My introduction to Ruppert & Mulot as comics creators was through Barrel of Monkeys, published by Bill Kartalopoulos through Rebus Books. Barrel of Monkeys was formalist and experimental, and so I expected something of the same with The Perineum Technique, their new release from Fantagraphics. What I got was a book that mimics the structure of a romantic comedy, but is just as strange as their previous work. In The Perineum Technique, famous video artist JH gets into an online relationship with a DJ named Sarah. The two meet through a dating app and start having sex-by-Skype. What follows is as funny as it is weird; after meeting up for a swinger’s dinner, Sarah challenges JH to not ejaculate for 4 months as she makes a trip to Los Angeles, and she promises to meet him for a date if he can succeed.
If you couldn’t already tell, The Perineum Technique is a comic that is largely about sex and sexual intimacy. Part of the reason the book succeeds is because of Ruppert & Mulot’s visual experimentation. The Perineum Technique avoids the traditional expression of sexual encounters in most comics; which is to say, either dully chaste or dully explicit. Instead, Ruppert & Mulot depict sex with a variety of visual metaphors. The metaphor that recurs the most is of the two main characters falling down a sheer obelisk wielding swords and knives, digging their blades into the face of the obelisk as they fall closer and closer towards a body of water. The lines that these two characters make, wobbling back and forth, sometimes crossing, are a visual representation of sex that we see throughout the book. JH’s art is all about sex; he likens masturbation to cutting off your fingers with scissors, and the theme of missing fingers shows up a few times throughout the book. Ejaculation is often depicted as giant water droplets splashing over the entire page, and the moments before climax are often given a warbled panel border. By creating a unique series of metaphors to depict sex, Ruppert & Mulot find the space to comment on the nature of intercourse, desire, and longing in a way that is visual, not directly stated.
And all of this is well and good, but the book would be much less effective were it not for the terrific color work of Isabelle Merlet, who breathes life into characters who are often depicted simply and without adornment. Ruppert & Mulot’s characters don’t emote; they just exist, and the text of their conversations tells you the emotional tenor of the moment. In my mind, this is one of the major flaws of the book; how can you write a comic about sexuality and sexual intimacy, without letting emotion into your drawing? Thankfully Merlet uses the colors of the work to pick up the slack.
Despite The Perineum Technique spending a lot of time and energy on visual depictions of sexual behavior, this is not just a book about sex; rather it’s a book about the way people interact with each other in the modern dating world. Technology is the crux of the book, and JH, the main male character, is obsessed with his cell phone, looking at Sarah’s lewd pix, hunting through OKCupid. That obsession is a key to JH’s character; he’s obsessed with Sarah, and his actions, often played for comedic effect, can be troubling. Even his art becomes influenced by Sarah, and at one point he hires actors that look exactly like him and Sarah to recreate his metaphorical sex acts as high art. It’s a bit much. But in this mode, JH is an everyman. Most Western adults spend a large percentage of their days glued to cellphones, and JH is just as “terminally online” as all of the rest of us.
The presence of smart phones and dating apps plays a crucial role in this book, since much of the sex is performed in front of screens instead of in the presence of another human, and the correlations between online dating and the way The Perineum Technique‘s characters interact are worth noting. All of the characters are drawn sparely, and often are drawn with “masks” – whether those are real masks at a swingers party or the masks of digital space which obscure the person’s face. JH’s glasses often reflect the outside world, obscuring his eyes. This effect is a mirror of the nature of the performative aspects of online dating; be someone who is interesting and fuckable, and not necessarily your full self.
Both JH and Sarah are assholes to each other in different ways, and make demands on each other in the way that strangers online make demands of each other. Sarah spends much of the book avoiding physical intimacy, and this behavior calls to mind the way that a dating app connects people but doesn’t promote intimate behavior. Sarah also makes a demand that JH not ejaculate for 4 months while she is out of the country, a mirror of online relationships where certain behavior is demanded due to the effect of the way internet relationships are fostered. JH is an idiot and a pig, and makes possessive sexist demands on Sarah after his 4 months of celibacy (although this is less an exploration of the digital dating space and a comment on the general nature of men). None of this behavior seems “condoned,” and most of it is played for laughs. Ruppert & Mulot are using this sort of broken conversation between Sarah and JH to critique the ways in which we find and create intimate relationships in the modern age.
The Perineum Technique is therefore, a bit of a puzzle; Ruppert & Mulot’s metaphoric drawing, Merlet’s beautiful colors, and the thematic elements of the book make it a fascinating read, and certainly worth your time. But it’s a book that has no pat ending and it’s a comic that requires multiple reads. The Perineum Technique is one of the few books I immediately re-read after reading the first time. But my impression of the comic is still murky, and I expect yours will be as well. If you’re willing to spend time thinking about what is strange about intimacy in our terminally online existence, The Perineum Technique will be a welcome read.
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