Look at Donald Trump’s face for long enough and maybe you’ll start to pity him. All of a sudden, you notice the fear in those uncomprehending eyes. His perma-rage against imaginary machines begins to come across as a coping mechanism, an attempt to compensate for some horrifying inner weakness. For four years, he had more power than perhaps anyone else in the world, but did he ever enjoy it when there was so much violence swamping his paranoid mind? Though many Americans were rightly embarrassed by him, Trump’s is the perfect face for so much of what the US has long stood for.
But America, like anywhere else, has always contained multitudes. Batman, Beyoncé, “Like a Rolling Stone”, Huck Finn, Josephine Baker’s banana-covered butt: how to square such wondrous humanity with that grim Trumpian aspect, or the French Maoist writer Philippe Gavi’s 1966 assertion that the US was “un peu le gros Satan” – a sort of “big Satan”?
Christian Hincker, who publishes under the name Blutch, was born in 1967 in the French city of Strasbourg. But perhaps because of the heavy presence of US troops in the neighbouring West Germany during Hincker’s formative years, his imagination is steeped as much in the visual language of classic Hollywood as it is in that of European comics art. Mitchum, originally serialised in France in the 1990s and newly translated by Matt Madden, reads as a sort of sub’s love letter to his dom. There’s an attraction to the power of mythic America in these beautifully rendered, black-and-white pages, but also an ever-present threat of violence.
It begins with wordless episodes depicting a voyeuristic puritan settler in the New World, a rapist slave owner and an adulterous fat man, before giving us the slightly longer story of an artist’s pursuit of a subject in modern New York. What follows is consistent less in terms of subject matter than in its weird combination of horror and horniness, whether in the context of the grotty milieu of Parisian artists or a hallucination about vomiting hair. The most striking sequences feature a character bearing the likeness of Robert Mitchum – mostly in his monumental Cape Fear incarnation, but later shrunken and old, anonymous among commuters on a train. Blutch’s brutal presentation channels the cruelty of his actorly persona without diminishing the charisma that made him a star, even when this Mitchum is cast as the chief villain in a psycho-sexual nightmare involving a predatory Jimmy Stewart who emerges out of a film-noir cop’s belly, in the manner of the mutant Kuato in the 1990 film Total Recall.
Mitchum is too interior a work to be explicitly political, but its articulation of (mostly male) force and aggression largely through American symbols comes across as a provocation – the desecration of the much-loved Stewart’s image in particular. Mining modern myths is an efficient way to convey universal truths, and Blutch seems to use them here for this purpose. In such a relentlessly bleak work, however, each evocation of golden-era Hollywood brings with it a suggestion of US hegemony and its sins, as well as the memory of earlier anti-American countercultures (an analogue is Seiichi Hayashi’s 1968 comic Oh, in the Dawn’s Early Light, which features a humorously pathetic Batman). Works of this sort tend to try to have it both ways: to kick the butt of an unjust superpower while revelling in the shared imaginative language that its dominance has given us.
In the world of comics, which owes so much to the stateside masters, it’s difficult to bypass a relationship with the American imagination altogether. Matthew Dooley’s debut long-form comic, Flake, almost manages it with a distinctly English tale of a morose ice-cream man called Howard and his rivalry with his thuggish step-brother. Dooley, who won the Observer’s graphic short story prize in 2016, minutely examines a fictional small town without overly romanticising it – in his rendering, it really does seem pretty grim up north, and not in any glamourous Lynchian way.
Flake is the work of a developing talent, hampered by an urge to tell instead of show (“Howard was in a bit of a rut,” we’re informed, before the narrative has had the chance to dramatise this at all). Yet some of its imagery, such as sea waves swallowing up Howard’s ice-cream van, is exhilaratingly original – if you ignore the book’s conspicuous debt in style and composition to the work of the Nebraskan artist Chris Ware. Meanwhile, its subplot of a mountain that has been downgraded to a hill recalls the 1995 Hugh Grant movie The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, a fantasy of Britishness produced by Miramax to suit American tastes. Even a book set in a market town called Dobbiston can’t escape the influence of le gros Satan.