Review: The Colony (2015) by Nicolas Debon

“All that we have done here, we have done out of our own free will”

Nicolas Debon’s The Colony (published in 2015 as L’Essai in French, meaning “The Experiment”) is a standalone graphic novel, and non-fiction. A graphic retelling of actual events. In 1903, a Frenchman named Fortuné Henry buys a lot in the forests in the northeast of France to build his own home and escape society. Others join him, all rejects from society, anarchists, people escaping poverty, convicts released from prison and others. Henry holds to an idealised vision of freedom from the state and from society. They found an anarchist commune to create a more satisfying life, free from masters and societal expectations, to search for a more harmonious, natural and authentic way of living together. Henry’s ideal was to free people from themselves, and then from others, to found the society of the future wherein freedom and love are more present. 

“When one man dreams alone, it is but a dream. When many dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality”

Debon’s beautiful paintings and drawings look simpler than they are. He brilliantly uses an understated colour palette that underscores the solitude of these settlers and the hardships that they have to endure in the rainy, cold forests. The greys, yellows and browns also reflect the anger and determination by the headstrong Henry that he feels in the right to turn his back to the rest of the world. It gives him the energy to do hard work in the rain and snow to create this self-sustaining colony. Debon excels in large, page-filling panels where nature itself takes the centre stage, where the people are small and have to survive in the forest. Geography and weather dominate their lives and they are only small humans who need to adapt to that. But it is also this newfound connection to nature that make them feel that they are living a fuller life.

So, do they all die in the woods? Well, the personality of the founder Henry turned out to have an outsized effect on how the commune was run, and in the end to a detrimental effect. For a while all seems to be going well: they built and built and more people joined them and they received sympathy and gifts from villagers around them. When it all begins to go wrong, Debon focuses inwards on Henry himself and the story becomes an exploration of his person and the relationships between him and his fellow anarchists. For that is where the problems began. Henry couldn’t stop fighting. He couldn’t stop and find happiness in the little commune that they had created, while the other people did in fact do that. 

It’s only a short novel, but gave me plenty of food for thought. These anarcho-communist experiments grew everywhere around France at the time and L’Essai wasn’t unique in that regard. The album ends with real photos of Henry and the houses they built in the forest. Henry’s character could have been explored further. In the end we understand him but only on a surface level. The story is quickly wrapped up where you would have expected more storytelling. But for the two hours that it takes to read this, it’s an interesting journey and beautifully painted.


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8 Responses to Review: The Colony (2015) by Nicolas Debon

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Ha, anarcho-communists. Now there’s a group that gets less than zero pity from me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know… behind the negative connotations of a word like communist, there is something romantic about quitting the unnatural rat race of modern society and live on the land in a smaller tribe like community. Well, not for me but I can see how that can be appealing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. savageddt says:

    First part of you review sounded like that film the Village, great review man.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ola G says:

    I like the art and the topic. It seems to be always like this with these communes, I’m sad to say – they start off great and then personality problems happen most of the time, and unless by that point you’re already too big/structured to implode, your little group will just be destroyed by itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah. The leader’s vision was that one day the earth would be covered by these communes, next to each other like a beehive structure, but it would never work. And if they get too big, then you create a society with a government and then we’re back at square one.

      Liked by 1 person

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