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Stephen Betts runs the innovative French comics translation web site Comix Influx. Stephen attended the Emmanuel Guibert and Emile Bravo conversation at the ICA on 20 June 2009. The following review appeared on the Comix Influx Blog.

Saturday night (20/6/9) saw another great ComICA event at the ICA, with Emmanuel Guibert and Émile Bravo in conversation with Paul Gravett.

ComICA normally comes up with some great talks and panels, but to get two such luminaries of French comics, right as they are both becoming superstars was a fantastic achievement.

Émile Bravo is the author of Ma Maman Est En Amerique, elle a rencontrait Buffalo Bill, as well as last year’s Spirou retcon, many people’s book of 2008. Ma Maman has been published in translation as My Mommy… by Fanfare (of course, Comix Influx was ahead of the curve with its own translation).

Emmanuel Guibert is principally known for his “serious” books - La Guerre d’Alan and Le Photographe, each published in English by First Second as Alan’s War and The Photograhper, respectively. However, he has also done lighter work, particularly collaborating with Joann Sfarr on the Sardine stories (over 1200 pages to date!), which Guibert wrote, and on The Professor’s Daughter, which he illustrated (apparently he and Sfar would draw roughs when writing for the other).

Émile Bravo is principally known as a creator of comics for children. But his books are almost the archetype of the “children’s books that will be loved by all ages” cliché. Part of this must be due to the ingenuousness that he brings to his work, which seems to derive from his desire to write for his younger self. Indeed, he still has something of the big kid about him - the unruly hair, bustling energy and enthusiasm and mischievous grin.

Even the act of creating comics he explicitly ties to childhood, saying that the first way a child learns to communicate is through drawing. This “drawing as communication” theme seems central to Bravo - he says that he doesn’t draw unless he has something to say; he has no sketchbooks. He also draws a big distinction between good drawing that is technically good and good drawing that is emotionally good. As a story-teller he is interested in the latter and is less concerned whether drawings are technically good.

For Bravo, you cannot separate the drawing and the writing. He describes the writing as the difficult part, and the drawing is just craft; but for Bravo drawing is part of to how he writes. He seemed to me a truly pure and instinctive cartoonist, seamlessly blending story and words in order to tell a story.

However, he doesn’t always do both. His biggest success before Spirou, le journal d’un ingénu was Ma Maman, which was written by his friend, Jean Regnaud. I had not realised that that book was an autobiographical story. Bravo said that he initially found it inhibiting, because he knew personally all the characters in the story, but for Regnaud that meant he was the ideal choice to do it.

Bravo’s work on Spirou has been a massive success in France, although the character is largely unknown in the Anglophone world (hopefully this is changing with Cinebook publishing several volumes in translation, which might lead to a translation of Spirou). Bravo deliberately chose to deal the period after the character was created in 1938, and before Franquin took over in 1946. Bravo said that he felt Franquin filled the character out a lot, and so Bravo’s goal was to explain how Spirou went from the initial character, with no background and no character (who literally jumps off an artist’s page in his first story, thanks to a spritz of “eau de vie”), to the complete character that Franquin wrote a few years later. For Bravo, it was the war that must have been the vehicle that gave Spirou a measure of self-awareness. He said that he was writing the story for his childhood self, who always wanted to know all those answers. At the same time did not seem to feel particularly precious about this being the one true origin (although it appears that members of the audience did feel a little more strongly about that).

The first half of the panel was almost all Bravo, but in the second half interviewer Paul Gravett turned to ask questions of Emmanuel Guibert. Bravo and Guibert were a good pairing, as despite having much in common (in fact, Bravo and Guibert (along with Sfarr and many other French comics artists) shared the same studio in the Place de Vosges in Paris), their distinctions were even more interesting.

Unlike Bravo, who seems to live on his instints for his creative decisions, Guibert comes across as a much more cerebral artist. His decisions are much more deliberate (although he admits to not always remembering what they are - “this book littered with decisions I don’t remember” he said of The Photographer).

The two works that, to date, define Guibert’s career - Allan’s War and The Photographer - have both recently been published in English by First Second. Unusually, both books are based on the reminiscences of acquaintances of Guibert, whose stories, he realised, he needed to tell.

For Alan’s War that seems particularly surprising - the eponymous Alan is a GI who entered mainland Europe only towards the end of the Second World War; he wasn’t involved in combat, and barely saw any enemy soldiers. For a war story, it sounds somewhat unpromising, but Guibert paid testament to Alan’s story-telling skills. Intriguingly, Guibert added that the most interesting part of the story was Alan’s childhood; of the 5 years he spent talking to Alan, the last 3 dwelt on his childhood. I understand that Guibert will return to Alan’s story in the future.

Guibert’s art is beautiful - First Second have publicised his particularly indiosyncratic method for the art in Alan’s War on

In contrast to that somewhat idiosynchratic approach, we saw a couple of initial, more traditional, pencil sketches, which were lovely - very precise, with dense, beautiful, curved cross-hatching. Unlike Bravo, Guibert clearly does consider the art a great deal, in isolation of the writing, though still in the service of the story. His art across his various books shows a fantastic range and versatility.

Apparently, when Japanese artists at Angoulême saw Guibert’s work on Brune (an early, painted comics album) they were amazed at how much time must have been spent on them. In contrast, Paul mentioned some of the artists published by L’Association, particularly Trondheim and Sfar, but also many others, had led to a looser, sparser style becoming more fashionable. He further wondered whether that had helped the publishing boom occurring in French comics at the moment. Guibert was reluctant to agree with that, simply saying that every book has its own pace.

Impressive as Alan’s War is, it was The Photographer that really took my breath away. Guibert wanted to tell the story of his neighbour and friend, the photographer, Didier Lefèvre, as he travelled through war-torn Afghanistan in the mid-80s with Médecins Sans Frontieres. Given his subject, it was obvious that to make the book work he would have to pull off the audacious trick of incorporating photographs directly into the book. This is notoriously difficult to do - as Guibert said “Drawing and photos they fight, both try to kill each other.” Nonetheless, Guibert pulls it off flawlessly (although he did throw out a month and a half’s work, in trying to make it work).

He always uses the photos as they were on the contact sheet - “no cropping, no anything”. But in order that he had the freedom he needed to make that work, he demanded from Lefèvre, and received, permission to use whichever photos he wanted. As Guibert said, this is a big request to grant: “For a photographer, choosing which photos to use is as important as taking the photos in the first place.”

To illustrate the how unusual this would be for a photographer, Guibert said that Lefèvre sold only 6 photographs from the trip described in the book (not an unusual rate of return for a professional photographer), whereas Guibert brought hundreds to a new audience in The Photographer. He commented on the “morphological resemblance” of a photographer’s contact sheet and a comics page which was immediately apparent to him.

Interestingly, in Alan’s War, every word came from Alan, through his conversations with Guibert; in The Photographer, Guibert wrote much of the dialogue, and even later heard Didier using Guibert’s words in retelling the anecdotes.

For its powerful subject, the clarity of its story telling, its experimental, almost formalist, use of photographs, and its bravura mixing of medium and message, The Photographer already stands out as a classic book.

So another great night of comics at the ICA - thanks and kudos once again to Paul Gravett for organising these events. ComICA normally comes up with some great talks and panels, but this was particularly memorable; it is rare to get the opportunity to see such a great paring of artists, both just receiving well deserved international recognition, and both in perfect control of their medium.


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