The first story in Yellow Negroes And Other Imaginary Creatures (New York Review Comics) is titled “Love,” and in a few brief pages establishes the modus operandi of the collection’s author, Yvan Alagbé. What begins as an assortment of seemingly inchoate lines slowly, over one image and then the next, reveals itself to be the body of a woman, the lines of her body folding over one another. The perspective of the reader shifts over these images as well, and Alagbé rotates us around the sleeping woman. As he does, another figure comes into view—first as a cacophonous mass of thick, heavy, inky brushstrokes. Just as soon as Alagbé reveals the figure for what it is—a sleeping baby—the interlude abruptly ends: the final image a naked woman, figured as a white woman specifically, sleeping peacefully beside a baby, figured as a black baby.
In this expressive vignette—what might be analogized to something like an amuse bouche, that first bit of food that prepares you to eat and orients you toward a certain culinary mode—Alagbé offers readers a cypher by which the rest of the stories in the collection may be understood. In “Love,” Alagbé plays with expressive lines, with race, with the hint of love and sex, and the way that love and sex and race intersect in France.
The cartoonist’s interest in these themes and an opaque aesthetic mode can most readily be seen in the collection’s title story, “Yellow Negroes.” What appears on its face to be a story about the experience of African migrants trying to subsist in ’90s Paris quickly becomes about the mores surrounding interracial romance in France, race and class in France, France’s colonial history in Algeria, and the tensions that these forces exert on the individual. Illustrated in a style that oscillates between intensely worked-over figuration, where the hairs and skin textures of characters is visible, and simple, expressive sketches of urban life, Alagbé offers readers something poetic and moving. The story is messy and uncomfortable, but it is striking and moving in equal measure.
The collection’s third story, “Dyaa,” sits uneasily next to “Yellow Negroes,” because it deviates from the ethos of the collection’s other stories. At least it appears to. Whereas the other stories feature a clear interaction of white people and black people, rendering a vision of black life that is—for better or worse—inextricably woven throughout white life and vice versa, “Dyaa” features a total absence of white figures. The story concerns Martinah, one of the principal characters of “Yellow Negroes,” thinking about her lover who has remained in Africa (possibly Algeria, though it is unspecified).
The story is told elliptically, with Alagbé shifting perspective, setting, and time period without warning or explicit notation. Dialogue and exposition are collapsed into one rhetorical space, and all the text is set off from the images. The effect is a distancing, and the eye is able to focus on and fall in love with Alagbé’s images, rich black smears of ink converging and diverging from one another in passionate plays of sex, sorrow, and salvation. But while there are no white figures in the story, there are allusions to white characters, demonstrating the inescapable gravitational well that is whiteness. “Dyaa” serves as the most aesthetically pure distillation of Alagbé’s ethos, because he makes literal what was merely figurative in “Yellow Negroes”: the idea that blackness is constituted by whiteness and vice versa—infinitely complicating the questions he introduced in that first vignette, “Love.”