One of a series of graphic novels commissioned by the Louvre, Eric Liberge’s On the Odd Hours (NBM/ComicsLit) concerns a broody, somewhat self-destructive deaf mute named Bastien who is hired as a watchman by the museum to watch over the “Odd Hours,” those times late at night when the masterworks of art come alive to bare their souls away from the public eye. Instructed in this “slightly weird job” by Fu Zhi Ha, the aged Odd Hours watchman, Bastien finds his connections to the daytime world growing less significant: his bourgeois deaf girlfriend doesn’t understand his growing obsession with the museum, and we know from the first time we see the two of ‘em together that there’ll be a blow-up in the relationship.
If its basic set-up sounds like the Art School version of A Night at the Museum, Liberge is after more than just a kid’s comic fantasy in On the Odd Hours. The late night moments are played for sinister beauty, not comedy, and embedded within this short 72-page graphic novel is a critical consideration of the very function of public art museums. “Those who consume art, the public, people in general, appreciate the artwork for their own pleasure,” Bastien’s mentor states early in the book. “They only stay on the surface. It’s all they know how to do!” Only when these “orphan” works are removed from a large gawking public, considered in solitude, can our hero approach their truest meaning.
The sequences where the museum’s artworks come alive are the book’s big set pieces, of course, and Liberge pulls these moments off with aplomb, even if some of the artworks depicted in the finale are a little too ethereally rendered to get a clear sense of what they are. Because several of the characters are deaf, many of the word balloons trail down to signing hands; the artist’s command of his people’s anatomy is so strong that he makes this potentially distancing visual device convincing. In the end it adds to the artist’s consideration of a world where the only thing that matters is what we see.