Wednesday, December 13, 2017
MYTHCOMICS: THE MAGICIAN'S WIFE (1986)
"Nothing ever happens without Dolores."-- offhand dialogue from minor character.
Since the name Dolores means "sorrows" or "sadness," writer Jerome Charyn may have meant to convey that sadness was an inevitable aspect of the human condition or some such. It's a reasonable assumption, but I have to admit that one can't make that good a case for such a theme in the American author's collaboration with French artist Francois Boucq. THE MAGICIAN'S WIFE won the Fauve d'Or prize at Angouleme in 1986, and the stand-alone album, after being out of print for many years, has recently resurfaced from Dover Publications, though I'm reviewing here the 1987 edition published by Catalan.
Though Boucq's highly detailed art is beyond reproach, Charyn's script is never as clever as he seems to think it is. I've not read any of Charyn's fiction, but in his introduction to the Catalan edition, the author makes clear that he idolizes the French approach to "bandes desinees." This may be a reason why, although WIFE does qualify as a genuine mythcomic, the writer shows, like many French comics-practitioners, a cavalier attitude toward the little details that add to a strong symbolic discourse.
Still, WIFE shows an admirable psychological structure. Within the first few pages of the album, the reader is introduced to a group of characters living in a house in 1956 Saratoga. Rita, a girl of perhaps ten, is being raised by her mother, a widow following the death of her husband in Korea. The unnamed mother works as a maid in the house of a reasonably well-to-do family. However, all the reader knows about the lady of the house is that she gardens all the time, while the lady's husband never seems to come down off the roof he's repairing. The couple's one child, an adult named Edmund, plans to become a professional magician, and the action remains at the house only long enough to establish the relationship between the chimerical Edmund, little Rita, and Rita's mother.
Modern politically correct readers would no doubt be disturbed by Edmund's teasing of Rita, claiming that he plans to marry her someday. It's obvious, though, that Edmund is not a follower of Humbert Humbert, for he never makes any inappropriate approaches to Rita when she's a child. Rita doesn't fully trust Edmund or his predictions of their future relationship, but she's even less than pleased when she happens to spy on Edmund making love to Rita's mother.
Edmund gets his way: not only does he become a successful magician, he talks Rita's mother into coming along, whereupon both mother and daughter become part of the act. In contrast to real stage magic, Edmund does seem to possess some sort of supernatural pipeline, but only when working with Rita, who becomes the star of his show. Predictably, as Rita comes into the bloom of adolescence, her mother's looks wither and eventually Edmund wants to send the older woman away. Rita alternates between being captivated by Edmund's charms and remaining loyal to her mother, but as Edmund predicted in her childhood, the sense of erotic interest wins to some extent. However, not long after Edmund marries Rita, Rita's mother passes away. Rita, racked by guilt, flees Edmund and his magic act, taking a job as a waitress in a New York coffeehouse.
Nevertheless, Rita is unable to forget her "demon lover," and begins imagining him in place of other men she encounters. Complicating things further is that during one of the magical performances, Edmund apparently unleashed a "werewolf spirit" in Rita-- and now, far from his control, mysterious bloody murders begin transpiring in New York. Though there is a relatively mundane solution to the murder-mystery- a solution provided by a French detective who seems to know more than he should about Rita's history with Edmund-- Rita finally decides that she has to find out what's happened to her husband. Oddly, amid all the suggestions of violence and perversity, the two are reunited in a relatively upbeat conclusion, though nevertheless I tend to view MAGICIAN'S WIFE as belonging to the Fryean mythos of the irony.
The fact that the name "Dolores" is sprinkled throughout the story indicates that Charyn wanted it to signify something, though it may have been no more than a private in-joke. It's first used as the name of a Saratoga jockey's horse, but it seems to have some special meaning to Little Rita. Charyn also attributes the name to an unseen maid who finds the body of Rita's deceased mother, and to a strange sorceress who holds Edmund in thrall. Still, this motif is undeveloped, as is Charyn and Boucq's view of magic. Since they remain non-committal on the subject of whether Edmund and Rita's magic is real or illusion, WIFE doesn't sustain any metaphysical myths. However, the psychological relationship between Rita and Edmund does achieve a mythic status, and so MAGICIAN'S WIFE succeeds in that department.