Dina Recommends: The Bellybuttons

Hello! It’s another installment of “Dina Recommends,” where I talk about comics, books, shows, podcasts and other things that I like, which I think deserves more fans. Today I’m going to talk about a French-Canadian comic known as Les Nombrils… or “The Bellybuttons” in English…. by the husband-and-wife team of Maryse Dubuc (creator/writer) and Marc “Delaf” Delafontaine (artist). 

 

BB Cover by DinaMNealey

 

I love comics. All kinds of comics. Though I occasionally get a little frustrated when I talk to Americans who think “comic” automatically means “superhero.” Don’t get me wrong; I like superheroes… but comics are so much MORE. Here in Europe, we have a very different approach to comics; not for us the twenty-two-page monthly or bimonthly issues handled by large teams of people, and there’s a distinct lack of interconnected superhero universes. In fact, superheroes are a VERY tiny minority among European comic characters… we’re more fond of normal humans, funny animals or fantasy creatures, with genres ranging from silly slapstick to adult noir to slice-of-life… actually, when it comes to content and genres, European comics have more in common with modern webcomics than with your classic Marvel/DC lineup. 

So why am I talking about European comics here? The Bellybuttons, being Canadian in origin, can’t count as a European comic, right? Well, no. But it is originally written in French and is published as a regular feature in the  Belgian anthology comic magazine, Spirou… Not to mention, the tone and style of the comic just seems so VERY Franco-Belgian that I at first thought this had to be a French or Belgian series. 

The comic is a slice-of-life dark comedy, which begins as a series of one-pagers, but soon begins telling longer and more involved stories. It centers around the three teenage girls you can see on the picture above. Their names are Vicky (the brunette), Jenny (the redhead) and Karine (the blonde).

Actually, that image, with Karine holding the umbrella for Vicky and Jenny but ending up getting soaked herself, sums up their initial relationship pretty well. See, Vicky and Jenny are essentially the classic “mean pretty girls”; gorgeous and popular, but totally shallow and self-centered. Karine, who’s probably the closest to being the true main character of the comic, is a plain, awkward and unpopular loser who’s constantly being taken advantage of by Vicky and Jenny, but who sticks with them because they are the only friends she has.

Dark comedies, which hinges on characters acting like awful people, and the suffering of characters who had deserved better, have to walk a very delicate line. They can’t be too soft on the characters or the comedy vanishes… but they also can’t be too mean-spirited or heap too much abuse on the victims, or it becomes too off-putting. Luckily, The Bellybuttons manages to balance the extremes pretty well.

Karine does suffer a lot of abuse and humiliation, but good things do happen to her as well… and over the course of the comic she does go through a lot of character development and becomes far less of a doormat… she also starts growing out of her most awkward teen stage and becomes less plain… in fact, following her “Goth” makeover at the end of the fourth album she becomes downright cute. Even if she never reaches the “bombshell” levels of Vicky or Jenny… thank goodness, because we’ve had enough “plain girl gets a makeover and is suddenly the most beautiful of all” stories. 

Vicky and Jenny are AWFUL human beings, but they’re so over-the-top and cartoonish about it that it’s impossible to take their horribleness seriously. It also helps that they get a fair amount of karmic retribution for their worst behaviour… Vicky, who’s the most mean-spirited, tends to suffer more than Jenny, who’s just too stupid and ditzy to realize how terrible she’s being, but Jenny takes her fair amount of knocks as well. And later in the series even they start getting some development or at least show that they do have more to them than just the shallow “mean girls.” 

In fact, for all the comic’s tendencies towards mean-spiritedness, it’s actually pretty good about including nuance and depth to its characters. Despite the stereotypical set-up, and with a lot of subtle or not-so-subtle knocks on the general horribleness of teenagers, Delaf and Dubuc really manage to make you care about all three girls, even when they are being total bitches. We get a lot of insight into their lives and get to understand why they act the way they do: 

Vicky’s mean-spirited attitude comes from a place of insecurity and a messed-up family, with a bullying older sister and parents who are neglectful at best and verbally abusive at worst… plus as the comic goes on she begins having doubts about her sexuality, but with her parents being total homophobes she knows coming out would get her disowned. Jenny is totally oblivious; most of the time she actually means well, but she is too stupid and narcissistic to realize that she isn’t the center of everyone’s world. Her home life is even worse than Vicky’s, with a drunk mother who lives in perpetual poverty and is unable to give her kids the attention and care they need.

And yet… Though the comic EXPLAINS Vicky and Jenny’s behaviour, it never EXCUSES it. Just because we understand why they behave the way they do, it doesn’t mean the victims of their meanness don’t suffer. Even the more sympathetic Karine, whose life isn’t exactly great either, isn’t held completely blameless on the occasions when she steps over the line. The comic invites us to care about the characters, while making us understand that their behaviour is wrong. So thankfully we never get any “Revenge of the Nerds” type moments where the victims who get revenge get away with acting even worse than their tormentors.

Not bad for a comic that starts out being about two mean girls and their doormat friend.

So far, The Bellybuttons has been collected in seven albums… the first three have been published in English by Cinebook, but if you don’t speak French… well, there are some pretty good fan translations of the remaining four out there on the web if you know where to look.

The Bellybuttons definitely deserves a recommendation. It’s deceptively simple at first, but becomes a lot more complex, It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s occasionally heartwarming, sometimes surprisingly suspenseful, and it’s just really good.

Random posts from the blog:

My “Thing”

The World According to Dina