At the Angoulême festival this year, there was talk of a young auteur, Brecht Evens, already lauded two years previous with the Prix de L’Audace. A number of his drawings were found in the Flemish comics exhibit “la boîte à Gand.” Seduced by his color work and the dazzling energy that animated his word, I bought his last book Les Amateurs, and I waited in a (long) line to get a lovely sketch. When I got home, I was already predisposed to think well of the book. But, after reading it, the visual mirage evaporated. It wasn’t the story which deceived me (a lover of the short stories of Chekhov, I know that much can be done with little) but, rather, the way it was told : a simple sequence, an unconsidered flow of images. The images were sometimes full of poetry, but their internal richness disappeared into the gutter.
Comics still have a long way to go. I had gone to Angoulême in the company of Barthélémy Schwartz, who has published his first book of comics, Le Rêveur captif, with l’Apocalypse. The telescoping of these two books, that of Evens and Schwartz, compelled me to revisit the legacy of the magazine Dorénavant that I created in 1986 with Schwartz, who was the spearhead of the project. What of this legacy remains ? Do our ideas from Dorénavant still have any currency ?
In retrospect, we can think of Dorénavant as a three stage rocket. At the time we didn’t think of it that way, everything was intrinsically connected and coherent, but the course of time ended up breaking our discourse into stages.
The first stage was a critique of the stranglehold on the comics market. In the 80s, independent publishers were rare and still young. Mainstream comics imposed their norms and ideology on the market. Twenty-five years later, the landscape has evolved considerably. What was there continues to exist, but, on the other hand, a myriad of independent publishers have sprouted with an amazing vitality. It’s enough to compare at Angoulême the poles of traditional mainstream comics and the “New world” (this is what the festival organizers call it) to realize where the energy and growth of the festival truly lies.
The second stage concerned graphic expression. By multiplying the external references to the world of comics, which could be summarized in France at the time as : the clear line, the realists (Gir, Hermann…), and some auteurs who worked in black and white (Hugo Pratt, Tardi, Comes, Munoz…), we wanted to sound a call to arms. Our call was taken up : years later, Jean-Christophe Menu, an attentive reader of Dorénavant, created the publisher L’Association, which went on to radically change the comics landscape, notably in its graphic style. Today, the diversity and freedom of graphic expression is fascinating, and the 90s, after the desert that was the 80s, probably remains a golden age of comics.
But Dorénavant also consisted of a third stage, and if we must choose (though, for us, everything is connected), this is the most important stage. This stage is that of comics as writing. In denouncing the expression which is often limited to a story board and inviting auteurs to take hold of the specificity of comics as art — less the interaction of text and image than the division of a space to create a temporality, we wanted comics to finally seize the medium’s potential. This stage hasn’t yet taken off. Perhaps it will be the big event of this decade.
What does it mean, comics as writing ? When Proust, in la Recherche narrates the visit of little Marcel to his bedridden Aunt Léonie, he’s not only telling the story of a discussion between a little boy and an old lady. At the same time, he associates the entirety of the town of Combray and above all, through a web of metaphors, he puts the reader insidiously, and not without humor, into the interior of … an apple turnover. Writing is the weaving of several levels of reading, the creation of depth, of a multi-layered delicacy fitting on a single page. Comics, because they benefit from both the spatiality of the page and the temporality of the breakdown can easily create such a densification.
It is precisely this that Brecht Evens lacks. Undoubtably he has graphic talent, but he still uses the same story model — a linear model with a single level, without densification, without the play of depth. He makes comics that are extensive. This is a characteristic of the new comics : they are often voluminous. The auteur is animated by a desire to say something but always uses the same basic model : he juxtaposes images then pages.
In comparison, Le Rêveur captif of Barthélémy Schwartz is constructed as true writing. Within a single page several tracks cross. As Spiegelman, in Maus, connected “the circumstances of the telling of the story at the same time as the story”, Schwartz tells his cycle of dreams at the same time as the context of his dreams, his familial, social, and geographic circumstances, as well as adding references to writers, thinkers, and artists. And when he takes up the “situation of the dream”, he plunges us, simultaneously, into the graphic universe, and discourse, of the Situationists with detachment and a touch of humor. The essential word is “simultaneously.” The multi-layered cake is there. Like Proust, Schwartz densifies his story. And the reader’s pleasure, gourmand and gourmet, can be truly satisfied.
Some will say that this is no longer comics. Faithful to Dorénavant, I say, rather, that this is finally comics. Can Brecht Evens — and all the other talented graphic artists like him — question the model they use and rethink their medium as writing.
[Translated by Derik Badman]
- Published in English by Drawn & Quarterly as The Making Of.
- Jean-Christophe Menu’s new publishing effort.
- On Dorénavant, see : “Dorénavant / dorénaprès”, in l’Eprouvette n°2, L’Association, 2007. Also Généalogie d’un interdiscours sur la bande dessinée, both in French.
- As stated by Art Spiegelman himself in Metamaus.