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Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.” 
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation

The Family, in Ballpoint Ink: Blutch’s “That Was Happiness”

By David Varno

As Christian Hincker (a.k.a. Blutch) says in the video accompanying his contribution to the February Graphic Lit edition of Words Without Borders, an excerpt from the graphic novel That Was Happiness translated by Edward Gauvin, there are no ornaments in his work. The rough ballpoint-sketched characters float over backgrounds that are nearly blank, and are normally cut off just below the knee.  The world essentially has no ground. Blutch lets the characters show emotion, but he doesn’t weigh them down.

The episode we have here revolves around two parents announcing to their boy that he will spend the rest of his childhood shuttling between two houses. The boy objects, then grows curious about what his parents are telling him, and wishes to join in the drawing of his new reality. In the first several panels, the dialogue is heard only between the mother and son, and we pay increasing attention to the father, shadowed in brisk vertical strokes, his back to the frame, a cigarette outstretched towards the son. Will he speak? If so, what will he say? His first words, “Listen up,” turn out to divert the attention away from him; he just wants the boy to listen to the mother.

Reading Blutch is like walking on a tightrope over the lighthearted and the dark, not knowing where we’ll fall, and he seems to accomplish that through well-placed details in a minimalist sphere, as well as by inheriting the wit of cartoonists such as William Steig (whose influence he acknowledges), or poets like Shel Silverstein, who reach both children and adults.


See the nine-page excerpt here.

Published Feb 17, 2010   Copyright 2010 David Varno

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