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The saddest butcher of them all

Pascal Blanchet’s newest graphic novel merges music and melancholy

Trois-Rivieres artist Pascal Blanchet garnered critical acclaim with his last effort, White Rapids, a graphic novel chronicling the life span of a hydro-electric outpost in northern Quebec. His flat yet dynamic figures struck an aesthetic somewhere between art deco and the TV show Dexter’s Laboratory, integrating text with the artwork to bring fifties Quebec enterprise to life. At the end of the volume, Blanchet, who’s illustrated The New Yorker and Penguin books with his jazzy style, provided readers with a playlist, a sort of soundtrack to the graphic novel.

In his new release, Baloney: A Tale in 3 Symphonic Acts, the artist further incorporates music into the story, adding another element to his unique blend of text and graphics. With an orchestration detailed at the start of each chapter, Blanchet manages to make his illustrations into a graphic manifestation of sound. At the book launch last Wednesday, the artist said the idea for the book came from listening to the Soviet-era Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. “His music is renowned for being so over-the-top it’s gross,” says Blanchet, “It’s almost comedic.”

He compared the sound of Shostakovich to an opera, and the plot of Baloney certainly fits that bill. The title is drawn from the book’s lead character, a widower butcher nicknamed for the saddest meat of them all. Baloney the crying butcher resides in a village nested on top of a rocky cliff with his daughter, who has lost a leg, an arm, and her vision. Every night poor Baloney is haunted by nightmares of his departed wife, whose fall from the cliff prompted the town’s corrupt duke, Shostakov, to seal off the town. Baloney desires a proper education for his physically disabled, yet beautiful daughter, while the duke terrorizes the town by regularly raising the cost of heating.

Set in an unnamed eastern European municipality inspired by Shostakovich, the constant wintry gloom of the town recalls snowy Quebec – and the duke, with his heating monopoly, is an easy stand-in for the menace of Hydro-Quebec in White Rapids. Blanchet joked that power is his main pre-occupation; besides having to pay the bills, many of his family members have worked for the power company.

Blanchet says he has received some negative reviews for Baloney, something that may have more to do with the marketing of the book than its contents. Released in English by Montreal-based graphic novel publisher Drawn & Quarterly, Baloney is described as a graphic novel filled with full-page panels. “People just don’t know where to put my stuff,” notes Blanchet. Full-page panels of graphic novels are not so different than the full-page illustrations of picture books, and these seem to be more like the novels. The text is also not divulged through captions and balloons like a comic, but within the artwork or beside it, a trait of picture books. As a graphic novel, it is easy to give Baloney harsh reviews, for it lacks the plot expected of the genre. The form of picture books is more appreciative of art, and this medium allows Blanchet to show off his dynamic skills.

Baloney should be described as a picture book for adults, best read while listening to the playlist. Blanchet’s mixture of silk-screening and computer illustration makes for an interesting showcase of contemporary design. The tragic ending is certainly not for children, and its abruptness may have garnered some criticism; it is incomplete by novelistic standards, but falls in the operatic tradition that inspired the artist. In fact, the tale sits a little uneasily with this reviewer as well, perhaps because the illustrations strain against the confines of the page, begging to be animated and given voice. Still, it’s a testament to Blanchet’s ability that he is able to inject two-dimensional figures with so much vitality.