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And Now, Comic Book Noir : THE MAGICIAN'S WIFE by Jerome Charyn illustrated by Francois Boucq (Catalan Communications: $14.95; 88 pp.)

February 07, 1988|Roger L. Simon | Simon's next Moses Wine detective novel. "Raising the Dead," will be published in August by Villard Books

When I was a kid, I keep a tiny flashlight under my bed with which to read into the small hours of the morning. In my family, there was no need for this deception if what I were clutching in my furtive 10-year old hands was a weightly tome by Dickens or Balzac. But my secret vice was something else: comics. And like most vices, it was all the more interesting for being forbidden.

Of course I knew I was not alone. All over the city (this was New York in the '50s) there were "secret sharers," comrades and rebellious junior intellectuals who thrilled to the mighty "Shazam!" of "Captain Marvel."

Later, some of this same crowd resurfaced, turning their secret vice to popular and polemical advantage in the '60s with the appearance of the hippie comic series like "Mr. Natural" and "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers." Eventually, like so many artifacts of that influential yet benighted era, they disappeared.

But lovers of comics do not despair. Your medium has been born again and, as the saying goes, it's better than ever. This time, like so much American Pop Culture, it has been redefined in France where it has been annointed as High Culture and returned to our shores under the upscale moniker "graphic novels" to be heralded recently in Newsweek and Publisher's Weekly.

One of the best examples of this new, more sophisticated genre has been written by an American, the acclaimed, surrealistic crime novelist Jerome Charyn. Working with a French illustrator, Francois Boucq, he has fashioned a dark, menacingly-brilliant tale tinged with the erotic called "The Magician's Wife."

This comic book, which won two prizes (Grand Prix) in France where it was first published in 1986 and now appears here in a handsome trade paperback format, could be compared to a kind of film noir between covers directed by Fellini. Indeed, the cinematic analogy seems to fit the genre in general as the writers and illustrators, like auteurs manques , employ most of the film maker's bag of tricks from fades to lap dissolves to jump cuts. Moreover, unconstrained by budget limitations and the censorship of studio heads, they are able to fly back and forth through time, employ exotic locations and special effects, and explore themes we do not often find in commercial cinema.

"The Magician's Wife," as an example, begins in Saratoga Springs in 1956, takes us to a surreal version of the court of Louis XIV, marches on to a stage show in Moscow in 1960, continues to Paris two years later, then on to Cairo, London, Munich, New York and then back to Saratoga Springs in 1973 for an eerie finale replete with holograph-like images similar to the Haunted House in Disneyland, but here evoking character and theme instead of the Disneyesque banality.

The story concerns the adventures, or the anti-adventures, of the wife of a magician. The problem is that the magician has two wives and that they are mother and daughter who find themselves in an uninvited competition for the affections of the troubled conjurer. And, as the magician becomes increasingly attracted to the younger woman, she, in revenge for his lubricity, turns into a werewolf in Central Park threatening his life and that of several others involved in his lubricity. What evolves is not a Captain's Paradise but a macabre battle of the sexes cum detective story with mystical overtones.

Charyn and his talented French collaborator are able to elaborate this outrageous tale in an oddly believable world of New York thugs, Saratoga jockeys and Soviet apparatchiks, all the time preserving a nervous sympathy for the aging mother, the lethal daughter and the philandering magician himself. The ending is as sad and mysterious as life itself.

I don't know where this brave new genre of "graphic novels," of bandes desinees as they're called in their country of origin, is going, but I do know this one mesmerized me (pun intended). Take a look.

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