A fresh perspective on the written word
Thanasis Petrou, an innovator in the field of graphic novels in this country, talks about two albums to which he has contributed
The graphic novel’s international popularity, coupled with the enormous success of Apostolos Doxiadis’s homegrown “Logicomix” and more recently the French effort “Rebetiko,” inspired by the characters affiliated with this fringe music style of the 1930s, have drawn more fans to the genre in Greece than ever before.
According to Thanasis Petrou – a news page designer at Eleftherotypia daily and French literature graduate who translated David Prudhomme’s “Rebetiko” and also did artwork for early 20th-century writer Dimosthenis Voutyras’s short-story collection “Pararlama,” an attempt at marrying the graphic novel with conventional literature – Greek readers are beginning to get over the bias that graphic novels are a product of a subculture or in their more innocent manifestations, reading material for kids.
Petrou recently spoke to Kathimerini about “Rebetiko,” its success, the genre and more.
Could the success of “Rebetiko” have to do with the fact that both the genres, one in literature and the other in music, are considered the product of a subculture?
For years rebetiko was viewed as a subculture by many circles, social and political. The right wing persecuted it because it considered it an expression of the lumpen proletariat, while the left lambasted it because, they argued, it contributed to the decline of the working classes, a world that they had a duty to exalt. After 1980, rebetiko experienced a revival with the discovery of some of the earliest recordings and of the rich musical heritage it represented. In a similar manner, comic books were considered material for children, especially in Greece. Elsewhere, mainly in France but also in Spain and Italy, there is a comic book culture. People read graphic novels as they do conventional literature; no distinctions are made between the two. The marriage between the two, rebetiko and comics, is defi- nitely a happy one and more so due to the fact that it was done by a Frenchman, because a Greek would never had succeeded. A Greek would face too much fire from too many directions: From experts, researchers and fans of the genre. Prudhomme’s “Rebetiko,” moreover, is fiction and not a historical account, though I don’t believe that his few historical inaccuracies have any negative impact on the quality or the beauty of the novel. This is something a Greek would never be allowed to do and certainly something that would never be a success if a Greek were to do it.
How well has “Rebetiko” done and why?
In France it has done very well indeed. It was awarded the Prix Regard sur le monde [glance at the world prize] at the Angouleme International Comics Festival in 2010 and the grand prize at the Saint Malo Festival the previous year. It has also received awards at other festivals, though these were not dedicated exclusively to comics. For example, in 2010 it was awarded best adapted screenplay at a film and literature forum in Monaco.
Its success in France is inexplicable because the French know nothing about rebetiko music. Its success in Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy must be due to its original popularity in France. Obviously the subject and the approach are attractive to readers. It is a very balanced album, as much in terms of narrative as its colors and design. It also presents a side of Greece that has nothing to do with its ancient past, as is usually the case.
Do you think that non-Greeks see rebetiko as a fad or as a new culture?
I can’t say if it’s a fad. They probably see it as being somewhat exotic, as they would anything else that is unknown, but also alluring. For Prudhomme, whom I have met, I think it was a revelation. An entirely unfamiliar world was revealed to him and I think that its authenticity, its bravado, the music and the entire social context that he discovered were very attractive to him.
Does he speak Greek?
Not a word. He read Gail Holst’s book “The Road to Rembetika” that came out in Greece in 1979. He read it in a reprint that was accompanied by a CD and was deeply moved by the songs. He went to the Greek bookstore Desmos in Paris and found more material, such as Elias Petropoulos’s “Songs of the Greek Underworld,” and began working on the graphic novel about rebetiko. From what I know, it took him over two years to complete. He began in 2007 with a few rough drawings, which he then scrapped, he rewrote the story and then presented the project to the publishers at Futuropolis, who were completely enthusiastic about it and encouraged him to keep going.
Is it a real story or fiction?
The story itself is completely fantastical, fiction. It is based on real people, though: Piraeus’s famous rebetiko band comprising Markos Vamvakaris, Giorgos Batis, Anestos Delias and Stratos Payioumtzis. He has taken Payioumtzis out of the picture and added a guy called Stavros, who resembles Yiannis Papaioannou a lot, though he never played with any of the members in that group. He added another imaginary character to the group of four, who is the narrator and recounts one day in their lives: their comings and goings, their music, their relationships, but also their fights with the police and so on.
Was it strange for you to translate a story about rebetiko from French into Greek?
It was a very attractive project because I listened to rebetiko as a kid and now I play it, and I’m also into comics: I draw and I work in a field that is related to comics. Translating it was a great pleasure, as was its final publication. Prudhomme did not draw much from French slang in order to render the rebetiko world’s idiom, but rather used regular French with just a few idiomatic elements. Basically, I had to rewrite the dialogue so that it seemed that people like Vamvakaris and Batis were actually speaking, people who lived in Greece in the 1930s. I had to add the idiomatic elements of the language myself.
Is your second comics album, “Pararlama,” with short stories by Dimosthenis Voutyras [1872-1958], an effort to marry comics with literature?
No, the initial idea was not to marry comics with literature in order to draw readers to either one or the other. It was a test. We wanted to see how possible the adaptation of literature to comics is. The result was very satisfactory so we went ahead an adapted nine of Voutyras’s short stories. I think that Voutyras’s work is especially well suited to the language of comics because he is, I would say, a very important writer who was treated as inferior by critical circles. He is underestimated. He was even cast out of the Academy of Athens at one point.
Do the worlds of Voutyras and rebetiko converge at all?
Yes, very much so, because Voutyras’s stories are mostly about the lives of social outcasts who spend their days at tavernas and coffee shops. They are drunks and alienated from society. Voutyras’s heroes are therefore akin to rebetiko in terms of style and ethos. There are a lot of similarities that aren’t immediately obvious.
Are you at all concerned that “Pararlama” may be considered too much of a novel of manners?
Voutyras is right on the limit of writing a novel of manners, but he is far too edgy to be defined as such. But I don’t really see why it matters. I would like it better if contemporary comics were more novels of manners in the classical sense, in that they describe, present and comment on the contemporary Greek way of life. Some efforts have been made here and there but because this is not a homegrown genre and most comics artists were initiated by reading American comics – few read French graphic novels because of the language – they are heavily influenced by themes relating to American culture. “Dressing” your superheroes in the mantle of Greek reality makes no sense unless it is done so in jest.
Thanasis Petrou brought the lumpen
characters of Dimosthenis Voutyras’s short stories to life in ‘Pararlama’ (left). ‘Rebetiko,’ a French
graphic novel translated into Greek by Petrou, and ‘Pararlama’ share a common trait in that they depict figures that have been cast out of mainstream society.