GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW
Blue Is The Warmest Color
Blue Is The Warmest Color, the debut graphic novel by the talented Julie Maroh (recently adapted to the big screen where it won the Palme d’Or prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival,) tells the story of Clementine, a high school junior, who falls in love with a university art student, Emma.
Clementine is not a lesbian; she knows this in the way all teenagers know everything. And Emma is in a relationship with a butch bully, a leader in the art community, to whom Emma owes a lot. Still, Clementine and Emma fall in love and find safe harbor with Emma’s tolerant parents.
Fast forward ten years, and despite their apparent love for each other, the pair struggles to keep their relationship going; Clementine is not fully comfortable with her “sexual identity,” and Emma has had enough of the semi-closeted situation. Then one day, Clementine sleeps with someone else, and after a painful fight, Emma kicks her out. By the time they see each other again, Clementine is very sick. She dies.
If that ending seemed to come a bit abruptly, you feel the same way that I did in the last few pages of the novel. Despite the cruel tragic cliff at the end, the rest of the novel is very well paced. Maroh gives her characters enough time to develop and gain their own distinct voices. The story is told through Clementine’s diary entries and flashbacks, which adds to the melodramatic tone. Maroh captures the teenage voice fully with its anxieties and little triumphs, which create an emotional, at times overwhelming, narrative.
And perhaps it is meant to be overwhelming; after all, Clementine is overwhelmed with love, with identity politics, with having to live away from her parents, with exams, and making a living. Maroh is sensitive to her characters’ weaknesses and strengths, and this comes out most in her brilliant and detailed illustrations. The dynamic panel structure, the dreamy black-and-white panels, and the blue that bleeds on the page all help bring Clementine and Emma to crystal clear focus.
The crowd scenes are as detailed and dynamic as the quieter corners of the story, and Maroh has a special knack with facial expressions. The artist’s creative use of color successfully sets the mood at any given point, reflecting the inner feelings of the characters. Maroh’s mastery with her illustrations, the panels that spill out of each page with emotion, color (or lack there of), and movement, has a major and positive presence in the novel.
It is appropriate to look at the small subgenre of queer/lesbian graphic novels for a moment and contemplate Blue’s place in this shockingly successful collection. Two graphic novels immediately come to my mind at the intersection of high school, queer identity, and coming-of-age, most notorious of which is Potential by Ariel Schrag. While Potential is an encyclopedia of high school queer issues compared to Blue, Maroh’s novel easily outshines Potential in the graphics department; compared to the half-sketches that make up most of Schrag’s work,Blue is a cinematic masterpiece (no pun intended). But for those who might readBlue and think the sex scenes are revolutionary, do please pay homage to the master and read Potential.
The second work, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, is one of the recent graphic novels that can be considered a future classic and covers similar high school ground as Blue, only without the decade-long love story. Also set in the early 90s,Skim chronicles the life of a high school girl, who develops an intense crush on her female art teacher. Where Blue oozes with romantic love, Skim cynically dissects everyday pains of a crush with cruel clarity. Where Blue paints luscious scenes of love and tinted panels with blues and greens, Skim delivers its days in black and white pages interrupted with back alleys, parking lots, and diners. Still, the two works have a strange way of complementing each other, reflecting the different high school experiences of girls, especially of girls who find themselves suddenly interested in other women.
Though not at all about high school or coming-of-age, the love saga of another graphic tour de force concerning queer women has to be mentioned here: Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise. Strangers is a huge, serial comic work with more adult themes, but the sometimes overtly sentimental voice, and the melodramatic plot turns, as well as the struggle of one of the main characters with her sexuality, really brought these two works together in my mind. There is one thing that Moore does very well that I hope new graphic artists choose to do in their works: draw faces that grow old and bodies that gain and lose weight with time. Maroh’s characters certainly do look slightly older and maybe a bit warn out after ten years and some, but perhaps passage of time is not as convincing as in Strangers.
The last few pages of Blue will urge the reader to cry, if they have not already. Besides the tragic voice that dominates the narration and story arc, Blue is an enjoyable read. It is also an extremely valuable addition to a very tiny, yet strong subgenre of graphic novels that tell the stories, autobiographical or imagined, of girls becoming women, women that neither society nor themselves imagined or wanted them to be.
Q&A With Author and Artist Julie Maroh
Q: You began Blue is the Warmest Color (Le bleu est une couleur chaude) when you were 19 and it took you many years to complete. Did it evolve over time, or did you have a very clear vision of the story of Clementine and Emma from the beginning?
A: The beginning and the end of the book take place at the same moment in time; this idea was clear to me from the start. Otherwise, the main events of the story revealed themselves to me after Clementine and Emma’s personality traits were settled. I suppose that using such verbs might sound weird, but this is really how it worked for me. As soon as a character is clarified, he/she can react in only one or two possible ways in any given situation. By this I mean that the personalities of my characters were my guides and helped me to have a clear vision of the story.
Sometimes the most difficult part was determining what would take place between the main events of the story. It took me months just to write a few transitional scenes in order to shift the story from one important situation to another.
Q: The first part of Blue explores Clementine and Emma’s courtship and eventual union, and the next part skips ahead ten years in their relationship. Can you talk about why you chose to tell the story this way?
A: When I write a story, I always ask myself one question for each scene: “Is it useful for the story?” In this case, ten years could be encapsulated in one page, and it’s still easily understandable that their intimacy went further, that they moved in together and were happy. The details of this part don’t really matter. What matters is what led to this happiness and what followed afterwards.
Q: What is your illustration process? Do you go through many drafts? Can you tell us how a panel comes together for you?
A: Actually, it’s quite a neurotic process! And it’s more about creating a page or a scene than a panel. First of all, I write down everything that runs through my head: events, situations, dialogues, gestures, shots, closeups, backgrounds … Starting from there, I draw a rough version of the page; most of the time I create two facing pages at the same time. When I feel that all the elements are balanced and efficient, I draw the final version on another sheet of paper. The color comes at the end. I usually don’t go through many drafts on paper. It can happen mentally. But I do a lot of sketches of the characters, to be sure to get their … cartography, if you will.
Q: What other writers are you inspired by? Who inspired you to become a comic creator?
A: I’ve been inspired by so many that it wouldn’t be fair to name only a few. Everything feeds me in my work; every kind of art becomes every little rock on my path. For me, it’s more about what and how to pass on. I first became a storyteller when I was around six years old, and drew my first comic book when I was eight. So really, it was my entire environment that helped to shape me as a storyteller and comic artist since I was a child.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My next graphic novel Skandalon will be released in France this fall, as will a little comic I made about Brahms, the composer. I’ll spend the rest of this year and 2014 working on my new project called Les corps sonores, a series of little love stories and introspections focused on alternative identities and sexualities.
Blue G. is an editor and writer, a recovering cancer researcher, though always a scientist at heart. She lives in Brooklyn among piles of books with her partner of twelve years.