The great thing about comics is that it grants creators an almost unimaginable amount of freedom; comics, especially these days, are cheap and relatively easy to produce. Not easy in terms of the artistic craft put into them, but easy in terms what you can do with them, which is only as limited as your imagination and skill. It’s an old idea, but never has it been truer than with this book. Giséle & Béatrice, released by Europe Comics, written and drawn by Benoit Feroumont with colors by Christelle Coopman, is a quiet yet weird little book that lured me in despite some truly unsavory aspects to its story and a wildly unsatisfying ending. My reviews always contain spoilers, but this one will have more than most because I need to talk to SOMEBODY about this book, and it looks like it’s going to be you Internet. Congratulations.
Set in what I’m guessing is modern France, Béatrice is a hard-working young woman who can’t get ahead at her firm due to the rampant sexism of everybody but her boss George in particular. She seemingly finally gives into his demands for a date and sex in exchange for a promotion only to douse his drink with a magical herb that she got in Africa from a witch doctor (you know, all of Africa, where witch doctors are everywhere…sigh) that turns him into a beautiful young woman with a cartoonish eastern European accent whom Béatrice dubs Giséle. Because Giséle has no paperwork to her name and new existence, the police would assume she is an illegal immigrant and deport her to her “home” country of Koldavia, which apparently is a pretty rotten place to live. So, Giséle is forced to become Béatrice’s housekeeper and unwilling sex partner. And by “sex” I mean rape, but we will get to that later, I promise. Giséle comes to terms with her new existence and even comes to love and care for Béatrice, meeting her friends, cooking her dinner and willingly engaging in a seemingly loving relationship up until the very end of the book, where she accidently turns herself back into George and flees for her freedom and a chance to reclaim his old life, minus the rampant sexism, since he did in fact learn his lesson. Béatrice is heartbroken. Also, for no reason that I can discern other than to scare the newly female George/ Giséle, Béatrice has all the appearances of a beautiful young woman except for the fact that she has a fully functional penis. I know, it’s all about as bananas as it sounds.
There is so much to talk about here but let’s focus on the art first. It’s gorgeous. Really, some of the best cartooning I think I have ever seen in a comic book. Giséle and Béatrice are drawn in a clearly cartoonish style, which would fit in with any Saturday morning cartoon really, but also come off as incredibly adult and sexy. The book is explicit, so we see full-fledged sex scenes many times. Comixology classifies it as an erotic comic, and while it certainly has plenty of sexy scenes and pages, the sex and eroticism function very well as part of the story. In fact, I don’t think Feroumont could have told the story with the same energy and power without the explicit sex scenes.
But back to the art. Feroumont’s characters are so expressive; anger, lust, sadness, drunkenness, contentment… and so much more are shown off throughout the book with such masterful talent that it sucks you in to the story so much more than the very weird premise ever could on its own. Early on in the story Giséle and Béatrice have fights over Giséle learning to accept her new lot in life and they are riveting because of the art. The body language of both characters tells you so much and adds to the words they are saying in a really powerful and effective way. The book had me convinced by the end that they were in a loving and equal relationship, despite my better judgment, because the art sold that idea so well. When they are sitting on a couch together towards the end of the book and Giséle comes up with a new role-playing scenario for them, it is the very picture of two young people happily in love. And without the amazing art, the possibility of that love is never sold to the reader in the same way. I don’t think the story works, as I’ll explain below, but without the beguiling art, it would have zero chance.
But let’s not kid ourselves, this book has problems. Big, obvious problems. Béatrice has committed a number of crimes; kidnapping, unpaid labor and sexual abuse just to name a few. Also, she used magic to transform a man into a woman against their will with no concern with how it would affect them or the lives of their loved ones; not a crime obviously, but it would be if such a thing were possible. Also, shortly after she has created Giséle, she rapes her. I’ve thought about it for a good while and there just is no way around it. The sex in this book goes on a journey, and by the end Giséle is definitely engaging and consenting of her own free will (or not, she is still stuck living with Beatrice with no real avenues of escape) but at the beginning, she is in no position to consent. Now look, I read books about good people breaking laws all the time; that’s basically all superheroes do. Fiction does not always have the same morality or norms that we would want in the real world and that’s usually fine. But here I don’t think it works for two reasons. Firstly, it’s rape; there is no justification for it in the way we can justify Spider-Man fighting criminals or Batman holding the Joker prisoner in the Bat Cave. Secondly, because we are asked to believe that they have grown into a loving and committed relationship and then we are supposed to be sad when they break up, the rape feels dismissed or forgiven by the story. It would have been interesting if the characters had addressed it and had some sort of reckoning about it, but they don’t. it’s not mentioned at all and the story doesn’t even present it as rape. If there is some satire here, or if this is all supposed to be lesson for Béatrice, I missed it or maybe it’s lost in translation. But I doubt it, because George seems genuinely moved and a changed man by the end and while he can’t stay with her, he does express his thankfulness and love for Béatrice so… it was all worth it? That seems crazy and offensive to me in a profound way that tarnishes the rest of the book almost completely. How can a creator expect me to want these two to get together and be together after Beatrice does the things she does and there is no fallout for her or anybody else?
We all take in art that is problematic, and on that level Giséle & Béatrice is really no different than plenty of other stories but for some reason this book really hit me harder than other stuff I’ve read lately. Maybe it’s the art, which is so good and masks so much of the underlying weirdness and bad story points. Or it might be the fact that through my first time reading it, I was actually hoping they would get together and have a happily ever after, only to be struck by the reality of the story after I had finished it. I almost had to bonk myself on the head to wake up and realize what’s actually going on in the story. I don’t think I can recommend this book because of what it allows its characters to do, but I was mesmerized by it for a short while.