On occasion, I have to wonder if perhaps my grandmother and great-aunts didn’t have a point.
How many times did they instruct me that I should not, so often, have my nose in a book.
Because sometimes I really wonder how I missed something huge.
Like, for instance, Robert Lepage’s Dragon Trilogy playing at the Royal Alex here in Toronto last year.
Nonetheless, at least I was able to read the National Post’s review of the theatre production, which did fill in some gaps for me.
So now I know that The Blue Dragon, is an adaptation of a play (Le dragon bleu), originally designed to be performed in three languages (French, English and Mandarin), which continues the story of another theatrical production, the Dragon Trilogy.
So the work that I read, the graphic novel pictured to the right, is just a glimpse into a story that is rooted in a larger story.
Written by Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud, illustrated by Fred Jourdain and translated from the Mandarin by Min Sun, The Blue Dragon as a graphic novel is a remarkable work.
You’ll sit up and take notice at first sight: The Blue Dragon is of surprising dimensions and weight.
If you think of Archie comics when you think of graphic novels, or the slim volumes that you can roll up and slip into the back pocket of your jeans, you will be surprised to learn that this book is as large as my laptop.
The images inside seem to stretch beyond those oversized pages, the ink stretching right to the edge in many instances, as though the story can barely be contained at times.
Sometimes the artwork spans a double-page with a single scene, with the emphasis on the visual elements.
(Now I think of these as set changes, those brief moments of time in a theatre in which the audience is guided into another place: I love those times, the anticipation and marvel of the creation of someplace new in a few gestures and movements of personnel or props. Maybe I should get my nose out of these books more often, attend more theatre productions.)
Often the action unfolds in panels, sometimes with the text in speech bubbles and some with the dialogue appearing below.
(I learned the term ‘surtitles’ from the link to Robert Cushman’s article above, but I gather that’s only properly used for theatrical works, although it seems appropriate to use it for the instances in the text in which the speech bubbles contain Mandarin and the English translation appears beneath.)
As one would guess, knowing that the work is based on a stage production, there is a lot of dialogue, only a few instances of straight narrative which situate the main character, Pierre Montagne, in place and time.
The work opens with a passage of this, accompanied by simple images of calligraphy, simple brush strokes, which seem to echo through the pages that follow, in the sense that the inking embodies the same soft yet assured touch. The colours are also soft, washed, with delicate shading (making the instances of bolder colour use standout all the more).
(My favourite passages of dialogue were those which appeared below/alongside a scene that contains a few speech bubbles but with the conversation continued with a stack of tiny images of the speaking character’s face next to the words spoken, in a column below/alongside.)
The variation in the presentation of conversations serves to emphasis that the bulk of this story is rooted in the relationships between people, the conversations that they have — and avoid having.
(These include relationships between cultures — given that Pierre has lived in Shanghai and had a gallery there for many years but is considering returning to Quebec, and given that Claire has travelled from Quebec to China to adopt a baby girl — and between people — given that Pierre and Claire were once romantically involved, though he now has a relationship with a young artist, Xiao Ling.)
And, yet, paradoxically, there is a twist to this. (And if you were reading Choose Your Own Adventure books instead of Archie comics, you are going to love this part.)
The final pages of the story contain three versions of its ending, wherein the dialogue remains the same, but the images change.
In The Blue Dragon, it simply cannot be all-about-the-words or all-about-the-pictures. Somewhere between, lies the reader’s understanding of the truth of this story.
So, I guess the elder women in my family did have a point: to finish this story, you’ll need to take your nose out of the book and choose your own outcome.
Day 14 of 45: Just as I had missed the theatre production, I missed news of the production of this graphic novel, although it’s a favourite storytelling medium of mine: so this project, yet again, has unearthed a treasure for me. I hope there are future Dragon works planned, and I hope I’m paying closer attention to their release dates. (And, yes, this launches a new theme within the project’s 45 Days of Anansi theme: any guesses?)