Serge Le Tendre (writer), Christian Rossi (artist)
First published in French by Albin Michel, 1985
This article contains discussions of ephebophilia and paedophilia.
I was excited to open this comic. The man on the cover looks so miserable. The weather looks so nice. The art is so European. But ignorance is bliss, reader, isn’t it? The crux of the issue is that I don’t believe this scenario:
A fifteen year old girl gets completely naked in the bathroom whilst a male adult family friend–no relation, newly acquainted, regularly teased by his girlfriend for an attraction to girls–stands in (and then just out of) the very same room fighting his erection. My inability to credit Lea: The Confessions of Julius Antoine as being the morality play it claims to be is rooted in the eight panels dedicated to showing the reader the undressing and redressing of this girl, which are accompanied by her narration about her own breasts, her unemotive “disgust” of them, her sexual rivalry with her mother, and her desire to be desired by boys. I am not French and do have native knowledge of French teenage norms, but this is an English translation that offers no additional context with its access.
I appreciate human individuality and the infinite possibilities of behaviour–surely somewhere in space and time, a fifteen year old could recall being scolded, earlier, for her parody of adult flirtation with this man and understand breasts as desirable and enjoy sexual activity with her own teenaged boyfriend, yet perceive no more awareness of frisson or mores here than a naked baby–but I don’t understand the choice to lay out a page of bare teenaged breasts for adult readers in a morality play about ephebophilia. I don’t understand the choice to present such an unlikely teenager in such a study of sexual suggestion and what can only be read as textual provocation of Julius Antoine’s acknowledged illicit desire in a story about not condemning a sex crime until it is done.
That’s the avowed moral of this story: that if you blame a man for being a pervert before he actually molests a victim, you are at fault if eventually, goaded, he falls to predatory action. One might also put it like this: if a man is proven innocent of a sex crime, but you continue to treat him like a perpetrator of one, beware! For all you know he is a sexual predator waiting to happen, and the psychological ramifications of your harsh mistreatment could drive him to completion.
I suppose I find it hard to accept this moral anyway, breast inquisition or no breast inquisition. Does the individual who knows his mind is designing his behaviour around predation seek help? No? Then why is the responsibility not his? Is there no just blame and disgust to be levied at a man who knows it’s wrong that he wants to fuck a teenager, but agrees to babysit her all weekend, who plans them a trip to Paris together, who hits her boyfriend and looks through her bedroom, her private photo album? Isn’t looking at a juvenile girl who is naked in innocence with sexual thoughts in your mind already a sex crime? Isn’t it voyeurism, peeping, reckless endangerment? It’s betrayal, I can tell you that.
One might suppose that the the purpose of this page of bare body is to prove the innocence of Lea. The base-asexuality of a body uncovered. Why does it need proving, one might subsequently ask. The adult woman, Clemence, appears topless or naked in two separate, previous scenes, her breasts also drawn from various angles. (Why must we see Lea from so many angles? Why create a girl with little physical privacy to tell a story about a man who wishes to invade it?) And both of these scenes are sexual, showing a nudity associated with sexuality. Clemence’s naked body is even associated with the voyeuristic sexuality Julius projects onto Lea, as Clemence tells Julius how well he pounded her the night after he first meets Lea.
Breasts, in this book, and visible nipples, are signifiers of feminine sexuality well before Lea appears. Julius appears in both of Clemence’s nude scenes, and indeed in Lea’s, but his body is never visible. He is either clothed or swaddled, with the most seen of his unclothed form being a visibly knobbly upper spine as he sulks in bed. This choice tells us he is lacertine and vulnerable when he is not controlled and hidden. It also allows him privacy and mystique in a narrative ostensibly dedicated to laying him psychologically bare. Clemence, in fact, appears first viewed by the reader from behind in her initial nude scene. She is introduced as a character through a comment on Julius’ sketchbook choices; he has been drawing girls enjoying the sun, and she cheerfully mocks what she calls (In true jest or in in self-protective “jest”? It’s unclear) his perversion with the acknowledgement that one of the girls he has drawn has “quite a sexy ass.” From a “sexy” teenaged ass to a sexual woman’s ass, the lines are drawn quite decisively. The visual narrative tells us that Lea’s undressing is sexual, because it has told us to connect the viewing of teenagers’ bodies with the viewing of mature woman’s post-coitus bodies. Here begins an interesting question: who fumbled the catch? Serge Le Tendre and Christian Rossi, or Acme/Fantagraphics?
I said earlier that so-and-so was the avowed moral of the story. I chose this word because the blurb of my English edition reads as follows:
“In the tradition of Hitchcock and Truffaut comes a terrifying tale of innocence and persecution. Falsely accused of murder, Julius Antoine is branded a child killer. Denied justice and friendship his descent into darkness is as inevitable as it is chilling.
Le Tendre and Rossi are among France’s finest new wave of comics creators, and in Lea they have crafted a modern morality play with a cruel sting in its tail. An impassioned thriller which exposes the hypocrisy that surrounds sexual crime, and creates the ideal scapegoat for troubled times.”
The impression this prepares is one that chimed in melody with my response following an initial, casual read through. It would, I think, create a catching ground for this impression too, priming a reader to receive a certain message: that Julius Antoine is caught in unlucky circumstances and coincidentally within these circumstances his psychology of desire grows into a psychology of (implicit) action. That, in casual terms, Julius Antoine is unlucky. Whoops! That erotically charged and romanticised, jealous behaviour by full adults towards teenagers is a facet of one’s persona which can be irrelevant. And finally, that being mean might make victims of it indulge their own selves to feel better, and that sometimes that indulgence will be rape. This makes it your fault, and that makes it barely theirs.
Several times, the script suggests that this comic is supposed to be an example of an unreliable narrator in exactly the vein of Lolita. Julius refers to Clemence’s “tricks” when he lies awake thinking sweatily about the Lea she has described, but whom he is yet to meet. In another scene, Clemence directly references Lolita, and Julius knocks over a table. Humbert Humbert suggests himself seduced; Julius suggests himself tricked into lust by a damn woman. The point is, they weren’t. They just took a horny notion, and then neglected to put that notion down. The language of the blurb is carefully constructed so as to be deniable; “innocence and persecution” seems to be applied to Julius (as it specifies he is “falsely accused”), but one might refute that reading and say “ah ha,” in fact, it is Lea who is innocent and persecuted, whilst Julius remains falsely accused of murder. The “hypocrisy that surrounds sexual crime” sounds very much like it refers to the barbs thrown at Julius after he is cleared of murder, but remains associated with lechery. But it could mean the hypocrisy I mention myself, Julius’ hypocrisy. The “ideal scapegoat for troubled times” might be Julius, but it might be Lea, or it might be a conceptual scapegoat: “society is mean” used as a reason to avoid personal responsibility. The Narrator is not reliable, no. But unlike the case of Lolita I feel that perhaps neither is the narrative.
Humbert describes Lolita, and he does so through his own paedophilia. But this is clear, this is the format of the novel: it is all seen through his eyes, processed through his own values and practiced excuses. The Confessions of Julius Antoine is not, though it is occasionally narrated by his voice through caption boxes and diary snippets. It is not viewed through his eyes, as it is careful and determined to view him, the man, from the outside, no need of cleverly arranged mirrors or otherwise reflective surfaces. Confessions is here to look at Julius. We don’t see Lea as he is seeing Lea; we view Lea from a position next to him. Apart from him, we see him seeing, but we also have to look ourselves. We see his dreams, but we also see the thought bubbles of strangers who happen to pass through his environment. So we are given a visual narrative that is complicit with Julius’ delusion even as it observes it, showing us “what is there,” but also showing us his altered perspective, his aggrieved persecution complex, and his focuses. We are asked to sympathise with Julius Antoine and understand the decisions he makes as we see his puny weakness, but we are not asked to sympathise with Lea. She is seen from without, and it is a view that allows her many moods, but which makes her unfathomable and strange, something to be dealt with, a danger to be managed.
Without seeing Lea through Julius’ eyes, the narrative asks, or allows, or dares us to imagine why he is obsessively attracted to her when she is simply a regular teenager with a notably immature teenaged outlook. By showing her “as she is,” in the observational way it shows all other characters, the narrative offers her sexuality and her body as reasons, because there aren’t any others except Julius. The Confession of Julius Antoine should be singular and simple: I did it, it was me. I am at fault. Julius swerves his car seeing Lea kiss a boy on the roadside before they are introduced; he is blindsided when she copies (to lampoon) her mother’s flirtations; he is seized by rictus when he sees her unclothed, and by rage when he “accidentally” touches her leg in the car. Lea is allowed reactions to all of Julius’ strange behaviour, but all of these are accompanied with very obvious exhibition of her lack of understanding. She doesn’t understand why he’s done them at all. Julius’ strange behaviour is laid out plainly: he does this because he’s horny. If we see the motivation for an action, we’re disinclined to see a fault in it. Julius’ libidinal spree makes him narratively sympathetic in ways Lea’s weird ignorance make impossible, unless you bring empathy for a teen girl under siege with your natural state of audienceship.
I can imagine an interpretation of these scenes which argue the intent is to bring things to a boil and demand the reader–the reader feels very much like he is assumed to be a he–to decide not to sympathise with Julius, to not view “Lea” as a sexual drawing, and to fully actualise to the horror of the protagonist’s predation. But again I find I cannot believe in it. Too much of this book sounds like the familiar strains of patriarchy for me to hear a strong note of resistance.
The colouring in Lea: The Confessions of Julius Antoine is very beautiful, washes of sickly-tinted primary colours, and Rossi’s structural drawing is reminiscent of Paul Smith’s 1980s work at Marvel; those good, strong, easy bone structures, segmented faces well-covered over with plump skin, deep creases in garments where the joints below bend. Everybody looks like a high-grade, well-sculpted prestige doll (or “action figure”) dressed in real fabric clothes. Miniature ones, so the cloth weave is “too big,” so the sense of humanity about them, their tactile recognisability, is slightly uncanny. Rossi uses shadow and leaf and wall texture to create a terrarium in every panel. Lush, but suffocating. Too much oxygen, you know? An over-present smell somehow. It’s unexcited art, the measured energy of Dave Gibbons in Watchmen without that lamp shaded steadiness of the nine panel grid. My sense is that it means to imply a great sense of being reasonable in an unreasonable and overwhelming world, which might be felt necessary in a men’s morality play about predatory sexuality. Then again corrupted reason may be the intended effect, if Julius is truly supposed to be a Humbert; the uncanny images flag the sinister nature of purposefully invited sympathy for the devil. Whether the sympathy is supposed to turn sick or not is what I can’t perceive, and that’s what in turn turns me sick. Because if I can’t tell, how can rapists tell? I can’t trust that this book doesn’t make bad men feel comforted.
In a casual read, Le Tendre and Rossi sacrifice the betrayal of Lea by Julius to the tragedy of Julius. Imagining a version of the book purposed as a morality tale where an adult man is termed a scapegoat in a way which ironically punishes him for his illicit fantasies, it may indeed be true that small, falsely retributive cruelties are a form of gratification that the everyman indulges in to the detriment of society at large, but I don’t believe this book is removed enough from rape culture to observe the ways in which misogyny allows cruelty (and indeed falsely retributive cruelty, you bitch whore, how dare you arouse me) commonly manifest.
The best (I mean “most admirable”) ultimate analysis of this book is that it uses the supposition of a blossoming sex criminal as an argument for why one should not tell politically incorrect jokes or act like a tabloid personified. It chooses a very unnerving route with which to arrive at this conclusion. I suppose a more likely intended message is “assume nothing, even when reading a narrative designed to encourage your assumptions.” The “descent into darkness” described in the Fantagraphics blurb seems very much like it canonises the implicit sex crime that the book ends with: Julius, sinister levels at maximum, picks up a young hitchhiker as Lea’s picture drifts out of his car window. But oh, oh! Remember the lesson of the story so far! Never condemn a rapist until he rapes! Don’t embarrass yourself by persecuting on assumption. I’m sure everything was fine, in fact. Julius Antoine is one of literature’s true innocents.
If you can read French, there are apparently two subsequent volumes. Whatever does Julius get up to? I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know about him. What will Lea get up to? Nothing. Lea’s dead. This comic book is interesting, but its apportioning of its sympathies made me unhappy and unnerved.