Meanwhile, over in France….. comics zip by with a ferocity that would sap the most dedicated cross-over fetishist. Whole careers come and go while anglophones wrestle with remembering more than the holy trinity of Moebius, Tardi and Manara. Take, for convenient example, ‘Jim’ a purveyor of intelligent erotica, or sensual dramas, or nudie comics. Your pick of a genre title but while you’ve been fretting whether Corto Maltese will ever see a proper translation ole Thierry Terrasonn has bashed out a highly successful career telling stories where clothes seem to drop off a lot. His latest work Une Petite Tentation (A little Temptation) makes clear from its title and cover image exactly where we’re headed… Lolitaville.
Being set in modern France our central protagonist, Calista, isn’t waiting in the garden for Humbert Humbert to appear; rather she and aide de camp Anna, hunt down their hapless prey, a Disney-jawed gym hipster who is turning 40 alongside his pretty-but-ya’know-forty wife. Soon Calista and Anna bet which can land the suspiciously So-Cal looking Jean and up the stakes by aiming to replace his wife in his life not just his bed. As the tale progresses Calista, clearly smitten by Jean, fails in her efforts through her own insecurities and nerves while Anna seems to strike home runs with a more direct possessed cyber-sex-kitten approach. When Jean’s wife returns from a family trip to find Jean and Anna in one bed, Calista half naked in front of porn in the lounge and her daughter untended to, Jean manages to lose all three women and some imported Japanese anal porn. Well actually it’s not made clear who got the DVDs. Divorce negotiations in comic books are rarely covered.
Keeping the whole story from sliding into immediate hoary old man-written teenager porn cliche is Calista’s ineptitude and nerves. Despite parading around naked a lot she never actually gets her honour besmirched while getting quoted in divorce proceedings. As a character surrounded by the cynical (Anna) the testosterone-fuelled (Jean’s friends) and the sexually promiscuous (her ‘soft’ hooking college mates) Calista’s doe-eyed manga-fied eyes, drawn by Grelin, keep the tale a drama with propulsion no matter how unlikely her actual nativity is. Her motivations, a mix of crush and wish to best Anna, ring hollow for her decision making; and often, despite living alone and independent in the centre of Paris, she acts with the impulses of a child rather than a possessed young woman. The art style, a digital age melange of American, European and Japanese populism, reinforces her simplistic reactive nature. It’s damm hard to make mature adult reasoning when you look like an excited character in Scott Pilgrim. When Gerlin’s characters talk and interact with each other they look far too goofy. When they are silent and naked they express much more.
The book ends with it’s strongest moment, a reflection on friendships passing although it’s an incongruous ending given years after the central story. It rings truer than the rest of the book because it’s likely an actual emotion Jim has experienced himself rather than the preceding 120 pages of teenage female licentious and doubt which it is never clear what insight he is bringing aside from ‘women are sluts, men are innocents’ which is Nabokov without the essential twist.
Looking at the three central female characters Anna is clearly a harlot. She is introduced as a possession obsessed trouble maker and is quickly depicted post coitus with some otherwise expendable African male. She, rather than Calista, prompts the wager on Jean’s future, wedges herself into his car, home and office and regularly offers such insights as ‘find what you hate in sex and do that, because that’s what men like’ or ‘see what porn he jacked off to and recreate the scene where he came’. Feelings for Calista or Jean are completely irrelevant to Anna, she’s in it for the sport and the income.
Jean’s wife, Ines, whose only worry is how she can divorce her perfect husband but keep the apartment, is likewise treated as a shallow possessive slut. Her ‘family emergency’ for which she temporarily leaves Paris, is actually a sex-vacation with one of Jean’s old friends. Her reactions on finding her daughter neglected amongst naked teenage flesh is ‘good, now I get the apartment’. Telling for a character given such an important twist to deliver, that she wanted away from Jean all along amd is happy with the outcome, it’s never presented why she’s so unhappy with her existing domestic life. She clearly has wealth, a caring doofus of a husband, a happy well behaved child and an active social life. Her character motivation comes down to ‘I fancy someone else’ which is fine for high school, not so persuasive for a forty something mother.
Calista herself is redeemed from harlotry by her own childlike fears and inability to acquiesce at the vital moment. Whether that’s by choice or alcoholic incapacity is left rather ambiguous. What’s clear is that, years down the line, she has embraced motherhood and a hipster husband rather than chase wealth and immorality. That she appears to have done so with the guy she hooks up with on the rebound from Jean simply reinforces her lack of emotional capacity as a character. ‘I didn’t have a boyfriend, I got a guy divorced in college and then I lived happily ever after with the next guy’ isn’t a convincing life path. More damningly, for the character who is meant to be the emotional core of the tale, she completely fails to reflect on the morality of her actions or the consequences for characters, such as Jean’s child, who she clearly cares for. Real emotions concerning the external world are reduced to ‘I must beat Anna to the prize’ and indeed what the prize is (a family? A step-daughter? Marriage?) is totally un-addressed. A melange of competition and cock-lust will suffice.
Jean, by contrast, is the innocent sap. While Calista may have the bigger doe-eyes it’s gym-toned, high-incomed Jean who is the real Bambi in the story, his legs buckling like a new born fawn under the machinations of French womanhood. Jean’s indiscretions seems either non-existent, Anna may well have been lying about their trysts, or slight, some sex-texting where he seems merely to have open jawedly mouthed ‘wow’ to the provocations laid before him. Of course on the fateful eve of Ines’ return he does attempt to lay Calista, at her invitation, and then end up with Anna but really at this juncture he’s not so much an adult as a beaten blouse being tried over the breasts of the varying voracious women. Of all the characters Jean is, of course, the least believable. Despite being a dashing success he’s unable to cope with the slightest hint of an affair, despite being a child of the Minitel-sex era and internet age he’s left defenceless by typical bawdy sex-text suggestions and instead of having his own affair or being off down the local red light district he’s a plum incapacitated by a teenager who bites her lip and wears a short sweater dress. When Calista spends a whole week with him strumpetting around but never sealing the deal any actual male would have got to day three and said ‘look, can you stop this, it’s both inane and causing me to masturbate excessively’. By being every girls dream he’s nobody’s actual man. Absent from the epilogue, Jean was last seen applying for work in EuroDisney.
Une Petite Tentation is an enjoyable read for it’s narrative drive, abundant flesh and nice codicil but it’s greater standing is undermined by a lack of reflection by the author on whether fleshed out characters would react in the ways he portrays. It’s popularity and success likely comes from a teen audience identifying with and revelling in the escapist audacity of Anna and Calista while their own Jean-fathers probably enjoyed the copious nubile flesh on display even if it’s largely devoid of erotic moments. The biggest surprise is that Jim’s work such as this and the more adult ‘ A night in Rome’ series, remain unpublished in the USA. you can’t but think something so shallow, moral and suffused with nudity would sell.