Pascin by Joann Sfar
I was in The Beguiling a month or two back and saw that an English translation of Joann Sfar’s graphic novel biography of the artist Pascin had been published. I’d heard nothing about the book and had no idea who Pascin was, but I’ve always liked Sfar’s drawing style, so I picked up the volume to flip through and was gobsmacked. The cartooning in this book is rich and gorgeous, a wonderful example of why cartoonists should only work in black-&-white. This book is much more beautiful than anything Sfar has done in colour. It was a bonus for me that much of the book is set in brothels. 

Last week, Dan Nadel posted a negative review of the work over on the Comics Journal’s site.

Regarding the art, Dan complained that:

(1) The drawings “don’t have any sense of narrative urgency or discipline.”

(2) “There’s no sense of the page as a whole, and how a scenario might shift from panel to panel”.

(3) "Pascin’s body language is generic. Think about the nuances of Gabriel Bell, Sammy Harkham, Lauren Weinstein and other masters of cartoon naturalism. Sfar just doesn’t have that kind of talent”.

Let’s go over these.

(1) Does cartooning have to convey narrative urgency to be good? Dan Clowes brilliantly communicated narrative urgency in his recent Patience (which I couldn’t stop reading once I’d started) but surely we can also embrace cartooning that allows the reader to sink into a milieu in a leisurely, relaxed way — cartooning that’s not in any way urgent. No, the drawings in Pascin aren’t disciplined — they're loose, in what one might call a “cartoony” way. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with cartoons being cartoony.

(2) In my own work, I never give any thought to the page as a whole, so maybe this is an area of blindness for me — all I know is that each page of Pascin is lovely, and I never had any difficulty in understanding which panel to look at next.

(3) I don’t know Weinstein’s work, but I respect both Bell and Harkham (particularly Harkham), however, as Dan says, they draw in a naturalistic style. Look at this panel from Pascin:

That’s not a cartoonist who’s trying to draw naturalistically — he’s drawing in a highly stylized way and isn’t always interested in naturalistic depictions. As someone who enjoys both naturalistic and non-naturalistic work, the mannered approach of much of Pascin appealed to me.

Dan also has a problem with the book’s content:

“Sfar seems to relish some weirdly unironic bullshit about the ‘outrageous’ bad boy artist, but the problem is that nothing here is outrageous. Pascin the character is literally and figuratively a cliche: a sex crazed momma’s boy thirsty for trouble. […] For a book so focused on early 20th century ‘masculine’ endeavors like whoring and drinking, this book seems oddly impotent."

This is the old critic’s trick — first state that you know what the artist was trying to do (in this case, celebrate outrageous behaviour) then declare that the artist has failed to do what the CRITIC has said that the artist was trying to do.

In the book, Pascin expresses some immature opinions and engages in some immature behaviour — he particularly enjoys provoking people and confounding them. Maybe Sfar found all of this charming, or maybe only some of it. I don’t know, but it seems to me that the Villa America chapter (pp. 127-135) both questions Pascin’s macho posturing and shows his vulnerability and desperation.

I have no clue if the book is accurate, but it looks to me like Sfar was deliberately creating a portrait of a man who could be both engaging and annoying.

And what was that about Pascin being a “momma’s boy”? If I’m remembering correctly, his mother is never seen or even REFERRED to in the book.

I’m not claiming that Pascin is the best graphic novel I’ve read all year, but it’s gorgeous, and I did enjoy it as a read.

I hope I’m not coming down too hard on Dan here — he wrote something very nice about me a few weeks back when I set up this Patreon profile, which I greatly appreciated.