In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton describes surrealism as “outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.” Surrealism sought to harness the unconscious mind and escape limitations like beauty or ethics. However, in 2017, another French artist proved that surrealism can co-exist with representational art surprisingly well. Antoine Crossé‘s graphic novel SHOWTIME combines surrealism’s irrationality-as-philosophy and comics’ magical ability to show the bizarre and the taboo. Crossé’s work from Breakdown Press toys with reality, perception, and art in this thoroughly surreal comic.

Image courtesy of Breakdown Press.

SHOWTIME follows a journalist and three stranded waiters on their way to a performance by the mysterious magician “M.” However, the story unfolds through several narrative layers. The comic opens with a small pensive rat in a subway. Then it moves to the journalist and to M and back again. A few interruptions from the rat remind the reader of the comic’s original frame. However, the story immediately sucks readers back in again. As a result, it is challenging to pin down the characters. The rat, a strange narrator to begin with, provides few clues as to SHOWTIME’s ultimate performance. However, this narrator serves to root the comic in the context of art as surreal performance. Nevertheless, minimal text makes the characters’ motives unclear and their actions all the more unpredictable.

Visually, the characters flow together. Often they seem to melt into the cloudy landscape. Crossé’s inky illustrations add to the comic’s fluid narrative. Characters and shapes swirl across the pages and mesmerize readers. Crossé’s lead, the journalist, is easy to confuse with his hitch-hiker companions as well as with M and others. As the journalist describes M’s tremendous feats, Crossé’s artwork flashes on the magic acts. The images combine with the journalist’s roadside surroundings. The artwork itself mimics M’s trickery, which audiences witness through a hazy hypnosis. Consequently, readers will question what is real and what is M’s magic. Indeed, the comic rejects objective reality all together. Using images and minimal text, Crossé conjures a dreamlike atmosphere.

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Conjuring the Subconscious Mind:

To the surrealist movement, overthrowing rationality and liberating the unconscious was essential. As a result, surrealism often plays with perception, sparking doubt. Dreams and the imagination are key aspects of surrealism. Indeed, the surrealist movement often involved Freudian psychoanalysis and the interpretation of dreams. Ultimately, the rules governing modernity were too oppressive. Surrealists turned to automatism (spontaneous artistic expression) to create their artworks. Similarly, Crossé’s art does not follow a consistent style or format. Images seem to blur from page to page, pulling the reader’s attention in all directions. Evoking the surrealists, Crossé successfully challenges readers to question the reality of SHOWTIME’s main narrative. Crossé includes magic and trickery to suggest the mind may be playing tricks throughout the entire story.

Image courtesy of Breakdown Press.

Surrealism’s goal is not to soothe but rather to spark revolutionary action. Crossé’s comic lives up to this goal as well. SHOWTIME is rattling, even existentially troubling. Crossé makes good use of the flexible and unregulated medium of comics to emphasize SHOWTIME’s illusions. Thematically, the artwork fits the story. SHOWTIME’s main attraction is the promise of M’s fantastic magic tricks that are supposed to make audiences question reality. Moreover, the question of how reality and illusion relate lingers throughout the comic. But even M’s story is framed by an impossible narrator: a rat who talks to readers and controls a stage. With each trick, SHOWTIME becomes more unsettling and captivating. Ultimately it is Crossé’s slight of hand artwork that lets the comic escape convention.

Breaking the Rules: Surrealism and Comics

SHOWTIME demonstrates how comics can create a surrealist atmosphere. Comics frequently disregard conventional “rules,” which is ideal for surrealism. Crossé is unafraid to challenge readers with unconventional style and strange plot twists. SHOWTIME lets the story flow without rational organization or censorship. The comic frequently moves towards the taboo. However, Crossé is undeterred. He’s fine letting details meander from a floating ship to a magic-induced orgy to a melodramatic carjacking gone awry.

Although comics tend to break rules, Crossé takes the trend to a new level. SHOWTIME puts on a show within a comic, playing with form as well as content. The narrative framework makes SHOWTIME jumbled from the start. Conventional measures of time and space no longer apply. Indeed, locating the meaning of SHOWTIME is hopeless. In true surrealist form, rational meaning is no longer a concern.

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Road Trips with the Unreliable Narrator

SHOWTIME even verges on the psychedelic. Although the comic is in stark black-and-white, it’s just as kaleidoscopic as the 1968 Beatles’ animated musical YELLOW SUBMARINE. In fact, many of the figures in SHOWTIME share a humorous likeness to the characters in YELLOW SUBMARINELike the whimsical travels of The Beatles’ cartoon counterparts, SHOWTIME’s characters experience a journey of bizarre encounters and strange premonitions. The strongly uncanny aspects of the story make SHOWTIME an uneasy ready. For example, the journalist’s physical similarity to M, along with their tendency to visually flow together, problematizes their distinct identities. As a result, what could otherwise be whimsical gains an uncomfortable fun-house effect.

Indeed, SHOWTIME’s blunt writing is jarring in contrast to the fluid art. Readers will not know who to trust. M’s magic tricks, carefully mediated by Crossé’s art and narrators, are spellbinding despite the unreliability. Crossé’s story resembles the bizarre and uncanny works of Roald Dahl. In particular, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Dahl’s short story follows Henry Sugar as he hones his ability to see without his eyes. He does this by studying a small book about another man with similar magical powers. SHOWTIME and Henry Sugar both rely on a series of unreliable narrators to deliver provocative stories about strange magicians.

The centrality of the narrators in both stories highlights the possible unreliability of our own sensory perceptions. Adding another layer, Crossé gives several characters large glasses. The glasses give the characters disturbingly empty expressions. Moreover, the lenses reinforce the idea that reality is always mediated. Indeed, Henry Sugar also attacks the question of sensory perception directly. However, SHOWTIME goes even further, focusing on the power of dreams and chance circumstances to shape many possible realities.

Image courtesy of Breakdown Press.

It’s SHOWTIME: The Performance of Reality

Unlike Dahl, Crossé goes further into surrealism by implying that the whole “show” is just an act. The rat narrator sets the stage for readers, and quickly gives the performance over to the journalist. This character tells a long winded story about M, who in turn demonstrates several tricks for the audience. The comic reminds readers that they are watching a performance. Nevertheless, dissecting the show’s layers is challenging. As shapes and images collide in SHOWTIME, Crossé forces readers to decide for themselves what is real. Indeed, his (impossible) rat narrator insists that he is simply a messenger. Meaning, or the lack thereof, is up to the reader.

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Crossé’s comic puts the surreal to work. While SHOWTIME creates an uncanny, dreamlike landscape full of mystery, Crossé’s artwork is nevertheless captivating and stirring. SHOWTIME embraces what the comic medium has to offer: fluidity, disregard for the rules, and the ability to flout rationality. Indeed, Crossé thrives on unconventionality. SHOWTIME is sometimes whimsical, sometimes morose, and ultimately a tribute to surrealism.

SHOWTIME is available from Breakdown Press here.

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