Culture  Laughing in the face of death

Pascal Girard’s autobiographical graphic novel pushes comic book boundaries

A short while ago, I received a bizarre phone call from a friend: she was riding the train from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, and her arrival was delayed because a man had jumped in front of the train – to his death, of course. And then, suddenly, my friend broke into an irrepressible peal of laughter. What the hell was so funny, I asked. Someone had committed suicide and she was laughing? She responded matter-of-factly, “You can’t see someone get hit by 200 pounds of metal and just chill. I mean, if you think about it, it’s pretty fucking absurd.”

Was it that she, like countless teens, had been utterly desensitized to violence? Does death no longer move us? I’m not entirely convinced that such sweeping statements can be made. I do, however, believe that laughter is a complex, sometimes nervous, human response to jarring events; laughter helps us make sense of happenings that we otherwise find inexplicable – or, in the words of my friend, “absurd.” For lack of a better reaction, we laugh. Laughter is a complex emotion, a visceral expression of that which cannot be articulated. It is no surprise, then, that popular culture – comedy in particular – is littered with examples of dispensable human lives: extras in movies are unceremoniously killed off in a humourous fashion, and we do not question their fate; stand-up comics frequently make death into a punchline.

Pascal Girard’s comic book Nicolas may be included in this tradition, although it certainly treats death with greater sensitivity than other comedic genres. Presented as a series of short autobiographical vignettes, Nicolas begins with the death of Girard’s younger brother, the book’s namesake, and chronicles the effects of this traumatic experience at various stages of Girard’s life – as a young boy resenting the birth of a new baby brother; as an adolescent experimenting with drugs; and as married adult grappling with having children of his own.

Most appealing about these sketches is how Girard avoids treating death with gushing sentimentality. Indeed, they stand out for precisely the opposite reason. Girard attempts to reconcile the loss of his brother with his quotidian experiences, all while injecting the sketches with both a subtle sense of humour and an honest simplicity. In one vignette, the reader is touched when a young Pascal cannot explain to a friend why his brother died – “I dunno,” Pascal abjectly responds, indicating how confounded he is by his brother’s death. In the next vignette, the reader laughs as a high-school-aged Pascal struggles to light a joint.

But while it’s encouraging to see the work of a local artist get published at a mass-media level – Girard grew up in Montreal and has been a fixture on the Quebecois comic series scene – there’s nothing particularly outstanding about the book in and of itself. Though the book is a very short read (you can finish it in 15 minutes), the reader may need to return to scenes several times before understanding what has just happened or realizing that the plot has just skipped forward ten years without any indication.

Moreover, although I’m no comic book buff, I usually expect comics to entertain either in a seriously funny manner (à la The Far Side) or in a sensational manner (e.g., superhero comics). Nicolas does not satisfactorily meet either standard. Still, it does leave the reader contemplating the contemporary function of comics precisely because of this failure. Indeed, it’s thanks to this understated approach that Nicolas succeeds in expanding the parameters of its genre, far beyond slapstick humour and senseless action. So, should you choose to pick up Nicolas, expect to meet it on its own terms: as a cathartic, though quite light-hearted, perspective on tragedy. In the end, perhaps laughter is the most powerful – and most challenging – antidote for trauma.