It may seem odd that Robert Lepage – arguably one of Canada’s greatest theatrical talents – has decided, relatively late in his career, to publish a graphic novel. But Lepage’s company, Ex Machina, is a multidisciplinary organization in which cultural cross-pollination feeds creativity. The Blue Dragon, a collaboration between Lepage, actor Marie Michaud, and illustrator Fred Jourdain, proves to be an engaging, entertaining, and visually dramatic adaptation of Ex Machina’s stage production of the same name.
Set in the rapidly evolving environment of present-day Shanghai, the book opens with a simple yet effective explanation of Chinese calligraphy, which is cast as a language of discrete symbols, each set within its own frame, like a cartoon. This approach implies that the book’s images should likewise be considered individual stories, each with numerous possible outcomes.
We are introduced to Pierre Lamontagne (a perfect likeness of Lepage), a Quebecois art dealer living in Shanghai. His ex-lover, Claire, who is in the process of adopting a Chinese baby, arrives to stay for a few days. A high-powered, wine-loving ad agency executive, Claire quickly befriends Xiao Ling, an artist whose work is showing at Pierre’s gallery and with whom Pierre is having an affair. When Claire’s plans fall through and Xiao Ling discovers she is pregnant, tempers flare.
The tension between the characters is underscored by the dramatic brushwork of sepia-toned illustrations occasionally interrupted by splashes of bright colour. Jourdain is generous with his framing, giving over double-page spreads to a crushing Hong Kong streetscape, a dark courtyard slashed with rain, or a close-up portrait of a pivotal moment. It’s a filmic approach that makes good use of the artist’s inky style.
As the story draws to a close, the reader is offered several possible resolutions. In each scenario, the three characters arrive at the airport, but are shown departing in different configurations. The final page features a young child practising calligraphy on a large roll of paper, bringing the story full circle and leaving the reader to select his or her preferred ending.