Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Claire Bretécher is a giant of European comics thanks to her now legendary strip La Page des Frustés (The Frustrated) published weekly from 1974 to the mid-1980s in Le Nouvel Observateur, a French left-wing journal. Bretécher worked for a variety of French magazines through the 1960s including TinTin, Spirou, Pilote and L’Écho des Savanes before she began her satirical strip series aimed at an adult audience, which very quickly became essential reading throughout France. She was awarded ‘Best French Author’ at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in 1975, and a year later literary theorist Roland Barthes called her France’s best sociologist. La Page des Frustés was translated into many languages and began appearing in the UK as a full page every week in the Sunday Times Magazine, where it was called Frustration.
Bretécher’s Frustration examines the daily lives of a rotating set of middle-class, generally left-wing, affluent and urban white women and men, teasing out their political and sexual hypocrisies, compromises and typical human failings in their relationships, with savagely funny results. The dialogue is very well observed and exhilaratingly blunt about sex in a way that was very new at the time. The slang may have dated but the situations remain the same and the humour still hits the same targets today. This work traverses the same areas that Jules Feiffer was exploring in the USA and Posy Simmonds was documenting in Britain, but Bretécher’s spectacularly ugly cartooning is a lot less charming than those two. Frustration looks uninviting at first with the scribbly bigfoot ugliness of her characters, but there is a definite purpose to her approach. Many cartoonists find it hard to caricature both sexes with the same toughness, making men bizarre or distorted while women are objectified or idealised in some attractive way. Bretécher’s grotesque men and women are equally ridiculous, giving her the freedom to make far funnier and more expressive drawings, filled with distinctive and telling personality.
Seven volumes of Bretécher’s work were published in the UK; Frustration, More Frustration, Mothers, Still More Frustration, Where’s My Baby Now?, Agrippina, and Agrippina Throws a Wobbly. The careful, expert translations by Angela Mason and Pat Fogerty, and deft relettering to match the original make these volumes read as well as the French versions. They are all long out of print. An extensive retrospective exhibition of Bretécher’s work at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2016 brought her roaring back into the public consciousness in France, but since that’s unlikely to happen in the UK, interested readers will have to pick up second-hand copies. Most of these volumes are easily found because they were huge sellers in their day. They are so cheap online that you can acquire almost all of them for the price of postage, so there’s nothing stopping you from discovering these brilliantly acerbic and witty comics.