A Certain Tendency in French Comics – Redux

sfar_klezmer.jpgThe discussion of French comics continues here at the Metabunker! Xavier Guilbert, who previously took issue with my rather polemical essay, is back with more comments, and he brought a link to an interesting discussion of the argument with him. This has prompted me to write what I guess is almost a new version of my essay. Here’s Xavier’s email:

Hello Matthias,
Here I am back with yet another reaction to your comments. I must say that the French-language forums (especially here) have been a little puzzled by your comment, not really understanding what really was your gripe with the authors you mention, in general, and your definition of “serious” versus “trifles” in particular.

I was reading some of the “Complete Crumb Comics” over the weekend, and I have the impression that your comment about “trifles” could very much apply to most of Crumb’s output — and yet, Crumb is a defintely unique and complex author. In a way, Sfar is very close to Crumb, with his impressive production and his wanting to tackle any subject with the same kind of eagerness. So yes, there are some weaker, complacent pieces in its work (his recent La vallée des merveilles comes to mind), but also very strong ones (Greffier for instance).

While it seems that we more or less agree on our perception of the quality of the work of individual artists (see our standpoints regarding Dupuy-Berberian or Baudoin), it’s your generalization to the whole “French comic scene” that I cannot go along. Dupuy-Berberian are not the same driving force they were, but Trondheim still is; Baudoin is down to rather boring self-parody, but Blanquet still amazes; Sfar is a mixed bag, but has always been; David B. seems to be back again to dream-exploration, while Frederik Peeters went with Lupus in an unexpected direction after Les Pillules Bleues.

Why this list? Just to show that for each of your examples, there is a counter-example of similarly prominent artists who are not going through a slump or rehashing old formulas.

The same could go about a so-called focus on the freedom of the line, the focus on what you call the “surface qualities”. It is true that Sfar’s popularity has allowed artists with a similar free-flowing line to be published: Blain himself, the Keraskoet duo, for instance. But at the same time, there is a slew of artists resorting to more precise lines, the likes of Frédéric Poincelet or even Ruppert & Mulot, with challenging stories, both on the formal but also on the emotional level.

So no, I still cannot go along with your judgment on French comics. There’s too much proof against it, unless you want to narrow it down to a select half-dozen of artists. Or maybe you could rename your article, as “A Certain Tendency in Certain French Comics”, and then, maybe that could work …


Hi Xavier,
Thanks again for commenting, and for not letting me off the hook. Having read your comments and those on the forum you linked to, there seems to be a number of persistent misunderstandings regarding my argument. I’ve therefore decided to do a kind of remastered edition of my essay that prioritizes clarity over polemical vigour:

First of all, and as I’ve written before, it was never my intention to speak about all of French-language comics, just a specific tendency within the field, characterized by a number of otherwise rather different authors often, but not exclusively, working in formats that can be characterized as somewhere between ‘alternative’ and mainstream. I see that the title of my initial essay, with its cheeky reference to Truffaut’s famous critique of French film in Cahiers du cinéma, unfortunately caused more confusion than clarification of my point. Though I do detect something of a drop in overall quality of French-language comics these years compared to the late 90s and early naughts, this was not the subject of my article.

Concerning the lack of ambition, profundity and nerve that I see amongst the artists in question, perhaps the best way to elucidate would be to explain how I arrived at the selection of artists I did, because my criticisms certainly does not apply equally or in the exact same way to all of them.

The basic tendency I describe is this obsession with ‘legèreté’, as one of the posters on BulleDair so aptly describes it. There are also a couple of good Italian terms that encapsulate what I’m talking about: ‘sprezzatura’ and ‘facilità’ – the art of drawing boldly and impressively while making it seem easy and light. Dazzling virtuosity. To me it seems there’s a whole school concerned this kind of approach in French comics, which has been taken to a new, different level by the current generation of artists walking the line between ‘art comics’ and mainstream.

The level of sophistication of these artists and their predominant focus on comics for an adult readership were the reasons I posited Baudoin as a kind of ‘godfather’ to them. Contrary to the impression I gave a least one of the BulleDair posters, I do know that this pride in craft goes back a lot further than him – to artists such as Hergé, Franquin, Uderzo and Morris, amongst many others, but they were working in genre formats quite distinct from those of the artists I deal with here, who bring an adult sensibility and fine arts self-reflexiveness to all of their work, even that which purports to be within the formats and genres of their forebears. A sensibility for which Baudoin was one of the first and most significant and unadulterated exponents in French comics, all the while placing a lot of emphasis on the legèreté of his drawing. Goscinny and Morris’ Lucky Luke is the real thing – charming, unassumingly intelligent, alive. Gus is a pastiche – charming enough, but full of adult themes treated superficially, and palpably aware of its own cleverness and virtuosity.

Beyond this, there’s what I describe as the fundamentally bourgeois tenor of many of these contemporary comics. As one of the BulleDair posters notes, Le Combat ordinaire is full of literary ambition in its description of life in contemporary France, but I actually find it less interesting than most of Blain’s work because it is so deeply banal at its core where his is more straightforward. It has very little to say on its subject matter of choice not present in the typical, well-written feelgood movie from Hollywood. Same goes for the work of Dupuy & Berberian.

I am therefore criticizing two interrelated, but not necessarily mutually dependent problems: one, an excessive focus on craft: two, an unenlightening bourgeois sensibility.

I should emphasize once again that I find nothing wrong with beautiful or virtuoso drawing, writing or storytelling. Neither do I object to the treatment of contemporary middle class life per se in the slightest. Furthermore, and probably most importantly: I am not calling for the superficial stylists to suddenly do stories about child abuse and AIDS: “serious” subject matter does not guarantee good art. I am not necessarily looking for ‘literary profundity,’ although it might help in certain cases. What I am looking for can be divided into two points: firstly, the comics should achieve something substantial within the parameters of what they set out to do, not just retread old ground, no matter how elegantly, and secondly I think some of these authors could better achieve this by going beyond the approach to style and subject matter they usually work within. In my previous reply to you, I have already explained from whom we could expect what in this respect.

And because it can’t be emphasized enough lest the misunderstandings persist: I do think that great comics can be achieved through great drawing and mise-en-page, even if the writing is not quite up to snuff: I provided a few examples in my recent reply to Alex Holden.

Concerning the comparison between Crumb and Sfar, I think it’s a good one, though I don’t agree. Though Crumb has certainly produced strips of varying quality, even a lot of his ‘slightest’ work exhibits an avid examination of the world through drawing, often coupled with relentless self-examination and -challenging in both drawing and storytelling. Sfar indeed shares these qualities to a point, but his drawing strikes me as much less exploratory, more concerned with its own legèreté. Of course this is in both cases inseperable from their artistic sensibilities: Crumb shows us how beauty and aberration are inextricably bound up in human experience, and he even indulges in both unabashedly and unheroically. Sfar, on the other hand, though also intensely interested in the world around him and often in very intelligent ways, seems to me too tied to an heroic artistic persona, celebrating the ineffable lightness of being in a way where exuberance frequently gets in the way both observation and introspection.

Sfar is, as I wrote, however Sfar, and I love him for it. He’s not the main object of my criticism. That your comparison with Crumb at least to an extent is apt is testament to his character as an artist. Concerning most of the other artists discussed here, however, I think that a much better comparison would be with Alex Toth: beautiful drawings and storytelling in service of sweet nothing.

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. If you can read Danish, here’s my review of the first two tomes of Manu Larcenet’s Le Combat ordinaire from a few years back. And since we’ve been discussing Crumb, I also want to take this opportunity to plug this great review by Chris Lanier of a Crumb exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The image is from Joann Sfar’s Klezmer vol. 1 (2006)

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