An early animal-populated graphic novel by the creator of Abelard and Bubbles Gondola, Renaud Dillies’ Betty Blues (NBM) tells the story of a busted romance between jazz trumpeter Rice Duck and his impulsive girlfriend Betty. Wooed away from the musician by a wealthy cat named Patton, the shapely bird learns to regret her choice, but not until after her ex- has fled the world of jazz and gotten entangled in a dangerous plot against an industrialist pig.
Looser and more digressive than his immigrant fable Abelard, Betty Blues proves a melancholy examination of the ways that a single selfish act can impact a cast of others. On learning of Betty’s unfaithfulness, for instance, Rice Duck tosses his trumpet off a bridge where it lands on the head of a middle-aged bird on holiday with his wife. We periodically return to the couple and the fate of that trumpet, half expecting it to wend its way back to Rice – though Dillies is beyond such easy contrivances. Our hero will return to music, but it won’t necessarily save him.
Dillies’ art style – which owes to “Krazy Kat” creator George Herriman – is a trace more deliberately rough-hewn that it is in his later work. His lyrical sense of visual composition remains top-notch, though, most notably in a dream sequence where Rice is lectured by his trumpet for tossing it into the drink. It’s a precursor to the more elaborate dreamscapes of the much less story-bound Bubbles Gondola, which moved into full-blown Fellini-esque fantasia. Here, however, Dillies’ storytelling is closer to earlier Fellini fare (there’s even a reference to Nino Rota’s theme from La Strada) with its bluesy take on human romance.
Recommended for those who think talking animals don’t always have to just be funny animals.