The French “Comics Mafia” and other Follies

As always when Angoulême rolls around, discontents in the French comics community rise to the surface. A perennial issue is the relationship between artists and critics. In an ill-informed and ill-advised article in this week’s issue of French weekly Le Point, the journalist Romain Brethes sets up Joann Sfar, Marjane Satrapi and the other usual suspects of comics success as a kind of ‘comics mafia’ — an inner circle of “Godfathers of the Ninth Art”, that exchange favours by appearing in each other’s comics and on each other’s labels, just like American rappers do. I guess it was only a question of time before France got its own “King Maus,” its own comics camarilla.

While nowhere near the hatchet piece Ted Rall’s now infamous Village Voice article was, Brethes is tilting at windmills here. As he acknowledges himself, Satrapi; Sfar and the rest have influenced French comics significantly, and he is right that they have spawned a number of epigones, etc. But intimating that they are somehow at fault, and using a criminal metaphor to boot, is just dumb. Who can blame them for embracing the media attention they have earned through producing quality work? Or for promoting the kinds of comics they like when they attain editorial positions? And how, exactly, is any of this different from earlier times — Dionnet/et. al. at Métal Hurlant or Brétecher/Gotlib and Co. at Echo des savanes/Fluide Glacial publishing artists they themselves enjoyed? Furthermore, how is this different from what goes on in the rest of the literary/art community, or indeed the world at large?

Brethes would perhaps have a point if he could point to artists being disadvantaged by this alleged behaviour, but all he apparently does — this part is not online, but mentioned in this summary by journalist Didier Pasamonik — is lament that established, critically acclaimed, well to-do artists such as David B. and Blutch are not being given their due. Much as I love David B. and admire Blutch’s draughtsmanship, this is hardly cause for major alarm, if you ask me.

As I’ve written earlier, in connection with similar tendencies in American comics criticism, innovators becoming establishment and spawning detractors when they do is all part of a natural cycle. What one could wish for, however, is for the critics to apply a little more intelligence to their analysis. Or find something useful to do instead.

If a single, symptomatic incident is anything to go by, and I happen to think it is, the flipside is proving equally predicable and dumb, I’m afraid. The aforementioned Pasamonik last week wrote a profile of Sfar — who has two comics shortlisted for the Angoulême prizes this year — for the Belgian comics news site ActuaBD, in which he, after laying extended praise on the cartoonist’s work, took Sfar’s attitude to comics criticism in the comics pamphlet Critixman to task. Along with this, he published a small extract from the comic. Apparently — I haven’t read the comic, and the image from it seen above isn’t the passage Pasamonik posted — Sfar depicts a comics critic sticking his hand up the ass of Sfar’s cartoon avatar, predictably finding shit and proclaiming “I know all about this.” Now, this is funny, and I think Pasamonik’s rather pedantic dismissal of it as “odious” is somewhat priggish of him.

What he takes issue with, more fundamentally, is however a widespread and rather sad state of affairs amongst cartoonists: their often warped understanding of what criticism is, and does. Of course, I’m tempted to say, it only took a few days before Pasamonik’s article elicited the typical response: a hissy-fit from a cartoonist who should know better. Not from Sfar, thank God, but from the popular and talented Manu Larcenet (who, by the way, is surely to be counted amongst the inner circle of Brethes’ ‘comics godfathers.’)

Larcenet, who is a co-founder of Les Rêveurs, the small art-house that published Critixman, and the main contributor to the book, felt offended by Pasamonik’s non-compliance with Rêveur-publisher Nicolas Lebedel’s demand that he remove the image from the ActuaBD site. Now, neither he nor Larcenet own the rights to the image, Sfar does, and in any case Pasamonik’s extract is — naturally — covered by Belgian law for fair use, in that it illustrates a critical article. Sfar himself stated as much in an email, reproduced in Pasamonik’s account of the incident, absolving the latter of any wrongdoing.

Incensed, Larcenet posted a rant on his blog, describing Pasamonik’s article as “disgusting,” which he later followed up by another post in which he accused Pasamonik of dishonesty, illegitimate appropriation of artwork and wanting to settle a personal score — sins, we understand, that are characteristic of a nefarious “critics’ intelligentsia” out to get him.

This is, of course, all rather pathetic. And Larcenet surely comes off looking like something of a fool. The problem, however, is that his reaction is symptomatic of many cartoonists who simply cannot handle negative criticism. The expectation is often that the critic is there to promote the maligned medium of comics, or even to encourage the cartoonists who labour so hard, not to voice discontent.

This is surely due to comics being a rather insular subculture that, until now, has never received much in the way of serious critical attention in the mainstream media and only very little of the kind in the comics press. Add to this, the back-patting, we’re-all-in-the-same-boat ‘team comics’ attitude that prevails in the comics subculture, as well as the sensitive character and low self-confidence of many cartoonists (it often seems to go with the profession) and you have a troubling tendency. True, this is a brutal generalisation, but ask almost any critic who has written negatively about comics if they haven’t encountered reactions of this kind.

In other, less insular literary/artistic circles, criticism has long since become a natural, and indeed vital, part of the system of discourse. And even when they don’t understand or appreciate the role of criticism in the culture, most artists there have attained a healthier attitude to it. I’m not saying that criticism doesn’t often hurt or offend prose authors, playwrights or painters, but they tend to be equipped with more of an emotional bulwark against it. In comics, negative criticism seems to risk personally offending or even creatively paralysing artists to a significantly greater extent than in most other artistic milieus. This needs to change.

This post provoked an exchange with Ted Rall on his “King Maus” essay over at The Beat. Check it out.

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