I’ll admit to being more than a little excited to finally have a new Julie Maroh graphic novel to pour over, despite having been disappointed with her last effort, the misguided Skandalon. While she’s best-known for the stunning portrayal of all-female passions and insecurities in 2010’s Blue Is The Warmest Color (if there’s better representation in the form, I’ve yet to see it), a fan can’t help but wonder if the best was yet to come.
I was surprised to learn Maroh was openly critical of the film version, especially in what she called its misrepresentation of lesbian sex, which she labeled “ridiculous.” The only people not laughing, she says, were “guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen.”
Her third graphic novel, Body Music (Corps Sonores), may be a response to this: 21 short stories exploring varying relationship types different from the ‘standards and stereotypes’ of our culture. “Bow-legged, chubby, ethnic, androgynous, trans, pierced, scarred, ill, disabled, old, hairy, outside all the usual aesthetic criteria…”, she explains. “Queers, dykes, trans, freaks, the non-monogamous, flighty and spiny hearts” all writing their own stories, too, deserving of recognition and respect. “Our hearts beat harder for our romances,” she asserts, with just a whiff of segregated amour.
Her ownership of not just her own sexuality, but of all nonconforming relationships (“we” is used interchangeably with “mine”) may be what makes Body Music less than satisfying. There is need for discussing an ‘othering’ of queer material presented or portrayed by straight artists, which is entirely reasonable. Conversely, an ‘Us vs Them’ dichotomy highlights a limiting paradox in allied representation of this ‘othering’: if straight artists couldn’t possibly understand lesbian romance, as Maroh herself suggests, what makes a lesbian artist more intrinsically capable of illustrating love between two gay men? Or deciphering the complexities of trans relationships? What about polyamorous coupling?
Shouldn’t the fear and uncertainty we all share in the pursuit of love and acceptance override such superficial distinctions? Underneath, aren’t we all just scared of being alone?
Maroh employs a simple framing device to signify a type of renewal for her Montreal citizens – July 1st is the city’s Moving Day – “when everything changes.” It’s also where things end up, eventually, signifying a new cycle of rebirth for those Montrealers yearning for love and acceptance. This framing doesn’t come into play much in the actual narrative, however, as one story leads into the next without much need for explanation.
While Maroh’s previous works are marked by their striking use of vivid colors and sharp lines, in Body Music she abandons colors entirely, presenting her stories in washed-out black and white lines and gray fillers. There’s a messiness to her style you’ll either appreciate or you won’t; personally, I’ve found the drop in artistic quality from one book to another alarming, and it’s sometimes hard to believe these pages are from the same artist.
Still, Maroh is a fantastic conceptualist. The best panels are those that transcend the limitations of usual storytelling, manifesting her characters’ internal struggles, desires, and (yes) sexual frustrations in surreal fashion. Beating hearts and native insecurities become realized struggles, blurring lines and distinctions in the process. Comics, and graphic novels especially, excel in this realm, and it’s when Maroh breaks whatever conformity that would limit traditional narrative methods that her tales really sing.
What doesn’t help is that many of them feel second-hand, at times processed into consumables meant for a wider audience expecting a certain thrill, if not titillation, with their non-traditional (i.e. LGBTQA) tales of forbidden love. Others feel conspicuously self-indulgent in their otherness, satisfied to present a more idealized vision of what unrestricted love not only could look like, but what it should.
In “Polyamorous Love and Friendship” a young man visits Montreal to meet a female friend he knows practices polyamory (non-monogamous) love. His struggles to understand these relationships are met with mockery and derision by his friends: “This is Canada, man!”, one tells him. “People have been doing it for years and years!” says the other. In “The Confession”, a young woman is terrified at the idea of telling her lovers her desire to included in their inclusive relationship. Rather than happiness, we feel their ready acceptance of her is more conditional (for her) than purely amorous. “Hell, my love for you is a revolt against this shitty world!” she tells them.
“The Cute Girl Next Door” features not only the book’s most graphic depictions of sex, but also of the arrogance of assumptions. One-half of a lesbian couple is excited at the idea the ‘cute girl next door’ has a new guy and their wall-piercing love-making. When she discovers this isn’t the case, that the ‘new guy’ is actually the cute girl’s brother (who himself is thrilled at the idea of ‘cute’ lesbian neighbors, offering to make himself available) she’s repelled at the thought. “What a lousy stinking douchebag!! He makes me want to PUKE!”
The best of Maroh’s stories are those dealing honestly with intimacy, and without inflated controversy, finding quieter moments between facades. “What Do We Do With Last Night’s Passion” has a lesbian woman startled to discover the ‘man’ she’s fallen for is actually trans. “On The Importance of Laughter” is maybe the best of the lot, glimpsing an intimate moment between a mother and son over mutual loss and remembrance.
I’m curious if the thinking behind this was to defy any reactionary explorations of traditional romance for the sake of being non-traditional? After all, why bother breaking conventions of vanilla love if you’re just going to show other flavors of vanilla love? Maroh comes perilously close to treating her characters and their relationships as more gimmick than authentic. This is especially prevalent in those stories that are intentionally misdirecting, as with the gay couple who we discover are deaf, or the man obsessing over delayed texts we learn is wheelchair bound, or finding out a dying woman is the adulterer in the relationship.
Also interesting is how nearly all couples are interracial, which appears a conscious choice to flaunt their unconventionality, further exaggerating their distinctiveness for shock effect. There’s nothing wrong with interracial coupling, of course, but the desire to appear different for the sake of being different rings less than true. It’s ironic, then, that by attempting to normalize these romantic “alternatives” (her word, not mine) Maroh instead renders them more banal than transgressive.
Ultimately, it’s this lack of reflection that dulls what power Body Music may have had. As presented, it feels slightly hollow and more aggressive than necessary, never comfortably reconciling its contradictions of passing judgement on those for whom the author insists none should take place. There are small indicators that hint of something greater had Maroh only exercised less control and telegraphed her own interpretations of ‘alternative’ love which, as presented here, appear little more than superficialities.