Self Made Hero logo

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)!