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Authors' Spotlight: Q&A with Séverine Vidal and Kim Consigny, Author and Illustrator of George Sand: True Genius, True Woman

23 May 2024

Today marks the UK release of George Sand: True Genius, True Woman, the graphic biography of the 19th-century literary pioneer and social revolutionary George Sand (a.k.a. Aurore Dupin).

So, here we've asked some questions to Séverine Vidal (author) and Kim Consigny (illustrator) about what brought them together on this project, the research and collaboration involved, and what the real-life legend known as George Sand means to them.

Kim Consigny was born in 1991 in the south of France, and qualified as an architect there in 2015, but has increasingly devoted herself since to a full-time celebrated career in illustration, including a long-standing collaboration with Séverine Vidal.

Séverine Vidal was born in 1969. She lives in Gironde in the South of France, and has worked as a full-time writer for over ten years. A prizewinning author of Children’s and Young Adult fiction, her debut online work, A Tale Off the Top of My Head, illustrated by Claire Fauchet (2012), was described as an “outstanding” work of “poetic writing”.

SelfMadeHero: To start at the beginning, the life story of a literary and political pioneer like George Sand / Aurore Dupin speaks for itself, but what inspired you to tell it specifically as a graphic novel?

Kim Consigny: I had already worked with Séverine when she told me she wanted to adapt George Sand’s life as a graphic novel. I was immediately hooked – I wanted to be involved as soon as she mentioned it! I asked her if she already had someone, and she didn’t, so we decided to go for it. I hardly knew anything about George Sand, but she already was a figure that I thought was strong and inspiring, and I knew it would be a wonderful project.

Séverine Vidal: In the summer of 2019, a friend of my son gave me a biography of G. Sand by Joseph Barry. I ‘swallowed’ it in two days – fascinated. I knew immediately that I wanted to make a comic book biography for her. What a woman!

SMH: Sand was endlessly controversial in life, as this book demonstrates so well, which sadly came to dominate her posthumous public image despite the memoirs she herself published. Were there any challenges involved in deciding how to narratively balance these controversies (interpersonal or otherwise) while also recentering Sand within her own story?

Kim: The controversies had to be a part of the book, because they were a part of her life. The idea was to show a balance, to try to show the full personality of an incredible woman who didn’t want to be reduced to a scandal, but still wanted to live her life as she felt.

Séverine: That's true. Scandal is part of her life. But these controversies are directly linked to her commitment to defending women's rights (her separation from her husband Camille Dudevent, for example, her firm stance on her work, her desire to be published and to make a living from her writing despite strong reactions from her male colleagues), or to defending the rights of the people. She was committed. Despite her aristocratic origins (half of them), she always took the side of the people, which also earned her mockery (and even harsh criticism). So I think these were controversies that Sand herself took on board.
What she took less responsibility for were her love affairs – free, independent. In her autobiography, none of this is mentioned. We read about her love affair with Musset between the lines, in the ellipses. Nothing is said.
I tried to show that, all her life, she fought against prejudice, against the straitjacket imposed by the 'stiff' patriarchy of the 19th century. But I've also told the story of what she tried to hide. This could be seen as a form of betrayal, but I see it more as a desire on my part to show 'my' George Sand. The one who fights, takes on challenges, assumes herself. Never shying away from anything. She chose life.

SMH: When it came to researching gender relations and dynamics in Sand’s own time, was there anything that you were surprised to learn? Are there lasting traces of her impact on French discussions of gender that people living elsewhere might not be fully aware of?

Kim: In France she is well known for dressing up like a man. Actually, she still is very modern in the way she lived her life. What impressed me most was the fact that she was able to live from her work, and help others create as well because she was such a hard worker. Chopin for instance wouldn’t have been able to create as much as he did if it weren’t for George. THIS is quite impressive, because it’s so hard to achieve even now (she acted sometimes like a sort of sponsor), and it’s usually something men are more able to do (because they had the money and influence, which is also still more common today). This is perhaps not the most visible thing about her and her gender, but it’s the most striking to me.

Séverine: In France, George Sand remains "the wife of", "the muse of"... Chopin, Musset... It's so simplistic. She is studied very little, if at all, in class. She is often reduced to a few clichés: Sand in trousers, cigarette in mouth, imposing herself in the literary world with this male pseudonym. That's what I wanted to do with this book: show what an artist, writer and campaigner for women's rights she was. I also wrote a novel for teenagers, George Sand l'indomptée (Rageot), to make her less invisible to young people.
In fact, George (we feel so familiar with her that we used to call her Jojo between us, with Kim and our French editor, as if we'd become friends with her) surprised me all the time during our research work. I discovered what she had managed to do, to build, as a woman in the 19th century, at a time when the Civil Code gave women the same civil rights as minors, the intellectually disabled, and criminals! She worked, was successful, owned an estate (Nohant), separated from her husband, won custody of her children, and was a militant, always on the side of the people, during the revolutions of the 19th century.

SMH: This book makes much of fantasies and dreams and nightmares – both those imagined or endured by Sand and by those she knew. What drew you to that element of the story? Did representing those immaterial things pose a different kind of artistic challenge?

Kim: She was an artist and a writer, and we really needed to show her imagination. I had to find a way of showing it without drawing the reader out of the story. It is also something to do with the era, the Romantic century. We had to make that palpable.

Séverine: The challenge of this adaptation was to make the often epistolary exchanges more readable (a succession of letters sent and received is impossible in comics!). We had to find graphic ways of telling the story by inventing encounters, scenes, and dialogue based on the letters that didn't take place in real life. Or, we show Sand in the act of writing or saying her letters aloud to vary the narrative. By plunging into her imagination and daydreams and nocturnal reveries, I wanted to show the richness of her inner world. Even as a child, she was already inventing worlds for herself, a philosophy, a god... she mixed her games with poetry, theatre... That fascinating Aurore.

SMH: Did any specific aspects of Sand’s works lend further inspiration as to portraying Sand herself – narratively, visually? Were you admirers of her writing before collaborating on this book?

I had actually never read anything of George Sand beforehand! I started just when we decided to work on the book. I especially loved her letters, because they feel so much closer to her. They are perhaps what inspired me the most.

Séverine: All I knew of George Sand were the clichés I mentioned before, so, very little… We studied La Mare au diable in class, just a few extracts. What touched me the most when I did discover the committed artist, I think, was her way of both living life to the fullest and also living like a tightrope walker: her life as a woman in love, her life as a writer, her life as a political activist. She touches me in the way she loves and shares.
On the other hand, I don't know if she was a good mother to her daughter Solange. Maurice was luckier... I think this quote from Sand that I've hung in the bathroom at home represents her well: "The mind seeks but it is the heart that finds".

SMH: Can you share anything about your respective creative processes for this book? Did you develop a particular process or system for your collaboration? Was it an entirely digital creative process?

Kim: Séverine sent me the script and I started working on the storyboard, which is smaller than the final pages. I like to draw a lot at that stage to save time later. It’s also the moment when I look for visual references: period-appropriate paintings, drawings, furniture, dresses... I consulted books, the internet of course, and I watched movies. It was quite a long process... When everything was validated, I started working on the final pages. It’s black ink on paper (I never work digitally for a graphic novel). But the very first thing we did was actually meeting in the Berry region to visit George Sand’s house!

Séverine: So, as Kim tells it, the two of us got to know each other through other projects in children's publishing. We also visited Nohant together (with my mother!). I first spent about eight months doing the research (radio programmes, film, reading biographies, correspondence, novels and plays by Sand...). I also renewed my historical knowledge about the 19th century, whose political issues are so complicated to understand.
I wrote the script and sent the cut-out plates to Kim in packs of ten or twenty plates, once they had been approved by our French publisher.
As the book shows, I chose a simple, chronological narrative. I didn't want a complex, elaborate set-up that would have obliterated George Sand. Her life is enough.
Then, for each period of Aurore’s life, I went back to my pages of notes, my notebooks, my photos taken in Nohant and I listened to what she had to say. It was a continuous dialogue with her, as if we were sharing a good meal in her kitchen.

A picture of Nohant, Sand's estate, taken during Consigny and Vidal's visit.

SMH: Finally, has crafting this particular piece of graphic non-fiction about this particularly significant woman lent any new perspective on your own creative roles today?

Kim: Haha! I wish I was as talented and successful as she was. George Sand became a sort of role model to me; she managed to be an artist as well as an activist, and she was so vivacious. She didn’t forget to live fully while creating and working for the people. How did she manage it all?!

Séverine: I think it was partly because of this work that I began to deconstruct a number of patriarchal reflexes and habits. My work has included other projects about strong female figures that are both biographical (Naduah, Colette, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Martha Gellhorn...) and fictional. Now I’m currently working on a large comic book project on the history of feminist struggles in France (from 1789 to the present day).
Naturally, I’m a strong advocate for women’s rights; I put more and more sorority in my life, my exchanges, my choices.

Kim & Séverine: Since the release of George Sand, we have been working together on another biography: that of the writer and music-hall artist, Colette.

Sketches of George Sand at various ages.
Sketches of Alfred de Musset

George Sand is out now in the UK, and pre-orders are open for the North American release on July 16th!

Who's Who in 'The Last Queen'?

14 May 2024

Ahead of Jean-Marc Rochette's next appearance at VanCAF, come meet some of the real-life figures who helped inspire (and even feature in) The Last Queen!

(Originally published in French by Casterman, translated by Edward Gauvin.)

In The Last Queen we meet... 

Jane Poupelet (1874-1932)
Jane Poupelet in the Studio for Portrait Mask, 1918. Rue89Bordeaux

This former student at Bordeaux’s Academy of Fine Arts kept company with Auguste Rodin and Antoine Bourdelle in Paris and made her name as a sculptress of animals. She and American sculptress Anna Ladd would go on to create new faces for the gueules cassées, soldiers who had been disfigured during World War I. These two facets of her life can be found in the character of Jeanne, who becomes the lover of the book’s protagonist, Édouard Roux.

Aristide Bruant (1851-1925)
Aristide Bruant by Nadar, ca. 1898.

This famous singer-songwriter delivers his hit "Dans la rue" in The Last Queen. A king of slang, Bruant purchased the famous Montmartre cabaret Au Lapin agile in 1913, and it features as a setting in this book, providing an occasion for a winking cameo of animal sculptor François Pompon, creator of a famous statue of a polar bear.

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963)
Jean Cocteau, 1923.

This highly gifted poet makes a notable appearance in The Last Queen. At the opening for a gallery show, he lauds with his flamboyant words the sculpture of a bear made by Jeanne, the “fairy.” Rochette had fun cobbling this speech together from various well-known quotes by the writer. Rochette depicts Pablo Picasso by Cocteau’s side: it is said these two artists were the only two to be found in the funeral procession of Chaïm Soutine, whom Rochette admires greatly.

JEAN-MARC ROCHETTE was meant for a life as a mountain guide but left the climbing world in 1976 after a serious accident sustained from falling rock. He then began a career as a comics creator, working with the Grenoble-based anti-nuclear newspaper Le Casse-noix (The Nutcracker), and publishing in such magazines as Actuel, L’Écho des savanes, (A Suivre), L’Équipe, and Okapi.
Among his most famous works were the series Edmond le cochon (Edmond the Pig) and Snowpiercer, adapted for the screen in 2013 by Korean director Bong Joon-ho. After seven years in Berlin (2009 - 2016), where he devoted himself almost exclusively to painting, and several shows in France and Germany, Jean-Marc Rochette returned to France. Meanwhile, Terminus was released in 2015, bringing an end to the Snowpiercer saga before it was given new life in Extinctions, a prequel series in collaboration with Eisner-nominated writer Matz (The Killer). Two volumes have appeared so far.
However, the Rochette renaissance then found the artist devoting himself to projects of a more personal nature. The release of Altitude in 2018 was a genuine event for press and public alike. One year later, Le Loup became a bestselling graphic novel translated into over 10 languages, confirming the anointment of Jean-Marc Rochette as one of the most important contemporary comics creators.
The Last Queen is very likely his most personal project to date. It celebrates a landscape dear to him and probes subjects he is passionate about: the mountains, the balance between humans and nature... However, with The Last Queen, Rochette also surprises us, for it is first and foremost a beautiful love story.
For a few years now, Jean-Marc Rochette has made his home in the Vallée du Vénéon, deep in the Écrins national park.

The Last Queen is out now in the UK, and available for pre-order in North America (release date May 28th)!

Jean-Marc Rochette on 'The Last Queen'

4 May 2024

To celebrate the North American release of The Last Queen (on May 28th), Jean-Marc Rochette will be undergoing a Canadian tour and attending two festivals in May: TCAF (11-12th) and VanCAF (18-19th).

In case you can't make it (or even if you can), this new interview with the acclaimed author and illustrator gives unique insight into the creative process behind this stirringly personal graphic novel.

The below article and interview, translated by Edward Gauvin, was originally conducted in French by the publisher Casterman.

“And the day the Last Queen dies, then the time of darkness will be upon us.”

This time, Jean-Marc Rochette did it all by his lonesome. On Snowpiercer (1984), the legendary comic made into a movie by Korean director Bong Joon Ho, the script was credited to Lob. With Terminus (2015), he finished the series more than forty years later, this time with Olivier Bocquet writing. On Altitude (2018), an autobiography set among snowy peaks and a clean break with past work, he still had help from Bocquet. For Le Loup (The Wolf, 2019), the second book in what would become his “mountain trilogy,” he handed the task of colouring to Isabelle Merlet. But with The Last Queen, Jean-Marc Rochette knew he had to give his all — utterly, unreservedly — and even run the risk of emerging from such a long-haul project wholly exhausted. Story, dialogue, layouts, art, and colours: he did it all. It took three long years. The result? A 240-page graphic novel, entirely the work of a single creator.

A singular, encompassing work, I say, for Rochette’s ambition is to lead us through time — from prehistory to the trenches of World War I, from the Middle Ages to the Roaring Twenties — and space — from the pinnacles of the Vercors Massif to the cabarets of Montmartre, from a bear’s den to Les Halles in Paris. Encompassing, for it asks questions about humanity’s future even as it lambastes the pettiness and hypocrisies of the art world. Visionary, even, for last but not least, through his hero Édouard Roux and his lover Jeanne, our human fate as hunter-gatherers collides with the follies of a despotic consumerist society that in Rochette’s hands proves to be a mirror image of our own.

Since Altitude, Jean-Marc Rochette has stepped out from the apocalyptic tunnel of Snowpiercer to scale the luminous alpine heights of his adolescence. It is on these slopes, depicted almost abstractly, that The Last Queen begins. In 1898, a shepherd kills the final bear on the Vercors Massif. From this actual news item, Rochette proceeds to unfurl his flowing plot and probe the vexed relationship between humans and nature. We will cross paths with bears and foxes, naturally, but also Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Chaïm Soutine, so closely are art and nature wedded by Rochette’s hand.

This environmental fable is also the story of a couple joined unto death. Its hero emerges from the Great War with a face as haunting as the Elephant Man’s before rediscovering his humanity, and above all — in an event rare until now in Rochette’s work — finding love in the form of a sculptress specialising in animals. A communion not only between hearts but with nature ensues, one that seems to point a path toward happiness in these troubled times we know so well.

Magnificent silent pages with cinematographic pacing — let us not forget that Netflix turned Snowpiercer into a series — allow Rochette to glorify the natural settings in which (no coincidence) he now lives, away from the world, with his own partner. In fact, The Last Queen could also be a fictionalised autobiography of Altitude’s creator.

Rochette even had a bit of fun by slipping in his grandfather Maurice, a great rugby player from the interwar years, in the form of a child.
By playing on the contrast between the somber colours of Paris and the blue-tinged light of the Vercors slopes, between nature’s purity and humanity’s cruelty, Rochette delivers a singular, visionary graphic novel of a kind rarely found in the comics medium.

JEAN-MARC ROCHETTE now makes his home among the blue and white landscapes of his comics. A few years ago, he and his partner alighted in a former coaching inn at the far end of Vénéon, an alpine valley in Écrins National Park. He has set up a studio beneath these imposing stone spires, and when he’s not busy drawing, has taken up permaculture in anticipation of the three winter months a year when snows cut off the route some four miles from their dwelling and the couple live off the grid. In this majestic setting, the artist conceived his latest comic, The Last Queen, as if he had mentally and pictorially merged with his environment.

Why call it The Last Queen?
For me, the bear is king, at the top of the food chain. Which makes the she-bear queen, of course. When I take a walk in the woods where I live in the mountains, I know there’s a pack of five wolves out there, but that never keeps me from going out. But if there were a bear, I’d think twice: there’s nothing you can do against the sheer power of such a predator. What first set this book into motion was the story of the final bear hunted down in the Vercors in 1898. It wound up taxidermied in a museum in Grenoble — a sordid story. Those creatures had been living out there for hundreds of thousands of years, and humans methodically wiped them out of existence.

A single phrase is reprised like a leitmotif in the book: “And the day the Last Queen dies, then the time of darkness will be upon us”…
It’s a belief all developing peoples share: once you’ve driven your mammal brethren from existence, you definitively cut all ties with nature. When I gaze out on France from my mountains, I get the feeling that 90% of its citizens already live in this darkness. I think only a tiny fringe of the population will disentangle themselves from this world to live in the mountains, in harmony with nature.

Isn’t that what your protagonist, Édouard Roux, has done?
Yes, I imagined a character, at once tough yet gentle, who would try to protect bears. As a child, he witnesses the death of the final she-bear in 1898, which makes him of age to be sent to the front in 1914. He returns with his face disfigured — an experience I myself went through after a climbing accident I recount in Altitude (2020). In fact, it’s quite simple: I put all my life into this book, from my fascination with the mountains to my experiences in the art world. I worked on it for almost three years, doing everything: story, dialogue, art, colours. It really took it out of me.

Indeed, over the course of these 230 pages, we go from the mountains of Vercors to the trenches of 1914, the cabarets of Montmartre to Parisian art galleries: how did you do it all by yourself?
Once I had the she-bear and my protagonist in place, I recalled a woman who rebuilt the faces of gueules cassées (literally, “shattered faces”) after the Great War. Her name was Jane Poupelet, and she, too, specialised in sculpting animals. From there, I imagined her sculpting a she-bear, and everything — art  and nature — dovetailed perfectly.

The scenes where she reconstructs your hero’s face are awe-inspiring.
When he first meets her, he’s wearing a bag on his head. It’s like the Phantom of the Opera, or an American superhero. I wanted him to be frightening, like some of my characters in Snowpiercer: Terminus, who were masked as well. But she goes on to palpate his face in a highly sensual way, crafting a supple mask of leather and beginning a more intimate relationship.

Such female characters are rather new to your recent work, aren’t they?
I’ve been criticised for devising very masculine worlds in my last two books, Altitude and Le Loup (The Wolf). This time, with Jeanne, a woman proved central to the story and from there, a new theme asserted itself: love. Love as a feeling able to lift us higher than society.

In The Last Queen, you’re not exactly kind to the art scene…
It’s a world I know well, because at one point in my life, I moved to Berlin to paint. And then, a few years ago, I felt like I’d been a bit cheated by a gallery that had filed for bankruptcy before paying me. The art scene is, above all else, a social marker: collectors feel like they’re part of an exclusive club, and while they might talk art, they’re often only thinking money. I wanted to depict the kind of wheeling and dealing so common to the art world, of which artists are usually the victims.

Why make the painter Chaïm Soutine a character in the book?
I have immense admiration for this penniless Jewish artist from Vilnius who came to Paris and believed in his destiny. His paintings move me deeply. I had fun having him cross paths with my protagonist and imagining the hidden backstory to his famous painting, Carcass of Beef. It is said that when he died in 1944, only Cocteau and Picasso followed his hearse to the graveyard. That’s why I included them in my book as well.

In fact, the influence of painting makes itself more strongly felt in this book than any influence from comics.
I have a great deal of admiration for some cartoonists. For instance, what Moebius was able to pull off in that famous two-page spread from Arzach, with his titular hero flying over a swarming crowd, just blows me away. Some pages by Richard Corben and Alex Toth impress me just as much. In my view, my style has grown slightly more supple in this last book, even if it obviously has nothing in common with my rounder period from Edmond le cochon (Edmond the Pig). My line remains sharp, marked by German Expressionism. Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann — the world disgusted and outraged them. Otto Dix’s work on the Great War, with those worm-eaten bodies, is so powerful it’s almost unbearable to look at. I am also susceptible to Emil Nolde’s watercolours and Land Art, the movement that uses natural elements to create works.

What made you decide to do the colours for The Last Queen yourself?
I’d done the colours for Altitude in the classic fashion, working on blue lines, then entrusted colouring on Le Loup to Isabelle Merlet. But with The Last Queen, I really wanted to do everything on the book from start to finish, so I tackled it myself. I have only to look up from my drawing table to see the light on the mountains all around my house. I used a graphics tablet, which was new, but I tried to work in “substance” to counteract the somewhat cold aspect that tool can have. My idea was also to play on the dominant colours in a scene, depending on whether it took place in the city or the mountains. I think I even almost managed to find that specific blue of the alpine sky — so hard to capture, as it is both somber and luminous at once.

Is The Last Queen a call to activism?
Yes, of course. I’ve been a member of the Ecologist Party ever since environmentalist René Dumont’s 1974 presidential bid. I firmly believe that if we keep going the way we’re going, we’re headed straight for disaster. That’s why I got into permaculture, even though when you live a mile above sea level, you only have a few months a year to grow any vegetables. The idea is to grow things without depleting the earth. It’s not about turning your back on progress: I’ve got a car, a Godin woodburning stove, etc. But I do believe that a barter-based economy can exist in certain places. In fact, that’s how my protagonist lives, in a way, trading his labour — his “arms” — for wheat or cheese. We are, originally, all hunter-gatherers…

Do you think a graphic novel can make a difference in this world?
I hope so. I go up to Paris ever more rarely these days, but each time I do, I get the feeling people there are living like zombies. The artist’s role is to bring a bit of enchantment back into this age of ash.

The Last Queen is out now in the UK, and available for pre-order in North America (release date May 28th)!

Authors' Spotlight: The Best European Graphic Novels with Translator Edward Gauvin

27 April 2024

Guggenheim Fellow and Eisner-nominated translator Edward Gauvin recommended five European graphic novels that show off the continent's best writers, artists, and writer-artists in an interview byChenxin Jiang for Five Books. Two of them were SelfMadeHero books: Irmina, by Barbara Yelin (translated by Michael Waaler) and ABC of Typography, words by David Rault, art by Seyhan Argun, Aseyn, François Ayroles, Hervé Bourhis, Alexandre Clérisse, Olivier Deloye, Libon, Delphine Panique, Jake Raynal, Anne Simon, and Singeon (translated by Edward Gauvin).Below is an edited extract from the Five Books interview about why he picked them and about the European comics scene in general - just in time for the 2024 opening of the Sophie Castille Awards for Comics in Translation!

To start with, I’d love to get your take on what makes graphic novels in Europe distinctive.

Well… I’m tempted to say government arts funding, so… I will! While also noting that it still doesn’t always mean a living wage for the creators concerned. But really, the Franco-Belgian scene, central to Europe, is usually considered one of the world’s three major comics cultures, along with American floppies and funnies, and Japanese manga (central to Asia). In broadening my remit to “European,” I’ve tried to get out from under this 800-pound gorilla, picking works that attest to simultaneous or subsequent traditions: partly because I’ve translated a sizeable share of the comics from France in the last fifteen years, partly because a lot of my favourites remain untranslated, and this feature focuses on works available in English. So here are two works from France, one fiction, one non-, and one apiece from Germany, Italy, and Slovenia [see full list of books below]. I also cheated, a LOT: one series (a trilogy), two anthologies (one of which is also a biannual), a volume of collected works, and really only one work that might be properly termed a “graphic novel.”

Still, as we’ll see, many roads and career paths, if not lead, at least take a detour to France; the cultural and economic dominance of its publishers enables them to cherry-pick artists worldwide. America drafts foreign talent to draw licensed characters; France pairs it with writers for works that run the gamut from commercial to alternative. Some even get to tell their own stories as all-around creators, for as with manga, there’s not really one dominant genre in the European market, the way superheroes dominate ours.

Finally, contemporary French comics in particular are shaped by the fact that in the ’90s, many of the artists who would eventually become the stars of today’s comics pantheon couldn’t land a book contract to save their lives. So instead, they formed their own publishing houses: L'Association, Cornélius. As Canadian comics scholar Bart Beaty says, it’s like the alternative won — or sold out, according to some — and became mainstream. I should say, though, since this is a common aesthetic issue in an industry that prioritises visuals when deciding which books to have translated: Euro-alts still tend toward more “polished” art than the scruffier, homegrown look of stateside indies. And this comes back to where I began my answer, economics — cultural subsidies and the cost of higher education making art school more accessible.While teaching English at a college in the north of France after my Master’s in the early 2000s, I discovered European comics largely through friends, French fans well-versed in comics from both sides of the pond. I returned to the US shortly after Persepolis (2003) made the leap from Fantagraphics to Pantheon. Its success redefined what publishers wanted, paving the way for, let’s say, the third, more aesthetically “indie” French comics wave after those of Tintin/Asterix(children's adventure!) and Heavy Metal (adult science fiction!). It was the mid-aughts, the blog-to-book pipeline pumping hard; what were then still the Big 5 were launching their own imprints to get in on the new cash cow of comics, and lacking ready domestic talent or the know-how to find it, they’d bring over French books to pad out their catalogs. That mini-boom died with the recession, and since then, small presses have been leading the charge. Today’s scene is more diversified: many more presses doing many more kinds of European comics in English. […]

Let’s talk about Irmina, by Barbara Yelin and translated by Michael Waaler.

Irmina spans 1934 through to the 1980s. Yelin found a box of her grandmother’s memorabilia — photos, letters, diaries — and based the book on that woman’s life story. And it belongs to that evergreen German sub-genre of “What did you do in the war?” As Yelin writes in her sensitive preface, “What I really discovered in that box was a question — a disturbing question about how a woman could change so radically. Why she would turn into a person who did not ask questions, who looked the other way, one of the countless passive accomplices of her time?”It starts out with Irmina at Oxford, falling in love with a fellow student, a Barbadian, in blithe youthful ignorance of world events. They’re drawn together as outsiders, so it’s illuminating to see the difference in the freedoms denied them by race or gender. Then Hitler’s laws make it impossible for Irmina’s family, poor already, to continue wiring money for support. Increasingly demoralised, she is forced to return to Germany, where she lives out the war, eventually if ambivalently marrying an ambitious SS officer. The book’s second and longest part ends when the war does; the third then leaps forward to the 1980s and a reunion for the would-have-been lovers in a different world.This is also a work that affords readers many ways in: the first part lulls you into thinking it’s a love story, an idyll history rudely interrupts. And while it certainly has its place among family memoirs, or postwar ruminations on wilful blindness and complicity from Böll to Ishiguro, Irmina’s story powerfully illustrates a woman’s limited options for achieving any semblance of autonomy in those dark and complex times. Whereas the coda moves, with the character’s age, into more universal territory of regret.

What do you find most interesting or unusual about Irmina?

This is the work I referred to earlier as the only “graphic novel” on the list, and it more than earns the latter half of that contested term with its scope, unity, psychological depth, and artistic technique. Yelin insightfully pairs the external restrictions of a dictatorial regime with the increasing mental censorship that Irmina performs upon herself. Much of what Irmina sees during the war is filtered: through parted curtains and doors ajar, in narrow panels — a visual staging of how much she’s deliberately or desperately shutting out. These are punctuated with cannily deployed double-page spreads in which we see history at work: cityscapes, massive rallies, marches, burnings. And while Yelin had, prior to this book, worked largely in shades of grey, here the different eras and locations each have their own overriding colour schemes: blue for London, red for the war, and turquoise for the rueful, hopeful coda.

So here’s an instance of a work from the German comic scene.

I won’t insult anyone by saying there isn’t one. After all, comics magazine Mosaik has been around since 1955, born in East Berlin — the fall of the Wall actually hurt its sales! Off the top of my head, I’d say the best-known German-language comics name stateside is Ulli Lust, but she’s Austrian. New York Review Comics did a single book of Anke Feuchtenberger’s; Waaler’s done a bunch of Reinhard Kleist for SelfMadeHero. I will say that of the current generation, Flix, Mawil, and Sascha Wüstefeld have all published a fair amount in France. As has Barbara Yelin. Her first books came out through comics scholar Thierry Groensteen’s press, Éditions de l’An 2, based in Angoulême, that international comics capital of festival fame. You could say that the founding of leading German alt-comics house Reprodukt in 1991 mirrored changes then underway in France. Yelin published Irminawith them in 2014, with Actes Sud picking it up the next year, and SelfMadeHero two years later. Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Turkish followed; the book, her biggest hit, internationally inflected the path of her career. In 2018, Yelin was a writer-in-residence at Grinnell and that same year, Edna McCown translated a piece of hers in Words Without Borders. She lives in Munich, where she teaches and runs reading series for comics.[…]

And now an anthology of another sort — ABC of Typography, written by David Rault.

Right, so, Rault, a typographer who’d previously written about his trade, thought it a no-brainer that two such visual media should be paired, and was gobsmacked it’d never been done. With help from his publisher, Gallimard BD, he mustered up a nice roster, a real cross-section of today’s Francophone talent, from those who tend alternative to those leaning more mainstream. Eleven artists, eleven chapters from cuneiform to Comic Sans, the whole thing lent a gorgeous graphic identity by none other than the cantankerous, radical underground cartoonist and diehard indie Jean-Christophe Menu, who as a founding member of L’Association masterminded that publisher’s selection and design of forgotten classics brought back into print (he now runs his own press, L’Apocalypse). Together, they leveraged the anthology format, its inherent heterogeneity, into a bristling yet unified history of a ubiquitous yet somehow still niche subject. Think less “comprehensive” than “stimulatingly eclectic”: serifs, frakturs, Gutenberg, Garamond, Gill Sans, Bauhaus, newspapers and Letraset, even an insider’s annual festival, the Rencontres de Lure (who wouldn’t want to talk typography in summery Provence? Can I get a travel grant?).

Although only 130 pages, this was in many ways a mammoth project. The timing, when UK stalwart SelfMadeHero decided to do it, was right for it to dovetail with personal research into typography for my Bread Loaf lecture, “Translation as Design” (my specific interest in typography grew from a fascination with onomatopoeic sound effects in comics, the importance of whose plasticity as word-objects includes not only poetic phonetics but appearance as a pictorial element of page and panel). So any research time I spent on the book did double duty and predictably expanded as I dove down rabbit holes after references, obscurities, anecdotes, marginalia. As you might imagine, the proofreading process was especially fine-toothed, some fonts from the original swapped out with Rault’s approval. I’ve been a longtime collaborator with SelfMadeHero, and I often feel like a session musician sitting in on the book we all put together: editors, designers, proofers, creators.

Could you say a little more about the artwork and its relation to the typographical changes covered in the book?

A consistent pleasure was seeing individual artists’ hand-renditions of famous typefaces juxtaposed with their own hand-lettering: for instance, the evolution of Humanist typefaces, their intimate relation to hand and body, as narrated by Delphine Panique’s flirtatious cursive. The nature of the book — its very topic — grouped words themselves into pictures and text, art objects to be admired vs. chiefly communicative signifiers. Also of formal interest was how some artists picked panel arrangements traditionally associated with fictional storytelling, while others went with more infographical layouts. I’ve had my eye on Delphine Panique’s uniquely lyrical absurdism for some time, and would love to introduce her to Anglophone audiences, especially with Le vol nocturne, a mournful slacker comedy about witches.

I’ve also long championed François Ayroles’ work, which apart from Toronto darling The Beguiling’s Key Moments in the History of Comics is almost entirely unrepresented here (over the years, I’ve managed to smuggle a few of his short strips into translation-focused literary journals like Two Lines and the Arkansas International). Ever the eccentric, he’s no stranger to experiment and wordplay; you might call Une affaire de caractères [A Case of Characters], Ayroles’ murder mystery set in a city of writers, printers, and crossword fanatics, his audition for this gig.

Alexandre Clérisse is, of course, the pop-art wunderkind behind IDW’s Atomic Empire and Diabolical Summer, two graphic novels scripted by the erudite Thierry Smolderen, as well as his own Bugle Boy andScattered Pages. I remember him, shortly after our only encounter so far, at a festival in Manhattan Beach, standing riveted before a diner’s display case of tiki memorabilia. His retro palettes are well-suited to profiling Roger Excoffon, the James Bond of typographers whose work is immortalised in the Air France logo.

Jake Raynal’s strips have been a staple of satirical French comics mag Fluide Glaciale for 25 years, and I’m proud to have debuted him in English at Words Without Borders. Here he adapts his M.O. from his true-crime parodies Les Nouveaux Mystères, a faux-objective presentation undercut by mordant captions, to document the desktop publishing revolution that put fonts in the citizens’ hands.The prolific Hervé Bourhis, alternately writer (Space Warped from BOOM!) or artist (Heavy Metal from IDW’s Little Book of Knowledge series), does double duty here, packing the page with densely detailed microhistories of Eric Gill’s London Underground sign and Futura’s journey from the Third Reich to Wes Anderson.

The book covers lots of fonts that will be well known to readers — was there a particular story that was especially surprising to you?

My two takeaways from this book are actually somewhat meta: the first being that nonfiction is where it’s at in comics. I’ve been saying this for years now, but you know it’s true when the Gray Lady agrees. Lately, I’ve done almost nothing but biographies (Georges Sand, Orwell, Alice Guy, Isadora Duncan) for SelfMadeHero. Some of the most exciting work out of France in the last decade has been nonfiction, whether from superstar pop science explainer Marion Montaigne (the Mary Roach of French cartoonists) or award-winning quarterlies like La revue dessinée and Revue XXI, home to long-form comics journalism. In fact, EVERYTHING in La revue dessinée (where Bourhis is a regular) is in comics form, from recurring columns to reviews. They even have a sister publication for news-hungry teens, Topo. I find the research impressive and the global focus refreshing: Uber in Europe! Erdogan’s Turkey! Lebanese Civil War! International cocaine mules! Threats to the Sami people! A psychiatric retreat for burnt-out French cops! French Guiana's equivalent of “Indian schools”! And a lot of these later become books. Claire Alet and Benjamin Adam's comics adaptation of economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology was first serialised there. With help from Adam's clean, Ware-like line, reporter Alet effectively dramatises Piketty’s history-spanning ideas through a multi-generational family portrait. In vain have I tried stateside to find a regular or even one-off home for my favourite longform stories… but this may, again, be a discrepancy of funding. I mean, here the US we have… The Nib. Which has, despite founder Matt Bors’ valiant efforts, died twice.

The other is that typography and translation, long overlooked, are becoming more visible. The internet gives individuals a venue to geek out about them — the beginning of community. They’ve both been dismissed for affecting only form, not content — a reskinning of invariant meaning. But as our culture shifts to recognise how porous the border between the two really is, more attention has been paid to how changes once considered merely skin-deep affect our perception, and hence our experience — that changes to perception are changes to experience. Or to put in therapy-speak, you can’t change other people’s behavior, but you can change how you feel about it. And the first step is awareness. Computer scientist Stuart Russell has said that with the advent of artificial general intelligence, we’ll all become therapists — or as he puts it in his Reith lecture, “better at being human.” (I’d hope that happens in a world fairer for emotional labourers.) Typography, translation — awareness of these and other disciplines that, by negotiating interstices, inflect perception, enables a fuller experience of being human.

Edward Gauvin’s top five European graphic novels in translation:The Labyrinth, by Guido Buzzelli (translated by Jamie Richards)Last of the Atlases, script by Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen de Bonneval, art by Hervé Tanquerelle and Frédéric Blanchard, with colours by Laurence Croix (translated by Edward Gauvin)Irmina, by Barbara Yelin (translated by Michael Waaler)Dirty Thirty: Thirty Years of Making a Scene (special anniversary edition of Stripburger magazine 1992–2022)ABC of Typography, words by David Rault, art by Seyhan Argun, Aseyn, François Ayroles, Hervé Bourhis, Alexandre Clérisse, Olivier Deloye, Libon, Delphine Panique, Jake Raynal, Anne Simon, and Singeon (translated by Edward Gauvin)You can read about all five top picks here:

Edward Gauvin
The translator of more than 400 graphic novels, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Lannan foundations, PEN America, and the French and Belgian governments. His award-winning work has featured in the New York Times, Harper’s, and the Guardian. Comics he has translated have received over twenty Eisner nominations and two Batchelder Honors from the American Library Association. Among his recent publications are an intellectual autobiography of his pen name in McSweeney’s Quarterly, and Doctor Moebius and Mister Gir, Numa Sadoul’s collection of career-spanning interviews with the late comics master, part of Dark Horse comics’ Moebius library.

Interested in the Sopie Castille Awards? Click here to read more about last year's winner - Michele Hutchison for Barbara Stok's The Philosopher, the Dog, and the Wedding - on the LICAF website!

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

20 April 2024

With SelfMadeHero’s 2023 publication of artist-athlete Mylo Choy’s inspirational graphic novel Middle Distance, an exploration of their path to self-knowledge and self-care, both on and off the track, Martin Dean here reflects on the abiding connection writers have long felt between the lived experience of running and writing. 

Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think what it might be. In running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms. Ideally, the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.

(Joyce Carol Oates, New York Times, 19 July 1999)

What role does the body play in acts that draw heavily upon the mind, like writing? We might consider writing to be an entirely mental activity: having thoughts and ideas – with the body then merely brought in to (literally) “describe” them by typing them up or writing them down, but rarely considered the driving force. It’s often this quality that people find attractive about reading and writing – the escape. A departure from the physical realm or the “everyday” world and a journey somewhere else, to experience something like a dream created by the waking mind.

However, when you consider how important the body and exercise, particularly running, are for many writers (just as they can be to everyone as a means to manage and transcend certain states of mind) it’s tempting to reflect on how this works as part of the creative process. In other words, weather that escape can be in both directions.

Can bodily experience be used to empower the mind to create, or to create in a certain way? It certainly feels appropriate that the process of writing as a creative escape ‘“outwards”’, a departure, an adventure away from the everyday world, can be enabled through a regular return “inwards” of the mind to the body through physical training – running, or whatever it might be. Almost like a ship, long at sea, returning from the open waters of the imagination to dock and return to three-dimensionality and the present – and refurbishment – before setting out again. It’s as though the body presents a place for the mind itself to escape to, from time to time, so that the process of writing can continue.

But where does running feature in the processes of different writers? This is how Haruki Murakami put it:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometres or swim for 1,500 metres (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

(Interview with John Wray, The Paris Review, 2004)

Murakami suggests that he imposes the physical upon his mind to direct it, and even elevate it. It’s a ritual act that gives rise to a certain mental condition, like the rhythmic drumming used in some shamanic rituals to attain a trance state and access to other frequencies of consciousness.

For others, there is a greater emphasis on the fact that the body is finite, material, and located in a certain place, so that the body becomes something like an anchor for the mind, preventing confusion, distraction, or worse. It soothes – or subdues – the chaos of mental activity in order to send it in one direction only: either onwards, through the narrative; or just across the room, to sit down at your desk and get on with it once the voices of doubt or inertia are too tired from that run to bother you.

Carl Jung would often turn to yoga, he tells us, to use the body as a means of re-rooting himself in the world, and preventing his emotions from disrupting his state of balance.

I was frequently so wrought up that I had to do certain yoga exercises in order to hold my emotions in check. But since it was my purpose to know what was going on within myself, I would do these exercises only until I had calmed myself enough to resume my work with the unconscious.

(Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1961)

The sensations of breath and weight, of three dimensions, linear time, and temperature, can supply a refuge at times when the mind won’t rest. When simplicity and direction are needed, the body can provide these, and eventually an equilibrium is reached between free imagination and the physically lived experience. Then things born of the mind find their way into manifestation, either as a written narrative, or a ten-kilometre journey at pace. (Or, if you’re Murakami, both.)
As we run, and our bodies slowly exhaust themselves, our minds move closer to sleep and the alertness of our waking consciousness further into a liminal state. The experience of the body, of being in reality – of pain, momentum, motion, rhythm – educates our imagination, the automatic narrative inherent in determination subsiding into exhaustion, and the rhythmic changes of that progression with each footfall or repetition populate and punctuate the mind’s activity. (No wonder that a late play by that inveterate walker Samuel Beckett was called Footfalls.)

Both running and writing are acts of self-mastery and sacrifice. Each is a confrontation with oneself, to undergo a process that can at times be as difficult as it is rewarding at others. Mostly, the difficulty and the reward overlap. It demands a will to continue, to allow some physical momentum to override your mind’s occasional (or perpetual) reluctance, and accept the inevitability of pain, in some form or another. It brings with it the understanding that if you just listened to your mind instead of your body, you’d get nothing done, would never push further, and that sometimes, your body is needed to show your mind how to make things happen.

Perhaps some of that reality gets carried across, the momentum infectious, the sacrifice on one plane making things happen on another – in a narrative – wherever the imagination is deployed. It is almost a mystical process, as created characters begin to feel real pain, falter in fatigue, or else push on regardless, driven by momentum born, and experience lived, in circuits around your local park until they feel like extensions of your bodily experience brought to life elsewhere. The poet Charles Olson talks about “the kinetics of the thing”:

A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader... And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in.

(Charles Olson, Projective Verse, 1950)

(Breath is another Beckett play.) Running could be seen as a means to generate the kinetics required for the work and to breathe sufficient life and reality into it from the experience the body has had. In this way, the runner starts to feel like Joseph Campbell’s monomythic ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’, with the realms of otherworldly wonder to be found on the other side of discomfort or challenge (which can certainly be euphoric) to bring back riches for the mind – things alive with the truth of the bodily experience of reality which can pass that life on to the written experience, the read experience. Writing becomes something like a mediating line between mind and body, a point of meeting between two poles. This is perhaps akin to the place between extremes of mental or physical activity which the author of Middle Distance eventually feels able to occupy.

There are many ways in which running might work for the process of writing: to attain a different state of mind; to exhaust the critical inner voice; to introduce limitations on the mind’s wandering; to experience body, pace, rhythm and time more intimately, and transfer that harmony into writing (‘pace’, ‘rhythm’, and ‘time’ being the pulse of all writers’ work); and to feel what one’s characters might feel and understand the dimensions of their lived experience. There’s one final element though, I think, that isn’t exclusively limited to running, and this is simply the experience of the wanderer, going out into the world with an intention to see:

Promptly at 2:00, Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon”. Returning home, his brother-in-law remembered, “he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir.”

(Mason Currey, Daily Rituals, 2020)

So for those without the energy to run, there can be merits to a vigorous walk too – as Dickens here (and, before him, the Romantic poets, too) remind us. Especially if the intention is to bring home the pictures, characters, and settings on which the mind needs to work. Perhaps the very best encouragement – to runners and writers alike – is the famous advice once offered by the Czech Olympian athlete Emil Zátopek (himself the inspiration of another graphic novel by SelfMadeHero): “When you can’t keep going – go faster!”

Best of luck from all of us here at SelfMadeHero to everyone at this year's London Marathon!

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