Re: A Certain Tendency in French Comics

blutch_mitchum.jpgComics critic Xavier Guilbert (of the excellent du9) responds to my recent critique of aspects of contemporary French cartooning, I answer him, and we have a conversation. Read on!

Hello Matthias,
I’ve read with much interest your latest note on the Metabunker blog, and while you make an interesting point, I beg to differ.

As a reader, I do look forward to reading the next book of an author I admire, and I have been disappointed when that next book didn’t prove as breathtaking as the previous one. Novelty wearing off, sometimes, but also sometimes the author going in another direction that does not resonate as much with me as the previous one. I think it is in the nature of authors to try different things, and it is in the nature of readers to be sometimes put off by this.

Trifles, you say? I could reply by saying that Baudoin, of whom you say that he is “fueled by a genuine ambition to convey something about the world” has become increasingly boring to me, while I was very enthusiastic about his work in the first place. Yes, unintentional self-parody, to the point that a Baudoin book sounds, well, like another Baudoin book. Beautifully crafted, but predictable, with the consequence that it ends up leaving me unmoved. In this light, I much prefer reading Gus or the most recent Blutch.

And thinking about all this, I just wonder if this point could not be made for any and all production around the world. We see authors for their masterpieces, we identify their potential, but it takes some distance to be able to see clearly where they had a high point and where they missed scoring a good title. This is more or less a stream of consciousness reaction — there is something I cannot go along with your piece, and yet I can see your point.

Anyways. Will leave that rest for a moment, and I might send another email on that subject later on.


Hi Xavier,
Thanks for your response! And don’t worry about the ‘stream of consciousness’-reaction, my initial post was also kind of that; an attempt to voice some rather indefinite concerns I have about a lot of these talented cartoonists and their work. Regarding your first point, about artists developing and moving in new directions, I completely agree, and of course you can’t expect anyone to live up to whatever standard you have set for them in your mind based on previous work. However, my issue with a lot of these cartoonists is that they have yet to produce anything I would consider great, or even commensurate with their talent, and – this is the main point – primarily doing work that has pretensions to do more than entertain, intelligently or not. For example, I like Blutch and Larcenet’s humor work fine, though it is by no means great, but it is their more “ambitious” or “personal” work I am here criticising. Blutch’s for being mostly an excuse for virtuoso drawing and Larcenet’s for being banal. The same can to different degrees be said for Blain, Dupuy-Berberian, etc.

What I was not, perhaps, entirely clear on was that it’s not necessarily in each and every case because of inordinate focus on style that the work of these cartoonists seems trifling – in certain cases it extends to their general artistic sensibility and outlook. I would actually rather gawk at some beautiful but inconsequential Blutch pages than sit through another M. Jean schnoozer at this point, for example. A further point, following on from this, that I probably did not make clear enough, is that I do not expect any of the cartoonists to work on different subject matter from what they are already doing – serious or grave does of course not necessarily mean good – it is all perfectly fine, and can be interesting given the right treatment. And also, I sympathise with Tom Spurgeon’s point that great comics art has been created from pure ‘surface’ qualities, but it all depends on what you associate with that term; I don’t necessarily think that great drawing in a comic is a surface quality (it isn’t in the work of Hergé or Franquin, for example), though I do find most of the wonderfully drawn comics I criticise here to be superficial.

Concerning Baudoin, I again wasn’t entirely clear: I was talking about his earlier work. His most recent stuff has, as you say, become trite and predictable. I do however regard as recent a book as Le Chemin de Saint-Jean (2001) as one of his major works.

Please do not hesitate to send further comments – it’s an interesting issue, and one that concerns a number of cartoonists I like a lot, in spite of my criticisms!



I wonder if some of this disappointment (or progressive lowering of your expectations) towards a given author has not to do with a confusion of the outlets. Among the authors you mention, it is rather striking to see that Larcenet and Dupuy-Berberian have released their best works at small press publishers, while things that are a little more mundane are published by Dargaud or Les Humanoïdes. There are few authors that can transcend that — Sfar and Trondheim being the first to come to mind.

For some, I agree there might be a fall from grace. I cannot see the carnets of Dupuy-Berberian as anything but rather complacent and I truly wonder if they still have the juice of bringing out something new and as groundbreaking as Monsieur Jean or the Journal d’un Album in their time.

The same goes for De Crecy in my opinion, he’s always been very talented from a graphic point of view, but the Léon La Came series remains for me his high point with Monsieur Fruit. His most recent work ( Journal d’un Fantôme) didn’t convince me. Larcenet is a strange animal, because he has always been split between the mundane (his work for Fluide Glacial) and the very personnal and moving (all the stuff he publishes in his Les Rêveurs imprint), managing an interesting mix of both sensibilities in Le Combat Ordinaire. Yet, the problem of the series format, which can be something of a constraint in the French comic book industry, led him to put out sequels.

What to get from this? I still think you are a little too harsh with your conclusion that French authors currently lack ambition. Indeed, Frédérik Peeters had delivered a great book with Les pillules bleues. But you cannot expect from him to stick to AIDS as a core subject, because anything else would be less ambitious. Lupus is an ambitious piece, tackling a wide range of topics, with a mastery of style and pacing.
Gus is not entirely dissimilar to Isaac le pirate, perverting a classical adventure setting (western or pirates) with romantic preoccupations. It’s pleasing, it might be light, but is it lacking in ambition? I’m not sure. Being entertaining and charming is also difficult to attain.

Overall, to get back to your comment, I think the French scene is very much active, with most of the small press publishers looking abroad as well as within to find new talents — something I don’t see happening much in the US or in Japan. The Rupert & Mulot duet is definitely very ambitious in their experimentation, the last Blanquet published by Cornélius is simply incredible, I can’t wait for the second part of Ludovic Debeurme’s Lucille, and Joann Sfar’s retelling of the Charlie Hebdo trial in Greffier is a real page-turner.

The list could be longer — the 50-title selection from the last Angoulême Festival is a good starting point to find plenty of challenging, audacious, ambitious works.

A question of perspective, maybe?


Thanks again. I see that I have not been entirely clear, yet again. Serves me right for choosing that cheeky title (NOTE: I have now amended it a little, omitting ‘New’). I do not presume to talk about the entire Francophone comics scene here, only one of the more problematic trends within the sophisticated part of it, particularly as praticed in the album format aimed at a reasonably broad audience, somewhere between the classical mainstream and the ‘alternative’ formats. I think there’s a fair amount of interesting French-language comics being produced at the moment, though at the same time I do feel there’s been something of a levelling of the field since the late 90s where things were simply amazing. (And I am BTW a little sceptical about the hyperbolic praise Ruppert and Mulot are receiving; yes, they are clever and funny, but I have yet to be convinced that they are more than intelligent vaudevillians. Blanquet is good and thoroughly his own man, though).

Anyway, you make a good case for Peeters. Of course he can’t just stick to the subject matter of Pilules bleues, but I must at the same time say that I gave up on Lupus after the second book. Something didn’t click with me; it seemed slightly soapy and ponderous at the same time. However, I have been told that I should read the rest, so I think I will. Concerning Larcenet, I wasn’t particularly impressed with his Revêurs stuff. Dallas Cowboy was quite a strong book, but the others were just smarmy. Le Combat ordinaire (Dargaud) is without a doubt his most mature and accomplished work, but ultimately it is your typical feel-good fare. Dupuy and Berberian I think did their best work with Les Humanoïdes, although Journal d’un album (L’Association) was also a good read – however, none of it transcends the bascially bourgeois. Dupuy’s autobio thing, Hanté (Cornélius), I found self-indulgent and pretentious. Blain’s best work is done with Dargaud and is the stuff I’m talking about. I think there was more depth to the stories he drew to David B’s scripts.

So while my expectations may have been lowered in certain individual cases, that’s not really my point. Furthermore, I think my comments apply regardless of whether we’re talking work done for major publishers or not. It’s about a certain set of sensibilities shared by a number of otherwise quite different authors. As mentioned, I even think the otherwise thoroughly remarkable Sfar suffers from it. While intelligent and involving, even his best work, such as the Pascin cycle, Klezmer or Le Chat du Rabbin, is just a little too much in love with its own exuberance – Woman! Music! Woman! Food! Woman! Sex! Woman! And look! Playful linework! Glorious watercolour! – to not seem a tad contrived. I am eagerly awaiting a collection of his Charlie Hebdo trial-reportage though.

Enough of my vitriol. I like most of these cartoonists, which is why I bother criticising them. And though I’ve enjoyed reading a number of them fine, I do genuinely wonder what the point is to spending so much energy on these charming but forgettable not-quite-mainstream genre albums for adults, and whether less focus on style and self-fashioning would result in at least some of these cartoonists doing greater work.



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. Image from Blutch’s Mitchum #1 (1996).

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