EMMA AND VIOLETTE Vol. 1 by Jérôme Hamon and Lena Sayaphoum
With bright artwork and clean lines, Jérôme Hamon and Lena Sayaphoum's comic sets the stage for a sweet coming-of-age story. Although the comic has the right elements, gendered tropes and dance stereotypes stand in the way.
78 %
Doesn't Stick the Landing

Some parents tell their children they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. Others project their dreams onto their children. Europe Comics’ EMMA AND VIOLETTE vol. 1: ONE DREAM FOR THREE dances (pun intended) between the two.

Writer Jérôme Hamon and illustrator Lena Sayaphoum delicately choreograph a comic about family, dreams, and growing up. EMMA AND VIOLETTE vol. 1 tells the story of sisters, Emma and Violette, as they pursue their shared dream of becoming professional ballerinas. As the subtitle suggests, the two share their aspiration with one other person: their domineering mother. This first volume explores what happens when Emma’s dream does not go as planned. The comic succumbs somewhat to one-dimensional gender stereotypes but ultimately manages to capture a heartfelt coming-of-age story.

Image courtesy of Europe Comics.

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Emma and Violette: Modern Women in a Ballet World

In the opening scenes of the comic, Jérôme Hamon characterizes Emma’s dance style as “too individualistic” for professional ballet. Although vague, it seems to imply that Emma is a free spirit, unwilling to follow the steps laid out for her. Emma’s unconventional style disappoints her mother. But Violette and Emma’s friend, Jake, admires it. A free spirit himself, Jake is a hip-hop dancer. Jake makes a valid point that is otherwise missing from the comic: Emma can still dance, even if not professionally.

In general, though, Hamon uses Emma’s mother to devalue nonprofessional art. Hamon seems to project a binary view of art onto Emma and Violette: either you are a professional, or you are no artist at all.  The result is melodramatic rather than a genuine exploration of life as a young artist. In the end, the volume never fully circles back to the value of art for art’s sake. Of course, Hamon cannot survey all of dance in one comic. Still, it is surprising that Emma’s “individualistic” style did not lead her to experiment with other dance forms. Modern dance, for example, does not make even a cameo in EMMA AND VIOLETTE Vol. 1.

Image courtesy of Europe Comics.

While Emma’s relationship with her mother is based on clear-cut expectations, her relationship with her father is refreshingly playful. After the auditions don’t go well, Emma’s dad takes her out for a heart-to-heart. Somehow they arrive backstage where Emma tries on different theater costumes, metaphorically giving her space to experiment with her identity. There, they discuss how Emma can follow her dreams and stay true to herself. In the sweet scene, Emma learns that there is life outside of ballet.

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“Comics For Girls”?

According to Europe Comics, EMMA AND VIOLETTE is tagged under “Comics for Girls.” Indeed, in the pink-washed EMMA AND VIOLETTE, ballet is for girls. While it is true that in the 21st Century young women dominate ballet, EMMA AND VIOLETTE is disappointingly aggressive in maintaining normative gender roles. This is seen not only in the portrayals of Emma and Violette, but also in their parents. While the girls’ father cheerfully works on repairing his motorcycle, their mother is hard at work enforcing the girls’ dance practice.

Image courtesy of Europe Comics.

Moreover, the comic does not challenge any of the harmful stereotypes about ballet. For example, at Emma’s own birthday party, she points out how she should not eat more food because the ballet school auditions are three days away. Instead of using the comic as an opportunity to prove that all bodies can dance, EMMA AND VIOLETTE reinforces the belief that only girls who conform to nearly unattainable standards of beauty can succeed. Ballet is often associated with eating disorders, and this comic does little to deconstruct that stereotype.

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Setting the Stage: Graceful Art

With a subject so closely linked to ballet and artistic passion, readers might expect the comic to feature more impressionistic artwork along the lines of Edgar Degas, famous for his paintings of the French corps de ballet. Instead, Lena Sayaphoum’s style is light and airy, nicely complimenting the balletic subject matter. The minimalist backgrounds draw strong focus to the characters. Sayaphoum’s balance between bright backdrops and darker bodies creates a graceful movement on the page. While Emma, Violette, and their mother shift easily from frame to frame, Jake, humorously crashes through the comic.

Image courtesy of Europe Comics.

Sayaphoum’s artwork sets the stage for the plot. The open spaces are almost severe at first, mirroring Emma’s mother’s attitude. However, as the comic progresses and Emma’s dreams start to shift, Sayaphoum gives the comic a different tone altogether. As it is, though, Emma and Violette resemble Elsa and Anna from Frozen. They are almost too sweet. Although the smooth illustrations of EMMA AND VIOLETTE give a dreamy quality to the comic overall, the characters might benefit from more distinguishing features.

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EMMA AND VIOLETTE Vol. 1: The Right Style, a Few Missteps  

EMMA AND VIOLETTE vol. 1 takes its first step in a heartfelt series. Although the comic does not take a daring approach to its characters, future volumes may prove more exciting and subversive. Despite the tendency to fall back on gendered tropes, Sayaphoum illustrates a very pretty story about overcoming challenges and finding your own way. Although the comic could stand to take a few more leaps, this gentle volume kicks off a sweet story about family and art.

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