Here’s the best book I found at MoCCA.

My Boy (Mon Fiston)


Belgian publisher Bries had a table at MoCCA this year, as did several European publishers. Many beautiful books were on display, but this one caught my eye in particular. An especially large number of copies were out for sale, and I was told that Bart Beaty had recommended it. Plus, it was an English-language edition! Flipping through it gave me great enthusiasm, and I wound up showing it to everyone who asked me about neat things to find. Later, after having purchased the book, I learned that it was shortlisted for prizes at this year’s Angoulême festival, though it didn’t win anything. But it’s still excellent.

Apparently the first solo book of writer/artist Olivier Schrauwen, an animator and anthology contributor, My Boy is a visual tour de force that effortlessly evokes the spirit of (mostly) early 20th century American newspaper comics, especially those of the great Winsor McCay, while sliding in some cutting critique of the era’s cruelty, and emphasizing the emotional vulnerability that can lurk within moments of high slapstick and newsprint surrealism. It is a short book, its five chapters filling only 64 pages, but that’s just as much space as it needs to be disquieting, and touchingly sad.

The pre-title first chapter encapsulates the book’s tone. It’s executed in a wordless, frantically capering style reminiscent of 19th century sequential cartoons from humor magazines, but the subject matter is dark as night. An incompetent doctor kills a pregnant woman while she’s in labor, swatting her belly with a broom as her anguished husband stamps his feet and waves his arms. The pallbearers at the burial are no better, tipping the coffin and sending the corpse tumbling out among the headstones. But miraculously, that final bump sends the deceased mother’s still living child popping out of the womb, and the father cradles it in wonder.

You might be thinking, “That’s completely terrible.” And it is. I agree with Derik Badman that the book as a whole is not particularly funny, but I strongly doubt it’s meant to be funny. Rather, it effectively subverts several extremely era-specific mechanisms of comedy by placing such cruel propulsion behind them that the final effect is more unsettling than funny, and more conductive to Schrauwen’s anxious themes. Yes, there’s the occasional laugh at the primal triggers the artist employs -- wide mouths, terrific pratfalls, hair standing up on end, etc. -- but everything is tainted with lingering fear and too-vivid violence.

The remaining four chapters play this out, as the wealthy, ultra-masculine father and the absurdly tiny, infant son go about their shared daily life, depicted via Schrauwen’s loving fusion of funny page stylings (here’s the only page I could find besides Derik’s and Bries' order page that has any art samples).

My personal favorite is the third chapter, Bruges Horror, an amazing five-page homage to McCay’s Little Sammy Sneeze, in which the little tyke gets a nasty cold that causes much havoc in the big city. But the delightful calamity of McCay’s classic is pushed here to grotesque extremes: a horse’s belly is gashed open with shattered glass, sending its intestines pouring out, and sharp needles careen into the eyes of onlookers. In the center of it, father and son visit a gallery of “Flemish Primitives,” depicting a man’s flesh being peeled off his body in a torture chamber.

Wonderful! Such craftsmanship, such…” exclaims the father, before realizing that his child is terrified. It’s a revealing moment, the immense technical skill of McCay metaphorically appreciated, though Schrauwen’s presentation hones in on the accordant cruelties of such noisy mayhem. In the hands of a lesser visualist, this could have been impossibly banal. But Schrauwen’s evocation of the style is so passionate that both the beauty and the horror is accentuated perfectly.

Further mayhem awaits. Another chapter sees the duo visit a zoo, in which many beasts are caged up. There’s condors, crocodiles, apes. And also ink-black pigmies, armed with spears and skirts, an obvious dig at both McCay’s Jungle Imp character(s) and the era’s generally caricatured portrayals of ethnic minorities. But while McCay’s Tales of the Jungle Imps saw his characters abuse exotic critters, the pygmies here free the zoo’s animals for united revenge on their masters. Surreal madness ensues, zookeepers deployed like an army, only to be cut down by volleys of tiny spears, and smaller pygmies and animals standing atop one another to create dizzy, giant creatures. But all through it, Schrauwen never lets us forget that people are dying, and the core of the story sees the father terrified that his child will be lost in the chaos.

That is the core of this book, a simple concern from father to son. A silly, exaggeratedly masculine father and a ludicrously puny son, but a parent and child regardless. Fear of the child’s loss. Fear of the child growing up wrong. Fear of death. These dark thoughts are so great that they must be encoded in the artifice of another era. It all comes together in the final chapter, a typically pitch-perfect Dream of the Rarebit Fiend takeoff, in which the father watches in horror as his son grows up, grows into a person apart from him, inevitably escaping the delight of youth to wither and die as his own person. That’s the great scare of this father, indicative of the great concern of this book. For all its period mashing, I found it greatly affecting.

Maybe you will too. I encourage you to order it somehow, perhaps from Bries itself. It's great to encounter work like this at a festival, but one needs not wait for a once-per-year event to experience such a book.