Jérôme Ruillier’s latest graphic novel, The Strange, his first translated into English, opens cinematically with a masterfully compressed pre-title sequence. The story begins in medias res, with a bird’s-eye view of a townscape rendered in thick lines and set against a dense red background. When the nameless central character speaks, his language of unfamiliar symbols is translated for the reader. We had decided to leave, he says. After paying a local fixer a large sum to supply him with a fake passport and tourist visa, he rushes to board a plane to an unspecified country in search of “a better life” for him and his family. In this moment of airborne transition, what little we do know of him recedes, and we hit the book’s title card, which marks his new identity: This undocumented individual is a “strange.”
It’s an unnerving epithet for the central character of Ruillier’s story, which follows this mysterious figure as he navigates a new country alone and without papers. The protagonist is not a “stranger,” with the opportunity to become known, or perhaps to even become a friend; he’s a “strange,” and therefore always alien. This semantic choice by Ruillier, though subtle, was enough to fill me with dread. For 15 years, I lived undocumented in the United States; for much of that time, I knew nothing about my legal status. Today, I’m a professor of creative writing, so as I turned the page, I remembered sharing with my students something the novelist Elizabeth Bowen once said of a story’s plot: that the ending, while not to be predicted by the reader, “must be seen to have been from the start inevitable.” With this element of craft in mind, I braced myself for how The Strange would capture the inexhaustible anxieties of being undocumented, and for what kind of “inevitable” fate it would give its protagonist.