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'The Spectators' illustrates the push and pull of city life

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Victor Hussenot's 'The Spectators' is a graphic novel about the vagaries of city life

I am a walker in the city. For me, the sidewalk is the cornerstone of urban life. In my Los Angeles neighborhood, I go days without getting in a car, walking to the bank, the dry cleaner, the grocery store, strolling the streets in the late summer evenings, watching the sky turn purple, black.

We think of cities as anonymous, as sprawling — and they are. But they are also private, intimate, landscapes suspended between loneliness and community. This is what urban walking offers, a way to navigate the boundary between ourselves as individuals and part of the collective: city as identity.

Such an interplay sits at the center of Victor Hussenot’s beautiful, ethereal “The Spectators" (Nobrow: 96 pp., $22.95), a graphic novel — or is it? — about city walking, city haunting, all the ways the metropolis can get beneath our skins. The city here is Paris; Hussenot is a French artist who has published three books in his native country, although this is the first to appear in the United States.

There is no story per se, just a series of riffs, imaginative leaps. “Each of us,” he observes in a prologue, “sees the city in our own way .… From the rift between sleep and waking bursts of lights .… The mind’s eye is set free .… The invisible is revealed.”

In part, Hussenot is referring to the voyeuristic aspects of city life, how we are often on the outside looking in. But even more, he is pointing out its layers, multiple lives and multiple eras overlapping in real time.

One of my favorite sequences describes the Metro, and its role as “the Parisians’ ephemeral and shifting home.” What Hussenot is getting at is history, both its presence and, in some sense, its collapse.

“Above their heads,” he writes of the train, “it travels through the ages .…” Beneath that sentence, three vertical panels illustrate the point. The first is a black-and-white evoking the early years of the 20th century, the second an image of punk rockers and the third a contemporary scene. That all take place on the same stretch of sidewalk is the point precisely, that we inhabit our cities only briefly, that they have a life that extends beyond our own.

And yet, how else to perceive the city except through the filter of the personal? It’s an idea Hussenot makes explicit in another sequence, which portrays two men, sitting together, looking out into the urban distance.

“One observes the metro,” he explains, “the other directs his gaze to the rooftops .… They sit on a bench, a few centimeters separating them. The landscape they see, therefore, is not exactly the same one.”

Perspective, point-of-view: This is the issue, as it is in all of city life. In cities, perhaps more than anywhere, we experience what we see. Throughout “The Spectators,” such a notion is embodied by the images, which are sharp, concrete, deftly rendered, and also slightly abstracted at the same time.

Hussenot moves from full page to small frame with fluidity, and his style is impressionistic, as if portraying a series of shadows come to life. Indeed, this is how the book opens, with a shadow picking its own body from a clothes rack hung with human archetypes.

“When I walk around the city,” he confides, “I sometimes see, far off … [p]eople in the distance, nothing more than silhouettes … dark, without form, ghostly .… In this moment of grace, they seem freed from time and space.”

“The Spectators” takes place in just such a set of moments, offering both mystery and grace. It evokes the city as I know it: full of unimaginable complexity. What draws us to such landscapes? That we can be alone and together all at once.

Or, as Hussenot tells us: “Man questions the world; it answers in riddles … forcing him to continue searching for unattainable truths.”

Twitter: @davidulin

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