Florent Ruppert, Jerome Mulot
Here’s a thing: how do you approach material you think will be ‘too clever’ for you to understand. Avoidance? Trepidation? Read it and pretend to understand it? Many people will not pick up something that they think is perhaps beyond them in some way. A book, and all art, has a two-fold purpose: to entertain and to educate and yet there is a prevailing perception that educational material is boring, borne from an association with a tired and monotonous learning system, and similarly, there is the notion that texts with a focus to entertain are inferior in some way and not important in their own right. Those are generalisations, of course, but ones that still exist, particularly in literature. There are times when you don’t want to be stretched (after a long, hard day at work) with more complex ideas, but ultimately the importance of reaching beyond your comfort zone should out. The thought of not growing, developing, or learning anything new should be much more scarier than the the potential fear of reading something and not ‘getting’ it.
And thus we come to Florent Ruppert and Jerome Mulot’s Barrel of Monkeys. Winner of the “Revelation Prize” at Angouleme in 2007, it was given an English language release late last year by Bill Kartalopoulos’s Rebus Books and is a work that once again displays with aplomb the breadths the comics medium can achieve. How best then, to tell you about Barrel of Monkeys? Superlatives are treacherous things; you can’t trust them anymore. Everyday, heck, every hour if you’re on the net, somebody proclaims something great, or unique, or -my personal favourite- genius. Nothing means anything more. Or everything means very little. Well, to begin with, it’s one of those comics that could only be a comic. Acerbic, cutting, breezily addressing and discarding every taboo subject under the sun, it is essentially a primarily visual experience- filled with signs, symbols and repeated motifs.
An interesting fact regarding Ruppert and Mulot- they draw these books in collaboration, and I find it fascinating that you can’t tell who has drawn what: there’s no apparent distinction. Barrel of Monkeys is filled with visual stimulation in the utmost sense: sleight of the eye tricks, half done pictures that need putting together, and the most prevalent, phenakistoscopes. These are images transplanted onto a circular net which would work rather like a flip book when rotated, giving an animated effect. They are much more effective when actually moving (I’ve included one below, but you can see more here) but like all else in this book, remain a source of scrutiny and fascination even when inanimate. They interpolate the narrative here rather like the punch line of a sketch show, each one appearing at the end of a skit. If you click on the link above, you can see just how well that would work: the build up of the narrative on the page ending in tumultuous action, but instead they have a staid, vaguely anti-climatic effect that still works surprisingly well, a big, ironic full stop to a narrative thread.
There’s another curious feature here in that none of the characters are given discernible eyes or even names, making the two faceless protagonists interchangeable, so you can’t attach to them in any way. Instead you watch as these two photographers/film-makers attempt to construct situations and circumstances to record -beginning with a report of bestiality at the zoo- thereby creating another circular chain of gaze direction . Barrel of Monkeys is a challenging book, one that engages and involves, that requires focus and thought and I would say, work, as you try to put the pieces you’ve been given together, but -and I’m aware of how tame this sounds- it does so in the best possible manner. I can’t claim to have understood it fully, but I can always appreciate when artists have such a distinct vision and manage to bring that unfettered to the page and Ruppert and Mulot have certainly achieved that.