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!