This post is an update of my initial message published in 2012. I just updated it because a translation into English of this superb book was released this summer...
L'Enfance d'Alan (i.e. "How the world was: A Californian Childhood" in the English version) was awarded the "Prix des libraires de bande dessinée" in 2012. In other words, the French comic book shop keeper association selected this book as the best one in 2012. They are comic book sellers, so they select each year a comic book that is quite easy to sell: one that looks not too innovative, with classical drawing; one that can be easily offered to a friend or a relative who usually doesn't read any comics. Consequently they usually choose a book that can potentially sell well, but not necessarily one of the best books of the year. This time, with L'Enfance d'Alan, it was both.
This book is very interesting not only because it is an excellent comic book but also because Emmanuel Guibert manages, more than most of the contemporary comics artist, to draw books that are both very easy-to-read, even for people that are not used to reading comics, and of a very high artistic quality. Thus combining artistic quality and acceptability by a very wide audience is not very easy. Hergé, Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard in some of his early movies, Charles Schulz managed to do that. But, in my opinion, few of the great contemporary comics artists combine these two characteristics. How talented can be Edmond Baudoin and Fabrice Neaud, Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez (and I consider them very, very talented), I think you must have already developed some kind of artistic taste to fully appreciate their work.
At first reading, L'Enfance d'Alan tells the story of a Californian boy, Alan Cope, in the 1930s. And, in this aspect, it already is very interesting. California at this time is both far way from our present-day preoccupations (no information technology, fear of the war, importance and danger of ordinary diseases...) and very near (the world crisis, the beginning of leisure society, etc.). But there is much more than this: it tells also the story of a young adult remembering his childhood, that of an old man remembering both his childhood and his youth and that of a middle-aged French man (Emmanuel Guibert himself) drawing the story of a late American friend (Alan Cope died between the time when he shared his memories with Emmanuel Guibert and the time when the latter drew this book).
It is a book about childhood, as it can be seen immediately, but also a book about memory, a book about how an old man revives his past through often-reminded remembrances. It is a book about memories and getting old. Which souvenirs will accompany a man throughout his whole life? Some of these souvenirs seem important, others do not. Some of them are vividly remembered, others in a very shady way.
Emmanuel Guibert implements very different ways to convey all these types of souvenirs and to tell this story with all these temporal layers (childhood, adulthood, old age, etc.).
A good example is the following double splash page. You can see one of the houses Alan lived in when he was a young boy; on the left page, we can see as it was (or as Alan remembers it was) when he lived there; on the right page, you can see the same house, but some years after, with Alan as a teenager looking at it and remembering his childhood. And the caption is the voice of Alan as an old man remembering both his childhood and the time when, as a teenager, he came back to this house...
Emmanuel Guibert´s art is also an art of equilibrium: he always strikes the right balance between text and art, between black (the black of shadow) and white (the white of forgotten past).
On the double page below, the young Alan is walking with his father. The latter has just bought the former an ice-cream. Unfortunately Alan lets this ice cream fall on the ground. His family were not rich, getting an ice cream was a luxury, losing it was a little drama. What does Alan remember of this event? nothing but he, his father and the ice cream. The place, the surrounding, the other people, everything else vanished from his memory long ago.
Similarly, when Alan tells us about his games, black and white, image and text are perfectly balanced...
And, last but not least, Emmanuel Guibert's drawing ability is very high, his art is really beautiful. His so particular grey-and-white inking gives a specific texture to what he draws that reminds the reader of old snapshots.
Most readers won't realize how good an artist Emmanuel Guibert is. They will just think: "Wow! This is a really good comic book!" But it is the most important, isn't it?
Alan's War, the book in which Emmanuel Guibert tells the memories of the same Alan Cope, but refgarding his experience during WW2, was published in English in 2008 by First Second. Let's hope they will translate L'Enfance d'Alan shortly.