Friday, 5 September 2014

How the world was: A Californian Childhood (L'Enfance d'Alan), by Emmanuel Guibert (2012)

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.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Explainers, vol. 1 (1956-1966), by Jules Feiffer

Feiffer is nearly completely unknown in France (even though he wrote the screenplay of one of Alain Resnais', a great French movie director, movie, I want to go home). He is probably better known in North America, but not that much (I mean outside a little group of comics specialists). What is sure is that very few of his books are currently available. And, after having completed The Explainers, I am deeply that the unavailability of his books is a real shame.

The Explainers collects the weekly strip Feifffer had been publishing in The Village Voice for 40 years (or, at least, it should be; the first volume, the only that has been released yet, covers the first 10 years, from 1956 to 1966). What are all these strips about? They deal with people who talk, who explain who (they think) they are, what they (try to) do, what they feel, what they want.

A lot of blah-blah, one could say. And I must admit it was my first impression. But after reading quite a few strips I progressively realized that it was much, much more than that.

Feiffer understands very well his fellow citizens. He points out their weaknesses, their hypocrisies, their contradictions. It is impressive in a double way: firstly because The Explainers gives an extraordinary and vivid picture of the middle to high class urban Americans of the years 1956 to 1966, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the beginning of the contestation of the consomption society; secondly, because a lot of the issues at stake in these strips remain, after more than 50 years, at the heart of our present day society.

Feiffer draws all this is his unique way: the expression of his characters is incredibly well depicted; bodies and faces make explicit all that is hidden in the speeches of these explainers. In this way, most of the strips are a graphic tour de force.

Nonetheless, I am a bit worried: Fantagraphics have released this first volume of The Explainers quite some time ago, and there is no news about the next issues... Perhaps this first volume was not successful enough to permit the publication of the next three volumes? Please, Fantagraphics, The Explainers is a masterpiece in the depiction of the Western way of life and of thinking in the second half of the 20th century, so do not wait too long before publishing the following volumes of this great masterwork!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Universal War, by Denis Bajram (from 1996 onwards)

Nowadays, French-speaking comics are not necessarily very well known in the science-fiction field. OK, we had Moebius and Enki Bilal, but the former is dead and the latter spends more time painting and selling his paintings than drawing comics. Now, French-speaking artists are probably more renowned for intimistic stories (from Lewis Trondheim to David B).

American readers looking for a good SF comics will probably not investigate on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. But they may be wrong. Denis Bajram, a French artist, has been creating since the mid 1990s one of the most interesting, ambitious, captivating, mind-blowing SF saga of the last 30 years. It is called Universal War. Three 6-volume each sagas are planned. The first arch (called Univarsal War One, or UW1) was published between 1996 and 2003, and was publihed in the US by Marvel Comics in 2008 and 2009. The first volume of the second arch (Universal War 2...) was released in September 2013.

Universal War One begins at a time, at the end of the 21st century, when all the solar system has been colonized. A civil war between the United Earth Forces (UEF) and the Colonization Industrial Companies (CIC), which comprises the various outposts and colonies beginning at the planet Saturn and beyond, is about to break out. Near Saturn, we follow the adventures of the Purgatory Squadron, which is composed of members who face Court Martial for various infractions (which we discover progressively). Suddenly, a black wall appears near Saturn, cutting the solar system in two. This wall absorbs all light and matter. Incredibly big, incomprehensible and terrifying, the Wall is centered on Uranus's moon Oberon, cutting off access to any planet beyond Saturn. The Purgatory Squadron, more or less in line with commands from the headquarters, will explore this wall and try and discover what is behind. This search will bring them in various points of the solar system and will reveal completely unknown parts of themselves and of the scientific field...

In this saga, Denis Bajram mixes together classical elements of SF sagas with an incredible maestria. Each volume of the saga brings new elements and rises the issues at stakes to a higher level. From a problem located aroud Saturn, it slowly becomes a war that could change the future of mankind as a whole. The plot is very complicated, with numerous people and times involved but everything is very carefully designed, nothing is left to chance. A perfect balance is found between the particular stories of a few characters and the overall fate of the system solar as a whole, between human feelings and scientific descriptions.

And, last but not least, Denis Bajram's art is very efficient: his spaceships are very convincing, his compositions are very impressive. A must-have for any SF fan and a very good way to discover SF for all the people who think that they are not fond of spaceships and exploding stars...

Friday, 21 September 2012

New Yorker covers by Chris Ware (2009-2012)

I have recently discovered, on this website, several wonderful covers drawn by Chris Ware for the New Yorker. I already knew two of them, which were included in the beautiful, and over-sized, Acme Novelty Library 18 1/2. I saw the other ones for the first time.

Once again, I was deeply impressed by the amazing quality of Chris Ware's art. Everything is thoroughly thought and minutely drawn: the compositions are really powerful, the drawings are superb and colors are very subtle and rich.

Each covers tells a story in itself. A simple glimpse at them makes us discover a part of the lives of the people on them or, more generally speaking, a specific element of our modern Western society.

In a way, these covers remind me of some Edward Hopper's paintings. Of course, they differ in many ways: Chris Ware's very precise art looks different from Edward Hopper blurry, more or less impressionistic, painting; and Edward Hopper mostly depicted lonely people whereas Chris Ware's covers are very often rather crowded (but nowadays, where can we be more lonely than in a crowd? which is more or less the central topic of many Chris Ware's stories, from Jimmy Corrigan to Rusty Brown). But both of them use pastel shades to describe typical scenes of present-day American way of life. Their paintings look very silent to me, very calm; but at the same time, they are very meaningful; each one of them makes me feel like stopping for hours in front of it, to enjoy fully its silent beauty and to try and fathom its subtle mysteries.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

A Chinese Life, by Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié (2009-2011; 2012)

The Chinese people have lived, during the past few decades, many extraordinary upheavals which cannot be easily fathomed by any Western person: the arrival of the Communist Party at the head of the State (1949), the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), aiming at improving significantly Chinese agriculture but responsible for the starvation to death of tens of millions of people; the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), in which the then Chairman of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong, created a revolution against his own ruling comrades, an unbelievable turmoil during which everything was constantly changing, political power was passing from one faction to another at an incredible speed; the cult of personality surrounding Mao Zedong and his death (1976); the shift from a Marxist economy to an ultraliberal one; the metamorphosis from an underdeveloped third World country to an economic giant and a political superpower; the rise and fall of the hope for a political change in the Tiananmen Square...

Chinese people have lived through all this. And I must admit that I have always been unable to figure out what these people think of their own history, how they feel about their country, about their leaders, about the evolution of their society.

Here lies the great quality of A Chinese Life. Li Kunwu is a Chinese artist whose father took part in every phase of the Chinese Communist Party since the Second World War. Based on Li Kunwu's memories, Philippe Ôtié, a French writer, drafted a storyboard that was drawn by Li Kunwu himself. This close collaboration was successful and the resulting graphic novel is very pleasant to read: The story is clear and easy to follow, even for someone not specialized in Chinese history (whereas the historical events told are very complicated...). Li Kinwu's art, with a strong influence from his Eastern formation, is original and nice.

A Chinese Life may not be a great masterpiece but it gives a fascinating insight into how it can feel like to have led a Chinese life for the past few decades.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Adolf, by Osamu Tezuka (1983-1985; 2012)

At the beginning of his career, Osamu Tezuka was specialised in comics for kids, with well-known works such as King Leo, Metropolis or Astro Boy, all of them with a deep influence by Walt Disney. But, from the late 50s, a new kind of manga, the "gegika" (or "dramatic pictures"), more adult-oriented, began to have much success, lead by the great Yoshihiro Tatsumi (whose autobiographical A Drifting life was released in 2009 by Drawn and Quarterly). Tezuka could have been overwhelmed by this new kind of comics. But he reacted with all his talent and published stories for a more mature audience, with more complex plots, more violence, some sex, etc. All this with as much, if not more, commercial and artistic success than before.

Nonetheless, two things did not change in Tezuka's latter works: their very high quality and their underlying philosophy. Tezuka combines a deep faith in humanity, stressing out in all his works the importance of the necessary respect due to any living being, and the frightful conviction that men can be extrememy harmful for the people and the environment around them.

Among the (numerous) masterpieces of this second part of Tezuka's career, Message to Adolf may be, with Black Jack, one of the most easily accessible to Western readers. Firstly it is deeply rooted in historical events well known to Europeans or North-Americans: it takes place mostly during the 2nd World War, beginning in Germany during the Berlin Olympic Games and ending in Israël, some time after the creation of this State. There is a single hero, whom we follow during the whole story, Sōhei Tōge. The plot is relatively simple, compared with many characters, places and times of Phoenix; there is not as much Oriental metaphysics as in Buddha.

Message to Adolf was one of the first works by Osamu Tezuka to be published in English, in the mid 90s (in 5 volumes). It is published once again, in two volumes.

For those who have not read this masterpiece yet, this new publication (even though the new cover is rather badly chosen, in my humble opinion) could be (must be, should I say) a good opportunity to discover this book. Even if Adolf may be less idiosyncrasic for Tezuka than Phoenix, for instance, it includes all of the main qualities of Tezuka's works: great storytelling, very innovative layouts, strong humanism, very good insertion of fictional characters and events into important historical facts, etc.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

New pages from Fabrice Neaud's "Diary"

Fabrice Neaud has not released a single volume of his famous (at least among French-speaking good comics lovers...) "Diary" since 2002. For the last 10 years, he has published only a few short stories from his Diary in various magazines or compilations. (Plus two full length books; but in the first one, he was only the artist, not the writer; and the second one, a science-fiction book, is only the beginning of a potentially long saga...)

So it is very good news to hear that his publisher, Ego comme X, has decided to release each week new unpublished pages extracted from his Diary from 2003 and 2004.

What can we discover in these new pages? As usual, should I say (but any "usual" thing by Fabrice Neaud is extremely good): beautiful art, interesting thoughts on literature or modern society, a few anecdotes about his sexual life (by the way, it is for mature readers).

Unfortunately, it is only in French. But it is nonetheless a good opportunity to discover new and beautiful art by Fabrice Neaud.