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Comics as “écriture”: Balthazar Kaplan

Over at du9 Balthazar Kaplan has an interesting post up today. [in French] I thought I’d do a quick summary and translation of part of it.

Kaplan was co-creator of the zine Dorénavant with Balthélémy Schwartz. All I know of it comes from a few posts by Domingos Isabelinho: on the zine in general and some images from it; and an interview and reprinted content with/by Schwartz in L’Association’s l’Éprouvette #2. I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen, and their list of comics (see the second link to Domingos’ blog) lead me to a few works that I now really love (like Deborah Turbeville’s photo sequences).

He starts off his post at Angoulême, where he is “seduced” by Brecht Evens’ imagery. He buys Les Amateurs and gets a sketch in it from the author. But when he gets home and reads the book, he is disappointed by the comic itself: “A simple sequence, an unconsidered flow of images. They were sometimes full of poetry, but their internal richness disappeared into the gutter.”

This sends him back to considering the legacy of Dorénavant and the goals of their discourse, which he divides into three “stages”, the first two of which he feels have come to fruition: the rise of independent publishers and the diversity of graphic expression. But, the third, which he considers the most important, hasn’t quite taken off in the same way.

This stage is that of comics as writing [in the sense of literary writing, not hand writing]. Denouncing the expression which is often limited to a story board and inviting authors to take hold of the specificity of comics as art — less the interaction of text and image than the division of a space to create a temporality, we wanted comics to finally seize the medium’s potential. This stage hasn’t yet taken off. Perhaps it will be the big event of this decade.

What does it mean, comics as writing? When Proust, in la Recherche narrates the visit of little Marcel to his bedridden Aunt Léonie, he’s not only telling the story of a discussion between a little boy and an old lady. At the same time, he brings in the entirety of the town of Combray and above all, through a web of metaphors, he puts the reader insidiously, not without humor, in the interior of… an apple turnover. Writing is the weaving of several levels of reading, the creation of depth, a thousand leaves[mille-feuilles, which is a pastry known here as a Napoleon] on a single page[feuille]. Comics, because they benefit from both the spatiality of the page and the temporality of the breakdown/division can easily create such a densification. [There’s a pastry metaphor (and some wordplay, I think) in here with the Napoleons and the apple turnover, but I’m not familiar enough with Proust to get the connection.]

It is precisely this that Brecht Evens lacks. Undoubtably he has graphic talent, but he still uses the same story model — a linear model with a single level, without densification, without the play of depth. He makes comics that are extensive. This is a characteristic of the new comics: they are often voluminous. The author is animated by a desire to say something, but always uses the same basic model: he juxtaposes images then pages.

In comparison, Le Rêveur captif of Barthélémy Schwartz (l’Apocalypse, 2013) is constructed as true writing. Within a single page several tracks cross. Like Spiegelman, in Maus, connected “the circumstances of the telling of the story at the same time as the story”, Schwartz tells his cycle of dreams at the same time as the context of his dreams, his familial, social, and geographic circumstances, as well as adding references to writers, thinkers, and artists. And when he takes up the “situation of the dream”, he plunges us, simultaneously, into the graphic universe of the Situationists, in their discourse as well, with detachment and a touch of humor. The essential word is “simultaneously”. The thousand pages[mille-feuilles] are there. Like Proust, Schwartz densifies his story. And the reader’s pleasure, gourmand and gourmet, can finally be satisfied.

Some will say that this is no longer comics. Faithful to Dorénavant, I say, rather, that this is finally comics. Can Brecht Evens — and all the other talented graphic artists like him — question the model they use and rethink their medium as writing.

[I hope Kaplan will forgive my hasty and rough translation of his words.]

With all the recent arguments (see TCJ and HU) about “literaries”, this seemed like an à propos segment to highlight. I’ve actually got Schwartz’s new comic here to read, it’s a dense book. Kaplan’s description makes me all the more excited to really dig into it.

I understand Kaplan’s criticism of Even’s work. I haven’t read that particular book, but while I was impressed with The Wrong Place visually, the story itself was rather simple/linear. A few years out now, I don’t have a strong desire to revisit the book. I think, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, there is often such a focus on visual style and talent/skill/polish in comics that anything else can get thrown out of the conversation.