Saturday, 29 April 2017

From 1993 to 2003, the rise and fall of autobiography in Franco-Belgian comics

When French comic book writer Jean-Christophe Menu wrote and illustrated the highs and lows of his tumultuous personal life, and used his difficulties as a lover and a father as the narrative backbone of his autobiographical series Livret de Phamille, he was likely not expecting that his wife would later present his work as evidence in his subsequent divorce settlement. Similarly, when Fabrice Neaud, got caught in another tumultuous gay love story, he could not imagine that this affair could bring his award-winning autobiographical series to an undesired end. In comics, as in life, some cards are perhaps best kept to the chest. During decades, Franco-Belgian comics had been nearly completely disconnected from their authors’ lives. In the early 1990s, several young authors put their most private stories into daylight. Bringing these secrets out of the closet led the way to a handful of masterpieces but also to personal turmoil for the artists involved.

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In the early 1990s, not much innovation or risk-taking was expected in Franco-Belgian comics. The latest revolution in Franco-Belgian comics, led by Moebius, Gotlib, Brétécher and other artists in the mid-1970s, with the creation of several artist-owned comics magazines for adults, such as Heavy Metal, was already quite far away and remembered as a golden age. Then came a radical change in Franco-Belgian comics. A few young authors, whose projects were rejected by most mainstream publishers, decided to create their own publishing companies and to release at last the comics they really wanted to draw. They had thus a much greater freedom to create, both in terms of format (the artists could choose the size, the number of pages, black & white or colors, etc.) and topics. Some of them decided to take benefit of this freedom by injecting real life and day-to-day issues into French-speaking comics. Far away from bigger than life adventure stories or repetitive one-page jokes, these authors released a series of true masterpieces in the field of autobiographical comics between 1993 and 2003.

Edmond Baudoin, Les Essuie-Glace, copyright Baudoin, Dupuis

A front-runner, Edmond Baudoin has one simple, but very ambitious target with his art: capturing life in his drawing. He often acknowledges that this is an impossible dream but, in each of his books, he keeps trying. Baudoin’s art is very intuitive and direct; what matters is life and movement (he loves drawing dancing people), not realism or precise likeness; people and backgrounds can change radically from one panel to another depending on the mood of the main character…

Jean-Christophe Menu and Fabrice Neaud, arriving a decade after Baudoin, are much more accurate and precise when they depict their life. In Livret de Phamille (Family booklet), Jean-Christophe Menu used innovative narrative technics (mixing of different time periods, involvement of several avatars of himself to multiply points of view, etc.) to describe his family life. He does not hide his repeated fights with his wife or his difficulty in being a father of several daughters.

As a young gay art student in a small town of Southern France, Fabrice Neaud has not an easy life: difficulties in making a living, hard times with one-night lovers met in the local public garden, impossible love story with a heterosexual guy, etc. His life does not offer any really striking events. But the great quality of his four-volume “Journal” stems from his beautiful realistic drawing and the richness of the topics he deals with. His day-to-day misadventures lead him to comment and discuss much wider topics: his description of passion, his social commentaries, his depiction of many pitfalls of our society, his pointing out at any kind of poverty and exclusion (social, intellectual or affectional), his views on arts and comics are only some points of interest of his ground-breaking work.

To name a few other talented artists, let us speak briefly of David B, who published the 6 volumes of Epileptic, the story of his brother suffering from this disease, between 1997 and 2003. Drawn in sharp black & white, filled with plenty of dreams, this strong familial story acquires a very specific tone. Lewis Trondheim drew the six volumes of his autobiographical comics, Approximate Continuum Comics, between 1993 and 1994. In this comics, in which all characters have an animal head, Lewis Trondheim pictures himself as a parrot. We are far from Baudoin’s philosophical quest on art and life, from Neaud’s deep analysis of social exclusion in modern society or from Davis B’s depiction of a family struggling with illness in day-to-day life. Trondheim’s style is firmly humorous; he portrays archetypal characters in whom most people aged between 25 and 50 can easily recognize themselves, at least to some extent.

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Unfortunately, this golden age could not last. These autobiographical comics faced two major challenges, somewhat unexpected, and failed to overcome them. The first one was raised by their characters, the second one by their success.

The first challenge is intrinsic to autobiographical stories: they always face the risk of upsetting the people they depict, all the more when they deal with complex, unhappily ending, love affairs. We already told the misadventure of Jean-Christophe Menu. Since his divorce, he has stopped drawing his friends and relatives in his books, talking mostly of music discs or concerts… Similarly, Fabrice Neaud has encountered difficulties because of his depiction of real people in his comics since the very beginning of his career. It has generated much misunderstanding, frequent aggressive discussion and heavy personal criticism. This difficult situation was even the core topic of a short story called “Emile” (the full story is available online in English), a brilliant tour de force in which he talked of the man he was then in love with, but without showing any single real-life character, only objects or city views… It finally became too difficult when his life got caught in tricky events, with some of them being brought to court, at the turn of the century. He has not published any autobiographical work since then.

On top of this, an additional challenge came from the growing competition from major mainstream publishers. The international success of Persepolis, by Marjane Starapi, about her youth in Iran during the Islamic revolution (more than one million books sold and a successful movie adaptation, prized in Cannes) achieved convincing mainstream publishers that there was a real business in autobiographical comics, or at least comics depicting real events. They decided to invest in autobiographical comics as well, but on their own terms: they were not interested in ground-breaking works, but wanted comics with simple narration and straight stories. Actually, they consider only two kinds of autobiographical comics: either light entertainment (short funny stories, depicting stereotypical young men and women; it is sometimes rather funny, often very superficial) or serious and educative stories: the quality of the comics per se does not really matter, at least not as much as the story itself, from great historical events to tearful family tales. This soft version of (auto)biographical comics flourished in mainstream publishers and progressively took over from the ground-breaking independent publishers who paved the way for autobiographical comics at the turn of the century.

***

The story of Franco-Belgian comics, like many others, witnesses regular artistic ebbs and flows, with years of strong evolution and ground-breaking innovation, followed by years of standardization, with mainstream publishers taking profit from innovations of smaller publishers, softening the edges and bringing this novelty, somehow attenuated, to a greater audience. During the decade 1993-2003, we witnessed a truly incredible flourishment of ground-breaking autobiographical masterpieces in Franco-Belgian comics. Ex-wives, angry lovers, burgeoning success and innovation-adverse mainstream publishers brought an end to this golden age. Innovation and masterpieces were much scarcer in the following decade. Let’s wait for the next wave.

Friday, 5 September 2014

How the world was: A Californian Childhood (L'Enfance d'Alan), by Emmanuel Guibert (2012)

This post is an update of my initial message published in 2012. I just updated it because a translation into English of this superb book was released this summer...

L'Enfance d'Alan (i.e. "How the world was: A Californian Childhood" in the English version) was awarded the "Prix des libraires de bande dessinée" in 2012. In other words, the French comic book shop keeper association selected this book as the best one in 2012. They are comic book sellers, so they select each year a comic book that is quite easy to sell: one that looks not too innovative, with classical drawing; one that can be easily offered to a friend or a relative who usually doesn't read any comics. Consequently they usually choose a book that can potentially sell well, but not necessarily one of the best books of the year. This time, with L'Enfance d'Alan, it was both.

This book is very interesting not only because it is an excellent comic book but also because Emmanuel Guibert manages, more than most of the contemporary comics artist, to draw books that are both very easy-to-read, even for people that are not used to reading comics, and of a very high artistic quality. Thus combining artistic quality and acceptability by a very wide audience is not very easy. Hergé, Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard in some of his early movies, Charles Schulz managed to do that. But, in my opinion, few of the great contemporary comics artists combine these two characteristics. How talented can be Edmond Baudoin and Fabrice Neaud, Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez (and I consider them very, very talented), I think you must have already developed some kind of artistic taste to fully appreciate their work.

At first reading, L'Enfance d'Alan tells the story of a Californian boy, Alan Cope, in the 1930s. And, in this aspect, it already is very interesting. California at this time is both far way from our present-day preoccupations (no information technology, fear of the war, importance and danger of ordinary diseases...) and very near (the world crisis, the beginning of leisure society, etc.). But there is much more than this: it tells also the story of a young adult remembering his childhood, that of an old man remembering both his childhood and his youth and that of a middle-aged French man (Emmanuel Guibert himself) drawing the story of a late American friend (Alan Cope died between the time when he shared his memories with Emmanuel Guibert and the time when the latter drew this book).

It is a book about childhood, as it can be seen immediately, but also a book about memory, a book about how an old man revives his past through often-reminded remembrances. It is a book about memories and getting old. Which souvenirs will accompany a man throughout his whole life? Some of these souvenirs seem important, others do not. Some of them are vividly remembered, others in a very shady way.

Emmanuel Guibert implements very different ways to convey all these types of souvenirs and to tell this story with all these temporal layers (childhood, adulthood, old age, etc.).

A good example is the following double splash page. You can see one of the houses Alan lived in when he was a young boy; on the left page, we can see as it was (or as Alan remembers it was) when he lived there; on the right page, you can see the same house, but some years after, with Alan as a teenager looking at it and remembering his childhood. And the caption is the voice of Alan as an old man remembering both his childhood and the time when, as a teenager, he came back to this house...

Emmanuel Guibert´s art is also an art of equilibrium: he always strikes the right balance between text and art, between black (the black of shadow) and white (the white of forgotten past). 

On the double page below, the young Alan is walking with his father. The latter has just bought the former an ice-cream. Unfortunately Alan lets this ice cream fall on the ground. His family were not rich, getting an ice cream was a luxury, losing it was a little drama. What does Alan remember of this event? nothing but he, his father and the ice cream. The place, the surrounding, the other people, everything else vanished from his memory long ago.

Similarly, when Alan tells us about his games, black and white, image and text are perfectly balanced...

And, last but not least, Emmanuel Guibert's drawing ability is very high, his art is really beautiful. His so particular grey-and-white inking gives a specific texture to what he draws that reminds the reader of old snapshots.

Most readers won't realize how good an artist Emmanuel Guibert is. They will just think: "Wow! This is a really good comic book!" But it is the most important, isn't it?

Alan's War, the book in which Emmanuel Guibert tells the memories of the same Alan Cope, but refgarding his experience during WW2, was published in English in 2008 by First Second. Let's hope they will translate L'Enfance d'Alan shortly.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Explainers, vol. 1 (1956-1966), by Jules Feiffer

Feiffer is nearly completely unknown in France (even though he wrote the screenplay of one of Alain Resnais', a great French movie director, movie, I want to go home). He is probably better known in North America, but not that much (I mean outside a little group of comics specialists). What is sure is that very few of his books are currently available. And, after having completed The Explainers, I am deeply that the unavailability of his books is a real shame.

The Explainers collects the weekly strip Feifffer had been publishing in The Village Voice for 40 years (or, at least, it should be; the first volume, the only that has been released yet, covers the first 10 years, from 1956 to 1966). What are all these strips about? They deal with people who talk, who explain who (they think) they are, what they (try to) do, what they feel, what they want.

A lot of blah-blah, one could say. And I must admit it was my first impression. But after reading quite a few strips I progressively realized that it was much, much more than that.

Feiffer understands very well his fellow citizens. He points out their weaknesses, their hypocrisies, their contradictions. It is impressive in a double way: firstly because The Explainers gives an extraordinary and vivid picture of the middle to high class urban Americans of the years 1956 to 1966, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the beginning of the contestation of the consomption society; secondly, because a lot of the issues at stake in these strips remain, after more than 50 years, at the heart of our present day society.

Feiffer draws all this is his unique way: the expression of his characters is incredibly well depicted; bodies and faces make explicit all that is hidden in the speeches of these explainers. In this way, most of the strips are a graphic tour de force.

Nonetheless, I am a bit worried: Fantagraphics have released this first volume of The Explainers quite some time ago, and there is no news about the next issues... Perhaps this first volume was not successful enough to permit the publication of the next three volumes? Please, Fantagraphics, The Explainers is a masterpiece in the depiction of the Western way of life and of thinking in the second half of the 20th century, so do not wait too long before publishing the following volumes of this great masterwork!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Universal War, by Denis Bajram (from 1996 onwards)

Nowadays, French-speaking comics are not necessarily very well known in the science-fiction field. OK, we had Moebius and Enki Bilal, but the former is dead and the latter spends more time painting and selling his paintings than drawing comics. Now, French-speaking artists are probably more renowned for intimistic stories (from Lewis Trondheim to David B).

American readers looking for a good SF comics will probably not investigate on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. But they may be wrong. Denis Bajram, a French artist, has been creating since the mid 1990s one of the most interesting, ambitious, captivating, mind-blowing SF saga of the last 30 years. It is called Universal War. Three 6-volume each sagas are planned. The first arch (called Univarsal War One, or UW1) was published between 1996 and 2003, and was publihed in the US by Marvel Comics in 2008 and 2009. The first volume of the second arch (Universal War 2...) was released in September 2013.

Universal War One begins at a time, at the end of the 21st century, when all the solar system has been colonized. A civil war between the United Earth Forces (UEF) and the Colonization Industrial Companies (CIC), which comprises the various outposts and colonies beginning at the planet Saturn and beyond, is about to break out. Near Saturn, we follow the adventures of the Purgatory Squadron, which is composed of members who face Court Martial for various infractions (which we discover progressively). Suddenly, a black wall appears near Saturn, cutting the solar system in two. This wall absorbs all light and matter. Incredibly big, incomprehensible and terrifying, the Wall is centered on Uranus's moon Oberon, cutting off access to any planet beyond Saturn. The Purgatory Squadron, more or less in line with commands from the headquarters, will explore this wall and try and discover what is behind. This search will bring them in various points of the solar system and will reveal completely unknown parts of themselves and of the scientific field...

In this saga, Denis Bajram mixes together classical elements of SF sagas with an incredible maestria. Each volume of the saga brings new elements and rises the issues at stakes to a higher level. From a problem located aroud Saturn, it slowly becomes a war that could change the future of mankind as a whole. The plot is very complicated, with numerous people and times involved but everything is very carefully designed, nothing is left to chance. A perfect balance is found between the particular stories of a few characters and the overall fate of the system solar as a whole, between human feelings and scientific descriptions.

And, last but not least, Denis Bajram's art is very efficient: his spaceships are very convincing, his compositions are very impressive. A must-have for any SF fan and a very good way to discover SF for all the people who think that they are not fond of spaceships and exploding stars...

Friday, 21 September 2012

New Yorker covers by Chris Ware (2009-2012)

I have recently discovered, on this website, several wonderful covers drawn by Chris Ware for the New Yorker. I already knew two of them, which were included in the beautiful, and over-sized, Acme Novelty Library 18 1/2. I saw the other ones for the first time.

Once again, I was deeply impressed by the amazing quality of Chris Ware's art. Everything is thoroughly thought and minutely drawn: the compositions are really powerful, the drawings are superb and colors are very subtle and rich.

Each covers tells a story in itself. A simple glimpse at them makes us discover a part of the lives of the people on them or, more generally speaking, a specific element of our modern Western society.

In a way, these covers remind me of some Edward Hopper's paintings. Of course, they differ in many ways: Chris Ware's very precise art looks different from Edward Hopper blurry, more or less impressionistic, painting; and Edward Hopper mostly depicted lonely people whereas Chris Ware's covers are very often rather crowded (but nowadays, where can we be more lonely than in a crowd? which is more or less the central topic of many Chris Ware's stories, from Jimmy Corrigan to Rusty Brown). But both of them use pastel shades to describe typical scenes of present-day American way of life. Their paintings look very silent to me, very calm; but at the same time, they are very meaningful; each one of them makes me feel like stopping for hours in front of it, to enjoy fully its silent beauty and to try and fathom its subtle mysteries.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

A Chinese Life, by Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié (2009-2011; 2012)

The Chinese people have lived, during the past few decades, many extraordinary upheavals which cannot be easily fathomed by any Western person: the arrival of the Communist Party at the head of the State (1949), the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), aiming at improving significantly Chinese agriculture but responsible for the starvation to death of tens of millions of people; the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), in which the then Chairman of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong, created a revolution against his own ruling comrades, an unbelievable turmoil during which everything was constantly changing, political power was passing from one faction to another at an incredible speed; the cult of personality surrounding Mao Zedong and his death (1976); the shift from a Marxist economy to an ultraliberal one; the metamorphosis from an underdeveloped third World country to an economic giant and a political superpower; the rise and fall of the hope for a political change in the Tiananmen Square...

Chinese people have lived through all this. And I must admit that I have always been unable to figure out what these people think of their own history, how they feel about their country, about their leaders, about the evolution of their society.

Here lies the great quality of A Chinese Life. Li Kunwu is a Chinese artist whose father took part in every phase of the Chinese Communist Party since the Second World War. Based on Li Kunwu's memories, Philippe Ôtié, a French writer, drafted a storyboard that was drawn by Li Kunwu himself. This close collaboration was successful and the resulting graphic novel is very pleasant to read: The story is clear and easy to follow, even for someone not specialized in Chinese history (whereas the historical events told are very complicated...). Li Kinwu's art, with a strong influence from his Eastern formation, is original and nice.

A Chinese Life may not be a great masterpiece but it gives a fascinating insight into how it can feel like to have led a Chinese life for the past few decades.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Adolf, by Osamu Tezuka (1983-1985; 2012)

At the beginning of his career, Osamu Tezuka was specialised in comics for kids, with well-known works such as King Leo, Metropolis or Astro Boy, all of them with a deep influence by Walt Disney. But, from the late 50s, a new kind of manga, the "gegika" (or "dramatic pictures"), more adult-oriented, began to have much success, lead by the great Yoshihiro Tatsumi (whose autobiographical A Drifting life was released in 2009 by Drawn and Quarterly). Tezuka could have been overwhelmed by this new kind of comics. But he reacted with all his talent and published stories for a more mature audience, with more complex plots, more violence, some sex, etc. All this with as much, if not more, commercial and artistic success than before.

Nonetheless, two things did not change in Tezuka's latter works: their very high quality and their underlying philosophy. Tezuka combines a deep faith in humanity, stressing out in all his works the importance of the necessary respect due to any living being, and the frightful conviction that men can be extrememy harmful for the people and the environment around them.

Among the (numerous) masterpieces of this second part of Tezuka's career, Message to Adolf may be, with Black Jack, one of the most easily accessible to Western readers. Firstly it is deeply rooted in historical events well known to Europeans or North-Americans: it takes place mostly during the 2nd World War, beginning in Germany during the Berlin Olympic Games and ending in Israël, some time after the creation of this State. There is a single hero, whom we follow during the whole story, Sōhei Tōge. The plot is relatively simple, compared with many characters, places and times of Phoenix; there is not as much Oriental metaphysics as in Buddha.

Message to Adolf was one of the first works by Osamu Tezuka to be published in English, in the mid 90s (in 5 volumes). It is published once again, in two volumes.

For those who have not read this masterpiece yet, this new publication (even though the new cover is rather badly chosen, in my humble opinion) could be (must be, should I say) a good opportunity to discover this book. Even if Adolf may be less idiosyncrasic for Tezuka than Phoenix, for instance, it includes all of the main qualities of Tezuka's works: great storytelling, very innovative layouts, strong humanism, very good insertion of fictional characters and events into important historical facts, etc.