(Before reading the following lines, dear reader, reader my love, be aware that Lorenzo Mattotti speaks French very well but with the musicality of an Italian accent — a small detail for your interior voice as you read these words.)
Jessie Bi : You haven’t released a book for a long time.
Lorenzo Mattotti : Yes, since Caboto [Le Voyage de Caboto]…
But my last story was in The Return of God [Le Retour de Dieu], published by Autrement, with some other authors.
JB : So it’s been two years…
LM : Ah — already !
JB : Your last book, The Thinker’s Tree [L’Arbre du penseur], was already serialized, right ?
LM : Yes, it came out in the magazine Talking Heads, an Italian magazine. They asked me for some black and white pages, and I had already started doing a very free-form story, with just that phrase as a starting point. The idea was to develop the drawing — develop it in a very free manner, without words, and also to develop this dream world. The idea was also to be able to put in a lot of my world, as I do in my personal sketchbooks.
When they asked me for this story, I had already done about fifteen pages, images like that… and here I had an opportunity to do it. I wanted to create something very free, very spontaneous.
I enjoyed it so much that I wanted at first to do a very long and visionary story. But after that, I had to do some other pieces, in particular the one in The Return of God, “Stigmata” [“Stigmates”], which in fact is a very tightly constructed story, where I worked with a writer.
In The Thinker’s Tree, I felt very free with the drawing style, but I wasn’t able to continue it afterward. It was a different way of working –like automatic writing, you know. Especially in the very white passages, and also in the final, very dark passages. I also wanted to create other worlds, but always with the feeling that it’s the line itself that is developing, crossing, creating impressions.
JB : That reminds me, in principle, of Moebius’ Arzach.
LM : Yes, a little like that. A little like Le Major Fatal too. Although in Le Major Fatal it’s all about references to the stereotypes of comics.
JB : There’s the same visual freedom.
LM : Yes, the idea was to make poetry out of the line, but also to give readers the freedom to imagine whatever they want, while bringing them into the world of the line. The line builds, becomes nervous… A good idea, but it would require more courage, time, and… mostly time ! That’s what it takes for a long work. But there’s also the fear, you know, that it may just be gratuitous. The problem is, there must always be some overall coherence.
JB : There are certain panels at the beginning of The Thinker’s Tree that are almost abstract ; they remind me of Kandinsky’s first abstract watercolor, but obviously without color. It’s very musical, and that certainly calls to mind Kandinsky’s theories.
LM : Well, with images…
There are moments a little like that in The Man at the Window [L’Homme à la Fenêtre], when he goes out into the country, and there are all these emotions that destroy the countryside.
JB : These are wordless sequences, moreover.
LM : Yes, and I also did it using colors.
I love the idea of moving from one image to the next through a change of color or line. It conveys something different.
Right now I’m using a lot of colored lines in my sketchbooks. To show the line acquiring color, and forming another world. But it’s hard to propose this kind of thing to a publisher ; there always has to be a plan, a story.
It’s always a challenge : trying to open new windows for the reader, but to make them accept this in a natural way. In Fires [Feux] there’s an almost abstract story, but when you read it, you accept it ; you discover that you can enjoy and understand an abstraction, you can just have form and color and accept them.
It’s a little like jazz. Someone asked a jazz musician, “Is jazz very difficult ?”, and he answered, “No, you just have to listen to it.” It’s like that. There’s not so much intellectual thought ; it’s more an emotional state.
JB : But when you do a “silent” comic, don’t you find it a bit of a limitation too ? For instance, you always have to carry over some detail from one panel to the next.
LM : Yes, true. In fact, it becomes like an animation : you can’t skip too much. But it can be interesting.
Obviously there are limits — there must be a structure — but you can also find ways to get around them. I haven’t thought a lot about it.
JB : And as a reader, it requires you to pay more attention to the image, to invest yourself in it, to look for another story in it.
LM : Yes, the idea is to immerse the readers, allow them and their own imaginary worlds to be projected into my work. I’d really like the reader to be the one imagining things. I like the reader to be a co-author.
It’s a game, you know : you leave openings for the reader, who makes them his own.
But it’s true that at other times I also like to do more structured stories, even though they also contain sense-images and dream-images. That’s the case with my most recent story, which I’m finishing at some point.
JB : What’s it called ?
LM : Actually, I did part of this story in The Return of God. I had several projects after that, and I wanted to get back to that character and do a short film. So the writer and I developed the story and expanded it. Well, I didn’t have it in me to do the film. But this story, the beggar with stigmata, etc… I thought it was a strong idea, and finally we decided to develop a long story, 170 pages, in black and white. It’ll be called Stigmata [Stigmates].
JB : Is Seuil publishing it ?
LM : Yes. It was hard, since it’s not a happy story, but I’m happy with the result.
JB : Your current black-and-white style seems to have emerged after your color period in the ’80s. Before that, in Incidents for example, your style was more angular ; afterward, with The Man at the Window, the line becomes sinuous, musical, and there’s no need for flat tints.
LM : I always did black and white, even after Incidents, but only in my sketchbooks. I developed this idea of using the line there, with these very fragile drawings. I call them “fragile”, because they’re very disarming.
I’ve always used this very direct kind of drawing in my sketchbooks, but at the same time I never dared to use it in my published work. But if you look at Doctor Nefasto [Docteur Nefasto], there’s a chapter where he’s dreaming, and the dreams are taken from my sketchbook. It makes a very coherent passage. It was dealing with the feelings between a man and a woman or women, personal scenes, private, like a diary. There was no other style that would fit this story.
JB : It’s a light style, weightless.
LM : A light style, not so heavy –possibly even too weak for the readers. But to tell about certain feelings, I didn’t see any other option.
JB : This contrasts strongly with the pastels you use for your color drawings ; in those, there’s more of a feeling of substance.
LM : Yes, whereas with black and white it’s more about the light. With The Thinker’s Tree I went even further : there are all these overlapping shapes, and it becomes very dark.
In Stigmata it’s much more detailed ; it’s not at all the same kind of line as The Man at the Window. It’s the same principle, but very heavy ; there are some very dark, very, very dark moments. It’s a very dramatic story, with a coldness in the line. Darkness replaces light. There’s also electricity in it.
It’s done entirely with a flexible pen. I felt very comfortable with that. It’s also a way of overcoming something ; for me, it’s very important to overcome the control of black and white, of the pen. It provides a lot of nuance. There’s the trembling line, the line of fragility, the line of volume ; this gives me great freedom.
If I hadn’t done The Man at the Window, I would never have been able to do Stigmata.
JB : It seems that currently you reserve color for illustrations, and black and white for comics.
LM : I did Caboto, and…
JB : That was dark.
LM : Dark, but with color. Color and substance.
The problem is, to get that feeling of solidity takes a lot of work.. It’s very long and tiring. You also need to find the right story, where the color and the story have equal importance. A long time ago I started a color story that came to only five or six pages ; I could never manage to finish it, because of the work that it entailed. Now, in Italy, I’ve been asked for a color story for a magazine ; I can do what I want, so we’ll see what happens.
JB : Right now, you’re also doing illustrations regularly for Le Monde ?
LM : Yes, every month for Le Monde des Poches. I also do some covers for The New Yorker. And for four or five years I worked with a German magazine, where I did a comics page with Loustal and Kamagurka, illustrating some strange little news item — that’s over now ; it was weekly, in black and white, and very light-hearted. I did a good fifty or so. It was fun.
JB : You chose to be published by Amok in order to support a small independent publisher ?
LM : I knew them earlier, since they did L’Oeil carnivore where they interviewed me. I had given them a little story about Charles Mingus. I knew the kind of things they were doing. Later they contacted me because they wanted to publish that story — which I could continue, by the way.
They’re looking for their own path, very independent, and I like that ; I identify with that.
JB : In the early ’80s you were in a group of artists called Valvoline. In a way, was that the same kind of thing as Amok ?
LM : Yes, in a way. But we never self-published ; we couldn’t manage all that. But then again, we managed to do magazine supplements. It was similar, but we had a little more resources, so we chose color. We were a little more… Design was very big in the ’80s ; there was maybe a little more openness on other frontiers.
JB : Comics were fashionable.
LM : Yes, more fashionable ; we also had maybe more centrifugal force. We also did a lot of dumb stuff — but funny. In comics, I was looking for rigor. We were maybe a little obscure. The difference also is that we were doing a lot of other work on the side : painting, rugs, assemblage, fashion illustration…
JB : There was a group sort of like that in France, too, “Bazooka.”
LM : Yes, Bazooka, but that was earlier. Later there was Frigidaire in Italy, and Valvoline was along the same lines as that — more intellectual, maybe. Bazooka was very good, very strong.
JB : Who are the creators who have influenced you, and who led you to comics ?
LM : What led me to comics was, first, the pleasure of reading them. Then I tried to have the pleasure of drawing them.
In this period there was… you know, it was a time when comics were beginning to get away a little from the industrial model. On the one hand there were all the classic adventure comics, and on the other, all the undergrounds.
So, there was Robert Crumb and all the other Americans who gave you the idea of being able to tell your own stories and experiences. It was a little like starting a rock band — you know, it’s like that.
And then there was the great pleasure of reading professional comics. I remember copying from Uderzo, Dino Battaglia — and Breccia, who was like a towering landmark. There’s still a point of reference in his experimental exploration.
There were also the classics like Pratt. Very important too.
Another very important artist for me, especially as a theorist, was Renato Calligaro, who did — does — satire. In fact, with him and other artists, there was the idea of changing the visual elements within a story — telling about emotions through a change of colors, or with figures who change their form according to the situation or emotions.
All that was in the ’70s, the end of the ’70s. It made me want to think a lot about those things.
JB : I’ve read that you’ve also done film titles, you’ve done video, you’re interested in film… you’re interested in everything audiovisual in nature. Do you do comics just because audiovisual forms are too cumbersome or difficult ?
LM : Yes, maybe… Actually, before video, audiovisual and all that, we did a lot of things with slide shows, with music… a group would play while I showed slides and drawings. The relation between music and images has always interested me. Later, with video, I never completely made the transition ; I always had a very particular idea of narration with music and so on. I didn’t do much with it.
There’s an animated film being made based on Eugenio — a short film, 25 minutes — a French production that’ll come out at Christmas.
I also did the storyboard for Bluebeard [Barbe Bleue]. It was a series of animated cartoons that came out in France ; I did it with Moebius, Loustal and other artists. But the result was not good.
JB : Oh ?
LM : Yes, they asked us for drawings — I did the whole storyboard in black and white. But the final result was not much to look at.
JB : It wouldn’t be fair to say, then, that you’re a frustrated creator who went into comics because he couldn’t do film ?
LM : I don’t think you can see that in Fires and the others… but…
JB : I don’t see that. But I’ve read that you were interested and tempted by film…
LM : I’m still interested in film, but I’ve lost a lot of that love. And I find that it’s a medium where you have many restrictions. In drawing, you’re more free to develop your imagination.
But maybe I am a little frustrated at that. The short film of Stigmata, I really would have liked to do that, but I didn’t have time. It’s really a choice : either you take a year to do something like that, or you continue doing the illustrations, the comics, the drawings that you are able to do.
JB : What’s also notable in your work is the architecture. You’ve studied architecture, and it shows in your work. In the use of space and color, it often reminds me of Di Chirico.
LM : Di Chirico, but also many others. Why not make use of all of the dominant or mainstream culture, to put it into another medium ?
JB : For me, it’s more an echo, an assertion of kinship, of background ; I don’t see it as gratuitous or purely referential…
LM : Yes, not for the sake of reference, but just to find strength in things that have gone before.
Comics have always been judged that way. But if you try to free yourself from that, in comics you see the drawing, you see words, you see rhythm, you see the story. It’s a space where you can do any kind of work if you conceive it that way. The problem is the industry, the business side.
JB : And the problem is also the popular comics that crush everything else ?
LM : But, you know, when Feininger did his pages in the Chicago Tribune, that was very popular. People accepted it, and if you look at Feininger you’ll see that these are images that now would be difficult to accept or to publish. So that’s not quite the problem. It’s more a matter of entering into stereotypes and accepting them.
JB : When you work with a writer, is it the writer who conceives the story ?
LM : It depends ; everyone has ideas, and… Actually, we want to work together above all. Obviously the artist’s work is more complicated : I have to find an image, a world that I want to develop. The story may begin with an image, a sketch a few little things. The problem is that in fact you truly do work together. It’s hard to explain. I’m actually a co-writer. We work out some dialogue. I create images and then we re-work the dialogue. Or the writer — always a friend — writes an idea of a scene ; I develop it, develop also the rhythm of the dialogue, then he writes the dialogue. It emerges bit by bit. Once the drawings are done, we add in the text again, and with everything done, we get together to re-read it all, see what’s still missing or make cuts. If we find that it’s not working very well, we add or take away pages. It’s a little like film editing : you keep working right up to the end, you see. Often you don’t really know the ending — you decide at the last minute.
Obviously you always have limits : the number of pages, the design of the book, etc… But the story is constructed bit by bit.
JB : You seem to be lucky in not having too many limits. In The Man at the Window, for example, you weren’t limited as to the number of pages ?
LM : Yes, I was fairly free, but in fact there still was a structure. There are five chapters of thirty pages each ; that’s already a constraint… But with Stigmata we had no limits at all, except that of the story itself. It was originally to be 100 pages, then 150 ; now, with the epilogue, I think it comes to 170.
On the other hand, for certain stories I’ve been asked specifically for, say, 40 pages. Caboto was a commission, done from a script. I went over it with the writer and we had to change a lot of things.
JB : I don’t know if you’ve heard of L’Association.
LM : Yes, I know them.
JB : Well, they set constraints for themselves in their comics : repeat a panel and change only the text, add panels or pages to a strip, etc.
LM : I’ve done it too. With Kramsky there were a lot of experiments like that ; we used a fixed design for a page, for example, a mirror image. If you look at Labyrinths there’s a page done like that, as a mirror, the same design on each side.
In fact, it’s good to have constraints. Having to solve a problem gives you ideas. First you do all the graphic design, then you decide what’s to be in it.
JB : So you oscillate between constraints and freedom ?
LM : Yes. Inside a cage, you can come to find freedom through problem-solving.
JB : There’s a story I like very much that was in (A Suivre) in 1994, “Letter from a Distant Time” [“Lettre d’une époque éloignée” ]. There, the script is certainly very structured, but I find it dizzying.
LM : The first page I drew, which I thought was the beginning, became the end. I kept adding more and more images before it. It is very well structured. But after I had drawn the whole story, I asked Lilia Ambrosi to help me do the dialogue. So we spent a whole day deciding what we’d put into it. And there were some slightly magical coincidences. “Hey, there’s Kiev… and there’s that painting…” It’s a somewhat irrational way to go about it, but it’s my way.
Actually, I don’t think it is irrational ; there’s an interior logic, an unconscious logic. It’s a little like Fires — I worked that way for Fires.
JB : What I like in “Letter” is that you mix the past — our present, actually — with the future, and you place yourself in it as well.
LM : Yes, but it’s not really me. (laughter) My daughter is named Amber, and I’ve tried to imagine what she’d think of “Lucio Mazzotti.” (laughter)
It’s a reflection on the future, but also on the impossibility of drawing or imagining the future. So there’s this cartoonist who always draws the future and has never seen it. It’s also a reflection on a way of drawing comics, and on what they will be in the future.
The girl who looks at that old comic strip asks herself what’s interesting about it.
It’s a kind of movement…
And… yes, actually, it’s a good story. (laughter) I hope someone will reprint it.
JB : That would be nice !
LM : I thought of doing it with the Dutch, the Germans, the Italians… I hope to do it with the French… we’ll see.
JB : In this story there’s the idea of networks, which now is very real with the Internet.
LM : Yes. There were other ideas, but they were very hard to draw. I had a friend who worked in the office of Futuribles [a monthly futurology magazine — JB.] here in France. We talked a lot about the possibilities of the future and it gave me some ideas. Some of them were too hard to draw. Like enlarging a detail from the window of a train. Actually, I put that in the beginning of the story when she looks at an oil tanker. The idea was that you could get all kinds of data from the enlarged detail.
JB : There’s also a self-reflexive effect, with the presence of a comic strip within a comic strip.
LM : Yes, I did a false comic strip, sort of a Flash Gordon thing.
JB : Do you like science fiction ?
LM : Yes, I like it, but I don’t think I’m capable of drawing it.
JB : Still, “Letter” is a science-fiction story.
LM : Yes, but at the same time, not very much so. It’s sort of metaphysical science fiction. A little like Fahrenheit 451, a little like Wim Wenders, like his film The State of Things. There’s something that’s shown and something that’s not shown. I think this is a good way to imagine the future. Also trying to show it in a slightly more positive way.
My friend at Futuribles told me often that people always think of the future in apocalyptic terms, and in fact the act of thinking about that, of drawing that, leads eventually to seeing that.
There are many tools that can be used in a positive way. There’s too much pessimism. The current tools of communication, you can see them on the one hand as alienating, but on the other hand they can be a great help against loneliness — for the old or the sick, for instance.
My friend at Futuribles often made me think about such things.
Of course, it’s true that there can be a lot of shit as well, but…
JB : It’s like comics, which can be very poor or very rich. It depends on how it’s used.
LM : Yes, a little like that. (laughter)
JB : There’s a frequent recurring theme in your books, the theme of a journey.
LM : Yes, true, but mostly an interior one. Travel creates the possibility of change, also. Maybe one doesn’t change, but sometimes it gives you the idea that you can change when you find yourself in a new space, a new town. You may also have the sense of changing things and rediscovering things, which gives you the courage to change yourself. It’s tiring to change yourself — the effort and the fatigue are constant. More an internal than an external fatigue.
You can keep traveling on and on, but you find yourself always in more or less the same labyrinth. Or you can make the effort of changing within. But then there can be changes forced on you that you don’t want. So what do you do : adapt, or flee ?
JB : Escape is also one of your themes.
LM : Yes, there’s been a lot of fleeing, but I feel that way less and less.
JB : In “Letter” there’s an internal journey and an external journey.
LM : Yes, the girl is also on a perpetual journey. We’re talking now about this new kind of nomadic life, in Europe and in America. In this story it’s partly about that : travel as a normal condition, a way of life. So in that case, what do you bring along with you, what do you bring of yourself ?
I thought the girl would have a backpack with everything in it, but I didn’t really use that in the story. She would have had a sort of room of her own in there, with her family photos, her favorite books and music…
It’s the idea of nomadic wandering. Everyone has to carry these things…
At this point the tape came to the end of the 60 minutes certified by the manufacturer — sixty minutes that had passed very quickly, as this wretched arrow of time has a nasty habit of speeding up when things are going well. But the conversation continued a while longer with the maestro. Jessie Bi told him that his work was reminiscent of Borges. Mattotti was flattered, but said he was not very familiar with the Argentinian writer. But as you saw above (dear reader, reader my love), Mattotti had Breccia for a spiritual teacher, who in turn had Borges for a teacher and friend ; I leave you, cyber-friend, to complete the syllogism.
We then returned briefly to Stigmata. Jessie Bi, who cannot resist a display of learning, drew links to Flaubert and Pasolini. This enchanted Mattotti, who spoke of his admiration for these two artists, Pasolini in particular. Here Jessie Bi cursed himself unto the ninth generation for not having brought along nine thousand cassettes.
Finally, Jessie Bi asked Mattotti why he adapted his story Labyrinths to create the children’s book titled The Great Gods [Les Grands Dieux], just released by Seuil. Mattotti explained that the daughter of one of his friends liked to hear Labyrinths as a bedtime story. He decided, with his friend Kramsky, to adapt it for children and the result was this delightful book.
Jessie Bi finally took leave of the master Mattotti, timidly but admiringly shaking his hand in farewell and gratitude (extreme gratitude), and emerged in a nearly sanctified state into the streets of the 6th District (which really should have been the 9th) bathed in the soft light of autumn.
This interview took place at the Paris office of Seuil, October 7, 1997.
A Brief bibliography of the work of Lorenzo Mattotti
[Translator’s note: For those works that have been published in translation in the U.S., I’ve indicated “published in English as”; unfortunately, most of these are out of print. The other titles have not been published in English to my knowledge, so the titles shown in brackets are just my approximate translations. I’ve used English titles in the interview for the reader’s convenience.]
Le signor Spartaco [Signor Spartaco]. Les Humanoídes Associés, 1983.
Incidents. Artefact, 1984.
Labyrinthes [Labyrinths] (with Jerry Kramsky). Albin Michel, 1988.
Docteur Nefasto [Doctor Nefasto] (with Jerry Kramsky). Albin Michel, 1989.
Murmure (with Jerry Kramsky). Albin Michel, 1989. Published in English as Murmur (1993) — out of print.
L’homme à la fenêtre [The Man at the Window] (with Lilia Ambrosi). Albin Michel, 1992.
“Ah Um” in Oeil Carnivore 3 (May 1993). Amok.
Le voyage de Caboto [The Journey of Caboto] (with Zentner). Albin Michel, 1993.
“Lettre d’une époque éloignée” [“Letter from a Distant Time”] (with Lilia Ambrosi) in (A Suivre) 198 (July 1994). Casterman.
“Stigmates” [“Stigmata”] (with Claudio Piersanti) in Le retour de Dieu. Autrement, 1994.
Feux (with Jerry Kramsky) (new edition). Seuil, 1997. Published in English as Fires (1987) — out of print.
L’arbre du penseur [The Thinker’s Tree] (new collection). Amok, 1997.
For children :
Eugenio (text by Marianne Cockenpot). Seuil, 1993. Published in English as Eugenio (1994) — out of print.
Un soleil lunatique (text by Jerry Kramsky). Seuil, 1994. Published in English as The Cranky Sun. Little Brown & Co., 1996.
À la recherche des Pitipotes [In Search of the Pitipotes] (text by Jerry Kramsky). Seuil, 1995.
L’île des Pitipotes [The Island of the Pitipotes] (text by Jerry Kramsky). Seuil, 1996.
Les Grands Dieux [The Great Gods] (text by Jerry Kramsky). Seuil, 1997.
“Le saint et le crocodile” [“The Saint and the Crocodile” ] in Le cheval sans tête 3 (April 1997). Amok.
Le pavillon sur les dunes (Mattotti illustrates the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Pavilion on the Links”). Vertige Graphic, 1992.
D’autres formes le distrayaient continuellement (catalogue). Seuil, 1995.
Bologna Annual ’94 (collection of children’s book illustrations from the Bologna Book Fair) — published in English( ?). North-South, 1995.
Also, dear reader, reader my love, be aware that each month Mattotti does wonderful covers for the collected digest of the literary supplement from Le Monde (Le Monde des poches), the first Friday of each month.
For other interviews with the master, see : Oeil carnivore 3 (May 1993). Amok.
Also, there are articles on Mattotti and Valvoline in Les Cahiers de la bande dessinée 71, the Italy issue (Sep-Oct 1986).