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A COMICA REVIEW BY:

CHRIS THOMPSON


Chris Thompson attended the Comica Conversation between writer/artist Frederik Peeters and Comica Director Paul Gravett on 11 November 2011. The following review appeared at Pop Culture Hound.

Around 40 people gathered last Friday night to listen as Paul Gravett interviewed Swiss artist Frederik Peeters at Gosh! Comics in London. Peeters, who is best known in English for his autobiographical tale Blue Pills, appeared as part of this year’s Comica Festival to promote the release of Sandcastle from Self Made Hero (which I reviewed recently).

I was on-hand to take notes as the two comic heavyweights discussed Peeter’s career in comics, including his early days, other European works, and what’s coming up next. It was a fascinating evening, so I hope you’ll enjoy my brief rundown captured in bullet points below…

One of the first things Paul Gravett did was mention the inclusion of Blue Pills as one of his 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die. In addition to plugging his new book, it also set the tone for how important Peeters is as an artist.

Like many people, Peeters started drawing when he was just a child. Unlike many of those people he never stopped.

He started doing short tales about his life, but he would quickly grow bored and, within a few pages, turn himself into a superhero or something.

A lot of his early work started in and around a shop in Switzerland much like Gosh! (only smaller). He found a lot of inspiration from Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and Japanese manga.

Peeters originally studied Latin due to a strong passion for history, so he may eventually do an historical book one day.

He then moved on to a degree in Visual Communication which, he says, was useless. The students were mostly taught about marketing and computers, so he barely picked up a pencil during the entire course.

His professional career began around the age of 18 with his first contributions to Bile Noire, an anthology published by Atrabile.

The names Bile Noire and Atrabile both translate roughly as Black Bile. The idea comes from medieval medicine and the belief that illness comes from bodily fluids. Black bile resides in the spleen and is the source of melancholy.

Atrabile have published, and still do publish, a number of books - ranging from anthologies and smaller releases through to grander and more extravagant silkscreen books.

One of Peeters’ early paid gigs was for another publisher. He was to illustrate a story someone else had written about Swiss cowboys trying to hijack a train. It was a crazy idea and he said he needed a long shower afterwards to wash himself clean.

Blue Pills started as a personal experiment, and he’d already completed 35 pages before he showed it to anyone.

He showed it to his friend (who was also his publisher at Atrabile) to get some feedback and advice. His friend read it and said nothing. At first Peeters was worried, but he soon released the silence meant he was on to something good. His friend said that it must be published and that Atrabile wanted to do it.

Peeters started the experiment (aka writing Blue Pills) about one year into his relationship with Cati. That’s one reason why a lot of the story is told in flashbacks.

At that point he was only selling around 500 books, so Blue Pills was intended mostly for family and friends. If he’d known how big it was going to get it would have been paralysing and he may never have finished it.

Peeters is an avid reader, especially when it comes to sci-fi. He read a lot of Ray Bradbury, Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, and others growing up. One of his goals is to create his own brand of ‘Franco science-fiction’.

He was also influenced a lot by cinema before he discovered comics, particularly Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner). Star Wars and Star Trek were not big influences, though he does acknowledge their presence in his early years.

Comic influences came later on in the form of Moebius, Herge, Charles Schulz, and others. Later he discovered other European artists, including Jean-Claude Forest (Barbarella). He is still very fond of Tintin and feels it stands up even today.

His manga influences started with Otomo’s Akira, but he soon discovered Tezuka (Astro Boy), Masumoto (GoGo Monster), Urosawa (20th Century Boys), and more.

Most of the manga creators seem to work in studios with a team, which is something Peeters envies but doesn’t expect to achieve. Ideally he’d like to achieve a marriage between manga and classic European storytelling.

Lupus, his sci-fi epic, was published as four massive volumes by Atrabile in Europe. It took Peeters four years to complete and has yet to be translated into English. When it does he’d like to see it released in an omnibus edition.

Lupus is named after the disease of the immune system and came from a drunken evening with a friend trying to come up with the most ridiculous character names possible.

Peeters doesn’t like to know the whole story ahead of time - it becomes boring to him. He prefers to explore with the characters and make discoveries as he goes along. For example, he’ll write 10 pages, then be thinking about the next 10 while he’s drawing those ones. It’s a very organic way to work.

Some original art was being passed around the audience at Gosh! It was interesting to see that a lot of Peeters’ work is drawn in segments, almost like comic strips or frames, which are then stuck together to form complete pages.

Peeters first met Pierre Oscar Levy (his collaborator on Sandcastle) around 7 or 8 years ago when he called to enquire about the film rights to Blue Pills. The rights have subsequently reverted and someone else has it now, but it’s what originally brought them together.

He describes Levy as crazy-looking at times - a left-wing French Jew who was causing trouble on the streets from an early age. Levy was a teenager during the late ‘60s, so he grew up during an exciting time of protest and unrest.

Levy actually stayed with Peeters for two days to film him and the family as research for a Blue Pills film. Peeters had been hesitant at first, but Levy assured him it was for his personal use as he came from a documentary background.

It was those two days (and the time leading up to them) which cemented their ongoing friendship. Since then Levy has introduced him to a number of new books, films and influences - including Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys.

About two or three years ago, Levy approached Peeters and said he’d written something especially for him. Peeters explained he only did his own stuff, but agreed to read it anyway. The story was Sandcastle and he was immediately hooked.

Sandcastle was written like a movie script or treatment, complete with set descriptions and dialogue. The original script had a complete ending to explain things, but Peeters found it disappointing. Not that it was a bad, but he felt it became less interesting when explained, so he simply left it out.

Talking about other work, Peeters explained that Pachyderm was his homage to the American comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. They are one of his secret passions, though he doesn’t have the same level of wit as Billy Wilder and others of the time.

Peeters likens Pachyderm to a three-legged chair - it’s not comfortable or easy to read, but it leaves a lasting impression on the reader (or so he hopes). It’s also quite a surreal book with lots of illusion involved, so in many ways he considers it an experiment just like Blue Pills.

The book is very atmospheric and takes place in Switzerland during the ‘50s. It tells the story of a woman who is married to a diplomat and cannot have children. Something happens to the husband early in the book and she takes the opportunity to reclaim her freedom and independence.

His latest project, Aama is for the prestigious French publisher Gallimard. Unlike Lupus, which was completely improvised, Aama features a clear ending that is used as the starting point (similar to Wilder’s Sunset Boulevarde).

Peeters shared the idea for Aama with his editor on the way back from Angouleme a couple of years ago. The editor started falling asleep, which Peeters took as a bad thing, but the editor explained he was being lulled by the story - not unlike a children’s bedtime tale.

Gallimard don’t really do sci-fi, so Peeters had to invent a new genre when pitching it. Aama blends hyper-technology with true science-fiction, but is written in a classical style. It’s very literary with lots of text, and is nowhere near finished yet.

He feels it will sell well in the English market when it is eventually released because it features a monkey-robot called Churchill.

So, there you have it… A lot was covered during the hour or so that Paul Gravett and Frederik Peeters were in conversation, but hopefully this report gives you a small glimpse into what it was like. Thanks to Gosh! Comics, Self Made Hero, Comica Festival and, of course, Frederik Peeters for another top-notch event - it’s a great time to be a comics fan in London!

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"...plenty to spark your interest here, even if your last comic experience involved cow pie."
Flavorpill

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Matthew Rees

"Comica... continues to heap cultural credibility onto this once maligned art form."
BBC Online

"...a two-week celebration of the art form..."
The London Paper

"...i left the ica full of encouragement and positivity."
Maartje Schalkx

"...Sacco had some interesting things to say about the comics form in general."
Simon Hacking

"...an inspiring look into the creative lifestyle."
Pop Culture Hound

"Every time I go to these events I come back inspired to do more work."
Sylvia Libedinsky

"...Comica continues to be a must-visit destination each year..."
Joel Meadows

"...a very special conversation between two incredible artists."
Chris Thompson