Olivier Schrauwen

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Between anthologies and magazines, between self-publishing, small-press and big-shot publishers, Olivier Schrauwen's work seems to be all over the place. Yet, he is already a key player on the international alternative scene. Fantagraphics recently published Arsène Schrauwen, a 300-page doorstop about the adventures of his grand-father in the ‘Colony’, told in a most unconventional fashion. The perfect opportunity to set on mapping new territories.

Benoît Crucifix : To some extent, we could say that Arsène Schrauwen is your first graphic novel, in the sense that it is one long narrative, where your other books were shorter and more fragmented, and that it tackles your family history. Yet, it also reads like an ‘anti-graphic novel’ : it is nothing like the autobio memoir genre, which we could have expected, it was first self-published in three installments, etc. Your comic Greys[1] can also be read along those lines, parodying the whole discourse around graphic novels and autobiography. Before we talk about the publishing history, could you tell a bit more about your feelings towards that discourse and your approach to your grandfather’s ‘biography’ ?

Olivier Schrauwen : It seems to me that a comic, especially when it’s made by one author, is bound to be auto-biographical in some way. Even if it’s talking about people and events that have no direct link to the author. Arsène and Greys do parody the autobiographical genre in some ways, but for the most part I’m just looking for a way to talk about personal issues and observations in a way that engages me. I’ve tried in the past to do some straightforward autobio, but even though these stories were more factually true, they also felt like bigger lies. Things seem to simple and compact because they’re forced into the straitjacket that is a story. It gets extra problematic when you talk about others since it’s already very difficult to have a clear sense of yourself. When talking about my grandfather, whom I didn’t know that well, I kept that in mind.
In Arsène the reader is not asked to take the whole story as the truth, some things will (hopefully) feel genuine in a emotional sense, other things are more ironic or just nonsensical.
By avoiding a factually accurate approach to autobiography, making the story in a more freewheeling, intuitive way, even allowing total nonsense, I hope to stumble into more interesting territories.

Benoît Crucifix : Regarding the publication format, you first self-published Arsène as a three-part series, printed on a Risograph, distributed by mail and in a few comics stores. Since My Boy (Bries, 2006) and The Man Who Grew His Beard (Fantagraphics, 2011), you have been very active in the small-press world : editions with a low print-run, mini-comics, zines, contributions to anthologies and magazines, etc. How important is this aspect for your work ? And how do you think the sense of intuition you were mentioning fits with the way you publish your work ?

Olivier Schrauwen : I work with fairly small publishers and they pretty much let me do whatever I want, yet when I’m working for them I always have the commercial viability of my comic somewhere in the back off my mind. Will they be able to sell it ? That’s quite bothersome if I want to go off on some weird tangent.
Doing self-published books is the closest I get to working unselfconsciously, I can try out things that might not be successful, just for the sake of experimenting.
And since I’m still publishing it, even though the print-run might be low, I have to finish them. If i was just trying things out in a sketchbook, just for myself, i wouldn’t take things to their conclusion.
Also, in the case of Arsène, if I’d approached a publisher having only a synopsis and just a few pages, I don’t think it would’ve looked very convincing. I might’ve given up on it right away.

Benoît Crucifix : Along similar lines, which elements of the three-part series did you ought important to transfer to the book version ? The Fantagraphics edition is a nice hardcover book, but it also keeps something of the handmade quality of the riso versions, especially in the chosen paper type. You also integrated sort of ‘pause’ pages, in which you urge the reader to « wait two weeks before reading further, » mimicking the serial gap.

Olivier Schrauwen : We tried to keep it as much the same as possible. We tried to get rid of most of the spelling mistakes though. Also in my version the overprints are often totally off register (being too lazy to study the instructions to my risoprinter), so we corrected that.
Initially, I didn’t want the book to appear as a graphic novel, I wanted a three book series. I think it’s more appropriate for this kind of absurd story to read it in small chunks. And in general, when I read a lengthy graphic novel there’s always a point were I start ‘binge-reading.’ At this point I don’t notice the drawings anymore, overlook all details and subtleties and just follow the main plot. I wanted to counteract this.
I’ve been told that publishing the book in three parts is unwise from a commercial standpoint, so that’s why I introduced the « wait three weeks » pages. Those pages seem silly but they’re there to benefit your reading experience.

Benoît Crucifix : This idea of ‘binge-reading’ is interesting, because it highlights this interesting tension in comics between reading for the story and contemplating the drawings. How do you use this tension ? Why do you think it is important to counteract binge-reading ?

Olivier Schrauwen : In Arsène, most drawings are meant to be ‘read’ you can just glance over them and take them in quickly. Here and there I’ll have a more elaborate drawing or some graphical effect to force the reader to look.
When you’re binging on something, whatever it may be, you destroy it in the process, you devour it and still feel unfulfilled afterwards.
Sometimes reading a 12 page minicomic feels much more satisfying then a fat graphic novel. You can spend maybe 30 very intense minutes with it. Read it, contemplate it, read it again, look at the drawings, look at the way its made…

Benoît Crucifix : I assume one of the things that would get lost in binge-reading Arsène is the use of abstract patterns and motifs (lines, dots, geometric forms, and so on) throughout the book. These motifs connect in several ways with the story (Freedom town, the jungle, etc.), playing with questions of perception and projection, as the characters are always trying to make sense of more or less random lines and shapes. In that sense, there is a constant dialogue between the text and the images. How do you see this specific relationship ?

Olivier Schrauwen : It’s considered a faux-pas to have a descriptive text and then a drawing that shows more or less the same thing. I found this form useful in many ways. Even if the text and the drawing describe the same thing, the way both components are perceived is quite different ; they each have their own dramatic strengths. The text can describe a certain emotional state very accurately, and a drawing can show someone’s body language in a more tangible way, and so on. I also let both components bounce off each other. A certain metaphor you’d take for granted in written text can seem very bizarre when it’s shown as  a drawing.
In Arsène, the text is doing a lot of the things that the drawings would normally do ; it provides an emotional and narrative continuity, it sets the mood, ambiance, provides texture. So the drawing is kind of liberated from a lot of its duties, it can be a little bit more freewheeling. I’m forcing the reader to see things as Arsène does ; often unaware of his surroundings or even disinterested.  So I was looking for different graphical ways to describe his shifting focus or his level of awareness. Without the text providing the backbone I wouldn’t be able to do it in this way, the effect would be too alienating.

Benoît Crucifix : Indeed, these drawn metaphors are quite striking and absurd, but also very funny. They are often rooted in a pun but go on to have a life of their own, as the donkey for instance, or the bird. Was it something you wanted to integrate in the story from the start, or did they come along spontaneously as you drew the story ? And how did the making up of these metaphors affect the ongoing elaboration of the story ?

Olivier Schrauwen : I wrote the text first as stream of consciousness story in a notebook, I just wrote down whatever came to my mind in the moment. All the metaphors came about when I was writing this. I eventually ended up with a very inelegant shaggy-dog story, with some good parts but also with a lot of dead ends and undeveloped ideas.
When I decided to turn the text into a comic I maintained some of the ‘crappiness’ of this original text. In scenes where Arsène is tormented by his own paranoia, I wanted to create the feeling that the storyline could unhinge into randomness.
The reusing of metaphors ties in with this idea, might be seen as a symptom of narrative poverty. But in the book there is kind of a logic to it which is the same as the architectural vision of Desmet, Arsène’s cousin. A part of a metaphor for instance can be reused in different context, where it gets a different meaning. It can be introduced as a visual pun and later reappear as some kind of hallucination or as a part of reality. In fact any formal element can be reused in a different context. One character’s lips are described in exactly the same way as the lips of another character in a later part of the story, as if they were the same set of lips. There are many examples of this throughout the story.
Along with Arsène you observe a world that is a times comprehensible, where everything seems somehow connected and meaningful yet at other times it makes no sense at all, it becomes ‘bullshit’.

Benoît Crucifix : Now, although there is no direct reference to the Congo, Belgium and ‘the Colony’ are explicitly mentioned in Arsène, and the story has some ironic affinities with the colonial adventure genre that is so frequent in traditional comics. In fact this colonial theme seems like a recurrent but oblique theme in your work : the pygmies in the Antwerp zoo in My Boy, « Congo Chromo, » several references to Leopold II, etc. How did the colonial imaginary influence your work ? How do you see your relationship to that history ?

Olivier Schrauwen : The colonial imagery is ubiquitous in Belgium, it’s in old comics, you’ll see statues of Leopold II in the street, the pompous buildings that were financed with colonial money. Also my grandmother gave me these old books with idealized depictions of colonial life and of course there was (the real) Arsène’s colonial paraphernalia ( his hat, his stick) laying around.
Early on I was trying to set my comics apart by situating them in the past, undoubtedly influenced by Chris Ware, and this period in Belgian history seemed interesting. In my late teens and early twenties all my comics dealt with ‘paternalism’ (10 years of very strict catholic schooling must’ve had something to do with that) and the colonial situation was the perfect arena to talk about that.
Over the years I kept revisiting this semi fictional Congo and it has become more abstract, it was never historically correct and it has become only less so. My thematic focus has also shifted as I got older.
Something strange and unplanned is that I’ve been drawing the Conglese people increasingly smaller in consecutive strips. In the earliest stories they have a normal size, in My Boy there about 30 cm tall, in “Congo Chromo” you can only see them from afar and in Arsène they’ve all but disappeared.

Benoît Crucifix : This gradual disappearance of the Congolese people is quite interesting.  ThiThe main trend today seems to try to « give a voice » to the Congolese, as for instance in David Van Reybrouck’s bestselling history of Congo. This is of course a very ideologically heavy topic. But your work does stand apart in distancing the historical reality. Why do you think Congolese characters are backgrounded in your work ? Were you afraid of dangerous stereotypes ? Also, Congolese do appear a little in the epilogue of Arsène, in a dialogue carried out in French and Swahili, why this sudden reappearance and why this linguistic shift ?

Olivier Schrauwen : The fact that you don’t see them in Arsène is of course ironic. The main characters are talking about their own freedom and totally ignoring what’s going on outside their colonial bubble. Arsène never sees his ‘boy’, which adds to his paranoia and alienation.
Arsène is the first comic I’ve made since I’ve actually been to a few African countries where you see traces of colonial past and symptoms of modern colonialism. I’m interested in this topic but of course spending a few months there as a moronic backpacker doesn’t give me any intellectual or experiential expertise. So in my comics I’m trying to focus on what it actually is that determines my interest. The story is not necessarily about Congo but how one reacts to unfamiliar situations in general, among other things.
The Man Who Grew his Beard is similar in this way. A lot of the stories early in the book could have a more specified context ; make it clear that things happen in a certain psychiatric clinic, the characters have certain psychological dysfunctions. I deliberately left those specifications out and tried to figure out what it really is that attracts me to outsider art.
The epilogue in Arsène was meant to feel like a waking up from an illusion, as a return to reality. Finally Arsène behaves as you’d want him to behave, he has made an effort to learn the language, he knows how to bargain and has a clearly defined job. In fact this part is as fantastical as the rest of the book.

Benoît Crucifix : Since you are broaching up the theme of unfamiliarity, I was wondering how you felt about the relationship between your work and cultural-linguistic traditions. Your early work was seen as participating of a renewal in Flemish comics (wider cultural attention, subsidies from the Flemish Literature Fund, etc.) with an international reputation. Was this international aspect important from the start ? How did moving to Berlin change that ? And what about language in this context ?

Olivier Schrauwen : Right at the time I started publishing my comics, the VFL [Flemish Literature Fund] started funding authors and publishers, and the internet made the work visible across the borders.  Suddenly I’d get an e-mail from some Finnish dude asking to contribute to his magazine. So writing in English started out of necessity. But since I’ve moved to Berlin it almost has become my first language. I’ll have conversations in German English, Swedish English, Dutch English, Italian English, Israeli English. They all have their own idiosyncrasies.
Arsène would be a very different book if I’d written it Dutch. In English I have no grasp on the style of writing, so I don’t need to fuss over that. I’ll write an English sentence and it will trigger a chain of associations that stems from all the Anglophone media I ever consumed. It’s different from my Dutch frame of references.
In Arsène there are some lyrical parts that I would never’ve written in Dutch. My unfamiliarity with the language creates a certain filter that I find comfortable sometimes.
That said, I’m writing a story in ‘Flemish Dutch’ now, and I’m very much enjoying it. I’m somewhat outside of it now.

Benoît Crucifix : You’ve studied animation in Ghent. There are many connexions between animation and comics, going back a long way, most famously with Winsor McCay, but also the early Spirou gang came from animation. How did that formation influence your approach to comics ? What about performance drawing ?

Olivier Schrauwen : People who work in animation, especially if they work alone, are very focused about what they’ll put on the screen and what not. You know that you’ll have to draw everything 100,000 times, so you only want things that are essential and effective. This has its effects on the form but also on the content. The stories are often metaphorical or allegorical. There’ll be very little of the kind of backstory you’d find in, for instance, a novel. I tend to throw all unnecessary stuff out. Apart from that, I’m just very interested in movement. How the characters move from panel to panel, their body language… and also the timing and the rhythm of the story, whatever happens when you start reading instead of looking.
Making live drawings accompanying a musical performance for instance never interested me. As a draftsman i’m not agile enough to improvise and make quick decisions. I also tend to hide my drawings with my face when I draw in public. So the audience would just see the back of my head.
I’d rather make a piece of animation and do the musical score myself, live. I did this a few times in the past and really liked it. Lately I’ve been making some Arsène inspired imagery that I’d like to play music to.

Benoît Crucifix : To round it off, I was wondering about your relationship to the history of comics. Your first work, My Boy, was a compelling homage to early twentieth-century comic strips, and more particularly those of Winsor McCay. How important is the past of comics in your work ? What did you learn from it ? What are your influences ?

Olivier Schrauwen : When I was making My Boy it didn’t feel like a homage or pastiche nor was I trying to learn something, it felt more like forgery. I was enjoying the fact that I could make my comics look as if they were made in the early 20th century. This is how I felt initially, gradually I did pick up a lot of things and I changed my way of drawing for good. I made a new My Boy story last year and it felt really comfortable, like putting on an old pair of pants. (I got a bit fatter around the waist though.)
What’s attractive about the early comics is that, nothing is taken for granted, there’s no genre automatisms. Reading them makes you understand why a thing is done a certain way. You feel the author’s enthusiasm as he’s venturing in new territory.
Now more terrain is covered it’s less evident to have this approach, but I still see it in the work of Yokoyama Yûichi, Richard McGuire, Frank Santoro, Ruppert & Mulot, Joe Kessler, Aidan Koch. These are all what evil-minded people might call ‘formalists’. I equally love people who don’t seem to bother much with this formal play and just have a very novel way of storytelling like Sammy Harkham, Simon Hanselmann, Amanda Vähämäki.

Benoît Crucifix : So, there is sort of a tension between what you learn from the past by forging it and the kind of experimental energy in early comics. Do you think tapping into the past of comics help you to chart new territories for the present ? Or did you try to recreate the same improvisational attitude ?

Olivier Schrauwen : I must illustrate how it works with a short anecdote.
When I was a kid I read an old, obscure comic by Willy Vandersteen. In it there was a clown who had a very peculiar, blunt way of speaking. I became enthralled by this clown and while playing alone I tried to speak in his ‘voice’. I’d come up with things I’d normally never come up with. I become so occupied with it that, at a certain point the teacher asked me something in class and I’d answer in the voice of the clown (which made him furious).
So adapting a vernacular that’s very different from your own, but is somehow attractive, can trigger something in you, something you didn’t know was there. It can make you speak in tongues. But of course you have a different frame of reference than the original author.

[Interview conducted by e-mail between December 2014 and January 2015.]

Notes

  1. Self-published in 2011, reissued in 2012 by Desert Island, Brooklyn (NY).
Entretien par en janvier 2015