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Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

The Perineum Technique

First, an anatomy lesson: the perineum is the area between the anus and the vulva or scrotum. The adjective form is “perineal,” as in: “Midwives use different perineal techniques to allow the perineum to stretch during childbirth and prevent injury.” The Perineum Technique is something quite different. Its cover (which could be an outtake from the orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick’s unfortunate final film, Eyes Wide Shut) include not only its two, masked, sword-wielding protagonists, but also a masked and almost fully nude woman strolling through the chandelier-decorated background. Masked nudity is an oxymoron, one at the heart of this gratuitously prurient yet subtly insightful study of the graphic novel form.

Subtle and gratuitous—that’s another oxymoronic combination. Ruppert and Mulot thrive on them, combining discordant elements designed to both confuse and titillate. In the opening eight-page sequence, a man and woman climb a ladder positioned perilously close to the edge of an impossibly high, thin monolith, tip it and themselves over, and while in free fall, strip their clothes, plunge their swords into the side of the monolith to slow their descent, and simultaneously have intercourse, before vanishing below the continuing panels which soon frame only the wavy lines of their lingering sword marks. Those markings resemble the loose edges of the panel frames, forming shapes that could be interpreted as either phallic or yonic or both.

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But that’s not the confusing part. While performing all of these actions, the two talk in a matter-of-fact tone, discussing what sex fantasy she will visualize in order to orgasm while acknowledging that the details are too personal for her to tell him. The punchline hits at the bottom of the last column when the man is revealed to be reclining on his couch, with his pants at his ankles and his laptop on his thighs. They’re having Skype sex.

It’s an interesting set-up, but while the reveal instantly resolves the tonal tension of the dialogue, it increases the visual complexity since there are now at least three layers: what each sees through their webcams (“You’re kind of backlit, but if you shift a bit to the right …”), what she mentally visualizes (“It’s a scene that takes place in the bathroom of my old apartment”), and the now yet-more-ambiguous panel images. The monolith is the same pink-orange as his legs, suggesting a dream-like relationship to the real world, but it must also be somehow actually real since they discuss the swords directly (“Can we trade weapons? Just this once?”).

When the scene is interrupted by the man’s work assistant dropping by his apartment to pick up a video, the tonal oddity returns in the unexpected frankness of their conversation. When she asks him if he was in the middle of something, he tells her. “That’s cool. How’s it work? With Skype, I mean.” “We talk and then we touch ourselves in front of the webcam. Here’s the hard drive. The finger video’s on it.” There’s no hedging, no embarrassment, and no arousal either. The assistant isn’t titillated, just curious in the way she might be if her boss had adopted a pet or bought an appliance she’d never used before.

While the sexual matter-of-factness isn’t exactly other-worldly, the effect is. The world of The Perineum Technique is sort of our own world, and sort of not. It’s an area between. In comics, the most significant “area between” is the gutter, the usually ignored space between panels—what in this analogy would be the genitals, what you pay the most attention to. Like an actual perineum, the gutter stretches, shrinks, bends, does whatever is required of it to allow the presentation of images in the page layout. The larger story world of the novel does something similar, obeying psychological laws of not-quite-realism in order to play its games.

JH and Sarah, the Skype partners, soon complete their tryst, establishing the novel’s core plot point: he wants a relationship, she wants sex with a stranger. It’s a familiar set-up, a variation on Marlon Brando and Marie Schneider in Bernardo Bertolucci ‘s Last Tango in Paris (1973). Did I mention Ruppert and Mulot are French? La technique du périnée, the authors’ fourth collaboration, was originally published in 2014 and is better called a bandes dessinées (drawn strips), the term for French and Belgium comics. That difference in traditions accounts for some but not nearly all of the graphic novel’s peculiarities.

 

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The metafictional games intensify. JH is a famous video artist, and the opening visuals are actually his vision for his next project, which expands to include more self-referential image-within-images of his obsessive attempts to connect with Sarah. They include hara-kiri and finger amputation, because for JH everything is a sexual metaphor. His “techniques” for wooing Sarah out for a drink culminate in their meeting for dinner at a so-called swingers club. When she makes him ejaculate under the dinner table (an image mercifully undrawn), the next panel frames the chandelier, an otherwise random setting detail that by juxtaposition evokes his orgasm. Afterwards Sarah explains the “perineum technique,” a tightening of the perineal muscles to prevent ejaculation, and tells him she’ll finally have dinner with him if he hasn’t ejaculated during the four months she’s gone.

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I could go on, but the plot and characters all serve the novel’s relentless sexual drive. In the process, the authors continue to exploit the comics form for a range of impressive effects, all geared toward the plot goal of getting JH and Sarah in an actual bed, sleeping together literally rather than just figuratively. This means suffering with JH through a range of fantasies, including mentally stripping and redressing his assistant in a striptease burlesque costume and clutching a fire hose in front of eyeless and pornographically cartoonish dream women. While I admire the surreal frankness about sex, the actual surreal sex wears thin, especially when the story’s meta-guise thins to the point that the novel seems less about its characters and more about its implied male readers and overtly male authors. I have trouble imagining a female author making a book anything like this one—and that includes sexually exuberant artists like Julie Doucet, Fiona Smythe, or Julie Maroh—or a female reader finding the portrayal of Sarah (or of JH’s assistant, who, surprise surprise, does eventually end up in bed with him) convincing.

While the surface is about JH’s fantasies of Sarah, Sarah is herself already a fantasy, the idealized romantic object of Ruppert and Mulot’s collaborative id. For all its heterosexually fueled orgy energy, The Perineum Technique doesn’t really involve women, just their conceptual shadows in this for-boys by-boys masturbation romp. Fortunately, the novel does involve a great deal of ingenuity that pushes the comics form to new and tantalizing levels of invention. It just didn’t make me ejaculate, metaphorically or otherwise.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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