It Don’t Come Easy by Dupuy & Berberian
Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian began their celebrated Monsieur Jean series amidst the underground French comics scene of the 1990s. Centering around a small network of characters and their frequently visited cafes, bars, and flats, the Monsieur Jean stories capture a simple sort of balance of conflicts and personal aspirations. The work has been compared to the films of Woody Allen, as they both depict the complex and mundane beauty of everyday life. Dupuy and Berberian’s vignettes feel remarkably “local,” even beyond their casual geography: their characters feel like old friends and familiar acquaintances, and it is a joy to catch up on their latest travails.
Dupuy and Berberian are a unique duo in that they both draw their comics. To have two hands working on the same illustration may suggest that the artwork is rudimentary and imitable, but that is not the case: their lines are confident and expertly shadowed but also maintain a breezy looseness and friendly, child-like softness. Characters’ faces are expressive and nuanced, but not exempt from a scribble of hair, a floating eyebrow or disconnected cowlick.
It Don’t Come Easy collects the most recent Monsieur Jean stories, and while it feels decades of development may have transpired in previous volumes, the works collected here can all stand alone and new readers will easily jump in. Jean is finishing up his new novel and has a young daughter with his new wife Cathy. Jean’s best friend Felix is still a mess, and his adopted son Eugene is getting more difficult as he gets older. As a single father, Felix leans heavily on Jean (and his frequently empty apartment), and together they all build something that resembles a great sitcom family.
The first story in the collection is a highlight. In it, Jean finds a painting in an antique store and is mesmerized by its provenance: the work, by an unknown artist named Zdanovieff, may be an overpainted masterpiece. The dealer explains that stolen paintings in World War II were often hidden under amateur commissions, and there may be something underneath the reclining nude in his shop. This historical thread is carried through the comic in beautifully tinted frames colored in aged browns and sepia-toned text boxes. The story is finely structured, with woven motifs that grace Jean and his friends’ lives with metaphor and deeper resonance.
It’s a perfect way to open a collection like It Don’t Come Easy, a work that in itself is preceded by its own history. In another story, Jean is haunted by the ghost of his grandparents after giving away their antique bed to Felix. Moving into his new apartment, Jean finds a box belonging to the previous tenant, now deceased, and struggles with how best to deal with its contents. “If I throw it out,” he thinks, “I’ll feel like I’ve cut the last thread still connecting him to life.”
It Don’t Come Easy effortlessly connects with the fading past. While it’s characters age and begin families, they try to hold on to the bubbling social lives of their youth, and their stories often grapple with those from generations before. But there’s something bigger at play here, about the nature of comics and how transportive they can be, sending readers back to simpler times. Dupuy and Berberian have a tight grip on the golden age that precedes our present, and grant their readers a momentary passage to those disappearing pleasures.