It is interesting to consider what Annie Goetzinger, “la grande dame de la bande dessinée”, chose as the last two projects of her life. After many years serving as the illustrator for most of her projects, she wrote and drew her last two books herself. Dying a few months after her final book, Les Apprentissages de Colette [The Provocative Colette in the English edition from NBM], she left her long, influential career with two books that served as a recapitulation of it. 2013’s Girl In Dior told the history of the fashion house and fashion itself in France. The book was a tour-de-force with regard to her renderings of garments and the ways in which they fit on bodies. Period accuracy, especially with regard to clothing, has always been a hallmark of her work. Her rigorous devotion to historical detail actually does a lot of the storytelling work, and I imagine that’s especially true for those with greater everyday familiarity with her topics of interest.
The Provocative Colette is a fitting final book because it’s about a writer who had a scandalous early life and became the first woman in French history to be given a state funeral. Colette was a highly respected woman of letters when she died, with a huge and influential body of work. Goetzinger’s comics, though not explicitly political, tended to focus on female lead characters at a time when this was a rarity in France and unheard of in most other places. The mere fact that she collaborated with a male writer early in her career as a cartoonist was considered scandalous. Colette (born Sidone-Gabrielle Colette in 1873) lived a life so filled with narrative qualities that it’s no wonder that Goetzinger chose her as a subject. She was literally a country girl who drew the attention of a much older writer from Paris who pushed her into writing about her days as a student.
Soon enough, her husband (pen name Willy) published her work under his name, and those books became best sellers. He introduced her to French society, in all its pomp and hypocrisy—especially with regard to infidelity. Willy cheated on Colette for years until she took on a lover, a trans man named Missy. Colette started writing and starring in risque’ plays, including one that set off a riot at the Moulin Rouge. Goetzinger portrays Colette not so much as a feminist in a political sense, as someone who actively seeks equal rights and liberation for all women. Colette simply wanted to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, regardless of what anyone else said.
Colette was on the cutting edge in many ways, as an early proponent of film and later a successful screenwriter. The 1958 Hollywood film of her novella Gigi won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Colette achieved some of her greatest success as a journalist and critic, and it was in the latter role that she especially came to be revered in France. That said, Goetzinger portrays her as someone who was proud to express herself with both her mind and body, as she was especially interested in the then-avant garde art form of pantomime.
Of course, it’s difficult to depict the greatness of a writer in a comics biography. No matter how dreamy the locations or lush the drawings, it’s impossible to get across the sharpness of a writer’s wit and observations in what is essentially an interior, sedentary process. This was a good reason to depict Colette in the years where her very existence was a challenge to society in terms of her interests and passions, but it also tended to mute her genius in favor of her daring.
In terms of structure, Goetzinger had a few tentpole events to string along her narrative, like starting the book with her wedding and then using key people like Missy and later lovers to anchor the otherwise dreamy flow of the story. Goetzinger’s background in erotica tended to give her figures an ethereal, lush quality regardless of what they happened to be doing. The light pastel colors, dreamy and far-off expressions in her female characters’ eyes, and body language that constantly suggested sensuousness added to this sensation of reading fantasy, no matter the subject. This made a lot more sense in a book like Girl In Dior, because fashion is all about transformation and illusion, but it was a more awkward fit in a book that included interludes about World War I and motherhood. There was no grit or grime in any of her drawings, even in Willy’s bachelor pad apartment. The details of the clothing and buildings may have been impeccable, but I never got a sense of any place feeling actually lived in.
The other inevitable problem in biographies like this is the introduction of too many characters with too little detail. This became especially problematic at the end, when it became difficult to tell all of her friends apart or understand why they were important. NBM published a glossary to catch the reader up on some of these details, but it certainly didn’t help while reading the book the first time. The episodic storytelling, the attempts to shoehorn a life lived into a narrative and the lack of visceral visual elements may have made this a failure as a biography, but they also seem to be beside the point.
This book is as autobiographical—in some ways—as it is biographical. It’s ultimately about an artist who did what she wanted, when she wanted, in defiance of what was customary. It’s about a woman who earned respect for her sheer talent and dedication and became widely renowned as she grew older. It’s about the messy life of a woman who made a lot of mistakes that often hurt other people, but she kept trying to do better while following her dreams. It’s done by an artist who was able to luxuriate in the beautiful details of the life of this writer, making them even prettier on the page than they were in real life. If this project was self-indulgent, then who else had earned this kind of indulgence more than Goetzinger? There are other ways to learn about the writer Colette, but The Provocative Colette is one of the best ways to experience the artistic life of Annie Goetzinger.