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Rohan At The Louvre

Hirohiko Araki
$19.99 128 Pages
NBM Comics Lit & Musée Louvre
ISBN: 9781561636150

A copy of Rohan At The Louvre recently arrived in my mail. The title is suggestive of a crisp morning petit dejenuer of croissants and cafe au lait followed by a day long visit to the esteemed French museum. Do not be misled. It is any thing but a peaceful trip to the cultured first arrondissement and lovers of the supernatural should give this book their consideration. The story begins innocently enough by introducing the titular Rohan, an aspiring mangaka (or “manga artist”),  who’ll be staying at his eccentric grandmother’s beautiful, ancient, and somewhat isolated inn to work on his first manga assignment. To his surprise, a beautiful and alluring woman named Nanase is also staying at the inn. Rohan appears impressionable, naively attracted by her beauty, surreptiously drawing her, while ignoring an air of mystery and excusing the demands and odd outbursts she exhibits in personal interactions. A tenuous bond is created between the two one day when Nanase discovers she’s become a subject of Rohan’s drawings and she recounts the story of a 300 year old painting whose black pigment originated from the physical remains of spider like insects that dwelled in a thousand year old tree under the local warlord’s protection. A curse was born out of the artist’s execution. Nanase reveals little more than a brief and uneasy encounter with the painting during her childhood before the Louvre bought the artwork. Nanase suddenly disappears after an erratic and violent outburst and Rohan’s life is all the better for it until ten years later a chance comment brings back memories of the painting and Nanase. Tragic consequences follow Rohan’s curiosity and insistence on finding the elusive work of art.

I found Rohan to be an engrossing and welcomed change of pace from the majority of my comics reading these days. Rohan is also a beautiful book. The drawing of Rohan’s face on the second page entranced me with its delicacy. I have a similar experience when looking at drawings by French Neoclassical artist Ingres. Rather than leaving me ogling Rohan, Araki used a tried and true artistic device (creating an analagous pathway or an entrance so a viewer can “walk” into a painting) that drew me into the story via a hallway in the inn and drew me further into the story’s psychological space with the openness of the inn’s interior spaces and the courtyard scene. Drawn in such, Araki hooked me with the characters and their personal quirks and traits: the grandmother’s list of rules tenants must follow (can’t ride motorcycles or use hair dryers) and her unique choice of signs for bathrooms; Rohan’s attire, his artistic temperament, and another unique ability which I’ll outline below; and Nanase, whose beauty, emotionally charged behaviour, and secret past provide the lynchpin of the mystery turned frighteningly real a decade later in the Louvre. Rohan achieved his dream and is now a world famous mangaka who can indulge the autograph demands of a trio of teenaged boys and then lecture them on their disrespect before showing up without an appointment and charming his way into a private viewing of the painting accompanied by a quartet of museum employees. Araki creates a sense of tension as they walk through the museum suddenly devoid of all visitors and staff. Now consider a tangential question for a moment: if a lone painting is cursed, what memories and events might cling to the numerous art works in the massive building? How often do we take time to learn what was happening in the lives of an artist when he or she was making the piece, to learn their dreams and disappointments? Araki ratchets up the tension as the eerie solitude of a museum gives way to the hair raising realization they’re not alone in the abandoned storage room.  The appearance of one, two, three, and suddenly a crowd of people from the recesses of the room is unnerving and the sense of fear in Rohan and the museum employees is palpable. Then comes the understanding these are yurei, souls of people whose deaths have in some way denied them passage into the Japanese version of purgatory. I will only say that their connection to the painting is a nice complement to the primary focus of Rohan’s ability. You’ll have to read a copy to learn the fates of the Louvre staff and how Rohan barely escapes with his life.

Readers of Araki’s JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures will recognize Rohan from several stories. While previous appearances aren’t mentioned in the book, I believe readers for whom, who like me, this might be their first encounter will not be impeded by unfamiliarity with the artist’s work. Of course there are Easter eggs for JoJo fans to appreciate.I believe the trio who want a photo of Rohan is one such example. Rohan’s ability, or “stand”, called “Heaven’s Door”, to literally read people like a book is briefly explained through Rohan as narrator in his introduction. A bit more information such as Rohan being able to create and implant new and or false memories would be welcome. The depiction of Rohan’s usage of Heaven’s Door is striking. A moment after Rohan touches Nanase in a particularly vulnerable point, one side of her face begins to open revealing pages of text in various languages. Araki shows Rohan’s nobility by refusing to take advantage of Nanase’s emotional state by “closing the book” of her life. Rohan can also use this power to erase memories and implant new ones and it’s used for great impact when he urgently uses it on himself in an effort to protect against the malevolent force emanating from the painting. Heaven’s Door also has an interesting connection with Rohan’s artistic talent though it’s uncertain to me if this comes into play within this story. Rohan and Heaven’s Gate also brought to mind the Vertigo book The Unwritten, which explores the way stories shape reality, and I wondered how Rohan might interact with central character Tommy Taylor, who seems to have been literally created from fiction by author Wilson Taylor. If you have an inquisitive disposition you may want to learn about it here before an initial, or further, reading.

This is my first exposure to Araki’s art and it is stunning. There’s a quality in the draftsmanship of his linework that reminds me of one of my favorite artists, P. Craig Russell. Not to say that I’m comparing the two artists, but rather Araki seems to share that same love of describing forms with the sweep of a line. It is also one of the few works by a manga artist I’ve read that is in color, and it perfectly complements the art from the beginning where the palette is primarily muted warm tones, then as the story transitions into horror so do the color tones to muted cool shades and greys. White is also used quite effectively, reading as either negative space, or the fracturing of reality by the supernatural, or possibly as indication that death is imminent; white being symbolic of mourning and purity in Japan. Araki’s handling of background is also interesting. At times backgrounds are rendered in ample detail but colored in a single hue in subtle contrast to the figures. Other times the background is simple negative space meant to emphasize the characters or a moment.There is a real sense of place that these characters inhabit the spaces in which they’re drawn whether it’s the refined simplicity of the country inn or the public halls and private offices of the Louvre or the underground passages and vaults of the terrifying climax. Page layout follows horizontal/ vertical orientation at the outset shift to diagonals to underscore the mounting tension and break with reality of the underground scene.

The book is printed in traditional Japanese format, that is, the reverse of Western books. Production values are high: full color looks gorgeous on slick paper and pages have a machine sewn binding. It’s something over which I have a tiny obsession. Sewn bindings not only make a book’s structure much stronger, it also allows for the book to lie more flat and less art to be “lost” along the inside gutters.

Rohan At The Louvre should appeal to readers of supernatural mysteries and art graphic novels.

Visit the publisher’s website att . Synopsis and preview here. Look for or order Rohan through your favorite comic shop, local bookstore, or from Amazon.

March 7, 2015
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