Comic books: The Louvre as you've never seen it before

  • Article by: ANDREW A. SMITH MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE
  • Updated: June 26, 2014 - 1:31 PM

A sample from “Phantoms of the Louvre” shows the face of Aloyisias Alevratos over the Winged Victory of Samothrace, for which he modeled.

The treasures of the Louvre museum have inspired an untold number of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and other artists. Now, comics artists are prominently on that list.

That’s because French publisher Futuropolis has been collaborating with the Louvre for years, inviting A-list artists from around the world to dream up graphic novels, with the only specification being that they must in some way be inspired by the Musée du Louvre. The results have been both commercially and critically successful in Europe.

And now, thanks to NBM Publishing, a lot of them are over here. The two latest to arrive on U.S. shores are the long-out-of-print “Glacial Period,” by Nicolas de Crecy ($22.99). The second, “Phantoms of the Louvre,” by superstar European artist Enki Bilal ($29.99), is new.

Bilal, famed for his 10-year project “The Nikopol Trilogy,” firmly lives up to his rep with “Phantoms.” His approach isn’t a single narrative, but 22 of them — each telling the tale of the models for various famous works. Bilal tells how they lived, but more important, how they died, since it is their ghosts that haunt the Louvre of Bilal’s imagination.

Bilal’s selections cover 5,000 years of human history, from an Egyptian mask to the Mona Lisa, from the Human-Headed Winged Bull of Mesopotamia to the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Each work is photographed with a painting of the model, usually at the moment of death, superimposed on top. Those deaths, by the way, are often appalling — life in pre-modern times was, as Thomas Hobbes once said, “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” These models often died horribly — poisoned, beheaded, drowned, stabbed in the neck. It’s a catalog of human suffering.

Which Bilal captures magnificently. A death scene by its nature has an immediate impact, and especially so with Bilal, whose skill with expression is nonpareil.

The second book, “Glacial Period,” was actually the first Louvre book published, before De Crecy was well known, and it’s been out of print for a while. But that’s all changed. “Glacial Period” has now sold close to 100,000 copies, and De Crecy’s sketch style of cartooning and dry, absurdist humor have become popular in Europe, and in the U.S. to a degree, with his virtually surreal “Salvatore” series (also published by NBM).

De Crecy’s take is to look at the Louvre from far in the future, after an ice age has buried the current world for centuries. Archaeologists poke around in the ice, with pig-dog hybrids whose noses have been genetically enhanced to smell time, so that they can identify what year an object was created or last handled. Of course they can talk, and one of them has a crush on one of the female humans, who is also being pursued by the leader of the expedition.

That’s the setup. The payoff is when the team gets separated, with each smaller group finding the Louvre more or less on their own. Having no idea what 21st-century life was like, they can only guess what all this stuff means. Do all these pictures (and no documents) mean the ancients were illiterate? Do all the nudes mean that the Louvre was a house of prostitution? Their wild guesses — coupled with pompous, arrogant certainty — are amusing.

Weirdly, all the paintings and statues come to life about midway through the book, because A) they’re art, and they want to be looked at, and B) they don’t like living under the ice. So they want out. There’s no explanation for this, so you just have to go with the flow.

Both books are highly recommended, if for no other reason than to learn about and appreciate the powerful legacy of art left to us by our ancestors, and preserved at the most visited museum in the world.

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