Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

The relationship of your nose to your book: adjust ratio, as required

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.

House of Anansi, 2011

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.

Project Notes: 
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?)

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6 comments to The relationship of your nose to your book: adjust ratio, as required

  • Reminds me of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Endings like that can leave readers feeling cheated, but when done well I really love them. I did grow up with Choose Your Own Adventure books, so perhaps that says something about me :P

  • Sandra

    I am new to graphic novels and choosing what to try and what to avoid at least initially can be a problem. I think, based on what you say about conversations between people and between cultures and about the similarities between this work and a play as well as the soft colours, “washed, with delicate shading”, that I would like to read this one. The idea of three versions with the same dialogue but different images is also something I would like to check out. Thanks.

  • I had Choose Your Own Adventure books too. Loved them! I’m always on the lookout for good and unusual graphic novels. I’ll be adding this one to the list!

  • Ana – I think that’s the first time I’ve ever really wanted to read Fowles’ classic: thanks! And I think what’s interesting about this ending is that it would make for a great discussion of the ramifications of each outcome. I can imagine this being a great bookclub choice.

    Sandra – It’s such an exciting time when one begins to read GNs. If you haven’t already discovered them, I think you might enjoy Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi (based on some of what you’ve said in comments on the Munro stories here), Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting (given that you enjoy short stories and fairy tale retellings), and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile (for its bookishness, including children’s books, which I know you still love to read).

    Stefanie – You’ll enjoy this one, I think. It’s remarkably different from the others that I’ve read. The sheer size of it reminded me of being a kid and reading comics, which other than the Archie digests, always felt oversized to me then: fun.

  • I’ve often been accused, for over 50 years, of having my nose-stuck-in-a-book although I did spend an amazing amount of money attending theatre productions when I lived in southern Ontario (not so many in Toronto since with the bigger city came bigger prices – but my share).

    I had never heard of this story though, and thought I would never find such a book in the provincial library system in Nova Scotia. But I did – in Sydney, of all places! I’m looking forward to enjoying it as much as you did.

    • I’m often struck by how accessible the price of theatre tickets are here (not for Mirvish productions perhaps, but smaller houses) and really must make more of a point of it. How cool that you’ve been able to find a copy of this one: when you’ve read it, I’d be interested to hear which ending you think is more likely.

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