Friday, March 18, 2016


Writer: Denis-Pierre Filippi | Artist: Terry Dodson
Colorists: Rebecca Rendon & Terry Dodson | Translators: Quinn & Katia Donoghue

In 2004, France's Les Humanoïdes Associés published SONGES: CORALINE, volume one in a 2-book series written by Denis-Pierre Filippi and illustrated by Terry Dodson. The second volume, SONGES: CÉLIA, was finally released eight years later in 2012, and Humanoids, Inc. -- the American branch of Les Humanoïdes Associés -- released an English-language version collecting both books in one volume, retitled MUSE.

I'm not sure how, but I became aware of this book around 2008 and based on the images I found online, I fell in love with the artwork. Yes, it contains a ton of gratuitous cheesecake -- half the reason for hiring Terry Dodson, who here is able to shed far more clothes from his female protagonist than he'd be allowed in any mainstream American comic book -- but there's more to his work than that in these pages. The book is set primarily on the grounds of a sprawling estate in what is most likely rural France, at some undetermined point in the past. Dodson puts such remarkable work into the setting that one almost feels transported there through his illustrations, which appear to be reproduced directly from pencil art for a very "natural" feel, and which are complemented astoundingly by the lush color work of Rebecca Rendon and Dodson himself.

Our tale follows a young lady named Coraline, who arrives at the estate in response to an ad for a caretaker. Her charge is to be a brilliant boy named Vernère, who spends his days in a secret workshop constructing astounding mechanical devices, brewing unusually powerful nectars, and reading book after book. Coraline's job, as outlined by Vernère's housemaid and butler, is to get him out of the workshop and to help him rediscover his youth. And if Dodson's illustrations of the setting are a large part of the charm of this book, then his work on Vernère's fantastical devices is the other major attraction (taking his delightful renderings of Coraline in all manner of dress and undress for granted, of course). This stuff has sort of a turn-of-the-century steampunk vibe and while Steampunk as a genre has never really appealed to me, seeing such devices in this almost fairytale-like setting is very cool.

As her time at the estate goes on, Coraline finds herself repeatedly drawn into bizarre dreams in which she's dressed up by a pair of flamboyant tailors and sent off into various outlandish scenarios: she's abducted by pirates. She's almost eaten by cannibals. She finds herself in a strange land populated by numerous slumbering fairytale characters. Every dream ends the same way, with some dashing young man or another attempting to kiss Coraline, but her resistance always awakens her before the kiss can occur. Again, the multiple dream scenarios let Dodson stretch his artistic muscles and give us action sequences, slapstick comedy, and various wacky character designs. It's really a sight to behold and, much as I love my superhero comics, I find myself wondering if Dodson's talents weren't wasted on so many years drawing the X-Men and Spider-Man when he could have been working on stuff like this.

The plot thickens in book 2, when Coraline accompanies Ekborn, Vernère's manservant, into town to stock up on some new books for the boy. She finds that the townspeople are all quite hostile toward Vernère and infers that they believe he's kidnapped several women from them. When Coraline asks about this, Ekborn shuts her down. Not long after, she infiltrates Vernère's workshop, and this... is where I reluctantly part ways with D-P Filippi's story.

Up to this point, he has presented MUSE as something of a mystery. What is Vernère's secret? What does he do in that workshop all day, and how does it relate to Coraline's bizarre dreams? Why do we see Ekborn taking photos of Coraline on several occasions? Through all these questions, Coraline remains confused but nonetheless determined to get to the bottom of things. She is, however, played entirely as an unwitting participant in the proceedings.

Until now. Exploring Vernère's workshop, Coraline locates all the kidnapped girls. She drinks some of Vernère's elixir to enter one of his dream scenarios and locates the girl there. It's her sister, Célia! Yes, despite all evidence to the contrary, including Coraline's own confused monologues early in the story, it turns out she came to this estate knowing full well that Vernère was up to something, with the goal of rescuing her missing sister and the other girls from town. It's a completely bizarre twist which is not supported by anything shown earlier in the book.

Having deduced in the real world that Vernère is distraught over the deaths of his parents and is looking for a surrogate mother, Coraline leads the kidnapped girls through the dream to find the boy in his true state rather than in one of his dashing guises which he previously used to put the moves on her. They eventually succeed in locating the genuine Vernère, Coraline plants a little smooch on his cheek, and all is returned to normal. The kidnapped girls plan to return to the village, Coraline and Célia declare that they'll stick around Vernère's place for a few days, and that's that.

(It turns out Ekborn is just a perv who was snapping pics of Coraline for his own enjoyment.)

Besides the fact that Filippi sets up none of this early in the story, we're also left wondering: A) How does Coraline continue to drift into Vernère's dream scenarios after the first one? The first time it happens, it's after she drinks some of his homemade nectar. Deducing this to be the cause of her crazy dream, Coraline makes a point to dump the nectar each subsequent time it's offered, but she still enters the dream world on every occasion. Then at the end, to force herself into a dream, she... drinks the nectar. Huh? And B) If Vernère is looking for a new surrogate mother, why does he keep trying to make out with Coraline? Is this some creepy Oedipal thing?

And It's not just that the thing changes directions between books. It actually appears to shift gears about halfway through the second volume! I can't help wondering if the eight year delay between installments somehow led to Filippi changing his plans, altering the plot mid-script, and wrapping the story up in a less-than-satisfactory fashion.

But at least the artwork is gorgeous. The final dream in particular takes us from the land of the Arabian Knights to the Wild West (but with robots!) to Feudal Japan (but with robot ninjas!) all in the span of a few pages. Again, this book is an opus for Terry Dodson, and I will never cease to love flipping through it to admire his work. I just wish the story lived up to the compelling mystery initially established by Filippi.

Available now from Amazon.

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