Beatrice by Joris Mertens
The year is 1972 and Beatrice is a young woman working in a department store. The store is in a busy city – perhaps Paris or Brussels. Each day is much like the last. A busy commute, dealing with the public and then back to her small apartment. Only her daydreams bring some escape.
But one day she begins to notice something. A red bag, seemingly abandoned. It calls to her and soon she is drawn to a more glamorous life, and a more glamorous time – the roaring ‘Twenties.
A glamour is certainly laid upon Beatrice, but in the original meaning of the word. A spell, a deception. The reader however is also entranced. We are caught not only by the glamour of 1927 but also that of 1972. A different world, one of bustling shops and cafes where we can have a quick espresso or perhaps an aperitif.
What enchants the reader is the breathtaking art of Joris Mertens. The city of the 1970’s is depicted with a palette of browns, reds and the glowing yellow of artificial light radiating from shops, cafes, bars and cinemas. The cinematic technique of picking out the colour red is very effective, from a cabinet of gloves to a busy railway station. The sensation is that in a seemingly humdrum life a splash of colour and adventure can be found.
The rendering of the city in this book is absolutely stunning. Sweeping boulevards lit by neon lights, rain pattering on wet pavements, great industrial railway stations, a lonely garret window amongst dark rooftops. I can honestly say it is one of the most beautiful books I have read.
In Beatrice we slip between three times. The 70’s, the 20’s and the present day. The author uses a number of techniques to shift focus and draw the reader in to a different time. Following photographic clues Beatrice is drawn to liminal spaces that bridge two different ages. The reader too is drawn from black and white photographs to a bright, seductive world. A glamorous world. Lighting shifts and ultimately colour itself is drained away.
The theme of nostalgia is central to the book. Beatrice is seduced by nostalgia for a time that seems more glittering and more alive rather than seek that excitement within her own life and her own time. The reader too is drawn not just to the distant 1920’s but also to the 1970’s – a period just out of our grasp, with no mobile phones or gig economy. We feel the yearning for an age that is still visible in the distance but is now out of reach.
The book evokes the power of nostalgia – and the conservative notion that things were better in the good old days. Beatrice finds herself in a certain Cafe Faust. But like Christopher Marlowe’s unfortunate Dr Faustus, we must learn to beware of Faustian Pacts.
Beatrice is a book that comes firmly from the Franco-Belgian Bande Dessinee tradition. But if you are worried about your language skills, you shouldn’t be. The book is wordless and the story is told entirely through the images and panels. The album sized edition is perfect for the stunning artwork in this book.
In the first days of British separation from Europe (partly driven by nostalgia) one cannot help but think that we are a little more distant from this rich comics culture. But let’s not let that happen. Just this once, succumb to the glamour and lose yourself in the world of Beatrice.
Joris Mertens can be found on Instagram.