Belgian painter and comics artist Ben Gijsemans renders a believable portrait of a lonely bespectacled figure he calls Hubert in his debut graphic novel. Hubert travels back and forth to a museum in Brussels, where he is engulfed by grandiose classical paintings that Gijsemans occasionally reproduces in a washed-out palette. The mildest touches of pink and violet-blue in a horizontal panel that gets two-thirds of a page to host “Triptych with the Family of St Anne” clash wildly with the color-saturated 1490s-era original. Elsewhere, dark wooden stair handrails and the lush green leaves of houseplants dot the apartment in which Hubert lives alone, often perched in front of his own canvases, painting the works he’d seen and photographed during the day. There is appeal in Gijsemans’ linework and his wordless pages, particularly in his sequencing — the solemn six-by-six panel grids (each feeling appropriately claustrophobic, with razor-thin gutters) that have Hubert eating dinner alone or sifting through the newspaper are moving, even as they’re representative of everyday mundanity. But I couldn’t find myself getting past the uncomfortable request to excuse Gijsemans’ maladjusted peeping tom.
After it’s established that Hubert is a closed-off soul, we see him peeping at the woman across the courtyard while she waters her plants. He even photographs her. For Gijsemans’ peeper, who hasn’t gotten permission to photograph or to peer into the home of the woman next door, she differs little from the immobile, mute women in the paintings, which serve daily as the object of Hubert’s pleasure. So he can barely speak with other female patrons of the museum when they communicate with him, and when Mrs. Vandermeers, the woman downstairs invites him in for a drink, she’s dismissed and humiliated after she appears to read non-verbal cues from Hubert that are clear to the reader. Critic Zainab Akhtar writes at Comics & Cola about Hubert exhibiting the behavior of a “participant of the mechanism of ubiquitous patriarchy,” and it’s definitely worth a look, particularly her mention of Hubert’s curt analysis of a print of Édouard Manet’s “Olympia,” during which he begins to express discomfort with the subject’s “gaze.” Reconciling this behavior with the otherwise beautiful collective picture that is Hubert proved insurmountable, and I’ve given up on trying to engage with this book outside of a visual level. I’m sure Ben Gijsemans would understand.
Hubert image © 2016 Ben Gijsemans.