Sometimes power outages cause sparks, as Jimmy Beaulieu demonstrates in his newly-translated graphic novella My Neighbour’s Bikini. Beaulieu, co-founder of the Mécanique Générale publishing house, is a Quebecois cartoonist who has written over 15 comics since 1999. This new edition of Bikini is an English translation of the charming novella about two neighbours who fall in love in a Montreal summer. It’s a short, sweet, and above all, authentic story, perfect for anytime of the year.
The two neighbours, Simon and Bernie, meet for the first time on their way home during a power outage. Their love story is typical: Simon uses ridiculous pick-up lines to flirt with Bernie, they discover they like the same kind of music, and the romance follows just as we’d expect. But the comic is not only centred on the couple’s story. It crafts a social world for Bernie as a young woman in Montreal, featuring supporting characters like Bernie’s friend Josie, a divorced lesbian mother. In depicting daily life in Montreal, Beaulieu’s story gains added relatability.
The main characters themselves are lacking in emotional or psychological depth, but in a way this is what makes their love story so universal. Instead of focusing on developing his characters, Beaulieu makes them as realistic as possible on the surface. He creates diverse characters with diverse appearances.
Beaulieu is known for his uniquely simple drawing style, a characteristic that particularly comes through in Bikini. The images are not exactly ‘well-drawn’ in the traditional sense – appearing more as black and white sketches – but this in no way detracts from the reading. In fact, the images grab the reader’s attention from the first page. Moreover, the book is not overflowing with dialogue, letting the visuals speak for themselves. Instead of acting as a simple backdrop for the story, the images enhance the text by conveying a visual understanding beyond words. The simplicity of the drawings nicely complements the simplicity of the story itself, allowing the reader to absorb and appreciate both without being overwhelmed by either.
Contrasting the story’s simple charm, but ultimately giving the book its value and authenticity, are Beaulieu’s explicit images and scenes. He doesn’t shy away from drawing social taboos that one would be hard-pressed to find in most graphic novels – for example take his vivid depictions of cunnilingus between an interracial lesbian couple, or Simon and Bernie having casual sex. That said, there is a kind of off-putting sexualization of women in the book, particularly in the way Beaulieu draws curvy women and plain men.
However, for all of Bikini’s beauty and charm, the story might be better suited to a different medium. The book is almost too short, and remains too much on the surface. At times, it feels like there is something missing – there is a lack of obstacles, a lack of conflict. Beaulieu states in his prologue that he would like the story to be made into a short film, noting that he would add some songs for specific scenes of the story, like “Fantomas” by Michel Magne and “Wives and Lovers” by Bacharach. Beaulieu is right: the story would likely translate better as a short film, particularly due to its focus on images and the feelings they evoke, rather than an in-depth story.
My Neighbour’s Bikini won’t take you more than half an hour to read, but it will be a half hour well-spent. Though light in content, the novella is a perfect introduction to Beaulieu’s oeuvre – a quick read that will make you feel warmth even in a Montreal winter.