This is a good time for the monolingual fans of European comics. Between Fantagraphics, NBM, Drawn and Quarterly, First Second, and Pantheon, more and more top notch work is becoming available to readers in North America. In the last few years, Marjane Satrapi, David B, Lewis Trondheim, Jason, Christophe Blain, Dupuy/Berberian, Joan Sfar, and more have been translated and found some success here, introducing North American readers to a new world of cartoonists.
As good as its been however, there is still a lot of great stuff on the other side of the Atlantic that we’ve yet to get. I thought I would spend a little time listing some of my candidates for any new division heads or publishers to pounce on and be hailed for their exquisite taste and become an immediate critical and financial success.
A small handicap that I have, (just a small one) is that I speak and read French like Batroc the Leaper speaks English, with a mostly English vocabulary and sentence structure and a few commonly used French words thrown in for flavor. If you want to read an informed opinion about this stuff, I would recommend reading Bart Beatty’s columns at the Comics Reporter, or go to Paul Gravett’s site. They actually know what they’re talking about. My opinions are based on the art and storytelling as well as from reading other works by the same artist that may have been translated.
I’ll start my list with the work of Frederik Peeters. I first came across him in two Swiss anthlogies in the late 90’s. He has been a regular contributor to both Bile Noire published by Atrabile (Geneva) as well as a greatest-anthology-of-all-time candidate, Drozophile published by Drozophile (also Geneva). Hopefully I’ll write a bit more about these publishers in the future.
Also in the late 90’s, Top Shelf publisher, Brett Warnock and I co-edited the anthology Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions. I used this as an opportunity to try and get some work translated by some favorite artists of mine, Frederik being one of them. We ran the nine page Le Petit Pays du Bonheur, a story about how an idyllic village in the pacific becomes ruined by tourism as seen through the eyes of a dog.
In 2001, Atrabile released Peeters’ first long work, the autobiographical Pilules Bleues (Blue Pills). This book was well received and Indyworld wrote that “(it) ranks among the best comics published anywhere in the world in the past few years.” One would think that with the success of memoirs in both literature and comics (Persopolis, Epileptic, Fun Home, Blankets) that a publisher would be jumping on this, but as far as I know, it’s not coming out in English any time soon.
At around the same time, Peeters released Les Miettes through Drozophile. This is a book much less grounded in reality than Pilules Bleues (which did have fantasy moments). It follows a train inhabited by a bizarre cast of characters, including conjoined twins and a WWI soldier. The entire story takes place on the train, but where the train is racing to, I couldn’t tell you. However, towards the end of the book, both train and track soar up into the air. The book looks gorgeous, entirely silkscreen printed in two colors. The line art is a maroon brown and the second color starts a dull olive green and then almost imperceptibly warms as the book progresses.
A year later, Peeters’ longest work started. Releasing a volume a year, Lupus recently ended with volume 4 and was named an “essential album” at this year’s festival at Angouleme. Although this near 400 page book is science fiction, it seems to avoid the traps common to the genre (like endless exposition) instead staying focused on character. This is not a book with prolonged action scenes and, when violence appears, it is quick and shocking. Common Sci-fi elements like futuristic cityscapes or spaceships are always secondary. Peeters’ ability to downplay the futuristic elements makes it seem more realistic. It’s as if the viewer has seen it all and it should be taken for granted (and in many ways, we have). It’s not to say that these elements aren’t well thought out, they are, but they are never the focus of the book. It is always about the characters. As you can see in the sample pages I’ve posted, he is more likely to be concerned with the subtlety of his characters’ expressive gestures than some detail on a building or ship.
I’m curious how this book would do here. In the world of literary comics that have been getting so much press in places like the New York Times, the science fiction genre may make this book a harder sell than something like Pilules Bleues. At this point though, I would love to see any of Frederik’s work make it over here.
Post Script: If anyone wants to chime with more information about whatever I'm posting, feel free. I welcome anyone's expertise (especially if they can read French.)