A series of words on François Schuiten, and other things.

*Dan Nadel’s new book Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969 is probably going to be great - a 320-page hardcover beast dedicated to discussing almost 30 long-forgotten, idiosyncratic comics talents, scads of art included. From my perspective Rory Hayes appears to be the most immediately popular of the lot, which is saying something. The book is due out on June 1st, and can be pre-ordered online for around $25 without much searching. Tom Spurgeon has a preview of some of the showcased visuals up today, with new comments by Nadel. I sure do like that Fletcher Hanks (though Nadel is right to note the importance of his nameless colorist), whose art also graced the paperback cover of Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, albeit filtered through the Chip Kidd gaze. Go and anticipate.

The Hollow Grounds

For quite a while now I’ve been fascinated with François Schuiten, a Belgian-born bande dessinée star who’s had more works translated to English then you’d think - the trick is, almost all of them are completely out of print, and often command high prices on the used books circuit. This includes tomes released but four years ago - clearly there’s enough demand for the man’s work that supply never quite fills it, though he’s hardly on the tip of every tongue in the English-language comics community. Thus, the obscurity of the artist's output remains all the more tantalizing, perched neatly and infuriatingly between wide availability and easy procural after the fact.

But I already fear I’m being misleading. It’s not just Schuiten that commands such attention, but the French-born Benoît Peeters, Schuiten’s lifelong friend, who serves as writer on the duo’s mutual magnum opus, Les Cités Obscures, concerning the oft allegorical and always fantastical affairs of dazzling fantasy municipalities. An intimidating sprawl of interconnected-yet-standalone multimedia projects, begun in 1982 and continuing to this day, Les Cités is very much the type of thing a reader can get entirely lost in. And many do - Schuiten and Peeters love to claim that the Obscure Cities are real, and that they personally visited them in the early ‘80s and are only producing documents of their time spent there, and they openly invite readers to tell of their own journeys into that architecturally wondrous parallel Earth. The creators’ favorite reader-sent anecdotes sometimes find their way into the canonical works (an iffy legal ground many creators are unwilling to tread upon), as do certain readers themselves. The projects are often executed in traditional comics album format, but others have appeared as a children’s book, an audio CD, a travel guide, an annotated (in the manner of Pale Fire) academic treatise, and a series of posters, sometimes in very low print-runs, the objects themselves occasionally referenced in other bits of the sprawl.

Unfortunately, only a handful of the comics albums have appeared in English (under the banner title Cities of the Fantastic, from NBM), and only the newest is readily available at cover price, The Invisible Frontier Vol. 2 (of 2) (the creators are currently working on an integrated, single-volume edition of The Invisible Frontier, so we may yet see that in English). It’s possibly easier to search out some of the earlier volumes as serialized in various English-language publications, if you can get them cheap: the first book (The Walls of Samaris) was serialized in Heavy Metal (Vol. 8 #8-12, although according to this thorough fan page the translation is pretty dire, a page is missing, Peeters’ name is omitted from some installments, and the creators revised the story anyway in a later edition of the album), and the next two in the Dark Horse/NBM anthology Cheval Noir (Fever in Urbicand in issues #1-6, The Tower in issues #9-14). But for the most part, these works are off-limits to most English-only readers. I’ve personally only read The Tower, though it’s quite good, mixing often incredible architectural renderings reminiscent of Winsor McCay (Schuiten and Peeters recently produced Les Portes du Possible, a collection of newspaper features created in the style of early 20th century futurist pieces for urban papers of the type McCay sometimes worked on) with sensitive philosophic musings, good-natured adventure, and imaginative formal play, color sparingly used in a b&w world to denote the luminescent power of outside art.

But Les Cités is not all there is to Schuiten.

The themes touched by that swaggering work drift though the comics the artist has created apart from Peeters, books not at all directly tethered to Les Cités, works that are both harder and easier for English-reading parties to access. On one hand, Schuiten has provided art for a number of books with writer Claude Renard, none of which to my knowledge have ever appeared in English. And then there is The Hollow Grounds (Les Terres Creuses), an on-again off-again endeavor Schuiten has produced with his brother Luc, the latter providing the scripts. The progress of the work, begun in 1977 when the artist was 21 and concluded in 1990, spans a good portion of Schuiten’s career and shares several themes and conceptual approaches with Les Cités, while retaining its own identity. It’s also the only unified section of Schuiten’s bibliography available in its entirety in English, each of its three books having been published in separate hardcover albums by Humanoids from 2000 to 2001, with the whole works then combined and squashed down into a single trade paperback in 2004 during the ill-fated Humanoids partnership with DC.

That’s both a good and bad thing. Despite the Humanoids/DC crash ‘n burn, the trade edition is still quite easy to find, perhaps available under its $19.95 cover price (in contrast, the Humanoids hardcovers ran $14.95 a pop). And there’s no denying that the Schuitens have worked hard to join the three books into a semi-coherent single experience, despite their having been produced at very different times; the material reads quite initiatively as one tome. However, each and every page of the trade edition all but screams to the reader that Schuiten (and for simplicity’s sake, note that the simple use of the name ‘Schuiten’ from here on out refers to François) did not create his art with US trade paperback dimensions in mind, even the slightly expanded dimensions (10.2 x 7.4 rather than 6.6) that this package affords it - this stuff was meant to be seen big.

But maybe you won’t necessarily want all three books anyway. Maybe you’ll be willing to sacrifice quantity for quality. I mentioned earlier that these works have their own identity, but it’s not always a pleasing identity. It’s certainly possible that the weaker books in this collection suffer from having been created relatively early in Schuiten’s career - things do get better as time soldiers on. Or maybe Peeters is simply a better writer than Luc Schuiten. To better discuss each component part, let me separate the three books that make up the saga.


Originally released in 1980, this is actually a collection of the Schuitens’ short comics stories, as produced up to that point. Many of them appeared in English in early issues of Heavy Metal, where their brevity, varied flavors of surreal beauty, and general preoccupation with sexuality fit right in with the general milieu. Today, they are largely valuable as simple early works, the products of young artists soaked in skill and eager to get some fresh, individual material out.

And their beauty is formidable, if dimmed by the trade edition’s presentation. There’s five tales included, along with a gap-filling series of art-laden ‘educational’ notes, and Schuiten’s visual chops are evident right from the beginning. In Shells we follow a pair of humans, one male and one female, clad in full body armor that makes them resemble robots, as they romp through a metallic b&w ink wash junkyard. But soon their desire to feel the true touch of one another becomes overwhelming, and they remove their armor - their flesh is rendered in warm, painterly color. Their blood too - before long, metal insects swarm onto them and devour their soft bodies, their world unable to contemplate the possibility of real human connection. But the next story, Stampede, appears to decide that human interaction has its downside too, as a man bicycles through a forest of lush color into a city standing atop a giant pane of glass, with another environment below. The man grows nervous and frisky meeting a woman, who eventually rejects him, and his body literally begins splitting and cracking into geometric patterns, until he’s reduced to tiny cubes of despair floating out into the wild. Even more blunt is Sample, a simple 4-page sequence of a medieval horseman fleeing through a cave, only to plunge down a hole into a primeval jungle and become ensnared in a mysterious civilization’s airship tractor beam.

Most of these stories (I’m not too sure about the tractor beam bit) have to do with the pleasure and danger of desire - mostly the danger, actually. Sex and the pursuit of such drives humans to destruction in these worlds, and they are clearly marked off as ‘worlds’ - the recurring educational segments chart the flight of humanoid winged creatures known as Flitters, who are capable of traversing frequencies and crossing universes, passing unseen over everything yet perhaps observing. Obviously they see a lot of sorry events; the book’s longest story, The Fog Cutter, follows a few days in the life of a voyeuristic fellow living in a solar-powered city prone to fits of solidifying fog, who’s entrusted with the job of using his handy laser claw glove to expertly slice away the atmosphere when necessary. He’s more interested in spying on a teasing, haughty local woman, who’s the unwitting model for a massive fog sculpture the cutter is erecting. Needless to say, the man’s mad lust ultimately leaves everyone who depends on him trapped save for his target, and even she is cast aside for the beauty of fetishistic art, unmoving construct utterly preferable to a real, breathing, emotionally complex woman.

The art in that story is different, a lovely traditional pen and ink style with muted, dull color - such an approach will quickly become the predominant Schuiten ‘look,’ and it’s rather amazing how fully formed it is given the early date. Schuiten’s character art is solid and realistic, prone to caricature only in creative facial hair and the cleft of his aging men’s chins - these people are always cleanly presented, but nonetheless prone to becoming invisible to the reader while standing before the artist’s sweeping buildings and technological creations, which will only become more lavish and complex as Schuiten matures, and begins to settle on a single approach for his comics work.

All the art changes in the world can’t defy the repetition of this book’s message, though - each new ‘world’ offers the same old vices and the same roads to hell.

Unless we look at it in a slightly different way.

The remaining story, Crevice, presents an utterly daft spicy sci-fi magazine saga. A bunch of people are having lunch in a sunny meadow to celebrate a young couple’s wedding, but soon the ground itself opens and the bride is yanked down the crevice; it turns out that the environment is an artificial, computer-controlled one, and the computer’s brain apparently yearns to experience the sensation of human skin (of course!). So the groom journeys down the crevice to confront the brain, only to find its tendrils ravishing his bride, hentai tentacle style. And the woman rather enjoys it (“I’ll always remember this wedding day!”), though the computer respects the (cuckolded?) husband’s feelings, and spins them a mighty wedding night bed as a gift. But as the couple lays down to consummate their union, tendrils rise again from the artificial covers, this time enveloping the both of them.

Another tale of desire gone wrong? Here, nature no longer wants to destroy sex but experience it, explicitly because it’s human-made ‘nature.’ Can our deep needs spread to even the blades of grass we build? Perhaps, though a close examination of the crucial final panel reveals that the young couple seem oddly at peace with their situation; perhaps what the story is saying is that casting off all inhibitions with our creations is the way to go. One creator, the titular fog cutter, preferred creating sexual art to actual human contact - here, a certain peace is achieved by letting the creation in on the private work of humans.

Certainly Schuiten is not one to sentimentalize the natural state - he has devoted much of his own art to whipping up gorgeous buildings and such, after all. Indeed, he and Luc seem to be indicating in this early book that nature is inherently chaotic and destructive, and only the most aching simultaneous embrace of human interrelation and human creation can bring genuine happiness - otherwise, we are but automatons cracking open into blocks, or lonely sculptors letting the world get lost in a fog. These are short, simple stories, the enthusiastic work of young creators. They are not essential, nor are they masterworks, though they are alluring on a visual level. Perhaps their devout preoccupation with matters of the lower regions betrays the tender age of the creative team, or perhaps not - either way, it’s little surprise to discover in the end that much of the interdimensional travel of the Flitters is due to their losing control of their abilities whilst copulating mid-flight, a revelation punctuated by a final image of a pair humping their way right through the page at the reader’s face. Fitting.


This second book was completed half a decade later, in 1985. It’s a single color story with a 12-page b&w prologue, which feels like it used to be a standalone short. It’s also an ambling, formless mess, stocked up with neat ideas and good visual concepts, and virtually nothing to do with them save for indulging in odd world-building asides, scattershot satire, gratuitous naughtiness, and roundabout adventure. Quite amazingly it’s actually less coherent than the last book, which was a strung-together compilation of disparate short stories.

Things do start out well with that prologue, though. Rendered entirely in a lavish woodcut style, the flavor of myth duly endowed, the story follows a young girl named Olive who can’t stop wondering why her tribe of wanderers spend all their time moving along a set path circumnavigating their home region, never staying in one place for too long, always horrified of falling behind. Olive decides to defy tribe rule by staying behind in one place, free to enjoy the fun of settling down somewhere. She soon grows to regret her decision, though, at it seems the world is literally rotating under her in a slow circle while she stays still. Soon, against all logic, she’s stuck in a tree poking sideways out of what was once the ground and now appears to be more of a wall, then hanging from the very roof of the world. Her pluck does not go unpunished, though, as she soon plunges into the watery center of the globe, which gives way to a massive system of girders, like those of an unfinished skyscraper. She’s then picked up by Flitters (from the prior book), and whisked away to adventure.

The book then turns to color as we enter Oz, and by ‘Oz’ I mean an all-female society called the Gammas living in the center of the hollow planet (ah, get it? Hollow Grounds?) who are very earthy and sensual and inseminate themselves by sitting naked on a spout from which green ichor emitted by a giant sentient slug pours forth - I guess they only give birth to girls. Also, the hollow center of the planet doesn’t rotate, though the outer shell does. Olive’s people were living on the inside crust of the planet’s surface, where gravity pulls toward the center; in the world of the Gamms everything is vertical, and apparently gravity drags everything downward. Somehow. It's certainly an interesting idea, illustrating that already classic (Les Cités having started a few years prior) Schuiten theme of worlds giving way to new worlds, though far less is done with it by Luc Schuiten than Peeters apparently has managed.

We’re soon introduced to our ‘heroine,’ Nelle, an adventurous young Gamma who’s shacked up with a pale artistic type who broadcasts her dreams via a handy psychic helmet for everyone’s amusement. The arrival of Olive, however, greatly preoccupies the Gammas, who are very much fascinated by her descriptions of her portion of the world, particularly the creatures called ‘men’ with ‘vines’ growing from the bodies. “It must be wonderful to be vined by one of those,” murmurs a Gamma in true men's magazine style, though later in the book we find out that men have appeared in the Gammas’ world before, though there's no indication on the part of the script that they're keeping things from Olive early on. It all kind of shifts to fit the needs of the plot. Or maybe the translation’s not very good - hard to tell with these things.

Meanwhile, many light years away, a colony of pointy-mustached men dressed like Flash Gordon villains discover the hollow planet and immediately plot to teleport over to invade, eager to feel the human-to-human rush of forced sex and killing with hand-held weapons, something lost to their small (as in five or six person) society. This necessarily small-scale invasion coincides with an expedition to the bottom of the hollow world and hopefully the inside crust beyond by Olive, Nelle, and Nelle’s partner, who's not really important. The story then breaks down into a jumble of lax action scenes and bizarre events, like the Gammas uncovering an illuminating power source that makes them take off their clothes and frolic. Also, it’s revealed that the Gamma society is as arguably amoral as they are uninhibited (perhaps they simply have a different concept of what is moral), modeling themselves off of the society and survival instincts of insects (recall the prior book), including the sucking dry of prey for a valuable source of energy - hey, has Dave Sim read this?! Anyhow, a bunch of things happen, and then the story doesn't as much end as stop.

It’s difficult to see what sort of point this work has, outside of the broadest strokes, though it is rather refreshing to come across a pair of creators with an honest to god ‘nature = bad things that will hurt you’ theme, rather than the expected idealizations. The human spirit of adventure, personified by Olive, is granted reward, though one spiked with extra dangers. I suppose there’s also some sort of gender role satire at work, though a rather misanthropic one, given that each side of the divide is prone to devouring the other to fulfill their most primitive needs. Although again, that prior book comes back into focus - base human desire belies all of our grand technological accomplishment. See what I mean by these books working as a whole?

It is possible to see bits and pieces of other works floating around, however. I did pick up a lot of interest on Schuiten’s part in regards to portraying downward and upward movement, a spatial fascination that would extend to his work on The Tower a few years later. The visuals are more than capable, of course, the vast city of the Gammas lovingly detailed and always somehow kept believable, despite all seeming lack of logic. One can sense traces of deeper questions brewing beneath the surface, though they're kept largely in the service of Luc Schuiten's wandering plot; you can hear those straws being grasped at as the work staggers forward.


This, however, is a small masterpiece.

It was first released in 1990, another half-decade gone by. It's very much a direct sequel to Zara, again utilizing Nelle as the main character, with Olive in a supporting role. But here, everything attempted in the prior book suddenly snaps into place, character meeting action meeting deep questions meeting a new high in Schuiten's use of both visual aplomb and the comics form itself.

Given the double caps on the title, it's not hard to see that it's a palindrome. Given the constraints of the trade edition, however, it might be difficult to initially notice that the story itself is symmetrical - all of the page layouts of the work's first half are mirrored in the second half. Watchmen did an issue like that, you might recall. Plus, all of the perspectives as presented in those first half panels are reversed in the second half panels. The settings and characters are mirrored. Sometimes, dialogue in the second half even responds to what's gone on in the first, though not always. Perfect symmetry is not necessary, as the story itself reveals.

Oh yes, this is no simple formalist exercise - the plot concerns Nelle traveling through the planet of NogegoN, searching for Olive, whom Nelle has plainly fallen in love with, though she split the scene after the events of Zara. It seems that Olive had at one point changed her name to OlivilO, and fell madly in love with a sculptor. But then the relationship grew violent and abusive, and Olive apparently killed herself. Nelle strives to get to the bottom of the mystery, ready to use violence to get the answers she needs, including the destruction of the sculptor's work.

But then, just about past the halfway point of her journey, she finds herself falling in love with the sculptor, and he with her. And then Nelle (who changes her name to NelleN) discovers the curious power of planet Nogegon: it forces its inhabitants to live their lives in some form of symmetry. Birth eventually becomes death - so it goes for all of us. But on this planet, specific hate becomes specific love. One particular affair relates to a corresponding one. Everywhere you travel, you return to later in reverse order. This extends out of the story, and onto the very pages you stare at, though it's probably more neatly conveyed as a single hardcover. Faced with these inexplicable realities, Nelle(N) ponders the very nature of free will, when one can read the path of their life entirely as based on what's gone before. And even as she does it, she finds herself repeating things she did before. And meanwhile, it turns out that any sudden asymmetrical deaths will put the powerful policing forces of NogegoN on high alert, as complimentary events are valued above all else.

Yet, through it all, despite the work being structured like a parlor trick, Luc Schuiten manages his very best characterizations, Nelle and Olive (the latter through her diaries) made far more complex in emotion, and guided by a longing for adventure and/or one another. The helplessness that Nelle feels when confronted with the ways of NogegoN is genuine, and touching, largely because the form of the story itself responds to the very forces effecting its main character. And the storytelling, despite all of this brooding, is often really fun, with little jokes set up early on that only pay off at the corresponding tail end of the work, and a good deal of amusement had with the somewhat flexible definition of 'symmetry' employed (does it mean the same thing reversed? the same thing backwards? the same thing the same way but to different ends? - at different times it means all of these things). Every page of this story is milked for potential, its cleverness boundless - yes, it's even possible that the general tone of the work by its end compliments that of its beginning. Hell, if we want to go really far, even the presence of the sculptor matches up pretty neatly with the short story in the first book regarding the fog cutter. "No, it's completely different." - so snaps the sculptor when confronted with the similarity of his work to that of a fog sculptor, though both men work to freeze moments, perhaps in defiance of the passage of time. Symmetry can't be beat, though.

And Schuiten is in perfect form, the spires and clouds of NogegoN curving and twisting toward the sky, every moment reflected later on in creative ways, the whole concept a nice excuse for the artist to show off every angle of his designs. Even the color schemes compliment one another as the work moves on, the aptitude of Schuiten's design prowess finally let so loose on the page that it can't help but interact with the story itself, art and text fully synched. In a way, this compliments the early stories of Carapaces, as emotion and creation are finally mixed - and just as the young Schuitens said, lasting joy comes of it.

It's a short but invigorating work, utterly worth reading and fully recommended to anyone. It's entirely possible you might just want to seek out the single oversized hardcover edition, for maximum visual impact, if you don't want to put up with lesser works. But material this good tends to make one want to seek out more, and with Schuiten, more is often hard to come by for English speakers. At least the tastes we have right now are capable of such sweetness, that we'll keep on searching for those obscure doorways to those cities, those places beyond hollow ground. Once we know such things are beneath the surface, it's a challenge to keep from digging deeper and deeper.