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Paul Gravett:

The Bande Dessinée Interview

Irina Kneller is a Russian journalist based in France and working for the magazine  Ogoniok. She interviewed me by email for an article about French-language bande dessinée as a cultural and social phenomenon. As I’m at this year’s Angoulême International Comics Festival this weekend, it seems good timing to share some of these reflections, with thanks to Irina for her questions, which I have translated from French, and for her permission.

It’s been a great festival this year - exhausting but exciting. The Ten Essential winners have been announced, including Shaun Tan’s The Arrival as the Book of the Year and Tove Jansson‘s Moomin book won the Heritige Prize. See the full list of 2008 Essential prize winners here.

Also, the big news is that this year the Grand Prix winners are Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian, creators of the Monsieur Jean  series. This is one of the most prestigious prizes in the comics industry and is awarded by a jury of former winners of the prize.

Irina Kneller:
Is bande dessinée a visual or literary genre?

Paul Gravett:
Neither one, nor the other, but both - and more accurately, an entirely autonomous medium as distinct as film, poetry or sculpture.

If all comics have specific codes, how would you define those of French bande dessinée? Does it have a particular identity?

Since the success of Tintin, Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées have evolved a particular format that identifies them, the larger pages - larger than American comic books or Japanese manga - and the tradition of colour, 48-page hardback albums, with large pages, larger than American comics, and even larger than manga, with often many panels on one page. Both Hergé‘s Clear Line and the Marcinelle school of Franquin, changing over the years, still influence a lot of the mainstream popular output.

Today bande dessinée does not enjoy the same commercial success on a global scale as manga. Even so, does BD still have a place in it?

Traditional Francophone hardback colour albums have struggled to take off in America or Japan - the format does not translate. What does export better now from BD are graphic novels, often B&W and many more pages, like Persepolis, Epileptic, and this year Blue Pills by Fredrik Peeters for example. Publishers like Pantheon, First Second, NBM amd Cinebook are having success by combining two or more standard albums into one book and reducing their size - eg Sfar’s Rabbi’s Cat (a second compilation is due this April from Pantheon), Sfar and Guibert’s Sardine, Christophe Blain’s Isaac The Pirate, Manu Larcenet’s Ordinary Victories, and Van Hamme & Rozinski’s Thorgal.

You said in an interview on the TV station Arte that the mixing of styles (manga and European tradition) would be enriching. Now the producer Laurent Galmot has said in an interview in Russia that, on the contrary, the mixing of styles and schools within the same comic would only torpedo its chance of commercial success…

Mixing of styles and schools means combining and learning from them to create a new harmonised form, not something that jumps and jars confusingly from one style or school to another. Manga cannot be reduced to a set of surface cliches - big eyes, tiny noses, speed lines. Manga creators have introduced an enormous range of new storytelling techniques which are ready and waiting to be used intelligently, as necessary, by BD artists to improve their work - just as manga artists have learnt from Western comics.

What are some of these new techniques from manga?

Techniques such as unfolding scenes over many more panels and pages, to capture every nuance of motion and emotion, a ‘decompressed’ style made possible by manga’s many more pages of story. Other techniques inclues the use of panels which bleed off the edge of the page, to suggest time stretching or pausing. Or black backgrounds to panels or pages to indicate a flashback. Or graphic devices, similar to ‘psychic auras’, to indicate emotional turmoil. Even the ‘chibi’ or ‘super-deformed’ versions of characters can convey a mischievous or childish moment. Bande dessinée learnt so many techniques in the early 20th century from imported American newspaper strips. Now in the early 21st century, manga offer a massive source of the next lessons.

Does bande dessinée have a predilection for certain subjects or any taboo themes?

Period historical dramas and heroic-fantasy seem to be enduringly popular themes. More recently stories of everyday life and candid autobiography have become much more prevalent, refreshingly. From abroad, BD has never adopted the superhero genre very much. As for taboos, the French market seems quite open and open-minded, though I am surprised that so far it has not caught on to the ‘yaoi’ manga genre of boys’ love stories for women, at least not on huge scale which it’s becoming in more puritan, prurient America. I am glad that Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls will be published after all by Delcourt in France, after some recent legal concerns about some of its explicit sexual content almost led to it being dropped.

Do you think French publishers (or public) have problems with some ‘delicate’ themes like homosexuality? I asked a similar question to comics historian and critic Patrick Gaumer, and he told me that he did not believe French comics had scruples about anything.

I suspect Patrick is largely right, although manga seem to be more free of taboos, and prepared to explore fantasies without moral messages or judgement, perhaps more so than bande dessinée? It is also worth remembering that in France the 1949 law to protect youth from corrupting publications is still being applied nearly 60 years later to comics and to other published works.  My friend Bernard Joubert has edited an amazing new book Dictionnaire des livres et journaux interdits (Éditions du Cercle de la Librairie), a huge A to Z reference tome on all of France’s censored books, magazines and plenty of comics, even to the present day in France, which suggests that the authorities and moral guardians remain alert and anxious to restrain sexual material. You can find out more about this book on Canal Obs.

Blue Pills
by Frederik Peeters

What is the place of bande dessinée within French culture? What influences have affected it or has it created in relation to other arts like theatre, cinema, illustration?

Phew, huge question! It means a lot that bande dessinée is the ‘9th art’ - it has become recognised as an art in its own right. Not 9th out of ten or near the bottom in a Top Ten hit parade, but 9th in order of its recognition. Bande dessinée is hugely influential on the other arts, even if it is not always credited or acknowledged and some snobs will inevitably dismiss or despise it. That said, it seems that it is actually more highly regarded culturally and better treated by the Francophone media in Belgium than in France.

Coverage of BD in French papers and TV is of mainly the biggest sellers, characters and superstars. I am glad that Sfar and Satrapi for example have become well known but hundreds of creators and books receive little, if any, coverage. Intelligent reviewing of more serious graphic novels in the national press seems quite limited, except around the media blitz of Angoulême of course, when compared to how films are covered, for example. 

Why do people love conics so much in France, with even the government recognising its cultural heritage value? To what ‘national’ qualities of the French does bande dessinée respond?

It seems to be deep-rooted over generations who have grown up with bande dessinée, from Tintin to Spirou to Asterix to Titeuf. It is perhaps also in part a post-May 68 phenomenon and reflects a very French passion for fantasy, satire, self-expression, harking back to the rich illustrative traditions of popular art. France is a visually advanced, progressive, cultured nation and bande dessinée has been able to flourish and expand remarkably, although alongside this, as in most things, a considerable majority of the output is merely standard or even mediocre. As for the government liking comics, this helps politicians be seen as populist and maybe a little arty too, and this helps pull in the voters.

What is the difference in the perception of comics between the French, the British and Anericans, and the Japanese?

I think in all three territories there are collectors, fans and connoisseurs, and then general casual consumers, and then people to whom comics are uninteresting, unknown or even loathsome. What may be different are the proportions of these people. Great works are appearing everywhere, but manga seems by far the most advanced form of comics in the world because it has for so long allowed creators to tell so many kinds of stories and over so many pages. To me, manga in all their true diversity are comics unconstrained, uncompromised, unleashed.

The Rabbi’s Cat
by Joann Sfar

What do you think of the antisemitism and racism blamed on Hergé?

Hoary old subjects that are dragged out too often by journalists and a tiny handful of worriers. The decision by some bookshops in Britain to ban Tintin In The Congo from children’s book departments and restrict it to the adult shelves seems to be an overreaction in the name of political correctness. Ironically, that book remains hugely popular among African readers.

In a general way, does bande dessinée have an ideological or political cohesion or consensus?

Ideology and politics permeate all cultural output, overly or covertly, comics included, but it’s hard to pin down any unifying cohesion or one dominant viewpoint. The publishers, creators and consumers of comics all bring their own ideologies and politics to the table, which can vary widely across the spectrum, from reactionary to radical. And quite right too.

How would answer someone who claimed that comics are a ‘primitive’ form of literature when compared to great literature?

I would point them to the masterpieces of comics. I would suggest that the reading of pictures is as sophisticated and participative as the reading of words. I would point out that the very economy, even minimalism, of words in most comics can result in the concision and precision of poetry. But I would also partly agree that the uses of words in comics need to be expanded and explored much more fully.

by David B.

When a great director like Steven Spielberg take on adapting a comic, is this a homage to it, a sublimation, a commercial exploitation or a perversion of it?

It’s usually a mixture of most, if not all, of these. I believe even Marjane Satrapi does not consider the film she co-directed of Persepolis as the equal to her graphic novel. The best film of a comic ever made is the one you direct, animate and star in when you read it for yourself.

In turn, when a comic adapts a great literary classic, does it vulgarise it?

One positive idea behind adapting literary works into graphic novels is to bring them to a new audience who might never have gone near them. Ideally they should serve as more than mere ‘classics lite’.  Rare examples, like Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City Of Glass, reinterpret and truly enrich the original story, in ways that only comics can.  We need more adaptations like this, not merely literal, illustrative and hopelessly compressed.

Why do people love comics so? Is it the influence of animation, a wish to stay like a child, or another reason?

From my perspective, through comics I constantly learn about and experience other lives, fantasies, cultures, humour. For me comics are also the most connected medium of all, relating to so many other parts of culture and life. I like the control they allow and participation they require of a reader/viewer, in contrast to the passive role of the manipulated movie-goer. I also love drawing and illustration in all its variety. And I keep reading them because they keep surprising me, challenging me, moving me and thrilling me, as no other medium continues to do, because comic artists are still unlocking more of their potential. I am convinced that this is a golden age for comics worldwide and the wonders have only just begun.

Posted: January 27, 2008


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