Written by Emmanuel Guibert and drawn by Marc Boutavant
Papercutz, $12.99 each
The back cover copy on the first translated and re-published volume of ARiOL, a kid-centric comedy comic from the writer of Sardine in Outer Space and artist Marc Boutavant, makes a joke of the surface weirdness of the premise: “ARiOL is a little, blue donekey with glasses…His best friend is a pig…His teacher is a big dog, and his gym teacher, a big rooster. In short, ARiOL is exactly like you and me.”
In truth, Ariol (whose name I am going to stop writing with its non-standard capitalization for the remainder of this piece) is remarkably like you and me, or, more likely, remarkably like we were when we were his age.
A young gradeschooler who lives with his parents in an apartment building in the suburbs, Ariol prefers playing and day-dreaming to school work, he has a hopeless crush on the cute girl (well, a cute cow) in his class who doesn’t seem to notice, he has a best friend who sometimes gets him into trouble, and what he loves more than anything else is his favorite comic book/cartoon show/animated movie/licensing juggernaut superhero, Thunder Horse.
The short, ten-page stories that fill each volume are often self-contained but sometimes lead in to one another to tell longer stories, like a large chunk of the second volume telling the story of Ariol and friend Ramono going to visit Ariol’s grandparents on summer vacation. All are concerned with the day-to-day life of a little kid, including trips to the doctor’s office, the events of gym class, field trips and so on, and Guibert writes about childhood from a child’s view so convincingly, so compellingly, that reading these stories as an adult will likely not only remind you of kids you know, but of your own time spent as a kid.
Artist Boutavant has a thin, precise and just-the-slightest-bit wiggly line, which gives the panels a dashed-off, organic feel, particularly the foreground characters, whereas the backgrounds are meticulously realistic. The children characters—and every kid in Ariol’s class is a character, with a name and some personality traits of their own—all have large heads that look cartoony enough that it can be a bit difficult to determine their species, whereas their parents and the other adult characters have more fully-formed cartoon animal heads atop their otherwise human bodies.
There’s an interesting dynamic at work regarding the various species in the story, one that I imagine too many kids won’t get too hung up on, but it’s notable enough that Papercutz editor Jim Salicrup mentions it in a brief editorial in the back of the first volume. Unlike the worlds created in similar comics peopled by anthropomorphic animals, those in ARiOL are aware that they belong to different species of animals.
So, for example, Ariol wishes he were a horse like Thunder Horse instead of a donkey, and his concerned mother has a conversation with him about saying such a thing, which leads to him asking why there are sayings like “dumb as a donkey” or “dirty as a pig.”
But it certainly seems to be a quirk of the comic, rather than something with a specific agenda along the lines of say, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, where different species represent different nationalities. There are just too many species here for that to be the case (every member of Ariol’s class, for example, is a different species), and non-anthropomorphic animals seem to exist alongside the anthropomorphic ones. For example, in one story, Ariol’s teacher, a dog, threatens to apply one of his classmates, a fly, to flypaper if she doesn’t stay in her seat.
Later on, we see Ariol’s grandfather has a dog for a pet.
Guibert and Boutavant do such an incredible job of humanizing their characters, and in relating universal experiences of childhood in such a sharp and engaging way, however, that the only time one really even notices that one’s reading about anthropomorphic animal characters is when those characters bring it up themselves. Otherwise, that little blue donkey seems just as human, just as vital, and just as easy to relate too as any other character in kids’ comics at the moment.