Just read Christophe Blain’s latest comic, the western romance Gus. Beautifully drawn, well-told, cool 70s-style colouring, nice poetic mood, utterly unambitious. Blain is one of the most naturally graceful draughtsmen of current French-language comics and amongst the prime movers in what has been regarded as the revitalisation of the traditional album format over the last ten years or so. His award-winning series Isaac le Pirate has been one of the more significant successes of the kind of genre comics for adults that has characterised this “nouvelle bande dessinée.” Yet, his works – for all their grace and charm – are essentially trifles. Why bother putting such wonderful energy into work of so little consequence?
Of course, this is one of the perennial problems in art – the naturally talented, hard-working, by all accounts perfect artist never rising above beautifully crafted banality. However, sophisticated French-language comics has its own particular brand of it, and Blain is, unfortunately, far from its only representative. He is merely one of a cadre of stylists in love with the graceful line, the elegant figures, the inciting mood flowing from their brush or pen. They obviously love drawing, and that love is often – thankfully – conveyed in their work, but at the same time it is a little too perfect. They seem to obsess over the perfectly conceived figure, image or page somewhat more than what is healthy, and most of the time to an extent where the nicety and elegance of their style is reflected in their characters, their stories, their art.
This seems to be a definite tradition amongst the more sophisticated younger cartoonists in the French-speaking countries – everyone from the virtuosic Blutch and the tag team of Dupuy-Berberian, over the much-lauded Frederik Peeters, to the clever and experimental Francois Ayroles. And there are many more: Nicolas de Crécy, Manu Larcenet, Hervé Tanquerelle… hell, even Joann Sfar suffers from it, although one cannot but admire the general verve and intelligence of his best work. And yes, some of these have done notable work; Peeters’ autobiographical Pilules Bleues is a moving story of living with HIV-infection in your family, and Ayroles has produced a number of very funny and inventive small books, but very little of what these cartoonists have done is genuinely remarkable.
Even – or perhaps particularly – Blutch, the cartoonist’s cartoonist, is a disappointing acquaintance. His historical satire Blotch is funny but soon forgotten, and his adaptation of the Satyricon and supposed masterpiece, Peplum, contains showstopping passages, but ends up a rather plodding a pointless excuse for laying on the beautiful brushwork. Tellingly, his real masterwork is the improvisatory Mitchum, where he just lets loose with what he is best at: free drawing and association, but it does not seem like there is enough to build an artistic career on there.
While there are obviously antecedents going back further, not the least in classic book and magazine illustration, the granddaddy of this particular tendency in comics seems to me to be Edmond Baudoin. A pioneer of art comics in France, he has always been unabashedly high art (at times to the point of unintentional self-parody), and is – needless to say – a master brushman. The difference between him and his progeny, however, is that his best work seems to be fuelled by genuine ambition to convey something about the world – the nature of impressions, a sense of place, the tug of desire – while they have mostly adapted his very French joie de vivre, the almost demonstrative love of life, woman and the bittersweet vagaries of fate circumscribed by what has become national cliché. They are the Techinés, the Jeunets, or the Gondrys to his Rohmer or Antonioni (ahem, he’s not French, I know).
Where does this leave us? Well, with a lot of well-crafted, boring comics, for starters. But, more problematically, this obsession with style and image appears to me to actually hinder at least some of these unquestionably talented cartoonists from achieving the artistic greatness their best work seems to promise. Granted, we should probably not expect anything beyond perfectly tuned banalities and inconsequential musings on bourgeois life from Dupuy and Berberian or Larcenet. That seems pretty much what they do. And, yes, we should probably just be content that Blutch draws like a dream, hope that Blain once again turns to David B. for scripts (or just enjoy his work on the entertaining but slight Trondheim/Sfar-written Donjon Potron-Minet), and just plain forget about de Crécy lest he bore us to death. And Sfar is probably best left to do what he does: Sfar is Sfar. But, as mentioned, some of these artists do seem to have more to offer. And at the end of the day, what I am criticising here is not so much the individual cartoonists, as a general tendency I think has affected a substantial part of the 90s generation, a tendency that boils down to the well-worn bugbear of style over substance.
The future of French comics is not good-looking, petty bourgeois comics affirming the status quo, no matter how pretty, charming or well-done they are. What made the 90s such a decisive decade was the groundbreaking artistic ambition of a good number of these cartoonists’ peers. To genuinely build on that, and not suffer the dire fate of French cinema after the analogous nouvelle vague of the 60s, French comics need that next shit.
Want to sample some of these stylists in English? NBM has released several of Blain’s books, Pantheon is putting out Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat, and Drawn & Quarterly have finally – after what proved to be too long for it to support – released the best work of Dupuy and Berberian in two books. Also, if you want to check out the American progeny and/or pendants of all this, you need look no further than a Craig Thompson or Paul Pope. Images from Blain’s Gus (2007) and Baudoin’s Le Premier voyage (1987).
Here’s a chronological rundown of the entirety of the debate: 1. my initial essay 2. Xavier Guilbert’s and my initial back and forth 3. Alex Holden and Con C De Artes criticism and my reply 4. Guilbert’s second response, and my second, clearer version of the argument. 5. More from Alex Holden and the Con C de Arte crowd, and my response. 6. Link to Bart Beaty’s commentary. 7. Con C de Arte’s closing commentary. Here’s the discussion on BulleDair and here’s the initial one on Con C De Arte, while the second one is here, and the third here. Last, but not least, there’s Bart Beaty’s review of Blain’s Gus, in which he also comments on the discussion.