World Of Comics

Paul Gravett in­tro­duces the ver­sa­tile French vir­tu­oso who brings colour­ful life to the mav­er­ick Westerns of movie-maker Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky, the in­trigues of nov­el­ist Jerome Charyn and his own deliri­ous fan­tasies

Comic Heroes - - Contents - François Boucq

We re­dis­cover Bouncer artist François Boucq.

In the award-win­ning graphic novel The Ma­gi­cian’s Wife, a de­tec­tive as dap­per as Her­cule Poirot ob­serves: “Peo­ple aren’t re­ally like the im­age they try to project… They ig­nore their own mys­tery.” Peo­ple, and things, are fre­quently not what they seem in the un­nerv­ingly skewed ob­ser­va­tions of French comics cre­ator François Boucq.

Draw­ing came nat­u­rally to the self­taught Boucq (rhymes with “Luke”) – as he ex­plained in an in­ter­view in Libéra­tion in early 2015, the ques­tion for him was never why do you draw but “Why do you stop draw­ing? Be­cause ev­ery­one draws, even be­fore writ­ing. Draw­ing is a way of test­ing ev­ery­thing you say to your­self when you are a child. It’s only later, in­sid­i­ously, that we’re taught to write. And that puts us into another uni­verse. Any­one who car­ries on draw­ing re­sists that and can keep on ex­per­i­ment­ing.” Boucq was born in 1955 and raised in Lille, the sec­ond of four boys. His fa­ther ran a plumb­ing com­pany, his mother traded in an­tiques. Boucq con­trib­uted art­work be­hind the scenes to the lo­cal the­atre and de­signed huge-headed fig­ures for the city’s street car­ni­val. He be­came fas­ci­nated with draw­ings that blur the bor­ders be­tween the ev­ery­day and the ex­tra­or­di­nary that can lurk be­neath the sur­face.

Af­ter fail­ing his ex­ams, the young Boucq quit col­lege and took the train to Paris to hawk his il­lus­tra­tions. His pro­fes­sional de­but came in 1975 when he was hired as po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist for Le Point. He went on to con­trib­ute to other pe­ri­od­i­cals, car­i­ca­tur­ing the true faces of politi­cians and celebri­ties. When he de­cided to try his hand at craft­ing comics, it was time to re­turn home. “I tried liv­ing the Parisian life, but I didn’t find the

same vibes there as in Lille. Here, you get both a lively at­mos­phere and a kind of tran­quil­lity which suits me bet­ter than the frenzy of Paris. Comics de­mand a cer­tain re­mote­ness from events.”

Boucq’s de­but com­edy skits, all black-and-white strips writ­ten by oth­ers, got him no­tice and his first al­bum col­lec­tion in 1981. This led in 1983 to the French lit­er­ary bande dess­inée monthly À Suivre ask­ing him to pro­duce short sto­ries of his own in colour. To free him­self from re­cur­ring char­ac­ters and for­mu­las, Boucq set him­self the chal­lenge of start­ing each yarn afresh and pur­su­ing a dif­fer­ent odd sit­u­a­tion to its most ab­surd con­clu­sion. In his art­work, he over­laid glo­ri­ously vi­brant washes of coloured inks to heighten the vivid de­tails of his pen-and-ink line draw­ings and to in­stil each tale with a dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive at­mos­phere.

His taste for the grotesque and the philo­soph­i­cal re­sulted in some

You can’t work in comics if you don’t work hard. You need calm

un­for­get­table sce­nar­ios wor­thy of Monty Python. A mama’s boy hooked on war sto­ries is taken hostage in his home by en­emy troops seek­ing those “lit­tle cups of yo­gurt with real fruit at the bot­tom”, only to be res­cued by his ma­chine-gun-tot­ing mother. For a de­vout nun, the aisles of a su­per­mar­ket turn into a gaunt­let of temp­ta­tions fought over be­tween her an­gelic and dev­il­ish sides.

Boucq also sends up the wildlife documentary in sev­eral ex­am­ples, from the bizarre egg-lay­ing habits of tur­tles on crowded beaches to the noc­tur­nal ac­tiv­i­ties of con­struc­tion ma­chin­ery build­ing a Metro sta­tion on the Sa­van­nah. These and other shorts were compiled into sev­eral French col­lec­tions, one of which came out in English in 1989 as

Pi­o­neers Of The Hu­man Adventure from Cata­lan Com­mu­ni­ca­tions (1989). A num­ber also ap­peared in English in Heavy Metal mag­a­zine.

Out of these one-offs emerged Boucq’s one con­tin­u­ing char­ac­ter, the small but heroic door-todoor in­sur­ance salesman Jérôme Moucherot. For him, life is truly a jun­gle out there. The jour­ney to work is bad enough, dodg­ing ptero­dactyls, croc­o­diles and can­ni­bal punks. Some­how he bat­tles through the day, sport­ing his leop­ard-spot­ted yel­low suit, hat and tie, his ze­bra-striped brief­case and a foun­tain pen through his nose.

Boucq’s own daily rit­ual in­volves work­ing in his stu­dio from 8.30am to 9 at night and no later. “You can’t work in comics if you don’t work hard. Draw­ing is a state of be­ing – of be­ing both ac­tive and med­i­ta­tive – so to fin­ish your work well, you need calm.” Af­ter study­ing judo as a boy, he tried aikido when he was 30. Nowa­days

he prac­tises kendo or Ja­panese fenc­ing three times a week and has ad­vanced as far as a fifth-dan black belt. Mar­tial and comics arts have par­al­lels, he says: “In kendo, there’s no room for hes­i­ta­tion. When you have to strike a blow, you strike. It’s the same with draw­ing – the line must be just right.”

Draw­ing for the reader

Ex­plain­ing his meth­ods, Boucq says that when he draws, “I al­ways imag­ine the reader lean­ing on my shoul­der. I spec­u­late about how he takes in the story… I try to sur­prise him, grab his at­ten­tion, di­rect his gaze. Ev­ery­thing hap­pens through the or­der­ing of the im­ages, the rhythm, colours, sym­me­try, op­po­sites, vis­ual stim­uli. We don’t have all the tools of cinema, the mu­sic, the ac­tors. So to stir up emo­tion, comics play a lot on the reader’s un­con­scious per­cep­tion.”

Amidst all this ac­tiv­ity, Boucq stretched him­self still fur­ther by col­lab­o­rat­ing on his first full-length graphic novel and de­vel­op­ing for it a more re­al­is­tic style. The writer was new to the medium. Jerome Charyn, son of Jewish emi­grés from Rus­sia and Poland, was born and raised in the Bronx. He had learnt to read from Carl Barks’s Don­ald Duck and CC Beck’s

Cap­tain Marvel and dis­cov­ered lit­er­a­ture through Clas­sics

Il­lus­trated. Charyn grew up to be an English pro­fes­sor and writer of un­con­ven­tional crime nov­els and sur­real ur­ban fables. His pas­sion for comics was re­vived in Paris by his dis­cov­ery of adult bande dess­inée al­bums. For his first try at writ­ing one, Charyn re-worked an aban­doned novel, which Boucq then rein­ter­preted into comics.

We don’t have all the tools of cinema, so comics play on un­con­scious per­cep­tions

The re­sult was the un­set­tling love story The Ma­gi­cian’s Wife (Caster­man,1984). Ed­mund, an am­bi­tious young il­lu­sion­ist, as white-haired and pink-eyed as the rab­bits in his hat, has had his eye on Rita since she was a girl. Ed­mund be­gins by se­duc­ing Rita’s mother, the house­keeper, into run­ning off with him and her daugh­ter and form­ing his magic act. But all the while he is also ma­nip­u­lat­ing Rita into tak­ing her age­ing mother’s place on stage as well as be­com­ing his young bride.

What Ed­mund has not reck­oned with is his mind games spark­ing Rita’s rage and un­leash­ing the were­wolf within her. She flees and tries to lose her­self in New York City, but she can­not es­cape her curse – or es­cape be­ing haunted by Ed­mund.

Boucq’s new re­al­ism is stun­ningly con­vinc­ing, shift­ing from sprawl­ing man­sions and seedy ten­e­ments to shim­mer­ing dream­scapes and a sur­real show­down. Rita re­turns to find Ed­mund en­slaved, but her kiss rekin­dles his pow­ers. To­gether they can make magic.

Fol­low­ing rave re­views, this strange, hyp­notic book scooped the prize in 1986 for the best French­language graphic novel at the An­goulême In­ter­na­tional Comics Fes­ti­val, the largest comics event in the world, not count­ing Asia. If you haven’t dis­cov­ered this gem, out of print for nearly 30 years, Dover Books has just re-re­leased it.

Coun­try of the mind

Charyn and Boucq fol­lowed this up with Billy Budd, KGB (Caster­man, 1989), about a Ukrainian or­phan with a hare­lip who is re­cruited into the Rus­sian se­cret ser­vice. Given cor­rec­tive surgery and a forged pass­port, Budd has to as­sume a dou­ble life in New York. In pub­lic, he’s a con­struc­tion

worker on sky­scrapers; in se­cret, he’s an un­der­cover agent prized for his night­mare pre­mo­ni­tions. When he saves the life of a Na­tive Amer­i­can co-worker, he builds a bond with the man’s chief, who in­tro­duces Budd to a path dif­fer­ent from both Com­mu­nism and the Amer­i­can dream. But can Budd es­cape his masters? The re­sult weaves to­gether a Cold War psy­chothriller with one man’s quest for spir­i­tual truth. Dover will re­print this as well next year.

Af­ter these and a one-off il­lus­trated trav­el­ogue of New York, Charyn and Boucq went their own ways. Theirs had not been the smoothest of writer-artist part­ner­ships, but their re­spect was al­ways mu­tual and their ex­changes cour­te­ous, even if it’s typ­i­cally Boucq who gets the last word. That’s be­cause, rather than stick­ing to a “closed” fi­nal script, he prefers a more open story which he can de­velop and elab­o­rate.

In 2014, af­ter 25 years, the two men joined forces again on a new graphic novel, af­ter Boucq dis­cov­ered the pub­lished sketch­books of a Rus­sian guard, Danzig Bal­daev, whose naive but metic­u­lous draw­ings cap­tured the un­seen world of Siberian prison camps, most fa­mously writ­ten about by Alek­sandr Solzhen­it­syn. Boucq’s sug­ges­tion soon con­vinced Charyn – af­ter all, his fam­ily back­ground is Rus­sian, so this tale was in his blood.

The ti­tle Lit­tle Tulip is the nick­name of Paul, a bril­liant Rus­sian tat­too artist who grew up in Stalin’s gu­lags and around their mafia gangs. Es­cap­ing to the Big Ap­ple, Paul be­comes fa­mous for his tat­toos and his in­cred­i­ble faith­ful ID por­traits of wanted crim­i­nals, which, so far, have helped the po­lice. But one mys­te­ri­ous se­rial killer evades Paul’s gifts, and the un­fold­ing case soon brings back ghosts from Paul’s Soviet past. Boucq de­lib­er­ately chose “to make the char­ac­ters in Lit­tle Tulip re­sem­ble those in our two previous al­bums. I wanted to make links, be­cause even with so many years apart, they form a whole. They are a tril­ogy.” To com­plete this, Lit­tle

Tulip will also fol­low in English from Dover.

Head­ing West

Mean­while, start­ing in 1991, Boucq had taken to col­lab­o­rat­ing closely with Chilean-born film­maker Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky, famed for his weird Westerns El Topo and

Santa San­gre. They be­gan with a se­ries (even­tu­ally five vol­umes, con­cluded in 2004) of mys­ti­cal sci­ence fic­tion fea­tur­ing Face de Lune, a seem­ingly in­vin­ci­ble, moon-faced mute mes­siah of the

fu­ture, who tries to help the sheep­like masses against a despotic politico-re­li­gious govern­ment.

While pur­su­ing this, the pair switched from fan­tasy in 2001 to launch another se­ries to­gether,

Bouncer (avail­able in English from Hu­manoids Pub­lish­ing), mark­ing Jodor­owsky’s re­turn to the Wild West. From the start, Boucq was en­thused by Jodor­owsky’s de­sire to “cre­ate a Shake­spearean Western. We wanted to take the genre to­wards some­thing more am­bi­tious and lit­er­ary. And more his­tor­i­cally faith­ful. So not be­ing in­spired by John Ford or Ser­gio Leone films, but try­ing to recre­ate this past, es­pe­cially from pho­tos.”

In the first episode, one love­less fam­ily’s greed for a di­a­mond drives a mother to sui­cide, her three sons against each other, and one young grand­son to swear vengeance for his par­ents’ slaugh­ter. The third brother, now a one-armed bouncer, un­der­takes to train the boy to kill, in re­turn for be­ing his right arm. Jodor­owsky is in his el­e­ment again and, whether in widescreen land­scapes or sa­loon shootouts, Boucq’s art has never looked so gritty and vis­ceral. Over the course of nine al­bums so far, their twisted Western gets darker still.

Still draw­ing

Boucq’s pro­lific out­put also in­cludes the slick thriller se­ries

Jan­i­tor writ­ten by Yves Sente since 2007, and one in­stal­ment of the

XIII Mys­tery se­quels with Di­dier Al­cante. His new­est col­lab­o­ra­tion brings him back to his satir­i­cal roots, re­viv­ing Su­perdupont, that most French of su­per­hero par­o­dies in his beret, un­der­wear and slip­pers, with Mar­cel Gotlib, who cre­ated him with Jac­ques Lob and the artist Alexis in 1972 in Pilote mag­a­zine. No­to­ri­ously, one episode was drawn by Amer­i­can su­per­star artist Neal Adams. Su­perdupont:

Re­birth was re­leased by Dar­gaud in Septem­ber and a se­quel is al­ready in the works.

Hol­ly­wood has come call­ing, although nei­ther of Bouncer’s co-creators has been con­sulted by those in­volved in bring­ing their Western to the big screen. The di­rec­tor will be Flo­ria Sigis­mondi, cre­ator of nu­mer­ous videos for David Bowie, Sigur Rós, Jack White, Mar­i­lyn Man­son and oth­ers; cast­ing is un­der­way and shoot­ing should get started in 2016. But why wait, when you can al­ready en­joy the best movie Jodor­owsky never made, rav­ish­ingly re­alised by Boucq, on the pages of their un­miss­able graphic nov­els.

We wanted to take the Western to­wards the am­bi­tious and lit­er­ary

Above: The Ma­gi­cian’s

Wife – not to be con­fused with a thriller of the same ti­tle by James M Cain or the best-sell­ing his­tor­i­cal novel by Brian Moore – is a dark and oddly dis­turb­ing mas­ter­work.

Above: Af­ter The

Ma­gi­cian’s Wife, Boucq and Jerome Charyn col­lab­o­rated again on

Billy Budd, KGB. Like the ti­tle it­self, the story jux­ta­poses the USSR and the US in ways that fre­quently sub­vert your ex­pec­ta­tions.

Above: Billy Budd, KGB was first pub­lished in English by Cata­lan Com­mu­ni­ca­tions in 1991 – re­mark­ably apt con­sid­er­ing that the Cold War came to an abrupt end with the col­lapse of the Soviet Union at the end of that year.

Above: Jodor­owsky has al­ways been fas­ci­nated by the Amer­i­can Old West, and his lat­est col­lab­o­ra­tion with Boucq grew out of a con­scious de­sire to pro­duce a more lit­er­ary – in­deed a Shake­spearean – Western. It still de­liv­ers some gun­fights, though.

Above: There’s prob­a­bly some deep cul­tural rea­son why Euro­pean film-mak­ers and artists are able to pro­duce such iconic vi­sions of the Old West. Boucq sure draws nice, though, don’t he?

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