What to say about this book? I did not expect to like it nearly as much as I did. It seemed esoteric and vaguely arch when I first flipped through it, although maybe—as an uneducated person—that’s just me being mistrustful of anything/everything that seems smarter than I am. And the book was esoteric, and more than vaguely arch. It was weird and strange and profane and gross and occasionally shocking and definitely one of the best comics I’ve read in the last year. It’s a human book; it’s a book about human beings and how stupid and crude and terrible we are, and it’s hilarious.
Barrel of Monkeys is drawn by both Ruppert and Mulot together in, according to the back cover, “a shared visual style.” It’s a little bit like a gestural, scratchy version of a clear-line style: there’s just enough information there for your mind to latch onto and follow, but little enough that you are forced to continually work to apprehend what’s happening. In order to read the pages, you have to fully engage with them, and the book depends on this leaned-forward attention of the reader to deliver it’s short, quick, crystalline jabs in each story.
The effect is amplified and redoubled by the formal tricks Ruppert and Mulot use: from piling speech balloons all over a page so you can’t tell who’s speaking (or when) and so have to ferret it out for yourself, to more involved tricks. For instance the phenakistoscopes—complex circular images designed to rotate around a central axis in order to produce an animated effect. There are numerous phenakistoscopes throughout the book, each punctuating something happening within a story. When I came across them in reading the book, they seemed a little overwrought, more or less destroying the flow of the reading; which is not unusual for overtly formalist tools in comics. But following the suggestion of the book, you can see them animated here, and wow. Even days after reading the book, seeing the animations now (because I didn’t stop reading in order to watch animations on my phone (for once)), each of them really does add something, each one is a perfect beautiful little weird gem.
But why do it like that? Seeing a single flat drawing meant to be animated, in the context of a multi-page comics story, creates a weird, dissonant parallax. “What is this? Where does this go in the story, in the sequence, or in my brain?” There’s a lot of that in Barrel of Monkeys, and I’d be surprised if it weren’t fully intended. The drawings are beautiful and light and airy, but there’s only enough information, especially in the faces, for you to tell characters apart. Who they are is less important than what they’re doing, saying or thinking. They often seem like not much more than ciphers, banal in the extreme, acting out a series of clumsy rudenesses. The strange, often terrible actions of the people in these stories stands in stark contrast with their blurry forms and smeared personalities. Though it’s a black and white book, there’s very little actual black, in terms of a compositional tool that moves the eye around a page purposefully. Florent and Mulot seem determined to let you founder until they feel it’s time to drag you up.
I spent most of my time reading Barrel of Monkeys squinting, both figuratively and sometimes literally, to discern what was actually happening, and so was unprepared over and over again for how everything was wrapped up into a perfectly precise knot by the end. The story of the duel that happens to take place at an international meeting of sword swallowers by itself is worth the price of the entire book. I didn’t read the back until I was done, and Dash Shaw’s blurb says it perfectly:
“When I’d get Ruppert and Mulot’s books in French, I was perplexed by comics that seemed largely informed by theatre, Eadweard Muybridge and proto-animation. Now that I can read it, I’m delighted by how evil and mean-spirited the work is.”
I loved this book. And it’s a really great launch for Rebus Books, run by writer and critic Bill Kartalopoulos. Now the only problem is waiting for more Ruppert and Mulot in English.