Breathing Fire into Life

Reviewed by Katie Mullins

Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud’s graphic novella The Blue Dragon presents an engaging and colourful adaptation of the original theatre play. Illustrated by Québécois artist Fred Jourdain, the book tells the story of forty-six-year-old Claire Forêt, who goes to China in the hope of adopting a little girl. During her stay, Claire meets with her ex-lover Pierre, a Canadian who lives in China and runs an art gallery, and his young Chinese girlfriend, artist Xiao Ling. Claire and Xiao quickly form a close friendship, and when Xiao discovers she is pregnant with an unwanted child, all three characters are forced to confront their future directions in very different ways. At the heart of the narrative lies an exploration of the complexities of interpersonal relationships, but the story also engages with issues of aging, reproduction, parenthood, gender, cultural difference, and creativity. Although the narrative at times borders on soap opera territory, the scenes are written and illustrated with enough nuance that the story remains compelling. Similarly, the conclusion—in which the same scene is repeated three times, but with three different outcomes—complicates what might be an otherwise predictable and simplistic plot, allowing the narrative to remain open-ended and intriguing, even if a little unsatisfying in its denouement.

By far the most impressive feature of the novella is Fred Jourdain’s artwork. Jourdain’s bold use of ink and his subtle washes bring great energy and vitality to the story, and his cinematic, sepia-tinged depictions of Chinese cityscapes and urban interiors provide a brooding, atmospheric backdrop to the narrative events. The range of Jourdain’s style is impressive: his tightly rendered figurative drawings, usually presented within panels, are contrasted by full one- and two-page spreads and abstract compositions. Frequently, and particularly in the case of some of the two-page spreads, the illustrations stand by themselves as reflections on the characters’ experiences of alienation and attempts to locate meaning in Shanghai. My one complaint about the illustrations is that the story’s female characters often appear over-sexualized or doll-like. Claire, for instance, is presented with idealized physical proportions, and the opening scene immediately draws attention to her breasts. Such choices push the novella hazardously close to engaging in the problematic representation of women in comics for which the form has received much criticism, and threaten to undermine the story’s otherwise tender exploration of the conflicts between career, artistic pursuit, and parenting that the female characters face.

The book’s most noticeable weakness is that its integration of word and image is sometimes heavy-handed, likely because it presents the full dialogue of the stage play without transferring some of the detail to visual storytelling. Although the prologue points to the important relationship between textual and visual communication—the opening pages discuss the art of Chinese calligraphy and its ability to suggest complex and multiple images—the narrative does not consistently succeed in achieving the kind of dynamic interplay between word and image that graphic narrative can perform so powerfully. For me, the story is at its strongest when the dialogue is included within panels rather than rendered as script outside of the illustrations, and when scenes occur without overly intrusive or explanatory dialogue.

Still, the provocative issues the narrative raises through each character’s search for meaning and fulfillment keeps the story engaging, and Jourdain’s artwork is frequently spellbinding. The Blue Dragon shows how human lives never follow simple trajectories, and how the endings we think we desire can be altered by the choices we make.

This review “Breathing Fire into Life” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 168-69.

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