I must admit upon reading the first short story in Through the Walls, I thought ‘nice art, funny, not taxing’ and settled in to read more of the same – a seduction of the eyes, but undemanding on the brain. And there’s nothing wrong with comics like that- everything has its place. Then the second story began, much like the first: deceptively lulling and charming, but with definite shades of creepiness and grey, moments here and there that made me pause, shift, ponder a little. Having eased the reader in with a light, humorous opener, Cornette then begins to insinuate ideas that unsettle and make you question. What at first glance appears to be a collection of quirky, light vignettes, turns out to be something altogether off-kilter, and as the book goes on, it interjects a weird thought here, some jarring behaviour there, getting progressively more morally dubious and indeterminate.
Through the Walls is a series of little stories about unconnected people possessing the same ability: to walk through walls, or pass through any kind of material- people animals, metal. It’s an ability that extends to objects and people they touch: so a man can reach through a bathroom wall and grab some toilet paper from the adjoining room, but if it’s not pulled the full way through to the other side, it will remain in stasis. It’s not really a power in the heroic sense, nor do any of the characters view it as such, using it instead for everyday kind of situations, or choosing not to incorporate it into their lives at all. There’s a feeling of this idea being presented to you, shown in action and use via various characters, without great judgement or direction on the author’s part, and left for you to decide whether it is a good or bad thing, an improvement or a detraction, or even anything as distinct as that.
As with most things, the scruples lie not with the power itself, but those who use it. One story follows Loic, who works with and lives in the same building as Estelle. Having asked her out multiple times, she eventually consents, making it clear to him that she would like to take things very slowly, a request he compiles with superficially, but later slips through the walls of her flat, going through her things, watching her change, shower, paint her nails, cook. On one of his ‘visits’ watching her sleep, she awakes suddenly, aware of an intruder and calls him for assistance, unaware that it was in fact him. This incident leads Estelle to appreciate andtrust him, and she allows him further into her life. Another story shows a married woman whose husband is out of town, going to dinner with an old friend, one she knows has a crush on her. Given no other context, we watch as he makes pass after pass, she eluding his clutches by slipping out of his grasp, but not leaving. She appears bored by his advances and the situation in general, not interested in him or anything else, gleaning only a vague amusement in teasing him and revelling in a certain self-assuredness that her ability provides.
It’s that old Uncle Ben chestnut of ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’ re-encapsulated in the lens of a ho-hum ‘power’ and a people all too susceptible to the human condition. The clever, clever thing is that the ‘power’ on offer here is so… flat. You couldn’t use it for virtuous or nefarious means- it’s too inconsequential. Instead it serves as a vehicle from which to question the choices people make, another trait or characterisation that makes us do the things we do. Is the ability these people have been given what makes them the way they are, or does it simply enhance and aid what already exists within? It’s this ambiguity treading into moral quandary that makes you feel uncomfortable.
I have not come across Stephane Oiry’s art before, and I am too unimaginative to think up new superlatives to describe it: fine-lined, elegant, beautiful, whimsical and as lovely as any lady you’ll see. I love his use of colour- I mean just take a look at the pages shown here. It has a funny effect of appearing to be something I’ve seen before, yet managing to be something different and fresh at the same time. It’s a great instance of when the art in a comic really works to contribute to creating the atmosphere of the book: Oiry’s charming illustrations helping Cornette along with his sly provocations- it looks pretty, but what exactly is taking place here? The juxtaposition of the pleasure derived from Oiry’s creations, combined with Cornette’s darker undertones works well.
Through the Walls is not a book that announces it’s intention to discuss any big ideas, but one that allows them to marinate slowly. I began it expecting a diverting trifle and came away with one of the entries on my best of year list. You can’t really ask more of a book.