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American Dreaming

Although he is fixated on American culture, French cartoonist Blutch is not widely known in English-speaking countries. Blutch is admired and influential for his daring draughtsmanship and ceaseless innovation of his bandes dessinées. He was born Christian Hincker in 1967 in Strasbourg, France. He would go on to win the Grand Prix in Angoulême in 2009. With Peplum, one of his masterworks, newly translated from New York Review Comics (below). it’s the right time to talk to this acclaimed, ever-challenging creator.

Paul Gravett:
Why did you choose the name Blutch?

I didn’t really choose this name, which is not so much a pseudonym as a nickname. Everybody has called me this since I was 15. It’s the name of a character from a popular comic at the time [The Blue Tunics by Lambil & Cauvin, in English from Cinebook]. My friends thought I resembled Blutch, in physique and attitude. Originally, it came from the rather puerile wish to cut yourself from your background, your parents, to be reborn as someone different. And then the nom-de-plume is a tradition in comics since the 19th century, in Europe at least, like Hergé and Moebius.

You are ‘an artist’s artist’ admired by many. What is the act of drawing for you now? Is it a delight, an obsession, a distraction, a disorder? Or is it a way to maintain a distance from the world, while examining it intimately and interpreting it, making it your own? 

It’s all of these things at the same time, with variable intensities depending on periods of my life or emotional upsets. Drawing is a paradoxical act, it’s a way to cut yourself off from the world and from people and at the same time to question that world and those people. As a child, plunging myself into drawing was clearly a retreat, a withdrawal. I’d prefer to stay at home rather than go out.

I understand you were raised on the Franch and Belgian comics classics. I wonder what were the specifically non-French - so Alsatian, German and Swiss - sources of storytelling and artwork that also marked your growing up and maturing in Strasbourg?
Growing up on a border, straddling two countries, two languages, I had to develop a double understanding of the world and its issues. The Alsation dialect was my first language. When I started school, I didn’t speak a word of French. German television and music stars were familiar to us at home, and German pop culture had a profound effect on me, like Pippi Langschtrumpf [originally the spirited girl Pippi Longstocking by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren] or the Apache Winnetou [based on German writer Karl May’s Native American tales]. After the Second World War, West Germany was covered with American military bases. The Americanisation of this region was more rapid than in France, so via German television we got the big U.S. series like Starsky and Hutch, Dallas etc. long before the French. And we shouldn’t forget Hollywood movies and their irresistible sex appeal. So I’m a product of somewhere dominated and dazzled by American culture. Nothing wrong with that, that’s how it was. I was born French-American. 

You once said, ”Carl Barks and I come from the same place…” - what place is that? How have the great comic books by ‘The Duck Man’ related to your own life and work?
Barks is definitely the artist who most deeply touched me as a little boy. His poetic inspiration, his cheerful melancholy, his sense of space remain in my eyes unique and always inspiring.

You described making comics as “trying to express life within the restraining and narrow frame of small drawings trapped into sequential panels.” Is the comics medium confining to you? How do you find pleasure in drawing and writing for comics? 

For me, no artistic practice offers as many plastic and literary possibilities as comics. It’s comics where I can make full use of my capacities. I have everything I need: the image and the word. A strange and mysterious marriage, the perfect poetic language.

How did you end up establishing yourself at the broad humour magazine Fluide Glacial? How did this feel as your first ‘home ’ in comics? 

In 1987 I was an art student in Strasbourg. We were readers of Fluide Glacial, I was a loyal but not intense reader, and we learned one day in its pages that the magazine was organising a comics contest, with the first prize of having your comics published, plus the stratospheric sum of 5,000 francs. Over the summer I made a four-page story entitled Les Aventures de Tintin [example above from Fluide Glacial #142]. I won the contest and my comics was published in early 1988. I was twenty and had broken in.

For Fluide Glacial you devised a satirical alter ego from the past, ‘humorous’ cartoonist, Blotch [wraparound cover from the Norwegian edition, above].

The stories about Blotch take place around 1935 to 1938. He’s a cartoonist aged around 50 who has put his artistic life as a painter to one side. He publishes pathetic cartoons in a paper called Fluide Glacial. He is bitter, fat, full of pretensions and prejudices. His world is a version of my own, in any case when I was drawing his adventures, all the protagonists were modelled on real life. You might say Blotch is a sort of self-portrait.

Was Blotch some critique and parody of aspects of present-day bande dessinée?
Not really. I don’t convey a message in my work. I don’t want to demostrate anything. It’s true for Blotch, and for my latest graphic novel Lune l’Envers. Criticism of a system is not enough of a challenge to convince me to sit down for months and use my eyes to line up little panels of drawings. My inspiration is diffuse and partly escapes me. [page from Blotch, above, with the young Georges Remi, aka Hergé, creator of Tintin].

Outside France, your Mitchum series from Cornelius was many English-speaking people’s first exposure to your work. How did these mostly wordless short stories affect your approach to comics-making and storytelling?
Mitchum was my laboratory at a certain point. Every kind of experiment was permitted. Their success or failure were secondary.  The only rule to respect was the excitement of making them. David Mazzucchelli at the time defined this project as an emotional diary. This work was very influenced by my frequent, more or less long visits to New York at that time (1994-97) and by the artists, living and dead, I got to know there. 

In So Long, Silver Screen, your first book translated into English, is part essay, part reverie, on the history, meaning and allure of film. What has been your relationship to movies, their actors and directors? 

That’s too big a question. Films are a thousand faces, a thousand voices. I could never give a complete answer to this here. The cinema has accompanied me and nourished me since I can see and hear. It’s a fascinating, disturbing jungle. I made a whole book on the subject and yet I feel I’ve said nothing.

You have said, “Comics is much more elliptical, while cinema is very explanatory, it give less room for vagueness , to the unsaid - there’s a thunderous side to cinema.” How have your experiences been working on movies, like the animated Peur(s) du Noir [still, above], your collaborations with Alain Resnais and your roles as an actor on screen? 

You’ve mentioned different types of work which don’t require the same engagement. Each one requires a different involvement. Peur(s) du Noir was like crossing the Valley of Death with a leaky bottle of water. I had a remarkable team working with me, but I came to understand that animation was not for me. It is such a slow, meticulous process which needs great endurance. The little patience I have, I apply to comics. My work with Resnais was totally different. I put myself in the artist’s service. It was like working within an old master painter’s studio. And appearing in films is fun, a childish pleasure. I can play and I’m not responsible for what I say. It’s liberating and despite the jitters, paradoxically relaxing.

What were the challenges and rewards of working on Peplum, your first extended graphic novel? 

Adapting The Satyricon, the novel by Petronius, requires that you take time simply to try to recreate the scope of his fresco and evoke in the pages some faint breath of this epic. I broke in at Fluide Glacial, a short-story magazine, and I dreamt of working for (A Suivre), a magazine serialising graphic novels. Peplum is a reaction to my initial career as an author. I’ve always wanted to escape myself, break habits, routine. To never know yourself, to always start over.

What drew you to this Roman theme and setting, what did they offer you? 

I wanted to imagine and describe a pre-Christian world. We are at the end of the Roman Republic. A rough world, not that far from pre-history, where humans have not yet mastered other animals, they are their equals, living on the same land. A confusing, almost abstract world, cut off completely from our conceptions, a bit like an alien planet and its disturbing inhabitants. I wanted to avoid any grandiose historical reconstruction. Peplum is the opposite of Alix [Jacques Martin’s Roman boy hero], far from Ben Hur. I really like Mankiewicz and I was much more inspired by his Julius Caesar than his Cleopatra. As sources I drew especially on Fellini (Satyricon), Pasolini (Medea) and Welles (Othello, Falstaff). And of course I read the Latin writers Suetonius and Tacitus, but also George Bernard Shaw, Roger Caillois and Tardi. The demented human society in his Polonius can be found in my own approach.

What lay behind the disjointed serialisation of Peplum in (A Suivre) magazine, and its eventual complete edition from Cornelius? 

For some reason, (A Suivre) considered my work was not suitable as it was in the pages of magazine, which is why they published a truncated version of my story. Luckily, Cornélius saved my work and enabled Peplum to take its true form as I wanted.

You changed again in telling the personal yet universal experiences of childhood in Le Petit Christian partly serialised in Charlie Hebdo. What made you want to examine the world of children?

This involved extending a work I made as a student. I started Le Petit Christian in 1988 in the form of single-page gags, as an exercise. In addition, this became part of the Diploma show the following year as the Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts. So we’re going back nearly thirty years, and to be honest my own professional past hardly interests me. I forget quickly and move on to something else. What was going on in my head to want to describe the life of this little boy? I think I was looking for something light and funny to tell. And childhood is something we all know and I wanted to address everyone, so the readers recognise themselves in my little hero’s adventures. My childhood was still quite close then, the memories were vivid, the witnesses were there, the locations intact,  I tried to get back to it all. Today Le Petit Christian’s world is fading into the fog.
And would you consider doing another graphic novel of your adult autobiography? If so, what would you cover and how much would you change and disguise it, as you did with Le Petit Christian?

For me it’s not a question of putting myself literally centre stage. That would be of limited interest. Better to proceed behind a mask. Besides, Le Petit Christian is a false autobiography. To be a bit pretentious, I could say that nothing is true but everything is accurate.

Futuropolis offered you the precious freedom to expand your range through the trilogy C’était le bonheur, La Volupté [above], and La Beauté. What were your ambitions with these three works and how did they affect your subsequent projects?

This was a bit like the same principle as on the Mitchum series: with paper and pencil, anything is possible. The taste for experimentation, transgression. At that time I wanted to break free from the panel, to let my images breath. I felt confined on the comics page, I wanted to liberate my drawing, while holding onto the contents of a book. I am and remain someone who draws, and in no way a visual artist.

If I can be honest, much as I admired what you showed, I was a bit disappointed that you chose not to show any of your comics artwork in your Angoulême Grand Prix one-man exhibition. What were your reasons for this? Are you still reluctant to exhibit your comics originals?

I have always thought that a page of comics is not destined to be hung on a wall. It’s not spectacular enough for that. A page is just a stage in the process, whose true end in the book. Basically, it’s a form of industrial art.

Your other interests include music, jazz in particular, and dance. Total Jazz will be coming out in English in 2017 from Fantagraphics.  What do these interests bring to your comics-making?

I appreciate music for its abstract qualities, whereas drawing is terribly concrete. Music rests my eyes and of course stimulates me. There’s always something to learn and take from it, in the various forms which human genius takes. Life in general, and so art in particular, constantly influence my work. I am curious by nature.

What other genre or project in comics have you yet to try and would most like to? You mentioned a small regret that you have yet to make comics for kids?

Perhaps a really erotic or completely pornographic comic. To finish with it, once and for all. On the other hand, by reworking the story of Tif & Tondu [preview, above], I wanted to address youth. First of all, my own, because we really loved the albums by Will in our house. That’s why I asked my brother to write a new story about the duo. We were seduced by the poetic fantasy mixed with the noir novel by the writers Rosy and then Tillieux. But, as I’m in a fight, I will not dwell on the subject, I am afraid that commenting on a work in progress will make its mystery fly away. As a child, I used to say to ‘redo’. Ever since I have been drawing, I have always copied images that move me. It’s as exciting as being a jazz musician having to interpret a standard, reinterpret it and make it my own. I am playing again the pieces I love.

To close, a slide-show from the Blutch exhibition at the 2016 PULP Festival in Paris, for which he drew the poster (above):

Posted: July 25, 2016

An edited version of this interview was published in Comic Heroes Magazine No. 27, April 2016.
With thanks to Lucas Adams & Nicolas Grivel for all their help.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Featured Books

So Long, Silver Screen

New York Review Comics

Total Jazz
Fantagraphics (in 2017)