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Exquisite Corpse


Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite corpse is a phrase for a type of storytelling, where the next word or phrase, sentence, chapter (or image) is written (or drawn) by a different person with no planning. It can provide some really interesting work, and it can provide some really bizarre work. Pénélope Bagieu’s graphic novel EXQUISITE CORPSE is entirely her own, but the title is a clever pun. It has various meanings, one subtextual and one a punning on the actual words. It’s a lovely book about taking control of your life and changing the narrative of your own story.

Zoe is a woman who is going nowhere. She’s a product rep, which is the tactful way of saying she’s that woman who stands by cars at auto shows and looks pretty. She has a boyfriend who sits around all day and does nothing. And while all the other product reps are doing it to pay for school or move forward, Zoe is doing it because it’s what she does --- until one day, she is sitting in a park eating lunch and sees a man looking out the window at her.

"[A] strong showing from creator Pénélope Bagieu, whose work I hope gets a wider audience and more translations into English.... [P]layful art, smart plotting, and well-rounded characters."

The man is Thomas Rocher, a name that means nothing to Zoe, who isn’t much of a reader. Rocher is a famous novelist who is thrilled that Zoe has no idea who he is. The two strike up what starts out as a friendship but shortly turns into a love affair. And Zoe becomes Rocher’s muse. He is writing more than he has in years. But Zoe remains suspicious, because Rocher is a shut-in. He won’t even take a walk with her, and she is getting claustrophobic. And she gets more uncomfortable when Agathe, Rocher’s beautiful editor and ex-wife, appears.

Bagieu immediately upsets the expectations of the reader who might be expecting a cliché. The love triangle between Zoe, Rocher, and Agathe never forms anywhere but in Zoe’s mind. [Editor’s note: Warning! Hereafter, there be spoilers!] But it’s because of Agathe that Zoe leaves the apartment she and Rocher are sharing and goes to a bookstore, where she learns the unnerving truth: Thomas Rocher is dead. Or at least, everyone else believes this to be the case. She storms back to the apartment, where Agathe tells her a story of a workaholic and fame-obsessed writer who was going out of style and pulled off a scheme to regain his popularity by faking his death and releasing new works as “lost” novels just discovered. 

This revelation makes you go back and rethink everything that you’ve read so far. You look at Rocher’s narcissism, his obsession, his pretension (who names their big grey cat Gatsby?), and you see that Zoe isn’t in a place that was better than before. Instead of an apathetic boyfriend, she has one who thinks only of himself and his own reputation. And so now, Zoe must make a choice. She has to decide whether or not to stay in another bad relationship or to leave. But she has nothing else to do other than go back to her unfulfilling life from before meeting Rocher. Yet she does decide, and the story of her life is changed forever.

One of the things I found most refreshing about EXQUISITE CORPSE was how Zoe is portrayed. She isn’t an intellectual --- she might not be smart in the sense that we are meant to expect. But she isn’t written as ditzy either. She’s a person who simply hasn’t found her calling, and is trying to find what it is that drives her. Yet also she has the maturity and intellect to know that work isn’t everything, and that she doesn’t want to be driven just by that --- an important factor when she makes her decision about Rocher at book’s end.

While there are other minor characters, like Zoe’s fellow models and ex-boyfriend, this book almost feels like a play, with just the three characters: Zoe, Rocher, and Agathe. This means that the reader gets to really understand all of the characters well, and gets to feel their inner workings, even when there are no thought balloons or narration. While not mentioned in her bio, I would be curious to know if Bagieu has a background in theater, as it feels like this graphic novel and a play have a lot in common; in the spaces without those particular tricks of the graphic novel doing the bulk of the expository work, it’s up to the “actors” to tell the story through their looks and gestures as well as their words.

The art of the book clearly helps along this stylistic choice. The characters have expressive faces and bodies that allow for maximum emotion. The coloring is also very interesting, as the book shift from different color backgrounds and different muted color palettes with splashes of color to full color and back again to fit the scene.

EXQUISITE CORPSE is a story that would be appreciated by anyone who remembers what it was like to be in their 20s and not sure where their life is going. It’s a story with some smart twists and turns, and an ending that I don’t think anyone will see coming. It’s a strong showing from creator Pénélope Bagieu, whose work I hope gets a wider audience and more translations into English. With its playful art, smart plotting, and well-rounded characters, it’s an excellent addition to the library of anyone who likes stories about creativity, writing, and finding your way in life.

Reviewed by Matt Lazorwitz on April 4, 2015

Exquisite Corpse
by Penelope Bagieu

  • Publication Date: May 5, 2015
  • Genres: Graphic Novel
  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: First Second
  • ISBN-10: 1626720827
  • ISBN-13: 9781626720824