The Bellybuttons Vol. 1 (Cinebook Review 6)

After a short break I continue my wandering through the wonderful world of French and Belgian comics, courtesy of Canterbury-based translators and publishers Cinebook.  Having covered historical supernatural horror, cowboy frolics, classic pulp sci-fi and corporate conspiracy thriller, it’s time for something else completely different – teenage comedy shenanigans.  Since I started getting into comics I’ve witnessed huge developments in story-telling and imagary.  With decompressed narratives, ‘events’ spanning dozens of titles and pen and ink-work that could be framed for galleries, it is easy to forget that comics started as simple episodes; punchy, fun and only loosely connected.  With The Bellybuttons, creators Delaf and Duluc return us to that simpler life, and they have a ball with it.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the art style, all zany and colourful.  I’ll confess that at first it turned me off, feeling a distinct step down from the panoramic vistas of Largo Winch.  Give it a go though and you’ll soon have a smile on your face.  The figure work is idiosyncratic, with stretched out bodies and exaggerated expressions that perfectly capture the over-the-top nature of teens everywhere.  The cast is small and, like all the best sitcoms, they have strong but simple characters.  Vicky is the top dog – utterly confident, sexy and cruel.  Jenny is her pretty sidekick, wide eyed, fickle and easily led.  Karine is our heroine, all heart and smarts, but plain as porridge.  She is the butt of her friends pranks, but rebellion is starting to stir within.  Spinning in orbit around the girls are a menagerie of losers and love interests, but in this first volume none of them are developed enough to get a sense of character.

There is no real story in evidence here.  Each page has ten to fourteen panel on it and is pretty much a self contained comedy sketch.  This in itself is not a problem, after all Peanuts and Garfield have sold a bucket load over the years with far less space to work with, but the large size of the pages led me to expect something… different.  Whilst none of the gags made me laugh out loud I very quickly came to enjoy the characters.  The front cover picks out Vicky and Jenny in a spotlight, posing like little mixes and subtly shoving Karine out of the way.  That sort of person pees me off.  In their minds it is all about them, what they want, who they want and how they’re going to get them.  The humiliations they put Karine to are kind of funny in a Charlie Brown way, but it pleased me no end to discover that much of the humour is actually at Vicky and Jenny’s expense, pricking at their self importance and deflating their egos.  There is a beautiful little war going on here, hidden beneath dazzling lipstick smiles and innocent-seeming eyes.

There were two strips that raised it up in my estimation.  One focussed on Jenny and how the other people perceived her as an individual.  It gave her a totally different tone and revealed a truth usually hidden by her partnership with Vicky.  Perhaps the biggest surprise came in a strip where Vicky and Jenny read Karine’s diary.  In it the creators suddenly draw all the previous strips together, as days of Karine’s life, and a poignant needle stabs out at Jenny and the rest of us.  Although simply written it gives an emotional depth to Karine and Jenny that had previously been much more understated.

The wry sense of humour translates well and I could imagine youngsters enjoying it as a read.  Pre-teen boys in particular might get a cheap thrill at some of the clothes and poses, whilst less confident girls could get some satisfaction from Karine’s developing sense of independence.  Overall I couldn’t say this was a classic.  I’d pick up volume two if I saw it going cheap, but this isn’t essential reading.  As diverting as it can be poking around in a bellybutton, ultimately all you get is a bit of fluff.

3/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak
You can hear me blather about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
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3 comments

  1. I had a similar reaction when I fist saw the comic: “Hmm. Teenage stuff. How… fluffy.” I didn’t feel a thrill about translating it. But the fun art and clever gags in volume 1 got me interested enough that I went into volume 2 without misapprehension.
    Turns out that the series just keeps getting better. The format remains broadly speaking the same, but the more or less independant gags become more intricately linked, and the characters get developed WAY beyond the stereotypes of vol 1. By volume 4, you get an actual story in episode form.
    I think the Bellybuttons is actually a very good series, and I’m really glad I got the chance to work on it. I can’t wait to read volume 5. And it’s hardly my usual style or type of narrative!

    • Dion /

      Thanks for that comment. It’s good to know it continues to develop and improve. I’d be fascinated to know how you translate in terms of humour. Do we read the authors jokes more or less verbatim or do you have to find equivalent idioms and references for the English language?

      • Generally speaking, any joke you read in the English version is an equivalent or adapted version of the French one. Humour rarely translates well – and hardly ever directly. The structure of the language is a factor. The cultural references are a factor (like, who’s Jerry Springer / Jean-Claude Delarue, for example). The cultural background and mindset as well; a French comedian once said: ” British humour underlines the absurdity of our world with bitterness and hopelessness; French humour makes fun of my mother-in-law.” We don’t laugh about the same things…

        Sometimes there’s just no way to translate or adapt a joke. You have to resort to moving the text around between bubbles a bit, and inserting another joke further down the dialogue. It’s fun, and challenging; sometimes it’s a nightmare!

        Regarding the Bellybuttons, specifically, the authors are both Canadians. And so, their command of English is better than most French/Belgian authors. It’s led them to insist sometimes on a different, or more direct translation where most other authors wouldn’t have intervened. That’s something slightly different, but it’s also cool to see a different viewpoint and try to work within a frame. 🙂

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