In Ruts and Gullies, graphic novelist Philippe Girard recounts a trip he took to Saint Petersburg, Russia, with fellow graphic novelist Jimmy Beaulieu. Though the story itself is fairly straightforward — Girard and Beaulieu tour Saint Petersburg, attend a comic book convention, and lose a passport (among other things) — the author uses the trip as a backdrop for a number of musings on life and death in the postmodern world. As is the case in any travelogue worth its salt, Ruts and Gullies does an admirable job of examining the cultural and linguistic differences between the denizens of Saint Petersburg and those of Quebec, where he makes his home. Yet he also uses the adventure to reflect upon the death of a close friend; through a series of surreal dream sequences, the narrator-cum-author makes peace with the past and gains an opportunity to move on with his life.
In this sense, Ruts and Gullies suggests that being away from home and finding oneself plunged into an alien culture emerges not just as a form of therapy, but a way of finding oneself. Not that this notion is anything new, but Girard does a nice job of helping us understand why this is the case: as he and Beaulieu struggle to understand the curious cartography of Russian street maps, they practically step out of time and space — or, at the very least, they are displaced from their normal, habitual perceptions of time and space and are forced to reorient themselves to the world at large. Likewise, explaining their own cultural idiosyncrasies to their hosts forces Girard and Beaulieu to examine their own lives in greater depth than usual — the whys and wherefores behind everything they have, up until now, taken for granted as “normal.”
Stylistically, Ruts and Gullies doesn’t take many risks. Each page consists of six square panels, and the illustrations contained therein are somewhat reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. It is, however, interesting to read Girard’s work alongside that of Beaulieu — especially, I would imagine, for fans of the latter. Where Beaulieu tends to depict himself as uncertain and relatively timid in much of his own work, he comes off as the more daring of the two in this volume. In this sense, Girard’s depiction of Beaulieu underscores what may be the most important theme in Ruts and Gullies: the best way to figure out who we are is to look at ourselves through someone else’s eyes.