After voyaging through Smurf Village in my last Bande Diary I had a hard time deciding what bande dessinée to read next. The problem with using bande dessinée to try and improve my French is that I’m spoiled for choice! Should I go with another classic like the Smurfs? Or something more modern? Should I look a specific genre, like science fiction or thrillers? Or just close my eyes and point to a title on my ever growing to-read list?
Ultimately, I decided to try out Les Nombrils, written by Maryse Dubuc and illustrated by her husband, Marc “Delaf” Delafontaine. I ultimately chose this comic for two reasons:
1.) Dubuc and Delaf are a French Canadian couple (yay Canada!);
2.) It’s intended for teens, so I figured the reading level might be a little closer to my current skills.
Les Nombrils (or The Bellybuttons in English; translations published by Cinebook) follows the daily lives of three high school girls, Vicky, Jenny and Karine.
Vicky and Jenny are both gorgeous and popular, while Karine is more average looking and awkward. Their relationship could be described as frenemies, at best. Though Vicky and Jenny have boys falling over themselves to get their attention, they can’t help but get extremely jealous when someone is interested in their plain-Jane friend Karine, and so they try and sabotage her.
Despite it’s target audience however, this may not be the best comic for new French speakers. Since Les Nombrils is published by Dupuis, a Belgian publisher, there isn’t a lot of Quebec-specific terminology, despite the location of the creators—and yours truly. And because it is very much set in modern times, there is a smattering of slang and expressions that don’t directly translate and took some searching to ultimately work out. For example, “pot de colle” translates directly to “pot of glue.” But when used to describe Murphy, an annoying, undesirable boy at school who frequently tries to ask out Vicky and Jenny, this is means someone who sticks like glue, and you can’t be rid of. A great expression, but unlikely to be one I’ll need right away.
Despite the additional challenges of reading Les Nombrils, I ultimately enjoyed it. And I’m not the only one. The series is extremely popular, with combined sales over 1.5 million copies. Despite this popularity, the comic often faces intense criticism—usually related to Vicky and Jenny’s outfits and their words and actions, which can be quite scandalous at times. For example, in 2009, a school in Laval, Quebec pulled copies of the book from their library, worrying the behaviour in the series might encourage eating disorders.
But if those that object are only focusing on the more superficial aspects of the series, I think they risk overlooking the more important elements Les Nombrils has to offer. As Maryse explained in an interview with La Presse, Nos personnages ne sont pas des modèles. Ce sont des caricatures de leur époque—“Our characters are not models. They are caricatures of their time.” And I couldn’t agree more. Vicky and Jenny and even Karine serve as a commentary on female adolescence—from the insecurities teen girls may feel on a daily basis to the hypersexualization of their gender in mainstream media. In you’re unconvinced, a review of the English edition here on Women Write About Comics breaks down the many ways this comic will surprise you.
The only thing about Les Nombrils Volume 1 I didn’t love was Jenny. Though, in later volumes, she gains some significant character development, in the first installment she is the perfect example of the Brainless Beauty or Stupid Sexy Friend trope, a trope I would be more than happy to never see again. Think of Brittany from Glee, Karen from Mean Girls, and Jenna from 30 Rock.
In Les Nombrils, Jenny may be beautiful, but she is also a complete airhead. She is often forced to look up the most basic of facts (something exploited by her fellow students).
It’s not that Jenny simply isn’t trying and is able to skate by on her looks. And it’s not a deliberate act she puts on because it gets her attention. She’s stupid for no immediately apparent reason other than that it is funny to laugh at her and to do so guilt free because she is pretty and doesn’t “need” to be smart. It’s a trope that feels lazy and ultimately unfair to her character. Trade a few of those digs at her intelligence for her later character development (like having to deal with an alcoholic mother) and this first volume of Les Nombrils‘ story would be stronger overall.
I’ve already picked up Volume 2 in this series, and it was for reasons beyond my desire to Jenny grow. While writing this piece, I was flipping back through Volume 1, and I soon found myself re-reading bits and pieces of it and it still made me laugh the second time around. There is an addictive quality to this comic. And though it’s impossible to defend the actions of Vicky and Jenny, at the end of the day you want to know what happens. You want to know if everything backfires, if Karine realizes her own self worth, and if they continue to be friends through it all.