Spare, cool and enigmatic are three adjectives that apply to this apparently simple wordless story. Despite an undramatic protagonist, a consistent viewpoint and a palette of soft pastels, this subtle book has the capacity to surprise.
On the opening spread we see a diminutive man with a briefcase walking towards a bus stop labelled No.24. Later we see him standing beside the stop, situated on what appears to be a blue road with a pink building to the right and a horizon line directly ahead. Thin black frames border these peaceful images.
Two cars approach towards the man. So far, so normal.
Turn the page to the third spread, though, and that normality is shattered. For a giant steam train has apparently burst through a gap in the pink building and crashed into one of the cars, sending its wheel spinning down the road.
The shock of this image is almost visceral. It’s as though you have been sitting silently, then suddenly been subjected to a deafening noise. The incongruity of seeing the vast dark train splashed across the page, belching black smoke, instantly confounds expectations and requires the reader to reassess the situation.
On subsequent spreads a series of giant vehicles appear either over the horizon or burst in from the righthand side. For instance a huge yellow tank is sent reeling sideways by an anachronistic troop of pink horsemen in armour.
On another spread a small biplane is knocked off course by a larger propeller-powered plane. And on yet another a small boat is capsized by the prow of a giant ship.
Is the road surface real, or is it in fact sky, or water?
One explanation for the strange scenarios might be that they are merely fantasies in the man’s head, perhaps created by the boredom of waiting so long for his bus.
But this idea is undermined when the No.24 bus does eventually arrive. For the man boards it tentatively, anxiously glancing around as though in fear of this vehicle, too, being involved in an unexpected catastrophe. Maybe the events weren’t just in his head after all.
Thankfully the bus departs without incident (though the cover of the book suggests a different outcome). The road reverts to its usual empty state and the scene looks exactly as it did on the opening page. The circle is complete.
This elegant foray into a surreal world of the imagination was created by Guy Billout, a French-born illustrator. After initially working in an advertising agency in Paris, he moved to New York in 1969 and subsequently contributed illustrations for many prestigious American publications, including The New York Times, Life, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Fortune, Time and The Atlantic. At The Atlantic, he contributed a regular series from 1982 to 2006.
From the mid-1980s, Billout also taught at the Parsons School of Design in New York. In 1989 he received the Hamilton King Award, a prestigious illustration prize, and in 2016 he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame.