Olivier Schrauwen's Parallel Lives
Any new work by Belgian artist Olivier Schrauwen is a major event for comics connoisseurs. His work impresses readers with a highly confident style that teeters between fluid naturalism and graphic abstraction, and makes inventive use of the comics form to serve his eccentric exploration of complex narrative themes. Schrauwen’s comics are consistently surprising, while unraveling a mysterious thread that binds all of his works together. His latest North American collection, Parallel Lives, fascinates both for what it uniquely offers and for how it sits in relation to the work that has come before.
Schrauwen’s first book, My Boy (2006), is a darkly comic novella about paternity and paternalist ideology, drawn in a style that specifically evokes early American newspaper comics by turn-of-the-twentieth-century innovators like Winsor McCay and Lyonel Feininger. The subsequent short story collection The Man Who Grew His Beard (2010), still grounded in historical aesthetics, revealed Schrauwen to be a deft stylistic chameleon. In several of the book’s comics, phantasmagoric visuals express the rich (if deluded) interior lives of his characters, standing in contrast to their drab exterior reality. Some of his characters are, self-reflexively, artists themselves; the work of their own fictional hands functions as another register of each character’s inner life.
Arsène Schrauwen (2014) is Schrauwen’s first sustained graphic novel, and begins with an image of the artist’s own face, peering out at the reader in a moment of frozen, gleeful rictus. Over four panels, the image transforms into the face of Schrauwen’s titular grandfather, emphasizing a handful of characteristics passed down over generations: “my nose, my eyes and a cleft chin.” The story relates a fictional tale of his grandfather’s time in colonial Africa after World War II, an absurdist feat of picaresque pseudo-history and an oblique encounter with the legacy of colonialism. Originally self-published in two-color risographed booklets, the graphic novel manipulates a limited color palette of red and blue to transpose abstracted forms onto more naturalistic line art and thus depict the simple-minded lead character’s shifting perceptions.
Parallel Lives, Schrauwen’s colorful new collection of short science fiction comics, opens with precisely the same stylized self-portrait as Arsène Schrauwen. The book’s first story, “Greys,” remains, temporarily, in the present era; the piece recounts Schrauwen’s abduction by aliens, rendered in ethereal greyscale. The narrative is explicitly mediated: “I chose to tell this story in comics form,” he writes. “I believe that precisely in this gray area—the overlap between what can be said with words and what’s best shown with images—lies the language that can truly convey the profound mystery of the events I’ve experienced.” The work is, in other words, presented as a synthetic (if fallible) translation of events rather than a transparent depiction, a theme reflected in the book’s other narratives of frustrated communication.
Most of the stories that follow are set in a Huxleyan futuristic world whose citizens live fairly easily and enjoy fluid sexual and relational mores. Their pleasures and constraints are determined by advanced technology, now even more fully merged with invasive forms of capitalism. Most of Schrauwen’s hapless but amiable future protagonists are presented as his own descendants, extending the pseudo-genealogy of Arsène Schrauwen. They vaguely resemble one another, and their names are variations of Schrauwen’s own: “Ooh-lee Schrauwen,” “Oly Schrauwen.” The pieces in Parallel Lives are drawn in a more consistent visual style than those in Schrauwen’s previous collection of short stories. His realistically proportioned figures perform naturalistic gestures against a futuristic backdrop. His simplified, linear drawings and open compositions are flooded with vibrant, pastel colors that characterize his fantastic environments as both dazzling and gently inviting.
Schrauwen’s work shows little interest in science fictional world-building, but the book’s consistent visuals reinforce the theme of loose heredity connecting himself and his various characters. His expanded fictitious family suggests that genetic material, like art, is a medium of imperfect communication into the unknowable future. This theme is emphasized in the story “Hello,” in which a character acquires an antique device designed to communicate across time, invented by Schrauwen’s “father” Armand Schrauwen. Lacking a means of responding to Armand’s televised messages, the future protagonist is alternately fascinated by and bored with Armand’s increasingly frustrated attempts to communicate. The defeated amateur inventor broadcasts his final message to an indifferent audience: “I guess the future has no time for the past.” His broad generational complaint echoes the anxiety of any artist making a bid for immortality.
Trans-temporal communication fails in both directions when “Olivier Schrauwen” himself reappears in the book’s final story. Awoken from a cryogenic freeze two-hundred years into the future with no memory of his past life, Olivier is now a space explorer who has adapted to a world in which personal individuality has been subsumed into collective group identity. He can only regard the comic books, magazines and novels he has carried into the future with detached intellectual bemusement. Fascinated by the archaic notion of a “narrator,” he relates his first person experience to a device that can transmit messages into the past for transcription via “some ancient medium,” perhaps the comic book in the reader’s own hands. Only after Olivier’s death does his companion activate a pre-recorded video message from Olivier’s father—Armand Schrauwen, again—who has been receiving Olivier’s “random future-gibberish” on another device of his own.
Parallel Lives is a time capsule disguised as a space capsule, preoccupied with the problems and subtleties of communication and mediation, a process Schrauwen both depicts and playfully performs. We will never know if the future will have time for the past—if the modes and media we use to express our inner lives today will find purchase among our distant, connected, unreachable descendants—but Schrauwen’s tales of the future have much to tell the present, and Parallel Lives gives contemporary readers more reasons to anticipate future work by its author.