(or, "Man These New York Used Bookstores Are Good")
Made In France: 8 Artists and the Graphic Novel (2007). Nyehaus.
I'm hanging out in Brooklyn this week. I found a really bizarre, interesting "comics artifact" -- I'm a little hesitant to just call it a "comic" -- here today. Used bookstore, the kind where the comics are packed in with the pop/design art monographs. The sum total of the comics section was Brian Chippendale's If 'N' Oof on one side, then this book, then Chippendale's Maggots on the other side. Pretty funny. Made In France: 8 Artists and the Graphic Novel looked like a nice anthology of French art-comix type of work on a quick browse through it in the store, which seemed like something worth owning. It wasn't until I was looking at it later that I realized this thing is an exhibition catalog. As that medium goes, Made In France is just beautifully designed -- it looks like a book on the outside (above), but then you open it up and instead of leafing pages you get this:
Oh wow, full marks for presentation, no doubt. Seven slim pamphlets showcase the work of the eight artists spotlighted in the exhibition, only one of whom I'd heard of at all before. An eighth contains a few succinct, informative notes from the show's curator, Eurocomics writer Matz (best known in America for his Archaia series The Killer). There's also a pretty dope poster. The pamphlets aren't comics stories though, they're reproductions of the original art boards that made up the exhibition, usually accompanied by the cartoonists' paintings or sketchbook work. Some interesting stuff from some engaging artists, none of whom have had work translated into English I believe.
- 1. Paulo Bacilieri
Very pretty drawing in this one. It starts out with a few pin-up pages in a nice naturalistic pen style, lots of delicate hatching that indicates light with a very soft touch, lots of rounded shapes. What puts them past being mere eye candy is the hyper, maximalist environments Bacilieri places his bikini'ed girls in, always cluttered and lived-in. Girls lying around in stacks of books and comics, girls kneeling on floors with neatly labeled telephones and bottles of Italian wine. The closest thing we've seen to it in American comics is Brandon Graham, but there's a committed attempt at realism in mingling with the cartoon emphasis on making every element of the drawing code for a distinct Thing. I found the pin-ups more interesting than Bacilieri's comics pages, which have a nice, almost manga-style flow of action but can get bogged down in the decorative woodcut look of the hatching.
- 2. Christian De Metter
Painted comics pages -- done in gouache so they look a little heavy, but light and impressionistic enough so they don't edge into uncomfortable Alex Ross territory. Maybe more like Scott Hampton or Jon J. Muth. De Metter composes his pages very strikingly, setting out distinct horizontal tiers and then chopping them up into subdivided blocks. It might be a bit too pyrotechnic an approach in flat ink and color, but the softness of the paint helps it flow a little, as does De Metter's dispensing with panel borders and allowing the painted panels to just sluice into each other at the edges. A few of De Metter's canvases are spotlighted as well: soft-focus, photorealist work that didn't move me too much. Two of the three paintings were naked women with ridiculously big heads, like a Dave Cooper thing without the great cartooning.
- 3. Jean-Claude Gotting
More painted comics, much more interesting ones this time. Gotting's black and white acrylic pages are superficially most reminiscent of Jerry Moriarty, boldly cartooned rather than "painterly", with a similar '50s nostalgia aesthetic at work -- but his drawing looks more Art Spiegelman. Thick black lines cutting through bright whites and rough, sanded-down grays. The canvases in this one are also a lot more interesting to my eye than De Metter's. They're almost Lichtenstein at first glance, really simply cartooned portraits, but Gotting brings a real-world play of light and an almost Cubist color palette to his subjects, lending the simple forms an impressive depth. Good stuff going on in here.
- 4. Miles Hyman
Not really sure how I feel about this one. Hyman's a good artist (though his soft-light pin-ups look like something you might find on the wall of a tiki bar circa 1987) with a real knack for composing a page. There's a great one in here of a guy getting brought down by a naked female axe-murderer, and a few tightly gridded pages that really ooze tension. His cartooning kind of weirds me out though. It's drawn in charcoal, which is really interesting, but it has a very stiff woodcut look about it, kind of a mix between Berni Wrightson and Rick Geary. Realistically lit faces that look like mutated babies. If that sounds strange, well, it is. Hyman does interesting work, no doubt, but I guess it's just not to my taste.
- 5. Lax
Ah, the French one-name-cartoonist tradition! Ah, Romance! This one is fascinating. Its spreads show black and white line art for the pages on the left side, and hand-drawn color roughs on the right, Pantone marker strokes bleeding out of the panels completely carelessly, delicate waves of flat pastel color subsuming everything in a rich glow that reminds me a lot of Frank King. Not necessarily the same colors he used, but the same ambiance, quiet and warm. Lax's actual drawing is less interesting than his color to me, but it's still pretty good, a slightly Moebius-inflected reading of the scratchy, overcrowded Howard Chaykin style. Lax knows when to drop the detail and focus in on what's important, though, and when a black and white page looks muddied by too much going on, the color one always directs the eye to the center of the action with ease. There are sketchbook pieces in the back of this one, just straight life drawings of female nudes. They're very good, but not much different than what you'd see in the notebook of any accomplished artist. They show Lax's line to be strong and assured when it cuts away all the anecdotal information that sits on his comics pages. If he were to do sequential work in his sketchbook style that would really be something to see.
- 6/7. Jerome Mulot and Florent Ruppert
This is my favorite one by far. Mulot and Ruppert are collaborators, but heaven knows where there's room for one to leave off and the other to take over. Their pages are filled with minimal, wonderfully composed black and white thin-line drawings, superficially reminiscent of CF but much more deeply engaged in a European tradition of slightly grotesque cartooning that artists like Brecht Evens and Olivier Schrauwen have recently brought American alt-comics into contact with. Mulot and Ruppert go all the way down to the bone, though -- their delicate, almost hesitant pen drawing communicates a great deal about posture and drapery and lighting with just a few deeply considered strokes. It almost looks like contour drawing in places. Their page compositions are incredible to behold, too: a double-page spread of a woman smashing a bottle over her would-be rapist's head starts out with disturbing, knobbly figurework before paring down into hands scrabbling across a tabletop and finally an explosion of smashed glass against a yawning white background, while another sequence shows an array of faceless figures before and after being hacked up into bits. There's a breathtaking delicacy in Ruppert and Mulot's work that clashes up against their bone-chilling subject matter brilliantly. Really interesting artwork that I can't think of much else like. I'm waiting for a translation now.
- 8. Sergio Toppi
I can't figure out how I know this guy's name, but oh well. His work is probably closest out of all these to what people associate with "European genre comics" -- that flowing, bronzed Heavy Metal magazine thing. Very Moebius, with some Gustav Klimt decorative flourishes thrown in that probably come from looking at Philippe Druillet, but look pretty Bill Sienkiewicz to my American eyes. I would say the artist currently working the Toppi style hardest in America is Simone Bianchi. The subject matter of these pages is pretty typical -- barbarian warriors, noble Indian braves, cowboy types -- but hey, that stuff is cool to look at when it's drawn this well. Toppi is kind of a John Buscema figure, I guess, not one of the great revolutionary talents but a rock-solid genre comics artist whose distillation of a few more idiosyncratic, influential artists' work into one general style has ended up having an influence of its own. Matz could definitely have picked a worse "grandmaster" to finish off his exhibition with.
So that's this book -- a lot of interesting comics art, some of which is genuinely great work, and the opportunity to really go deep into another country's cartooning tradition. In a lot of ways I feel like one can learn more about comics in France by looking at these few curated pieces from each artist than reading a whole book from each of them, because this is what gets put on display. The one I found is labeled "156 out of an edition of 1500", and I've never seen a copy before in my life, but it's definitely worth tracking down. Killer book design, cultural education, and comics all in one, who could ask for more?