The title story of Nicole Claveloux’s comic collection, The Green Hand and Other Stories, follows a young woman and her friend — a bird suffering from depression — as they move through a surreal dream-like series of events. Now out from New York Review books, the collection was originally published in French in 1978 and is the first to gather Claveloux’s work in English, thanks to the translations of Donald Nicholson-Smith and new lettering by Dustin Harbin. But Claveloux’s images almost don’t need text; the illustrations communicate the surreal tone and magical realist world of her narratives. The penwork is heavy, with dark, thick lines and striking colors that dramatically shift from panel to panel, conveying the mysterious mood. Shadows loom across high-ceilinged hallways lined with statues of gargoyles and nymphs. The Green Hand’s female protagonist wanders into a building, passes through its walls, and peeks behind doors, each time encountering something more wild and unusual: a regal religious figure on a quest of silence or a young boy eager to undress for her. In her own apartment, the bird lurks, soaked in deep purples, reds, and blues.
While these visuals are what immediately lure us into the story, that’s not to say the words are inconsequential. Edith Zha’s text not only complements but inspired the dissociative quality of the images. “She asked me if I could write a story for her to make a comic out of,” Zha explains in the interview published in the book. According to Claveloux, she leaned on Zha’s sense of structure: “I know how to write dialogues, but I don’t know how to write a story with a beginning, an end, and events between them. So I called on Edith, who is a skilled writer. She told this strange story chapter by chapter, and then I cut it all up into boxes and text bubbles.” These chapter titles are as alluring and mystifying as the pictures, with names like “The White Night” and “Blue Funk.”
Zha’s conversations are as idiosyncratic as the personalities speaking them. “She seems to find me quite attractive,” the plant taunts the bird in the first chapter of The Green Hand. “To me you look inert and potted,” the bird retorts, crying, “You’re insolent and pretentious. And you’re rooted to the spot. As for me, I’m free. Look!” as it dances around the room. When the woman discovers the bird has killed the plant out of jealousy, she runs out, beginning the fever dream journey that propels the story. When finally reunited, the bird and the woman share a text bubble, “It’s you! Yes! Good evening! You came back? Yes! As you see!” There’s a nod to the reader, as the characters throughout the stories call to each other to “see” or plainly state what we can see on the page, but rarely make sense of. What we see is as puzzling as the dream states the characters move through.
The book also includes a number of Claveloux’s shorter stories, including “The Little Vegetable Who Dreamed He Was a Panther,” wherein a rooted vegetable travels across fields and through walls in an attempt to become more like a panther. In “The Ninny and Her Prince Charming,” columns of horizontal panels depict a woman aging as she awaits her prince. Claveloux’s characters all seem to be waiting and searching, hoping to undergo a transition from their current stagnant state into something more. Her illustrations and worlds demonstrate a deep imagination of place, but also of personhood, as she makes space for the diverse imaginations and dreams of her creatures.
In one scene of The Green Hand, the woman and the bird reunite and run out into the blue and yellow horizon: “I was looking for you,” the woman calls. “The water attracts me!” exclaims the bird. Immersed in the water, the woman asks, “Where are we going?” The bird replies, “I don’t know. Just keep walking a long time?” Throughout Claveloux’s comics, the emphasis is on the voyage through the lush visuals and not on the specific plot points. In an aimless dream-like state we wander through her wonderfully twisted worlds, after which who knows what we will become.
The Green Hand and Other Stories written by Nicole Claveloux with Edith Zha, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith with English lettering by Dustin Harbin, is now out from the New York Review Books.