3 out of 5
Tonino Benacquista is the master of deep-dive philosophical insouciance. Which sounds like a slight, and in many cases it would be, but he writes his narratives – fantastical fictions – with such a casual touch that it just seems to intuitively inherit humanity, making the shoulder-shrug results of heavy questions – in Guinea Pigs, that being What Would Happen If We Had A Pill To Help Conquer Our Fears? – part of the “answers,” in a sense. At the same time, there’s not exactly an irony to the way his stories get into trouble and then somewhat easily sidle out, although that may be (massively, massively generalizing here) part of the European comics heritage, as those I’ve sampled tend to focus more on a holistic story or concept than heart-rending character contemplations or morality-seared think-pieces that it seems we hope/demand every English-speaking product turn into, a.k.a. now every kids cartoon has to develop some soul-searching justification for existence. In short: If you know Benacquista isn’t trying to change the world with his stories, they’re quite enjoyable.
Guinea Pigs focuses on three down-and-outs volunteering for a trial medication. We’re not told what it’s for, and Tonino – steadily assisted in his characterizations and scene setting by artist Nicolas Barral – takes this initial time to let us get to know the trio, to witness the effects of their isolation during the trial, and to introduce what eventually turns out to be the med’s product: each person flip-flopping a key element of their personality, which essentially equates to overcoming some fear.
The leading doctor wishes to cease the trial; the patients essentially refuse. And this is the Euro / American comics split: whereas the latter would likely take this in a ruinous direction – unforeseen, horrible consequences! – Guinea Pigs pokes at what would / could / might happen with a general public on such pulls, and then tiptoes its way to the end of the story with everything (spoiler…) pretty much going back to normal. Structurally, Benacquista weights the majority of the book on that opening, getting-to-know portion, making this after-effects part short both in page length and in narrative consequence, but again, knowing that the story is just an exploration and not, necessarily, intended to make any declarations, this makes sense.
Still, it’s handy having expectations alerted when reading Tonino’s work. Thus prepped, though, they’re really excellent, free-flowing tales, and Guinea Pigs is another example of that form.