The phrase “barrel of monkeys” generally means a bit of crazy fun. In some cases, though, people may use it as an example of something that’s less fun, i.e. “this party is way more entertaining than a barrel of monkeys.” This contradictory dual meaning makes Barrel of Monkeys a great title for a graphic novel by French cartoonists Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot — in my eyes, at least, because I still haven’t decided whether the book was a really awesome barrel of monkeys or the lesser variety.
The title’s also appropriate for the format of the book — a string of loosely related anecdotes, short stories, and vignettes brought together between the covers like a bunch of simian creatures thrown in a barrel — and for its themes, which start off (page two) with bestiality and move more broadly into sexuality and violence. And herein lies my quandary: like its title, Barrel of Monkeys as a whole is incredibly smart, as well as wonderfully innovative. But it’s also disturbing, and sometimes, when the humor fails, it’s just plain offensive. And those moments are strong enough to taint my feelings about the entire book.
This is the first English translation of Ruppert and Mulot’s work, but the pair have been working on comics together since 2005. Barrel of Monkeys was published in France (Panier de Singe) in 2007 and won the Revelation prize at Angouleme, the biggest comics festival in Europe, the same year. Its English translation and publication in the US are thanks to comics critic, editor, and publisher Bill Kartalopoulos, who recently founded Rebus Books (and who’s a co-founder of the beloved but recently departed Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival). He deserves credit for bringing European comics to American readers, something we’ve been sorely needing; the medium is flourishing on both continents, but as with so much contemporary literature and writing, there’s a lack of translation and exchange across the ocean.
Translating a work, however, doesn’t give you the cultural context for it, and I’ve been wondering if that’s what I’m missing with Barrel of Monkeys. The stories in the book mostly follow a pair of videographers/portrait photographers on their strange exploits: to shoot the molestation of animals at the zoo, to take pictures at a masquerade ball for the maimed and disfigured, to stage and photograph a duel at a national gathering of sword swallowers. There are other stories thrown in that don’t feature the pair: a father who tries to create a phenakistoscope with his son but just ends up frustratedly cursing and smacking the boy twice upside the head (and making him cry); two horribly racist European tourists who visit the pyramids in Egypt and treat their local guides with vitriol and disdain; two deaf guys who shoot people for fun on a train. Fun! Seriously. They shoot people and then crack up at the thought of shooting themselves with the two bullets left.
The approach here is obviously that nothing is off limits — that we can talk about and mock everything. Ruppert and Mulot may even be attempting to mock standard bro fare by having their protagnoist pair get into stupid fights and spectate obnoxiously at the seeing-eye-dog Olympics. But the rub is that by placing the duo and their ethos at the center of the book, the authors do nothing to really discourage it. The whole tone is calculated cool, a nonchalance that becomes an acceptance and then a condoning of violence. In the last vignette, the photographers kill and maim two prostitutes so they can set up a surrealist-tableaux-come-to-life with the bodies. (I’m not even going into the details, which made me actually feel sick.) Those prostitutes are two of the only women in the book, and all of the women are minor characters alternately viewed as sexual objects, humiliated, or violently injured. Not one of them gets angry, fights back, or injures a man. I don’t need a book to feature women to like it, and I’m not saying that certain topics should be off limits for writers and cartoonists, but I also don’t accept a nihilistic approach to violence as a cover for condoning misogyny.
Where Ruppert and Mulot succeed is in the technical aspects of the book, with original, challenging layouts and all kinds of awesome experiments with viewing and form. The story about the ball for maimed and disfigured people contains a series of phenakistoscopes that are mesmerizingly animated on the artists’ website. Another piece includes panels drawn in 3-D cubes, and I’m still not sure how to properly view them. The recurring tale of the portraitists at the zoo is full of scenes encrypted into messes of lines and points that can be decoded by “ripping out the pages and tracing the lines joining the matching symbols with an awl … folding along the lines towards the reader for the capital letters, and away from the reader for the lowercase letters,” the authors write. (Good luck.) These are participatory, interactive comics — comics that come to life beyond the book and follow you home. It’s a delightful idea, but also one that makes the disturbing stories even more so.
Getting under readers’ skin takes talent, and Ruppert and Mulot undoubtedly have that. The question is: in service of what? At first glance, the only thing approaching a point seems to be, “Ha, look what complete and utter jerks these guys are.” But each of the vignettes about the portraitists ends with the image of a ridiculous final photo in a frame — a man’s head chopped off by the boomerang he had aimed to catch, the dying loser of the duel on the floor, the winner posing with a woman in S&M gear in submission. Maybe, just maybe, the authors are pushing us to think about the lengths we go to to justify our picture taking these days — and conversely, the way we justify our actions and scenes we witness through the capturing of images. Is it worth staging a duel for the shots you’ll get at the end? Is there a redeeming value to seeing death in the New York City subway on the cover of a local newspaper? Just how far will our image obsession take us?
Barrel of Monkeys is available from Rebus Books.