Saturday, 29 April 2017

From 1993 to 2003, the rise and fall of autobiography in Franco-Belgian comics

When French comic book writer Jean-Christophe Menu wrote and illustrated the highs and lows of his tumultuous personal life, and used his difficulties as a lover and a father as the narrative backbone of his autobiographical series Livret de Phamille, he was likely not expecting that his wife would later present his work as evidence in his subsequent divorce settlement. Similarly, when Fabrice Neaud, got caught in another tumultuous gay love story, he could not imagine that this affair could bring his award-winning autobiographical series to an undesired end. In comics, as in life, some cards are perhaps best kept to the chest. During decades, Franco-Belgian comics had been nearly completely disconnected from their authors’ lives. In the early 1990s, several young authors put their most private stories into daylight. Bringing these secrets out of the closet led the way to a handful of masterpieces but also to personal turmoil for the artists involved.


In the early 1990s, not much innovation or risk-taking was expected in Franco-Belgian comics. The latest revolution in Franco-Belgian comics, led by Moebius, Gotlib, Brétécher and other artists in the mid-1970s, with the creation of several artist-owned comics magazines for adults, such as Heavy Metal, was already quite far away and remembered as a golden age. Then came a radical change in Franco-Belgian comics. A few young authors, whose projects were rejected by most mainstream publishers, decided to create their own publishing companies and to release at last the comics they really wanted to draw. They had thus a much greater freedom to create, both in terms of format (the artists could choose the size, the number of pages, black & white or colors, etc.) and topics. Some of them decided to take benefit of this freedom by injecting real life and day-to-day issues into French-speaking comics. Far away from bigger than life adventure stories or repetitive one-page jokes, these authors released a series of true masterpieces in the field of autobiographical comics between 1993 and 2003.

Edmond Baudoin, Les Essuie-Glace, copyright Baudoin, Dupuis

A front-runner, Edmond Baudoin has one simple, but very ambitious target with his art: capturing life in his drawing. He often acknowledges that this is an impossible dream but, in each of his books, he keeps trying. Baudoin’s art is very intuitive and direct; what matters is life and movement (he loves drawing dancing people), not realism or precise likeness; people and backgrounds can change radically from one panel to another depending on the mood of the main character…

Jean-Christophe Menu and Fabrice Neaud, arriving a decade after Baudoin, are much more accurate and precise when they depict their life. In Livret de Phamille (Family booklet), Jean-Christophe Menu used innovative narrative technics (mixing of different time periods, involvement of several avatars of himself to multiply points of view, etc.) to describe his family life. He does not hide his repeated fights with his wife or his difficulty in being a father of several daughters.

As a young gay art student in a small town of Southern France, Fabrice Neaud has not an easy life: difficulties in making a living, hard times with one-night lovers met in the local public garden, impossible love story with a heterosexual guy, etc. His life does not offer any really striking events. But the great quality of his four-volume “Journal” stems from his beautiful realistic drawing and the richness of the topics he deals with. His day-to-day misadventures lead him to comment and discuss much wider topics: his description of passion, his social commentaries, his depiction of many pitfalls of our society, his pointing out at any kind of poverty and exclusion (social, intellectual or affectional), his views on arts and comics are only some points of interest of his ground-breaking work.

To name a few other talented artists, let us speak briefly of David B, who published the 6 volumes of Epileptic, the story of his brother suffering from this disease, between 1997 and 2003. Drawn in sharp black & white, filled with plenty of dreams, this strong familial story acquires a very specific tone. Lewis Trondheim drew the six volumes of his autobiographical comics, Approximate Continuum Comics, between 1993 and 1994. In this comics, in which all characters have an animal head, Lewis Trondheim pictures himself as a parrot. We are far from Baudoin’s philosophical quest on art and life, from Neaud’s deep analysis of social exclusion in modern society or from Davis B’s depiction of a family struggling with illness in day-to-day life. Trondheim’s style is firmly humorous; he portrays archetypal characters in whom most people aged between 25 and 50 can easily recognize themselves, at least to some extent.


Unfortunately, this golden age could not last. These autobiographical comics faced two major challenges, somewhat unexpected, and failed to overcome them. The first one was raised by their characters, the second one by their success.

The first challenge is intrinsic to autobiographical stories: they always face the risk of upsetting the people they depict, all the more when they deal with complex, unhappily ending, love affairs. We already told the misadventure of Jean-Christophe Menu. Since his divorce, he has stopped drawing his friends and relatives in his books, talking mostly of music discs or concerts… Similarly, Fabrice Neaud has encountered difficulties because of his depiction of real people in his comics since the very beginning of his career. It has generated much misunderstanding, frequent aggressive discussion and heavy personal criticism. This difficult situation was even the core topic of a short story called “Emile” (the full story is available online in English), a brilliant tour de force in which he talked of the man he was then in love with, but without showing any single real-life character, only objects or city views… It finally became too difficult when his life got caught in tricky events, with some of them being brought to court, at the turn of the century. He has not published any autobiographical work since then.

On top of this, an additional challenge came from the growing competition from major mainstream publishers. The international success of Persepolis, by Marjane Starapi, about her youth in Iran during the Islamic revolution (more than one million books sold and a successful movie adaptation, prized in Cannes) achieved convincing mainstream publishers that there was a real business in autobiographical comics, or at least comics depicting real events. They decided to invest in autobiographical comics as well, but on their own terms: they were not interested in ground-breaking works, but wanted comics with simple narration and straight stories. Actually, they consider only two kinds of autobiographical comics: either light entertainment (short funny stories, depicting stereotypical young men and women; it is sometimes rather funny, often very superficial) or serious and educative stories: the quality of the comics per se does not really matter, at least not as much as the story itself, from great historical events to tearful family tales. This soft version of (auto)biographical comics flourished in mainstream publishers and progressively took over from the ground-breaking independent publishers who paved the way for autobiographical comics at the turn of the century.


The story of Franco-Belgian comics, like many others, witnesses regular artistic ebbs and flows, with years of strong evolution and ground-breaking innovation, followed by years of standardization, with mainstream publishers taking profit from innovations of smaller publishers, softening the edges and bringing this novelty, somehow attenuated, to a greater audience. During the decade 1993-2003, we witnessed a truly incredible flourishment of ground-breaking autobiographical masterpieces in Franco-Belgian comics. Ex-wives, angry lovers, burgeoning success and innovation-adverse mainstream publishers brought an end to this golden age. Innovation and masterpieces were much scarcer in the following decade. Let’s wait for the next wave.

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