The InitiatesThis book’s subtitle lays bare the premise: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs. I liked the comic artist’s work so much I’m seriously considering spending $40 to order a sample of the wine artisan’s.

In a perfectly simple two-page prologue, author and artist Etienne Davodeau pitches his idea to vintner Richard Leroy: Davodeau will spend a year as a volunteer laborer on Leroy’s vineyard, learning the ins and outs of a small artisanal winery. In exchange, Leroy will learn about comics through a prescribed reading list. With just five panels of easily natural conversation, Davodeau conveys those ideas with much more grace than I’ve mustered. For those doing the math, it’s five panels on two pages because he starts the book with a blank space where a panel should be. It’s an awfully small thing to devote a lot of space to here, but I quite enjoyed it. It served as both a restful beat before entering the book and a suggestion of the characters’ lives off-panel before the start of the narrative. The effect is even better once it’s been repeated after the two-page epilogue.

Through Davodeau and Leroy’s many conversations about comics, it becomes clear that Davodeau appreciates artists with the talent and restraint to keep the visuals in service to the narrative – to supply the art that is needed to tell the story rather than the art that will get the most attention. His blank panels certainly match this philosophy. The rest of the book is similarly understated, with straightforward panel layouts and muted gray shading. I do not mean to suggest that the art is lacking. Davodeau shows himself to be more than capable of intricate detail when introducing an interesting bit of farm machinery or a scenic vineyard, and he does great work conveying a lot of information in a quick, wordless montage. Both Davodeau and Leroy strive for a purity and balance in their work, with distractions stripped away and the essentials harnessed toward a single purpose.

To be clear, a focus on narrative over artistic virtuosity is not the same as making the visual subordinate to the textual. Both the words and the drawings are here in service to the story and the book never feels overwritten or text-heavy. The reader learns a lot about the culture and practice of both comics and winemaking, but Davodeau avoids heaping facts upon us. The central conceit is of two friends sharing their passions through a year of dialogue. Surely there’s some artifice in how clearly these conversations progress, but the author’s (and translator’s) light touch makes everything seem smooth and natural. I also appreciated Davodeau’s choice to let the reader do his or her own interpretation of events and ideas. Certainly one can identify parallels between Leroy’s work in wine and Davodeau’s work in comics, but Davodeau never intrudes upon the narrative to spell those out for us. This leaves the book feeling more honest, open, and inviting.

I’m little more than an initiate into the world of French comics myself, and not even that in my knowledge of wine. I often found myself wishing I was more familiar with the authors whose work Davodeau and Leroy discussed or that I could join them in tasting a wine, but I never felt that my ignorance presented a barrier to my enjoyment of this book. Instead, it felt like an opportunity to join the two friends in learning more. The book closes with a partial list of wines consumed and books read. I don’t imagine I’ve either the time or the funds to see this list through to the end, but Davodeau and Leroy’s experience made for such an amiable and enlightening read that I’m willing to give it a try.

The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs
by Etienne Davodeau
ISBN: 9781561637034
NBM, 2013

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