The Post-Moebius Upholders of a Proud French Comic Book Tradition

In March, Jean “Moebius” Giraud died. This was a sad day for comic readers as Giraud was probably the finest artist ever to work in the medium. He could draw anything, in any style, and his work was always exquisite.

More than that, Giraud possessed a remarkably free imagination. In the 1970s he co-founded Métal Hurlant, an influential French comic magazine. Ostensibly SF, the strips mixed politics, assorted genre tropes, surrealism and stream of consciousness to create a deliriously trippy stew (man). Moebius’ own Airtight Garage—which he improvised on a monthly basiswas a bizarre and beautiful tour de force.

Anyway, encountering that stuff in my youth left me with two firm ideas:

  1. French comics are the best in the world; and
  2. the purpose of a comic is to blow the reader’s mind in a way that cannot be done in any other medium.

Needless to say, few creators are up to the task. The cosmic Jack Kirby, yes; Alejandro Jodorowsky; Manga schlock-horror freakfest Gantz; and, in ye olden days, Grant Morrison, amid a handful of others. Now that Moebius is gone, however, the two artists who impress me above all are, like Moebius, French.

The first, David B, is semi-known in the English-speaking world. A few years back, Jonathan Cape published his book Epileptic, presumably because of his connections to Marjane Satrapi. I am a great admirer of Persepolis, but David B’s art is much more sophisticated. Yes, Epileptic is an autobiographical story about the effect his brother’s epilepsy had upon his family, but David B conveys this not only through “memoir” but also through dreams and fantastic panels cluttered with demons and warriors. His control of technique is such that he can draw something completely different from what he is apparently talking about, and yet only increase the resonance and power of his narrative.

Even more phantasmagorical is The Armed Garden, where David B blends history, dream and myth to tell a story at once scholarly and poetic. As the artist shows us, the protagonist of two of the stories, Jan Žižka, was indeed an apocalyptic nutter of a Czech general; and yes, it was his dying wish to have his skin flayed and stretched across war drums … but whether one of those drums was sentient and fell in love is another matter entirely. Yet, with consummate literary/artistic skill, David B makes it seem the natural conclusion of Žižka’s career, rendering history into fable.

So David B is pretty good; one of the most sophisticated cartoonists in the world, even. Certainly The Armed Garden blows the mind. But when it comes to producing work that is indescribably strange and yet beautiful, even he must bow before the “mad genius” of French comics, Nicolas de Crecy.

I first encountered De Crecy’s work in a graphic novel commissioned by the Louvre. In Glacial Period, De Crecy imagines an expedition of humans and genetically engineered sentient dogs stumbling upon the Louvre in a future ice age. A scholar reconstructs western civilisation on the basis of what he finds, and is entirely wrong. So it’s a witty satire on the shaky towers of theory that historians erect on fragmentary evidence. But De Crecy also works in a subplot involving the unrequited love of a dog for its master, and a fantastical sequence in which the artwork comes to life, climaxing with multiple Jesus Christs squabbling over who is the actual son of God.

Glacial Period was unique, strange, and very witty. If it didn’t quite blow me away, it certainly made me curious about his alleged masterpiece, The Celestial Bibendum. So I was very excited when I read that it was about to be published in English—by Humanoids in the US, and Knockabout/Gosh in the UK.

The first thing I noticed was how much Belleville Rendez-Vous, directed by a former De Crecy collaborator, stole from De Crecy’s visual style. Then I started reading, only to stop and return to the beginning, several times. Very, very slowly, panel by panel, a rambling disembodied voice leads the reader through a French country landscape, depicted in lavish detail, culminating in a close-up shot of a fat, grinning, severed white head resting on a table in a ruined farmhouse. This is our narrator; he has a story to tell us.

And what is that story? Well, it’s about a lonely seal pup named Diego, a white lump on crutches who arrives at the fantastical city of New York-on-the-Seine, and is quickly scooped up by the city’s scholars, who hope that with the right education he will win for them “the Nobel prize of love”. But it’s also about a wrestle for control of both Diego and the narrative itself between Satan and unseen forces acting through the severed head on the table. Satan’s role becomes more and more central, until—abducted by a pack of dogs—he is given the mission of revealing the base truth behind the origins of humans and their cities…

Actually, it is pointless to try and summarise the story. De Crecy’s narrative follows its own logic, which is constantly shifting under our feet. The tone is ironic and humorous, but there are moments that are horrific, grotesque, and satirical. The art is splendid, but at times hideously ugly.

I’ve been reading comics for a long time, and as I said I think the purpose of a comic is to blow the mind. When I put The Celestial Bibendum down, I knew that I had never read anything like it in any medium. This is a new strangeness, magnificent and wonderful.

The Guardian 20th April 2012

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