Saturday, 30 January 2010

Review: Tommi Musturi's Sur les Pas de Samuel (5c, 2009)

 Finnish edition: "Samuelin matkassa", identical in all but title and publishing marks*

Last weekend, after a day in Paris spent fighting bad weather, subway power cuts and belligerent train-station monsters, Team Avoid the Future managed to visit La Rubrique A Bulles to pick up some BDs before returning to Versailles.

Amongst our haul was this little gem: Sur les Pas de Samuel (Walking with Samuel) by Finnish creator Tommi Musturi.

Initially spotted by Judith, but almost immediately gaining the affections of us both, by appearances alone we knew that we had to buy this book. Sporting an awesome hardback canvas-textured rainbow-coloured cover and filled with charming, (deceptively) simplistic and wordless art, there was no way we were going to leave without it. I’ll be honest, the fact that it contains absolutely no dialogue was a major plus for me, and whilst my ATF cohort (French born and bred) has been helping me learn her language, I’m still (comparatively) l’anglais ignorant.

The image that greeted us upon opening the book in the comic shop

Needless to say, we couldn't wait to read it in full, beginning to do so it almost as soon as our train left the capital.

Although I usually give an awkward shudder at the term “sequential art”, if any comic fits the bill, it would be this one. The strange journey of the titular Samuel (a naked ghostly figure with one blue eye) is mostly told in 4-panel format, with the occasional page-size drawing or splash page. As stated previously, the minimalist approach to format is deceptive; although bold and colourful as it may be, this book is anything but simplistic; the individual shapes and colours, uncomplicated in isolation, through composition combine to give a much more intricate whole.

This idea of the simple giving way to the complex and the passage of time that occurs between is present throughout. This theme is apparent right from the outset, in the opening “dawn of time”-style sequence where the reader is transported from the birth of the universe to a fully-formed planet Earth (in the space of a very biblical seven panels). Musturi’s ability to convey the passing of time wordlessly is impressive, and is explored from the most minute of details (Samuel’s cigarette break atop a rock/hill/mountain) to the most severe (the corporeal decay of a murdered creature).

For me, the true appeal of this book lies in the questions that the reader encounters when considering what happens between panels. For instance, in the sequence described at the end of the previous paragraph, Samuel shoots an arrow into the head of the yellow creature before using its slumped corpse as a platform on which to reach up into a tree for fruit. The protagonist departs, discarding his bow next to his victim, arrow still embedded in its skull. Finally, the last panel of this sequence jumps forward in time and depicts the creature’s bare skeleton still propped up against the tree; the fruit has re-grown, the rocks and pebbles of the scenery have shifted, the arrow and bow absent. I couldn’t help asking questions regarding the time between panels: “How much time had passed?”, “Did the still-visible tongue indicate that the creature’s flesh had been stripped by a predator?”, “Did it simply decay?”, “Did Samuel himself eat it?”, “Who took the bow and arrow?”. Etc ad nauseum.

Of course, then there’s the obvious pondering on the morality of killing the creature in the first place: “Was it an animal or an intelligent being?”, “Is Samuel just a cold-blooded killer?”. Possibly: in another sequence, we see Samuel cutting out the heart of his duplicate-self before entering the wound (yes, you read that correctly). In yet another, he creates and then burns an effigy of himself. Perhaps he’s a nihilist, or a narcissist (or both)? Mysteries of character like these pop up all the way throughout the book and make Samuel himself just as mysterious as his surroundings.

Equally cute and subversive (the former informing the latter), Musturi’s art and storytelling make this comic an essential read for anyone. Even more alluring to monolingual English readers is the fact that they can pick up any of the foreign editions of Sur les Pas de Samuel (Finnish!, French!, Swedish! Portuguese!) without fear of hitting the language barrier. I personally demand that everyone reading this buy it right now (link provided below).

And also, it’s damned pretty.


*: If you are wondering why we listed this under its French title, rather than the Finnish, it is because the French language edition was actually published first. So there.

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