The Leaning Girl by Francois Schuiten and Benoit Peters, translation by Stephen D. Smith
This relatively obscure (by many standards, anyway) little pleasure is seeing some new life in the English-speaking world thanks to the efforts of Alaxis Press, whose Kickstarter campaign resulted in this first volume of The Obscure Cities series by Belgian artist Francois Schuiten and French writer and philosopher Benoit Peters, with new translation by Stephen D. Smith.
The Leaning Girl hearkens back to a calm, artful, spiritual form of science fiction that hasn’t been embraced as vigorously by the current geek culture as other areas. There are no battles here, rather meditations on otherness and philosophical ponderings on the space around us, both physical and emotional, existing as odd scientific states and almost incomprehensible landscapes.
In the old days, this sort of thing might take form as a Tarkovsky movie like Stalker, though Michael Moorcock’s Dancers At The End of Times series comes to mind. Certain modern works like Melancholia, Another Earth, or even Lost echo this form of art science fiction. The one thing The Leaning Girl contains that seems to have been embraced by current interests is a steampunk aspect, but this is not in the action vein that so much steampunk wraps itself in. This is quiet. If it is show-offy, it’s in a very humble way.
The story concerns Mary Von Rathen and her travels following an incident that leaves her perpetually leaning in one direction, always. Escaping the disdain of her family, hooking up with a traveling sideshow, and eventually partnering with pioneering scientist who thinks the secret of Mary’s leaning has to do with a nearby distant sphere and the pull of its gravity, Mary’s adventures are contemplative one centering on alienness, belonging, finding a place to be, building psychological safe spaces, taking chances with the understanding that pulling back may be the necessary response, and so much more. The Leaning Girl is a thematically rich work.
It’s also an artistically rich one. Schuiten’s pen and ink tour de forces remind me of some of the most awe-inspiring collaborations between Dave Sim and Gerhard, a perfect match of personality and world building, featuring architecture that takes on impossible meaning and landscapes that seem impossible to visualize, and yet are, right there, on the page.
The book also utilizes fumetti, with photography by Marie-Francoise Plissart, to tell part of the story, and use the difference between the photos and the drawings as strong visual cues to further the impact of the plot. Centering on the internal monologue of an artist in an abandoned house, these segments explore the structure’s state of invisible history being worn on its walls even as the artist tries to adorn it with his own obsessions and visions.
The Leaning Girl is actually the sixth book in the official series. The previous titles were all released and then discontinued by NBM. Having not read any of the first five books, I can tell you that The Leaning Girl is a great starting point, and even if you never read another, it stands on its own.
Alaxis promises to translate the further books, as well as one that explores a curious side note in the work, the supposed existence of a real Mary Von Rathen and her correspondence with the creators. This is very exciting news to anyone who is looking for genre fiction that isn’t pulling from the same geek tropes - in either story, character, or pacing - as everything else these days. It is decidedly its own thing, mesmerizing and mysterious, and certainly intellectually and visually challenging. A major work in the history of graphic storytelling.