What is a cat but poetry in motion? Pure, silky, sinuous, graceful, deadly, and then in one moment suddenly utterly ungraceful as they fall off something, or into something. A cat is, I think, one of the most challenging things to draw, and for that reason one of the most satisfying to see well drawn. The last 7 odd pages of Sugar: Life as a Cat by Serge Baeken show a selection of dozens of cat sketches that alone would be worth the price of this comic. I could look at them for hours. Not that the main narrative portions of the book are any less beautiful – Baeken worked on Sugar for 8 years and redrew many pages several times to his satisfaction, and this perfectionism combined with that respect for the fluidity and unfathomable nature of catness had paid off with a book which is a visual delight from start to end.
This is an artist who relishes the challenge of the indescribable curve, a skill which can be seen in his many drawings of naked women (not in this book) but which he is happy to apply to any moments of everyday visual lyricism. He also embraces formal experiments and the majority of the book is paged by 24-square panel grids (4 by 6). These he uses in a vast variety of ways, pushing the boundaries of both perspective and sequence, evocative of the various modes of his feline characters – exploring, resting, hunting, madly manic, etc. Through the exploits of this family’s cat friends we see their story – and this is as much autobiographical as it is biocatical.
Released in Flemish and French in 2014 by Blloan and Dargaud Respectively, 2 years after the Belgian artist deleted the contents of his blog and website, we the English speaking world are now finally blessed with a ‘translation’ from Soaring Penguin Press, with a translation credit to Michele Hutchison, although I’ve also read that Serge wrote his original version in English, so that process may have been more one of amalgamation and improvement.
I realise I have written much of the look of the book and not much of the stories therein. They are much the stories you would expect of the lives of cats; moved across countries by one’s humans, introduced to new friends that are untrusted and then trusted, serenely observing the foibles of the people around you. And all too often lives cut short by the clash of cat and modern world. The title character Sugar (Suske in the Flemish) does not make an appearance until chapter 3 as we must first hear the brief life stories of his two predecessors. The strange arrogance that we people have over bringing pets into our lives when we know there’s a risk, if not a certainty, theirs will be shorter than ours is unsentimentally shown here, although with no shortage of pathos.
Once on the page though, Suske is definitely the star of the show and we get to see this charismatic tom cat grow out of his novelty oversized ears and tumble winningly through a world full of mundane adventures. The way in which the relationship of the cat and the author’s inevitable child evolves is shown in a particularly touching way. It’s no surprise that Baeken reports the most common response he has had from readers is their wish to tell him the names and temperaments of their cats, the back cover marketing is spot on: “for comic book lovers. And for all cat lovers, of course.” Being both a comic book lover and a cat lover I am naturally a big fan.
In the end of the book we see Baeken’s daughter reading a poetic account of Sugar’s own life to him from a book. The poetry therein is a little oh-noetry, but the concept is a pleasantly, tear-jerking elliptical way to complete the story.
Serge Baeken (W/A), Michele Hutchison (Translation) • Soaring Penguin Press, £14.99
Review by Jenny Robins