Translation, please : Sugar by Serge Baeken
If popular lore is to be believed, there are two kinds of people in the world. The first are dog people, and they spend their time bonding with man’s best friend, trekking through the fields and throwing and retrieving sticks. The second kind prefers cats, spend their time indoors and draw comics about them. Or write about those comics on the Internet.
Flemish cartoonist and illustrator extraordinaire Serge Baeken is a cat person. He has shared his life with a whole army of cats, starting from Sugar, who lived to the mighty age of 18. Some eight years ago, Baeken drew a set of stories focusing on the life of Sugar, how he grow from a young, rambunctious kitten to a Mensch of a cat, with a personality and an extensive insight into his humans’ psyches. As with so many of his endeavours, the project ended up unfinished in a box in Baeken’s studio.
When he was contacted by a French publisher about it, Baeken decided to completely redraw the book, using all the experience and craft he had gathered in the mean time, working as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines. The art became neater and much more detailed (each of the 24 panels that fill every one of the 70-odd pages was drawn as a 20×20 cm square), and the book gained an almost jazz-like rhythm, playing with tempo, melodies and themes.
The book is basically a series of short stories, tableaux from the life of a single cat, throughout many episodes. Sugar learns to live with his humans, he kills a pigeon, goes to (and survives) the vet, meets and loses new cat friends and becomes a big brother to his humans’ first child. And even after he dies, he lives on as a legend, a cat that was more than just a cat.
It is a beautiful book, with very recognizable scenes (well, if you own a cat, at least) and funny and endearing moments. No harsh detail from Sugar’s life is coated over, but instead of showing the gory details, they are inferred and suggested, leaving you gobsmacked when you finally realize what just happened.
Baeken’s artwork is amongst the best my country currently has to offer. Even though he limits himself to line art, with the occasional cross-hatchings, his style effortlessly moves from hyper-realistic to ligne claire and slap-stick comedy to almost surrealist scenes. As shown above, his pages are frequently spectacular, with the action tearing through the panels over dizzying backgrounds. But at the same time, the art can be very intimate, very close on the characters without any possibility for the reader to opt out of the emotion.
And even though the book contains some dialog, it is essentially wordless, making it perfectly readable for readers who don’t speak French or Dutch. Baeken often uses returning panels to create chorus-like focal points along his narrative (such as the rain on the window, or the gas fire burning), and often the vocabulary of the main characters is sufficiently limited. Only the final part, a poetic ode to the real Sugar, his life and adventures, might require actual translation. But again, it will be worth it, and there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Sugar is a brilliant book, that you will go back to again and again, if only to marvel at the art. It would be a shame if this didn’t get translated, although it looks like there will be a digital version to buy and download. But that would mean you’d only see that splendid artwork on half of its intended size.
Serge Baeken, Sugar. Dargaud, ISBN 978-2505017943 (French) or Blloan, ISBN 978-9462100909 (Dutch). 16,95 EUR.