Prisoner of Dreams
Somehow Marc-Antoine Mathieu was fated to become a comics artist. As he explains to fellow artist Étienne Davodeau in Davodeau’s charming autobiographical graphic novel The Initiates (NBM Publishing, 2013), “I was born into a family without television. That was my parents’ choice. But books were everywhere, and images were a family thing. My brothers draw too.” His parents also rarely took their children to the cinema. Instead, the whole family enjoyed reading and that included comics or bandes dessinées, subscribing to the weeklies Tintin, Spirou and Pilote, home to Asterix who was born in 1959, the same year as Marc-Antoine. Rather timid and withdrawn, the youngest of four sons was initiated by his father and three brothers from the age of five into making comics of his own. Panels and balloons became one way for him to share and communicate with others.
It was natural for Mathieu to study art. “In 1979 I started at the Fine Arts School in Angers, where I met, among others, Pascal Rabaté”, who would become one of the most brilliant French graphic novelists of his generation. “It was a great time, when we practised all manner of artistic disciplines. Except one. Guess which.” Comics might not be on the curriculum, but his explorations of others arts would feed back into his favourite medium. Fascinated by the play of light and shadow on his sculptures during his three final years of studies, he brought an extreme, Expressionist contrast to his black-and-white drawing when he graduated and resumed his comics-making. The shift from 3D sculpture to 2D comics also helped him see the medium differently, conceptually, and start wondering about its peculiar properties and little-used capacities. What if the illusion of depth in comics was not the only illusion?
Parallel to getting his first short strips published, Mathieu set up a creative studio, Lucie Lom, in 1985 with his friend Philippe Leduc. It soon built a reputation for innovative design, for example on the exhibition God Save The Comics!, the largest survey of British comics art mounted so far, which I curated for the opening of the new National Centre of Comics & Image, or CNBDI, at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France in January 1990. Visitors entered the Channel Tunnel under construction, its long walls lined with original artworks from newspaper strips. Then they stepped into a classroom of wooden chairs and desks (open their lids and artworks were inside!), standing in sand as if on the moon, the decor for post-War children’s funnies and sci-fi fantasy (above). The final, largest gallery was walled in by high metal fences, topped with barbed wire, an island fortress and at its centre a pink-painted suburban house - peak into its windows and more original art was displayed inside. Switching ever since between the social collaborations of Lucie Lom and the private solitude of making comics, Mathieu has found, “in my two careers, a way to explore the power and magic of the image.”
That same year, Mathieu’s own comics broke through spectacularly thanks to his brain-scrambling graphic novel L’Origine (‘The Origin’, 1990, above), winner of the debut album of the year and the first of what would become Julius Corentin Acquesfacques: Prisoner of Dreams, a sporadic series of six albums in twenty-three years. One of the many diligent clerks in the dour, bureaucratic Ministry of Humour, Acquesfacqes is baffled to receive previous pages torn out from the very album we are reading recounting his exploits. Amid mounting paranoia, he realises he is not leading his own life. His whole existence is being published on a printing press and written and drawn in another, higher dimension, as the readers know by Mathieu himself.
When our puzzled hero looks up the title ‘Origin’ in his world’s dictionary, the word is missing. He cannot have an origin because he was never born, he was never a child, he is a creation, a character in a comic. “If one day I have to draw his belly, you’ll see he doesn’t have a navel. He only comes from me.” This also explains why there are neither women in this two-dimensional storyworld, “nor trees, nor anything embodying the real world. My characters are concepts. They must accept their status of ink and paper. I distance myself from reality. I play with story-telling codes, I recreate the world of my dreams… of which I’m the master.” In a further twist, Mathieu disrupts time and sequence by cutting out one central panel on pages 37 and 38 of L’Origine, leaving a blank space for us and the character to see ahead through page 37 to the equivalent panel on page 39, and then on page 38 back to the previous panel on page 36. Then in one closing twist, on page 42, supposedly the last page, we see Acquesfacques receive the impossible, the following page 43, a page from his immediate future, which is being set on fire and threatens to incinerate these hapless characters and their universe.
In La Qu… (or ‘The Wh…), Acquesfacques falls from his bed and wakes up from what was presumably a dream, only to find himself soon imprisoned in yet another dream, awakening to another and then another dream-within-a-dream. Along the way, he gains access to dimensions from which he is normally excluded, whether dropping into the photographed studio of Mathieu himself at his drawing board, burning page 42 from the previous album, or finally discovering the mysterious ‘Qu…’, namely ‘Quadrichromie’ or four-colour reproduction, a weird notion totally alien to an inhabitant of an entirely black-and-white world. Bizarrely, for a character conscious of being a manipulated creation, a puppet on a string, Acquesfacques is our omniscient first-person narrator recounting in flashback escapades he could only have experienced as vivid, lucid dreams. Logic does not have to apply in these realms of ideas, or alternative planes of existence, where things are seldom what they seem and hardly anything can be taken for granted.
In the puzzling time-loop Le Processus (‘The Process’, 1993, above)), Acquesfacques wakes up once more and gets dressed, only to find a doppelganger of himself from moments before, still asleep in his bed. After each double chases the other, our narrator finds himself back in his cramped, box-like apartment but it’s ceiling is gone. Climbing up to the opening, he discovers his home is one of countless boxes in an endless grid, like an infinite, three-dimensional comics page. He realises all the previous panels he has lived through are physically still there, so he can re-enter this story by retracing his steps along the dividing walls which form the gaps between the frames. Mathieu tops this by introducing the pop-up book engineering of a paper spiral which uncoils as you open the page to represent our 2D hero’s close encounter with our 3D universe.
To date, Mathieu’s fiendish experimentation shows no sign of flagging. He devises a reversible palindrome comic in L’Épaisseur du miroir (‘The Thickness of the Mirror’, 1995), readable in both directions, while in his latest, Le Décalage (‘The Slippage’, 2013), he shifts the whole album, its pages and printing, out of position, putting the front cover part-way through the book so that story pages appear on the covers and endpapers and then deliberately tears out six pages. Acquesfacques is missing and his supporting cast wander through a narrative dessert in search of him.
Of course, that Truman Show-style revelation when a character becomes self-aware has occurred elsewhere in comics, from Winsor McCay’s classic serial dreamer Little Nemo in Slumberland over a century ago to Grant Morrison’s Animal Man or Alan Moore’s Supreme, but no one would take the concept as far out as Mathieu. It fits completely that Acquesfacques is a French version of ‘Akfak’, or Kafka backwards. The metafictional labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges, the existential humour of Samuel Beckett, the surreal visions of Escher and Magritte, and the altered states of Tim Burton and David Lynch are also never far away.
It’s a crime that so far none of these brain-boggling spectaculars have been translated. Luckily, three of Mathieu’s other stand-alone graphic novels are in English. Dead Memory from Dark Horse (2004), initially intended as another Acquesfacques episode, is an allegorical warning about one maverick uncovering a totalitarian bureaucracy in which the population of an overcrowded, expansive city have become interchangeable cells in a computer-controlled nervous system. In The Museum Vaults from NBM (2008, above), a special commission from The Louvre, Mathieu imagines an assessor hired to value the Paris museum’s enormous collections and spending his whole life exploring deeper and deeper through endless, bottomless basements. Among the make-believe treasures he finds are da Vinci’s subtle multiple variations on the Mona Lisa. He reveals, “They’re all exhibited… but one after the other! And nobody knows about it.”
This summer, Jonathan Cape have released 3”, perhaps his wildest one-shot yet in both graphic novel and online digital formats. “I’d had the idea of using zooms for ages, but film or animation were too restrictive. Then new technology, particularly touch screens, made it possible. Unusually with no precise story in mind, I launched into it to find out what can we do with drawing on these new platforms?” 3” lets us look out from a single particle of light travelling 900,000 kilometres in just three dizzying seconds, as it bounces back and forth between thirty-three reflective surfaces, from an eyeball out to satellite in space, from pitch black to the white-light reverb of two mirrors facing each other. Vertiginous zooms have long been of Mathieu’s regular tropes in his books, but here he harnesses today’s computer wizardry to convey neverending, fractal-like clarity at high velocity. Within his uniform square, nine-panel grids, he also plants all the clues to a murder mystery involving a key witness in a football match-fixing exposé. The whole book is soundless, except for the tiny exclamation of a fly, but a mirror will come in handy to read some of the texts in reverse. By slowing down time to micro-moments, the printed book and the playable animated version at Jonathan Cape’s 3 Seconds Mystery website (see the original French animation below) enable you to examine every detail and solve this uncanny visual puzzle.
Mathieu’s graphic novels do much more than play with gimmicks to upset the codes of comics to absurd effect; they insinuate and unsettle us into questioning our assumptions, our received ideas. Reading them, we can’t help wondering how much we are truly in control of our lives and what forces might secretly be pulling our strings.Posted: September 23, 2013
This Article originally appeared in Comic Heroes Magazine #20.