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Yukiko's Spinach

Something about comics separates them from all other genres of literature. It’s something hard to define and hard to put into words, especially for the comic book reader of many years. Most of us comic aficionados have been reading comics for so long that we understand them instinctually: we never have to worry about understanding visual narrative or following text and art panels across a page, or several pages, because our minds are so in synch with sequential art and the rigmarole involved with it that we can understand almost anything in comic book form (except Chuck Austen’s writing). It is rare that we find ourselves unable to grasp a piece of comic literature in scope, plot, structure, or any of a thousand attributes.

For this reason, I’ve found that I infrequently reread my comics. Save for most of Alan Moore’s and Warren Ellis’ works, and the indomitable Gaiman, few books catch my eye more than once or twice, because I’ve gotten so used to comics as a medium that I absorb them in one sitting. Complexity is the only thing that will call for a reread these days.

I’ve read and reread Yukiko’s Spinach probably a dozen times in the last three weeks.

It is the intimate and biographical portrait of Frederic Boilet’s love affair with Yukiko Hashimoto. Boilet is a French artist and a “mangaka” (Japanese for comic artist) with a unique photographical artistic bent for creating comics: he photographs his subjects and landscapes, then uses filters to makes them appear as line drawing, while at the same time including traditional line drawing in his work.

Told from Frederic’s perspective, much of the time from the first person viewpoint, Spinach is the story of Boilet’s meeting of Yukiko, a Japanese girl with which he is immediately fascinated and the brief romance they shared. It is a collection of small intimate moments between the two, structured to reveal Frederic’s deep feelings for the girl, as well as their mutual understanding that their relationship is finite.

This is the most intimate written work I’ve ever read and I use the word “intimate” because I cannot think of another word to describe the connection to the reader that Boilet establishes. The first-person perspective as a storytelling device is one rarely used in comics, at least the literal first-person view. As a result of his photographic style, much of the story unfolds from Boilet’s eyes; we see what he sees. We are there as he falls in love with Yukiko, and it’s her hauntingly beautiful face we fall in love with. We see them make love, and we are participants in the act. The body language that his camera and pencil capture convey so much more emotion and depth than the standard of comic art, letting words fall away and letting the images speak for themselves for large parts of the book. And while there are times when “silent” comics are simply easy ways for the writer to avoid having to write, it is not the case in Yukiko’s Spinach because each panel of art is rife with meaning, emotion, and intention.

Also of importance is that I love the depictions of sex in the book (surprised fanpeople? I thought not), and not for the standard pornographic reasons. Sex in comics too often takes on the violent and male-oriented attributes of its clichéd audience. If it ever happens in mainstream comics, it’s usually some morality tale about the evils of sex, or it’s basic fantasy fulfillment (Conan comes to mind), or it’s just plain weird (anything by James Kolchaka). Much of this applies in the Indie comics scene, though not all of it. Other than “Sex, Stars, and Serpents” from Moore’s Promethea, I can’t think of a time when sex has been presented so evenly. It’s presented as a beautiful act between Boilet and Yukiko, and it’s arousing in both the physical and intellectual way. It’s not angry. It’s not cynical. It just is. The photorealistic touches, coupled with the subjects’ kinesthetic qualities make the act an experience for the reader. It’s a participatory text and the reader gets to participate in an honest, realistic, and true sex act and it’s something I’ve never seen in comics before.

The book has an underlying tone of sadness, as many love stories are possessed of both the good and bad, but Boilet never lets melancholy overpower the joy of the relationship, despite both he and Yukiko knowing that it will not last forever. Even when Boilet plays with the sense of time, shifting scenes back and forth to the beginning of the relationship and the end, sometimes placing dreamy imagery intermittent with the more linear panels, we never lose the sense of emotion that pervades the work. This is love; the good, the bad, and the ugly of it and Boilet has no problem conveying the raw sensation of it, nor the passion inherent in it. Boilet is not afraid to feel and the reader feels right along with him.

The artwork makes Yukiko’s Spinach the absolutely genius work that it is, and Boilet’s use of computer graphics is subtle and unobtrusive, actually enhancing his story in a way that may not have worked if he left it as simply photographs, or just as line drawing. In combining the two almost seamlessly, he creates a photorealism that is, to a small degree, attempting not to be realistic. It’s so gorgeous and fresh that I have to wonder why it hasn’t happened more often in American comics (the French and Japanese are well exposed to Boilet as both manga and bande dessinee), as the only example I can dredge up is Steven John Phillips from works like I, Paparazzi and Veils.

This is a spectacular work of sequential art literature and should be on your graphic novel shelf. The $13.99 that Ego Comme X (the French publisher) or Fanfare/Ponent Mon (the English publisher) is charging is well worth it considering the level of creativity this comic is on. I recommend you order through your local dealer or a bookstore because this is one of those hard to find books. Go off and enjoy this rare and reread-worthy story, and damn Boilet for making the French seem likeable again.

Robert Sparling

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