I’m trying, I really am, but Henriette Valium’s 2016 Conundrum Press-published, oversized (9 x 14, to be specific), hardback collection, The Palace Of Champions, confounds me at every turn. And yes, I do mean that as a compliment.
For one thing, it’s essentially impossible to discern where one strip “ends” in this book and another “begins,” but maybe that doesn’t really matter, because it’s not exactly easy to puzzle out what’s even happening in any given panel, let alone on an entire page. Valium’s illustrations are loaded with information — hell, worlds of it — and seem to operate outside the realms of time, space, and logic, to the point where they may even render such concepts outmoded at best, if not downright meaningless. Assaulting your eyeballs and sense of reason with equal gusto, Valium takes elements of old-school underground comix “ugly art,” occult and Kabbalistic diagrams, and the other-dimensional architectural schematics of the visionary Paul Laffoley, adds in several drops of richly garish color, tosses it all in a blender, sets it on “high,” and then pours what comes out five minutes later onto the page. Your first thought when looking at Valium’s art may in fact very well be that something like this probably shouldn’t even exist.
Your second thought, though, will be to thank whatever higher power you do or don’t believe in that it does. In fact, you may even wonder where stuff like this has been hiding all your life.
The simple answer to that is “around.” Valium (or, as his birth certificate would have it, Patrick Henley) has been at this for nearly three decades, although not with anything like what could be termed “frequency.” I remember some of his stuff appearing in Fantagraphics’ Zero Zero anthology back in the ’90s, but it’s been in short supply since for fans outside his native Quebec to feast their eyes on — so while his status in Canada borders on the legendary, he’s far less of a “known quantity” elsewhere.
Some of that, of course, is down to the near-impenetrability of his work — not only is his art dense, multi-layered, and the dictionary definition of “intentionally chaotic,” but his scripts are riddled with deliberate misspellings, his letters are frequently written backwards, and big chunks (hell, sometimes entire lines) of text are obscured by intruding images. If you’re going to “get into” Valium’s comics, then be prepared to do some work.
At the same time, you need to let go of pretty much every single preconception you have in terms of form and function, of narrative “sense,” of visual congruity. Underneath all of this glorious mayhem there are things and situations most people can relate to — neighborly confrontations, creative ennui, personal neuroses, and housing problems are common themes that his “protagonists” are forced to contend with — but the way in which they’re approached is, well, quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Literally.
And maybe — mind you, I say maybe — Valium’s artistic raison d’etre is hidden somewhere in this frankly violent dichotomy. Perhaps his creative “project” has been, and remains, all about getting us to look at the prosaic and the humdrum in new ways by making it all as utterly alien as possible. I can see that as an entirely valid reading of of this or any other Valium comic. But is is the correct one?
Here’s where I confess that I just don’t even fucking know. Undercurrents of physical, mental, and emotional decay run through many of these “stories,” as well, and maybe Valium’s simply trying to invoke that sense of deterioration in his art. Maybe his emphasis on subjects like illness, urban overcrowding, and whatever he means by “science” all somehow dovetails together into something that makes a kind of “sense” in his mind. And who knows? Maybe he just knows how to get ahold of some really great drugs. I have no answers — only questions. Lots of questions.
All of which, in a twist that should make its creator proud, makes The Palace Of Champions both the easiest and most difficult book I’ve ever had to review. I couldn’t expound on this thing for, say, 1,000 words if I tried (even though it no doubt deserves it), but at the same time the few words I that I can come up with in order to attempt to “explain” it all seem like they need to matter. Like I have to try to convey some reason for why I think this is an important book. So how about this for an attempt at summarizing a work that absolutely defies summary — if you were to never buy another book in your life, this one could keep you busy analyzing, re-analyzing, re-re-analyzing, etc. it for the remainder of your days. Even if you live to be, I dunno, 200 or something.
Ready to take the plunge? The Palace Of Champions is available from its publisher, Conundrum Press, right here.