mem­o­ries and mem­oirs

From war-torn Europe or Afghanistan to an idyl­lic Los Angeles a century ago, the French graphic nov­el­ist tells Paul Gravett how he turns his friends’ mem­o­ries into un­for­get­table mem­oirs

Comic Heroes - - World of Comics - Guib­ert’s How The World Was is on sale in Au­gust from First Sec­ond.

As Em­manuel Guib­ert turns 50 this year, three over­rid­ing goals have come to mo­ti­vate him: “Mak­ing people, es­pe­cially chil­dren, laugh, so that I can get back to the source of my love of comics and give kids all that I felt my­self when read­ing my favourites; try­ing to cap­ture life through re­portage; and fi­nally, col­lab­o­rat­ing with friends I get along well with but who are also very dif­fer­ent from me, so they take me where I’d never go on my own.”

The re­sults are a vi­brant di­ver­sity of projects and ap­proaches from a nat­u­ral col­lab­o­ra­tor, whether he is work­ing as writer or artist with his fel­low French comics cre­ators, or with his close friends, trans­form­ing their mem­o­ries into un­for­get­table graphic mem­oirs.

Born in Paris, Guib­ert en­joyed a bliss­ful child­hood and sup­port­ive par­ents, who nur­tured his love of draw­ing. “One of the first words I spoke was ‘pen­cil’.” He grew up in south­east France in the Bass­esAlpes, for­merly part of Provence. “A lot of what I am do­ing now comes from the enthusiasm that filled my child­hood, the idea that life is some­thing to cel­e­brate.”

By the time he en­tered art school in Paris, he was al­ready work­ing as an il­lus­tra­tor and sto­ry­board artist, so he de­cided to leave af­ter six months. He was taken un­der the wing of Tanino Lib­er­a­tore, co-cre­ator of RanXerox. The vir­tu­oso Ital­ian artist in­tro­duced Guib­ert to his pub­lish­ers, who com­mis­sioned him to de­velop a plot about the rise of Fas­cism in ’30s Ger­many. So la­bo­ri­ously re­searched and hy­per-re­al­is­ti­cally painted, Guib­ert’s 48-page graphic novel de­but Brune took him six drain­ing years to com­plete.

daily draw

Where had his child­hood pas­sion for comics and draw­ing gone? Some­thing had to change. Guib­ert set him­self the daily task of mak­ing a fast ob­ser­va­tional draw­ing, to get to the es­sen­tial. “I felt my draw­ing be­come more free, open up, move more eas­ily into un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory,” he says. He also forced him­self to ex­per­i­ment with un­usual tech­niques, dis­cov­er­ing pro­cesses he would use later. “It’s my chronic dis­sat­is­fac­tion at be­ing un­able to reach a level of to­tal con­fi­dence – which would ac­tu­ally be the height of bore­dom – that pushes me to keep on try­ing to find so­lu­tions.”

The other big change was join­ing a stu­dio of his peers, who be­came his mates and part of ‘La Nou­velle Bande Dess­inée’, the new gen­er­a­tion who re-en­er­gised French comics. In 1994 he met David B and through him was in­tro­duced into the Ate­lier Nawak, not far from the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou, and later the Ate­lier des Vos­ges, join­ing bril­liant ris­ing stars such as Joann Sfar, Lewis Trond­heim and Christophe Blain.

The ini­tial idea was sim­ply a shared workplace but these stu­dios soon be­came like a class­room with­out a teacher, for learn­ing from and in­evitably work­ing with each other.

Guib­ert’s col­lab­o­ra­tions in­cluded chil­dren’s come­dies about Sar­dine, a feisty pirate girl in space cre­ated by Joann Sfar, who drew more than 400 pages of them in BDLire monthly be­fore Guib­ert took over the art as well. The pair swapped roles for other col­lab­o­ra­tions, each a dif­fer­ent process. On The Pro­fes­sor’s Daugh­ter, a Vic­to­rian ro­man­tic bur­lesque be­tween the leading lady and a res­ur­rected Bri­tish Mu­seum mummy, Guib­ert ex­per­i­mented with washes and was closely in­volved in the writ­ing, sug­gest­ing changes, script­ing pages, work­ing side-by-side with Sfar in the stu­dio. First Sec­ond has trans­lated this charmer along with six paperbacks of Sar­dine. In con­trast, on their three episodes, so far, of Les olives noires (‘ The Black Olives’) set in Judea in Bi­b­li­cal times, Guib­ert left Sfar’s texts

un­touched and switched to a crisper brush tech­nique. Guib­ert as writer also teamed up with car­toon­ist Marc Bouta­vant on the funny and ten­der Ariol, tales of your aver­age ev­ery­day schoolkid don­key, se­cretly in love with Pe­tula, the pret­ti­est calf in the class. These are avail­able in English from Paper­cutz.

pro­duc­tion line

Guib­ert and com­pany were mak­ing bande dess­inée al­bums that were a world away from the pre­cious, time-con­sum­ing, over-ren­dered tra­di­tion, one year or more in the mak­ing. Theirs were re­fresh­ing comics of pop­ulist en­ter­tain­ment, brim­ming with wit and panache and pro­duced at a pace. Luck­ily these pro­lific cre­ators had France’s rapidly ex­pand­ing mar­ket to sup­ply. As Sfar urged Guib­ert, “Think of this as like mak­ing a B-movie. You can make books where you put in all you can, your whole life, but you can’t spend 107 years on each one.” Guib­ert heeded this ad­vice; in 2002 alone he re­leased no less than eight new ti­tles.

Be­com­ing part of this com­mu­nity also con­nected Guib­ert to the artist-run col­lec­tive pub­lish­ers L’As­so­ci­a­tion, rebels against stan­dard­i­s­a­tion and cham­pi­ons of cre­ative free­dom. It was for their an­thol­ogy Lapin that he started mak­ing a se­ries of bio­graph­i­cal vi­gnettes.

In 1994, while on hol­i­day on a small is­land off the French At­lantic coast, Guib­ert met the Amer­i­can ex-GI Alan In­gram Cope, aged 69. Though sep­a­rated by nearly 40 years, Guib­ert struck up an in­tense friend­ship and spon­ta­neous col­lab­o­ra­tion with this vivid racon­teur, record­ing hours of his candid sto­ries in his dis­tinct for­eign French. Over the next five years, Cope quickly grew to trust Guib­ert’s vi­su­al­i­sa­tions, leav­ing the artist free to pic­ture the vet­eran’s life from tapes, letters, phone calls, fam­ily pho­tos and the sketches he made, of Alan speak­ing and his sur­round­ings. Oc­ca­sion­ally Alan made draw­ings him­self: “He’d draw me a lit­tle draw­ing if I asked him to spec­ify some­thing, like how his mess kit looked or how he held his ma­chine gun.”

The 40 chap­ters and over 300 pages com­piled into Alan’s War of­fer no gung-ho glo­ries of World War Two com­bat across Europe but pin­point in­ci­dents of ba­nal­ity, in­com­pe­tence, hu­mour and hor­ror, and above all Cope’s quest for mean­ing. Af­ter con­tem­plat­ing the priest­hood, his grow­ing dis­en­chant­ment with re­li­gion and shal­low con­sumerism led to Cope quit­ting Amer­ica in 1948, never to re­turn. Late in life, he re­alised, “I hadn’t lived the life of my­self. I had lived the life of the per­son oth­ers had wanted me to be… And that per­son had never ex­isted.” Guib­ert il­lu­mi­nates this per­sonal his­tory in sepia, mak­ing the pan­els look like faded archival documents, with a grainy look evok­ing the war­time pho­to­graphs of Robert Capa.

Af­ter his friend’s death in 1999, Guib­ert found a way to re­con­nect to Cope by vis­it­ing friends and lo­ca­tions in Amer­ica and Ger­many and through a photo al­bum he left to him, re­pro­duced at the back of the book. Com­mit­ted to com­plet­ing his vis­ual chron­i­cle, Guib­ert turned to Cope’s ac­count of his Californian child­hood dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, “prob­a­bly the most in­ti­mate and beau­ti­ful part of what he con­fided to me”. The first part is pub­lished in Au­gust by First Sec­ond as How The World Was, which Guib­ert launches at The Bri­tish Li­brary in Lon­don on Au­gust 16 and 17.

The book opens with flat-coloured vis­tas of present-day Los Angeles, cars speed­ing along free­ways, in stark con­trast to Cope’s rec­ol­lec­tions of the for­got­ten city, be­fore the smog and sky­scrapers, when “the air smelled like lemons” and oaks and cedars lined the roads.

It was like a still movie that was full of life, thanks to his words and pho­tos

As his fam­ily moves house 14 times, Cope shares small but telling mo­ments, as well as some very pri­vate se­crets and tragedies, one in par­tic­u­lar that was too big for him to cry about. “I’m div­ing down deep to tell you this story, far be­neath con­scious mem­ory.” Such was the meet­ing of minds be­tween these two men that, in Guib­ert’s view, “In retelling Alan’s sto­ries, I don’t feel I am serv­ing any other story than my own. At the same time, it gives me that free­dom to change one word into an­other. Whether he says it or I say it, it’s all be­come the same.”

war sto­ries

In the late ’90s, Guib­ert un­der­took a tes­ta­ment to an­other life, that of French pho­to­jour­nal­ist Di­dier Le­fèvre (19572007), a neigh­bour and pass­ing ac­quain­tance, al­ways re­turn­ing from one Doc­tors With­out Borders mis­sion and head­ing off on an­other. Guib­ert felt frus­trated at not know­ing him bet­ter. “I thought I’m pass­ing be­side a friend­ship with­out re­ally liv­ing it.” So he asked the pho­tog­ra­pher to choose one mis­sion and tell it to him. Le­fèvre brought him box af­ter box of con­tact sheets, like pan­els of a comic, to nar­rate a gru­elling 1986 mis­sion to Afghanistan. “It was like a still movie, that was full of life, thanks to this com­bi­na­tion of his words, like a voiceover, and the pho­tos I was look­ing at.”

Of these 4,000 pho­tos, al­most all were un­pub­lished. Feel­ing this was an in­jus­tice, Guib­ert re­solved to record Le­fèvre’s story by mak­ing a book. This be­came three vol­umes of The Pho­tog­ra­pher, com­piled into one in English by First Sec­ond.

With de­signer and colourist Frédéric Le­mercier, Guib­ert in­te­grated the black-and-white pho­tos, in­tact, into the page lay­outs and brought them to life by jux­ta­pos­ing Le­fèvre’s nar­ra­tive cap­tions and Guib­ert’s con­nect­ing draw­ings of in­ci­dents that the cam­era had not recorded. The process helps the reader to un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing in each shot, and what hap­pened be­fore and af­ter. In one of the doc­tors’ house calls to a girl paral­ysed af­ter a bomb­ing, the room was too dark to take pic­tures. So Guib­ert draws the scene in sil­hou­ettes, lit by the ex­am­in­ing doc­tor’s torch on his head, as he spots a tiny hole in her back. It was made by a piece of shrap­nel “no big­ger than a grain of rice” and she will never walk again. Le­fèvre breaks down, un­able to take more pho­tos, but is jolted out of this by the mis­sion’s leader who has just video­taped a child’s death. She tells him, “The mother said to me, ‘Film it, Jamila. People have to know’.”

Guib­ert may omit him­self from his graphic bi­ogra­phies, but his pres­ence is al­ways felt on the page, the silent other half of the con­ver­sa­tion, the lis­tener, ob­server and trans­la­tor of his friends’ lives. It’s a way of pre­serv­ing and pro­long­ing these friend­ships and en­abling us, too, to be­friend these re­mark­able in­di­vid­u­als.

Above: Alan’s War fol­lows the life of ex- GI Alan In­gram Cope, while the hy­per-real­is­tic Brune, above cen­tre, charts the rise of Fas­cism in Ger­many.

Above: Guib­ert’s strik­ing, evoca­tive art for The Pho­tog­ra­pher and Le­fèvre’s har­row­ing pho­to­graphs make for a pow­er­ful mix.

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