My favorite cartoons/animations have always taken the Mary Poppins Approach: “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Which is to say, razzle dazzle viewers with bright colors or silly jokes, and while they’re distracted, slide in some life lessons and social commentary. Toy Story 3 deftly explored the disposable worker, The New Batman Adventures discussed ageism through the use of dinosaurs, and Rick and Morty is a philosophy lecture with fart jokes.
Now, add The Song of Aglaia to that same list. The brain-child of French illustrator Anne Simon, the graphic novel shows us what happens when mankind trips on its shoes in the march toward progress. Prepare to laugh and squirm!
In terms of any aforementioned razzling and dazzling, Simon’s art style is the perfect tool. Her stark pencils are filled with otherworldly characters, from the titular Aglaia (a crocodile/Oceanid), and her husband, James, possibly some kind of Oriental Shorthair, to a supporting cast of dancing horses, rock people, a human baobab, and however you’d classify Christopher. It feels like some bizarre children’s book recently dug up from a burned down village (and that’s absolutely a good thing).
There’s whimsy and an other-worldliness (alternating between the cute and more morose) surging through all 122 pages, and it’s easy to get caught up in the sheer fantastical delights that you forget what’s going on. That separation, the sense that you’re not of this world, lets Simon pipe in her ideas and commentaries without overwhelming the reader. And there’s lots going on.
The crux of the book is relatively straightforward, albeit hugely weird and wonderful. Upon getting pregnant, Aglaia is forced from her ocean home, where she eventually meets James, who runs a circus. They raise three daughters — Anne, Charlotte, and Emily — who are later kidnapped by the evil tyrant Von Krantz. When she, er, disposes of the former lord of Barbarann, Aglaia is made queen, at which point the story really takes off.
The world post-Von Krantz is one that’s clearly in the midst of a feminist revolution. Yet all the equality doesn’t mean the world’s now perfect. If anything, a sense of dread and anguish looms over the kingdom. That’s not a critique of feminism; this socio-structure gives Barbarannians a sense of hope and freedom for the first time in years. It’s more likely a critique on people (as represented by mutant animals) and our many, many failings. A portrait of what inevitably happens with any progress when our baser instincts and overall stupidity throw a monkey wrench in the most promising new machines.
By assuming the crown, Aglaia has the power to rewrite the whole history of the country. And while things start off hopeful enough, she ends up mucking it all up by the end. Where there was once efforts to abolish marriage and create equal pay, Aglaia’s reign eventually boils down to teaching women how to peel potatoes. And if that wasn’t enough, she eventually loses her actual crown, and if that’s not a powerful metaphor on human inadequacy, then I’m the son of a royal crocodile lady. It’s not the structures of the world that bring her down, but rather her own emotional disconnect and shortsighted interests (especially pursuing a new bae).
Aglaia’s issues all but snuff out the potential of everyone around her. Her loyal assistant/prime minister, Simone, is the most intelligent and capable of the bunch, effectively guiding the policies of her monarchy. Yet she’s handicapped by Aglaia’s shortcomings, all but unable to make a difference and leaving the realm in nearly as bad a shape as when Von Krantz ruled. Aglaia’s issues also impact her husband: while he once held the promise to protect and serve his wife, he grows into a sad, bitter man who dreams of returning to his circus. Inadequacy is a virus, and it spreads into the hearts and minds of everyone. No matter how lofty the goal, people can never get out of their own way.
It’s worth noting now that, as part of the larger feminist arc, there’s a massive thread regarding masculinity. Specifically, how most of the issues at play are generally the result of boorish men controlling Aglaia. But that only facilitates the narrative I’ve been exploring: male stupidity and selfishness might create the world, and it’s those same unbecoming emotional elements that complicate matters post-feminist takeover. We are who we are, regardless. Mostly a species who takes to change like a goat tossed in the ocean.
If anyone achieves “happiness” in the book, it’s Henry and Boris. The former is a dancing horse from the circus, while the latter is the child of Aglaia and her lover, Philip (the kid looks like a potato chip merged with Stewie Griffin). The joy these two have cultivated comes from how they’ve subverted the feminist structure in place. Henry because he ignores much of life, focusing instead on his endless waltzing. Boris, meanwhile, is a terror who tortures everyone, and it’s his presence that provides the commentary regarding the destructive tendencies of male prowess and aggressiveness. Again, this isn’t about bashing feminism, but rather an extended note about the role of these structures. Specifically, giving into our own listlessness or anger frees us to be content. But then, what kind of life is that in the end?
And speaking of endings, the book wraps on a rather bleak note (made all the more depressing with a micro-epilogue). In considering the conclusion, and how it relates to my Mary Poppins analogy, it’s hard to tell if we’ve really got sugar with our meds or just, say, like a spoon of oil grease. But then, the sugar may end up being the book itself, or more accurately, what Simon is trying to show us.
The world is akin to some tragic Fellini film, and try as we may to build structures to thrive, that may not always be so attainable. Oftentimes, the true path to happiness may simply accepting things and trying to be as pure and honest as possible in living your life. To facilitate change that recognizes both our strengths and shortcomings. A hard pill to swallow, but one Simon presents in a beautiful and deeply satisfying casing.