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Emmanuel Guibert:

Alan's War

One special guest, courtesy of the French Institute, at the 2008 Comica Festival is Emmanuel Guibert. First Second have been translating Sardine, the junior comedies about a zesty pirate girl in space he writes for artist Joann Sfar, as well as their reverse collaboration, Sfar on story and Guibert on art, The Professor’s Daughter, an inventive Victorian romance between the leading lady and a resurrected British Museum mummy.

Guibert’s latest solo album for L’Association, the third and final part of Alan’s War, has just been nominated as one of this year’s Essentials by the Angoulême International Comics Festival. You can see the whole Essentials shortlist here.

The publication in November of the whole of Alan’s War in English from First Second made it a priority to bring him to Comica, where he’s signing at the ICA on November 18th and being interviewed by me at the French Institute on November 19th (be sure to book for this and his fellow French BD genius Ted Benoit on the same night). You can also watch Guibert’s magic gifts for drawing with water and singing a song on guitar from the book on these two YouTube videos.   

Like "La Nouvelle Vague"‘s impact on cinema, the new generation of "La Nouvelle Bande Dessinée" has been reinvigorating French comics at least since the founding in 1990 of maverick graphic novelists’ collective L’Association. Following the international success of their searing autobiographies Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Epileptic by David B.‘s comes another landmark translation, the three volumes of Alan’s War, eight years in the making, by Emmanuel Guibert in one 336-page tome.

Covers of the three original French editions of
La Guerre D’Alan

Instead of telling his own life story, Guibert illuminates in tender outlines and lustrous washes the World War Two reminiscences of an American G.I., Alan Cope, whom he first met in 1994 when Alan was 69 and living with his wife on a small island off the French Atlantic Coast. Though nearly 40 years his junior, Guibert struck up an intense friendship and spontaneous collaboration with this vivid raconteur, recording hours of his candid stories in his distinct foreign French. Over the next five years, Cope quickly grew to trust Guibert’s visualisations, leaving him free to picture his life as he imagined it from the veteran’s tapes, letters, phone calls and sketches.

Across forty chapters, they offer no gung-ho glories of combat but pinpoint incidents of banality, incompetence, humour and horror, and above all Cope’s humanity and quest for meaning. After seriously contemplating the priesthood, his growing disenchantment with religion and shallow consumerism led to him quitting America in 1948, never to return. Late in life, he realised, "I hadn’t lived the life of myself. I had lived the life of the person others had wanted me to be… And that person had never existed."

After his death in 1999, Guibert found a way to reconnect to Cope by visiting friends and locations in America and Germany and through a photo album he left to him, reproduced at the back of the book. Guibert also owns all those recordings and intends next to illustrate Cope’s Californian childhood, "probably the most intimate and beautiful part of what he confided to me." The reader cannot fail to respond to their friendship as it endures through this remarkable graphic biography.

Read the full preview of Alan’s War here.

I’ve also heard the great news that Guibert’s other biographical endeavour, Le Photographe, is also being translated by First Second as The Photographer next Spring. They are compiling his three Dupuis hardback albums, in collaboration with the photo-journalist Didier Lefèvre and with graphist and colourist Frédéric Lemercier, into one 260-page colour graphic novel. Guibert brilliantly incorporates Lefèvre’s photos into his comics panels to tell this life-story.

Covers of the three original French editions of
Le Photographe

In a 2006 review of the 3rd volume, astute Canadian critic Bart Beaty sums up this project: "The story in Le Photographe is that of Didier Lefèvre, the photographer of the title. In 1986, Lefèvre accompanied a Médecins sans Frontierès mission from Pakistan to north-eastern Afghanistan, to record the efforts of a team of dedicated doctors attempting to bring humanitarian relief to the Afghan people who were, at that time, resisting Soviet occupation." Beaty also comments: "I think that [The Photographer] would have a good chance to become a cross-over hit in the way that Persepolis did, because it has the same qualities of timeliness, topicality, and the skilful telling of a very human story that will be of interest to a large number of readers."

The third volume was awarded the Prix Essential at the 2007 Angouleme Festival. Sadly, very soon after, on January 29 that year, Lefèvre, not yet fifty, died from a heart attack. Dupuis have dedicated a website to him and to this trilogy which became a tribute to this remarkable photographer and yet another masterpiece of graphic biography and reportage.

The full cover of
Emmanuel Guibert: Monographie Prématurée
published by Editions de l’An 2

Finally, I’d like to highly recommend this wonderful Monographie prématurée ("Premature Monograph") on Guibert published in 2006 by Thierry Groensteen’s Editions de l’An 2. The bounteous unpublished comics, artwork, sketches and illustrations are a visual delight in themselves, while the accompanying essays, in French only, include Guibert’s own recollections of the special magic of drawing as a child, a magic he clearly has never lost.

Emmanuel Guibert is a guest at the 2008 Comica Festival signing at the ICA on November 18 and speaking with Paul Gravett at the French Institute on November 19.

Posted: November 2, 2008

This is an expanded version of an article which originally appeared in the December 2008 edition of Art Review magazine, a monthly publication dedicated to contemporary art and is essential reading for a global community of artists and gallerists, collectors, curators and indeed anyone with an interest in art. Every issue of Art Review is available to read free online here.


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Newsarama Interview
PW Interview
Alan’s War Preview
Le Photographe
Guibert At First Second
20 Best European Albums

Alan’s War
The Professor’s Daughter
Le Photographe
Sardine In Outer Space

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Featured Books

Alan’s War:
The Memories Of
G.I. Alan Cope

by Emmanuel Guibert
(First Second Books)

The Photographer:
Into War-Torn
Afghanistan With
Doctors Without Borders

by Emmanuel Guibert,
Didier Lefèvre
& Frédéric Lemercier
(First Second Books)
May 2009

The Professor’s Daughter
by Joann Sfar
& Emmanuel Guibert
(First Second Books)

by Joann Sfar
& Emmanuel Guibert
(First Second Books)

Emmanuel Guibert:
Monographie Prématurée

(Editions de l’An 2)