The discussion on French nigh-mainstream comics continues! (scroll to the bottom for full linkage). Alex Holden, who chimed in earlier, returns with more comments:
Hi Again Matthias-
I have still been thinking about this discussion a bit.
I can’t agree with your statements that Blutch (in particular) is not interested in exploration, since he has been pretty restless in the way he’s been drawing comics the last 10 years. Since Peplum and Mitchum, I guess after Vitesse Moderne (a pretty book, but not a great read to prove your point…), he seemed to drift away from the brushy “ink orgy” style he had become influential for. C’était Le Bonheur is 95% super thin pen lines and the new Petit Christian stories in “Ferraille Illustré” have capitalized on what I have always thought he should do: comics in the style of his dédicaces (pen, brush and ink, but with a colored pencil for more depth).
Since then, La Volupté has taken this idea even further by eliminating the ink completely and moving completely to charcoal and pencils. I guess these are all still visual components, and could be described as surface elements, but I just don’t think that is the case. I don’t think the mysterious fogginess of the art in La Volupté would work for Le Petit Christian and the thin art of C’était Le Bonheur would fail to produce enough mystery or darkness for La Volupté.
I really like reading the Petit Christian stories in particular. And I am not a big auto-bio fan. I think his stories really capture the feeling of being a kid. I think that “capturing something” is what you are talking about.
I hope this is not becoming tiresome, since I’m really writing to tell you that my head is to the right of Dan Zettwoch in your Angoulême photo.
Thanks for your email, and sorry I didn’t get to meet you at Angoulême – perhaps next year?
I agree with you that Blutch doesn’t seem content to just do the same thing over and over again, but rather explores new ways of drawing. However, when I talked about ‘exploring’, I rather meant something beyond drawing itself. He doesn’t strike me as being particularly concerned with much other than how to develop his drawing, and ends up not using it mostly for pretty pictures. Regarding Le Petit Christian, you are right that it offers something of what I’m looking for, however I still perceive it as rather slight. It’s funny and charming, and does convey the feeling of being a kid to an extent, but – again – it seems a little too concerned with its own charm and its rather stereotypical, ‘cute but racy’ treatment of awakening sexuality that has become cliché in many a childhood narrative (especially French, Italian and Spanish ones).
In any case, I really should go read La Volupté now. I do like Blutch, despite my critical remarks.
Our discussions here at the Bunker has, by the way, sparked further debate over at Con C de Arte, where Pepo (‘JCP’) takes issue with my criticism of the genre work of Blain, Blutch and Sfar in particular. In summary, he writes that the cartoonists mine territory – often of considerable thematic profundity – never before treated in this kind of genre comic, and does it using the conventions of same. He goes on to compare with the work of Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, which also incorporates visual tropes and genre conventions of earlier comics – classic comic strips, superheroes, etc. – and argues that this is perhaps the most natural way comics can achieve greatness, i.e. through the means of comics themselves instead of those of another medium. He even goes as far as to say that approaching, er, ‘literary’ themes straight on doesn’t work in comics, and that the direct approach in any medium has become problematic in the post-modern times.
I beg to differ. I like circumvention perfectly well, and recognize it in a lot of my favourite comics, but the ‘direct’ approach will never go out of style as far as I’m concerned. Not in comics and neither anywhere else. I do agree that comics should refrain from imitating other media too much, however, but can cite several examples of cartoonists who are pretty direct while still being very ‘comics’ from the same generation of the artists I criticize: David B., Emmanuel Guibert, Fabrice Neaud, Killoffer…
Secondly, even conceding that at least Sfar does treat a lot of ‘serious’ themes in his work (I just don’t see it in Blutch and Blain), and clearly goes beyond pure occupation with style (see my last entry for more on my understanding of Sfar), I don’t think he comes close to the subtlety, the emotional richness, the exploration of pictorial space or the thematic range, of Clowes and Ware… hell, even Miller has gone further. There’s nothing wrong with using old tropes and conventions per se, it’s how you do it. (That being said, I do have some issues with especially how Ware uses them, but that’s another story). I agree whole-heartedly with poster Sergio’s scepticism, in the comments section, about the comparison between these authors.
Concerning the auxiliary discussion in that comments section, on the nature and history of comics vis-à-vis other media, and especially literature, I just want to repeat that I am not trying to measure comics by a standard unsuitable to them. I am measuring them by their own standards, and yes, I think that Foster, McManus and Kirby, to take the examples of the first poster, created much more significant art than the contemporary artists I criticize. As it happens, I actually think that comics – though having explored a relatively narrow thematic and formal artistic range – fare pretty well when compared with the other arts. They have followed a different path than literature, and that’s part of their strength (for more of my thoughts on this, check this discussion: part I, part II).
However, now that comics have started exploring some of the areas that have traditionally been the domain of literature, film and other art forms, we have a problem when artists conscious of this development want to do both this and recreate the adventure classics of their childhood. There is nothing wrong with adventure stories or the other classic genres of comics – great art can and has been created within them. Neither is there necessarily a problem in infusing such stories with greater thematic depth, as the work of Kirby or Barks demonstrates. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with exploring the world through exquisitely drawn narratives in which the formal qualities become the primary artistic active – witness Hergé or Franquin. However, obsessing self-reflexively over style, form and artistic persona can impede what you are trying to achieve and that’s what I’m taking issue with here.
Thanks again, Alex, Pepo, Xavier, and everyone else! This is a stimulating discussion, and you’ve forced me to articulate myself to a greater extent than what I initially thought I could get away with. I hope I’m making at least some sense to you.
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 Christophe Blain’s Isaac le Pirate vol. 3.