comics work.