Later this month PictureBox is releasing Blutch's So Long, Silver Screen, "a series of interlocking short comics that combine scholarly movie history with ribald romanticism, and feature a motley cast of actors and characters, including Claudia Cardinale, Jean-Luc Godard, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Michel Piccoli, Tarzan and Luchino Visconti."
As much visual essay as graphic novel, a daydream and fantastic meditation on the other art of telling stories with images, So Long, Silver Screen is the finest work yet from an uncontested master of contemporary cartooning, as well as his first full-length work to be published in English. It is designed by famed cartoonist David Mazzucchelli.
Blutch has published over a dozen books since debuting in 1988 in the legendary avant-garde magazine Fluide Glacial: among his books are Mitchum, Peplum and Le Petit Christian, and his illustrations regularly appear in Les Inrockuptibles, Libération and The New Yorker.
Thank you, Blutch, for the honor to participate in this interview. Your work has tremendously inspired myself and an endless line of cartoonists, humbled by the virtuosity of your lush brushwork. It’s long overdue for your books to be translated into English, and I’m grateful to PictureBox for actualizing it.
There’s a line in So Long, Silver Screen: “All I knew about life came out from a box of comics and a few movies.” Is this true of you? What were those early life lessons and their sources?
Actually, I wasn’t alluding to a specific moment in my life. This line is a form of poetic license… How can I… No, I cannot mention any specific source. But yes, this is true of me. I live in the land of Great Literature but I was influenced by pictures. Moving pictures and static ones. It is not easy to comment on what I wrote in this book without paraphrasing it…
If comics and film were your first loves, what made you devote your career to the former?
Because, as far as I can remember, back to my haziest childhood memories, nothing has ever felt more fulfilling than drawing, that’s as simple as that. I crave for drawing, for its practice. This solitary pleasure. This unique way of visualizing ideas. Anybody can make a film but drawing is hard… it’s almost impossible. You may pretend you can make a film but you cannot pretend you can draw. Although… (he laughs)
France loves comics. Did this culturally affect your experience of growing up an artist? In the United States, young cartoonists are generally persecuted, socially inept nerds that retreat to their pencils and drawing paper for solace. Unfortunately that neurosis persists in “successful” adult life as shyness and insecurity. French cartoonists seem to have more confidence and bravado, giving me the impression– perhaps incorrect - that artistic children in France are socially validated rather than beaten up at recess. Is this true?
As far as I am concerned, I was never oppressed. I was actually encouraged because the adults surrounding me were totally afraid that I could not do anything else. Hardly good enough as a student and school left me indifferent anyway. I avoided team and individual sports. In desperation, my parents encouraged me in this way because when I sat at the dining table and started doodling, I gave them the illusion of being gifted.
What was your upbringing like? You were raised in Strasbourg, and the Alsace region seems to have a distinct flavor from the rest of France. Can you describe that? Did you have artistic nourishment?
Alsace is apart from the rest of France because of the language. French is my second language, I first learned Alsatian and when I started school, I didn’t speak a single word of French. I had to learn French at the age of 4. My grandparents on my father’s side didn’t speak a word of French, my grandparents on my mother’s side had a very poor French, my parents have a thick Germanic accent and their French is, well, not that orthodox… Such an environment was naturally determining in making me who I am. When you live on the border, you live on the edge. We lived next to Germany and we naturally absorbed a number of German habits. So yes, when you speak two different languages and grow up at the crossroads between Switzerland, Germany and France, it is quite inevitable that it will influence you both as an individual and an artist.
You describe in So Long, Silver Screen a child’s natural defiance to the mundane, impotent existences or our fathers and their office jobs. What did your father do for a living?
My father started out building frames then he became a carpenter and I can remember him drawing house plans on a fantastic drawing table, set in the garage. But at school when I had to fill the blank for my father’s occupation, I wrote down “building technician” and I never really understood what it meant… My mother brought us up, my brother and I, she was an assembly line worker in a chocolate factory.
You seem fluent in English. Did you learn it from films, or grow up with it in your household? Many of your books hold a dialogue with American culture, like Lettre Ameicaine and Total Jazz. Can you expound on this?
Facts are quite simple. Before 1917, French men had long moustaches. Then the smooth-faced Americans came and we started shaving. In 1944, the same Americans started a race against the Russians. They knew that if they did not rush to meet the Russians ahead, they would reach the Atlantic coast in no time. The junction happened far East from the Atlantic in Berlin. On the conquered land, the winners built military bases and started giving out gums and showing films with tremendous sex appeal. So I had no other choice than starting to speak English, just like the Gauls had to speak Latin, because here in Western Europe we are Gallo-Americans.
Are these sensibilities transposed to the medium of comics? The French drawing style seems more loose and expressive. How do you compare that to the North American cartooning ethic?
I am quite indifferent to these issues. I never think about them. Carl Barks opened the doors of American comics for me. And ever since this wonderful day, I have come across a lot of American cartoonists, either through their work or in the flesh. And it is not untrue to say that Carl Barks and I come from the same place…
Drawing for discipline, drawing for pleasure; are those impulses in conflict? Because it seems like you’ve been able to merge them. How are you able to infuse your work with such sensuality?
This is the difficulty of the game I play: trying to express life within the restraining and narrow frame of small drawings trapped into sequential panels.
Do you see the sexuality in So Long, Silver Screen veering into territory of fetish and perversion? If cinephilia is a form of masturbation, what is art-making in general?
The solitary practice of art is an advanced form of onanism.
Nakedness is a theme of your book. Naked as in a dream – vulnerable and out-of-place. Is seeing one’s work in print an experience of public nakedness?
(He pauses and thinks) No, not at all. No, no… Because one of the pleasures of literature is that you can remain masked. It is not a visual work, here, it is literary, so the answer is no.
Your persona in the book labels today as “the civilization of porn”. Does the image have less value now that we have unlimited access to it? In the internet age, is the urgency/impulse to create images diminished?
Absolutely not. The world has a constant, hysterical and definitive relation to all types of visual representations… No, really. And my persona actually claims that today is the civilization of sex, not porn… which is different. I borrowed the line from Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou”.
This book, by its nature, draws from reference: film stills, photographs, interviews, poetry… Your figure drawing is always perfect. Do you work with live models? Photos?
To achieve my aims, I draw everything that comes to my hand. Everything that comes to my eyes, really… all things live or lifeless.
Not only is comics the art of images in sequence, but of images in juxtaposition. You do this with such ingenuity in So Long, Silver Screen – making graceful transitions from Manet’s Olympia to Kazan’s Baby Doll. Your new work is an education – a rich overview of film history. Do you wish for your readers to seek out the films of Luchino Visconti or the poetry of André Hardellet to fully engage and unlock So Long, Silver Screen?
No, I did this… well I thought, and maybe that was ingenuous of me, that readers did not need these references to understand the book or find any interest in it. I don’t think it is necessary to go and get a bunch of Visconti’s DVDs or André Hardellet’s books… I took these references out of their context to tell something else and used what they meant as such. But I know that references can be intimidating, some people even take them personally, sometimes like an aggression. This is an essay and an essay feeds on references, it is not fiction, it is almost a work of scientific research. So I have to put notes and references…
While your surface lines gush with spontaneity, I have a feeling the skeleton of the compositions are labored over. So Long, Silver Screen brims with intellectual agonizing. Is there a distinction for you between the writing and drawing process? What was it like to create a book like La Beauté that was entirely visual?
Yes, this is totally different. I did La Beauté because I wanted to make it without words and not using words for a cartoonist totally changes his relation to narration. I had a very different approach for each book. For So Long, Silver Screen, most of the time, the written idea preceded the picture and the picture illustrated the word, the idea, I think. Whereas in La Beauté, I was literally drawing the idea.
I visited you at your home studio in Toulouse in 2004, and I was struck by how you vacillated between two working postures – half the day hunched over a cluttered desk and a tiny comics page, the other half standing at a large easel with vibrant pastels. Do you feel this is necessary for your physical health as well as your creative performance?
Well, for both reasons, it’s not healthy to remain seated for too long. You need to stand. Up and straight. Drawing in a seated position is very different from drawing in a standing position. And as I like my drawings to be alive, changing physical positions while drawing gives me a new perspective, a new point of view, a new way of representing things.
In So Long, Silver Screen, your persona converses with a nubile dancer, while you draw lines (tracing her movements?) with a mop-like brush. She is the conscience and counterpoint to your curmudgeon. What is the correlation between dancing and drawing?
First, I have to say that this specific sequence was inspired by abstract expressionism which used large brooms to paint on large surfaces. The initial idea was that the character was in such a dark mood that he felt the urge to fill the page with black, put it everywhere. But yes, for me, drawing and moving have always been related. There is something in cartooning that I find unique, the fact that it is an approach of rhythm. Like ballet, somehow, I have the impression that there is not much of a difference between a stage performance and a drawing performance, well I believe so… whatever! This is all very instinctive.
You seem to work with great flexibility regarding tools – from brush pens to cheap ballpoint pens to oil pastels, often drawing straight to paper. What is your favorite? What’s your take on the generation of cartoonists drawing on digital tablets? Is there a correlation to innovations in film like CGI, Motion Capture, 3D that may interfere with the art?
I am a cartoonist of the twentieth century… That is what this entire book on cinema is about: “I come from the twentieth century and unfortunately I’ll always remain from the twentieth century.” Even if I were to die in 2067, I’d remain a man from the twentieth century. Of course, the choice of tools changes the art, we’ve seen it with music, with music instruments. But I’d say that my favourite tool is now the brush. This whole book about cinema is about the brush. But it will change, it changes all the time. A while ago, I’d have picked the pen.
There’s a trend now of cartoonists directing films: Marjane Satrapi (Chicken with Plums), Joann Sfar (Gainsbourg), Frank Miller (The Spirit...); Are you tempted to dabble in film-making yourself? You have worked on an animated film, correct? What did you gather from that experience?
Animation did not turn not out as a fulfilling experience. But I am not really into animated films so… I took part in the project because other contributors, like Richard McGuire, convinced me to do so, but you need so much faith… it took so much time and these people, I heard them talking about money for months and months, and I am not used to it. And well, artistically speaking, it is not worth it, not like making a good book. Animation is not my cup of tea.
What about films?
If there is something to say, why not? If there is nothing to say, or if it’s just a way of shining in society or looking for success, or satisfying a certain social vanity, it’s not worth it… So… if it has a meaning, why not…
Are there other mediums you envy?
Yes, yes, of course… I would have loved to be a painter, I would have loved to be a playwright, an actor… Yes, there are lots of things that I would have loved to be. But not a dog groomer, that I couldn’t. Nor a jockey.
What theories of cinema are best applied to comics? What filmic techniques have compromised comics?
What I don’t like as a reader is when a comic book looks like a storyboard. I find it frustrating. It restrains the reach of the work, what you can do in cartooning. There is a more elliptic side to narration in a comic book, it’s more mysterious, more poetic, larger maybe, richer. And what would be the common features between films and comics? I don’t know… The obvious thing is maybe the close-up technique. Flashbacks and many other things.
Your bibliography is quite prolific. I wish for all of them to see English translation. Were there any gaps in your productivity? Bouts of creative block?
Yes, but never for too long. Life is too short.
My vote for a follow-up project of yours to see translation is Le Petit Christian (in two volumes), which I’ve publicly acknowledged as deeply influencing Blankets. Can you describe Le Petit Christian, at least to the degree it correlates to So Long, Silver Screen?
Both are about… Going beyond the anecdotic recreation of memories, going beyond that, beyond the personal anecdotes, to approach universal issues, that are common to all of us. Le Petit Christian is not an autobiography. Neither is Le Petit Christian. As an author, I use my personal experience as a starting point to reach people, the universal, the public… yeah…
When I visited you in Toulouse in 2004, we discussed the merits of working in autobio versus fiction. You said, “There is nothing real, but everything is exact. Just the juice of reality.” Le Petit Christian seems to feature a self-deprecating stand-in. How is this persona on the page related to you?
As I deal with actors a lot in this book, I thought that it’d be only fair if I too played a part in it, if I gave of myself… So I play a part but that does not mean that my persona says exactly as I think…For instance, in the sequence mentioned above, the dancer expresses what I feel as much as my persona. To make it simpler, the guy with my features is not me. And that’s what wonderful in cartooning, it allows this kind of ambiguity, just like literature. This book about cinema is much influenced by Philip Roth, or Romain Gary, authors that place themselves in the eye of the storm, at the centre of the adventure. In an ambiguous fashion. A kind of artistic transposition… In his novels, Philip Roth may write that a character is named Philip Roth but he is not him. In my comic books, what I can do is representing myself.
Also during that visit, we discussed the “purity” of drawing in black & white. I love how the restrained way you’ve used color in So Long, Silver Screen. Can you describe this decision? What did you learn working on full-color projects like Vitesse Moderne?
For So Long, Silver Screen, I had kind of an aesthetic shock when I saw an exhibition of original plates by Fred for Philémon. Some of them had blue wash applied on. I found it beautiful, visually speaking. And also Forest, I copied the principle from one of his books, Barbarella, which has a different colour of wash for each chapter. So I was influenced by Fred and Forest.
The most potent moment I remember from visiting you was perusing your volumes of unpublished drawings. I couldn’t fathom that such renderings of masterful beauty hadn’t seen print. Were these exercises, preparatory sketches, documentations of day-to-day? You said: “Drawings are my private life.” – a statement in stark contrast to the public lives of actors and performers.
I’ve always been drawing and I hope that I’ll be doing it for a long time, with no specific goal, no idea really, no ulterior motive, it’s important that you can draw without telling yourself that it’ll be used or recycled. I have tried to escape from the rule of efficiency ever since I was a kid. I like it that my books are read but I don’t have a pathologic need to be seen. I like it when a book of mine is released but I don’t feel like I’m dead when I remain in the shade for a while…
If So Long, Silver Screen is not a eulogy to cinema, it’s certainly a meditation on mortality. You say: “All their lives, artists of the silver screen give the world the spectacle of their slow decay.” On actors: “…we die in public.”
Is the same true for a visual artist when the performance is the line on the paper?
Absolutely not. We don’t have the same relation to time, time as it goes. I am hidden in my studio. Far from people’s eyes. The anonymity and solitude involved in my work is what protects me, as a cartoonist. In the book, I say that this is what makes the grandeur and specificity of an actor’s work, that is, “displaying the meat”. For all eyes to see.
Thank you, Blutch, for taking the time for these questions. We’ve barely gleaned the surface of your profound work, which I’m excited for English readers to discover for the first time .
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects