26 October 2009

Benoît Peeters at Lire en Français

The photos in this post are by Mokhtar.

I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting one of the great minds of Franco-belgian comics, Benoît Peeters, and listen to the 2 panels he gave at the 2009 edition of the Salon du Livre in Beirut. In-between he gave me 15 minutes of his attention to look over Malaak and critique what he could see with a surface reading, and it was a wonderfully humbling experience that finally gave me an insight into what people of his caliber see in this kind of work, the still-emerging strengths of it and the many weaknesses to reconsider and basic skills to return to. I consider myself incredibly lucky and I'm glad I had the guts to submit the book to his scalpel.

This post however is for my notes about the first of the panels, which I translate here from French. I will use the word BD (bande dessinée) rather than the English "comics", which is not a perfectly equivalent translation. I added emphasis where I felt that the author was verbally adding a bullet point, so to speak.

Ecrire l'Image (25 october 2009)

Ecrire l'image, or "Writing the Image", is Peeters' latest book, a journey through his 30 years of writing "for the image" that is also an overview of many different ways in which text and images can work together.

Peeters began with pure writing, with two novels written at the time he was studying philosophy: Omnibus and La Bibliothèque de Villers, two works in the line of the nouveau roman. The latter of the two is more narrative and takes place in an imaginary city (an early seed of the future Cités Obscures) and has the particularity of being a detective novel with an open ending and an invitation to read it over again, as it is revealed in the end that the solution to the mystery is hidden within the text. This is one of the literary games in which the author indulges here, illustrating that this phase of his life consisted in writing in the intransitive meaning of the word – writing full stop, for the sake of writing itself.

He then contrasted this with the fate of a BD script, a text fated to disappear as text. There's a transformative aspect to such a script: like the caterpillar, it has to lose a part of itself to turn into something different, a butterfly or finished BD. The writer can still find, in the finished work, the dialogs, the voice-off, but not the essential of his own exercise which is to give birth to a world and atmosphere through words only.
Peeters, therefore, tore himself from intransitive writing to go towards an image-oriented form of writing – writing that accepts its own loss and its own transcendence. It would be foolish, he adds, for a script writer to feel frustrated, since this metamorphosis/loss is part and parcel of the very definition of his or her trade. The scenariste (script writer) writes with the awareness that he's going to sacrifice part of what he writes for a larger result.

Peeters first turned towards photographic narratives, in collaboration with photographer Marie-Françoise Plissard who was passionate about storytelling. Together they made a few books that were breakthroughs in the medium, as there existed nothing worth mentioning in terms of "photo-novels" at the time, and the whole art form of narratives using photos was reduced, in the collective mind, to cheap, cheesy romances – a reduction of the form to a genre. Despite having no reference to start from at the time, they decided to attempt to put together a photographic narrative that worked. The first volume, Fugues, was a police story taking place in real location in Brussels. This experiment was striking in that he realized that writing the image was in this case writing something that one was going to be able to realize. Costumes, actors and locations would have to be found, among other things. This created a particular responsibility for the writer, relatively to the realization. He had to imagine things that could be achieved with available means, or that took advantage of available assets.
In this first work, the integration of text in the photo narrative was still too close to BD [for his taste]. The second volume, Droit de Regard, the "most successful" of their collaboration, was entirely wordless, which did not prevent it from being a Chinese box of narratives, and not just a vague succession of images.
He asks, if a story is void of text, can it be "read"? His answer is yes, we do read the image even if it is mute. Writing an image does not mean writing words, but a sequence. Reading proceeds from a form of linearity that is found in the succession of pages and sequences, so that the reader reconstitutes the narrative in his or her mind. As a side note, one cannot just know how to read a BD. This requires a particular competence, an apprenticeship of the codes that make it up, which cannot be understood if they haven't been learned.*
Ironically, someone commented on that book that Peeters hadn't sweated much, yet in truth it had given him a lot of work. Peeters retained from that period that the script is not a separate phase from the realization, but carries on in a nonlinear writing process at every step of hat realization. BD writing is more linear, there is no return to the script while the art is in progress. You just can't make changes and redraw. Photographic novels on the other hand are closer to movie-making: the structure of the narrative can be revised long after its writing.

The third book in the series featured the text separately from the photos, thus respecting the photo as such. The next one, Prague, went further in having text and images articulated together without a sequential link. A good portion of the images existed prior to the text, so that he found himself in the position of being the verbal illustrator of a sequence of images. The narrative was organized around the photos and the text came to illustrate them. They did however have a general idea of what they wanted to do before shooting the pictures, so the process was again not a linear one. This would happen again much later in L'Archiviste, where Peeters took up 13 or 14 preexisting images by François Schuiten, wrote a text around them, then returned them to Schuiten who added images based on the text. The movement is doubled, the illustrator becoming scenarist and vice-versa. The word is not always the writer's primary matter. Every technique is legitimate, it is the result that decides if the attempt was a success or a failure.

The photo novels did not catch on, which, he says, goes to show that commercial failure is by no means a sign that an idea is not interesting enough to pursue.

On to the BD medium. To write for a BD is to write for someone and often with someone, whether that is a separate person or oneself. From him, the adventure that was Cités Obscures began at the age of 12, when he and François Schuiten were classmates and worked together on a journal they published in school on their own. Peeters was already writing, and Schuiten was already facing the logistics of how to reproduce one's drawings, which at the time meant low-tech solutions such as stencils and carbon paper, and even attempts at using Schuiten's father's blueprint machine. The publication was shut down after Peeters wrote a too convincing-sounding article about overhearing a conversation with the school principal that revealed the school was built next to an unstable gas field...
A decade later, while Schuiten was studying under Claude Renard, who at the time was trying to shake the BD world and his students into reading nouvelle BD (Metal Hurlant and the like), the two friends met up again. They shared a feeling that something could take place between the desire of adult narration and the BD medium. They had no idea that the first story they would explore together would be the beginning of something much larger.
Here Peeters stresses: one does not decide a collaboration, one tries it. It's a fundamental fact, and collaboration does not necessarily work out at the first attempt, so one should not be in a hurry to reach a result. Schuiten and himself groped around subjects before arriving at Les Murailles de Samaris, that would contain elements motivating each of them. It took a while before the word "trompe-l'œil" came up, and resonated, and the idea bounced back and forth between them: What would a trompe-l'œil city be? That marked the birth of Cités Obscures [François Schuiten's father was an architect, hence the artist's passion for drawing cities that made this series possible.]

The first page of Les Murailles de Samaris already contains many elements that would define the series. An off-panel narrative voice speaks over the visuals of a complicated traveling of the camera through the superlative urban landscape, until it enters a building to reveal the identity of the speaker. This sets the tone of the dialectic between hero and city, the city being a character in and of itself. Text and image met gradually, just as the two authors were gradually meeting.
Peeters originally had a more ligne claire vision of the story, and was surprised by Schuiten's pages. Despite what he experienced as a displacement, he understood that he shouldn't enforce his idea because he could not have described in detail the city Schuiten would have to flesh out. Scénariste and dessinateur have to make room for each other. On the writer's part, describing in too much detail creates an instrumentalized image (outilisée), whereas the image needs to have its own breathing (une respiration propre): it fulfills an agenda, but breathes in its composition – the artist must have room to maneuver. BD is a common work in which each collaborator has his breathing room.

Faced with the success of Les Murailles de Samaris, they decided to place the second album, La Fièvre d'Urbicande in the same universe but not in the same city, nor with the same character, nor even with the exact same technique. This decision was a founding act. While working on the script, Peeters realized it would never fit in 48 pages, which at the time was the limit for a colored BD publication. Rather than butcher the script, they would have to make it black and white and place it in a different collection. Their editor, Casterman, was desolate, warning that they were ruining their series already, but the readers went along and kept coming along even with L'Archiviste, which was larger and no longer a BD at all. They worked on the series by keeping a family air, without ever limiting themselves.
La Fièvre d'Urbicande tells the story of a monumental, totalitarian city where a strange found cube begins to grow, invading the whole of the city and upsetting the order imposed on it. Showing us a slide of a page where we see a character attempting to pin down a formula that calculates the cube's growth, Peeters points out that writing the image can also be writing what is inside the image. "I spent a whole afternoon with a mathematician friend to find a credible math formula to calculate that growth. It was quite complicated." But, he adds, this kind of research feeds a story, the details give more weight and solidity to it. He tells how, years later, he received a letter from a math professor in the island of La Reunion who, faced with a particularly hopeless class, resorted to making them work on Urbicande's math problem, which had renewed their taste for math and inspired them besides to mount a play based on it. That teacher had constructed a new method of teaching math derived from the comic and the author was invited to the Reunion as a result!
To further illustrate how depth is given to a universe, he shows the map of the Cités Obscures which, he says, is dotted with names of cities they have described, cities they may one day describe, but also cities they will never paint. SImilarly, Hergé loved telling the story of his secondary characters in-between stories, and had a full biography for each of them, including relatively obscure ones like General Alcazar. even though he only used tiny portions of these life stories, this made for solidly painted characters.

Next in line is L'Enfant Penchée, and Peeters displays his favorite page in the book: the "leaning child", placed in a maison de redressement (correction home, literally "straightening out home", particularly appropriate since she leans at 30 degrees), escapes from the horrible place by climbing the wall – which she can do easily thanks to her peculiarity (from her position the wall is not vertical, but sloping). This sequence was conceived with Schuiten without any dialogue, the visuals telling all that needed to be told. In the same book, they conducted an experiment: a parallel storyline in photos, taking place in our world as opposed to the child's world. This was the opportunity for a cross-over of codes, making 2 families of storytelling meet. The two storylines meet in a no-man's-land where the photographic character becomes a graphic character. When he returns, he remains marked, one of his hands retaining the apparence of a drawing. The image of him contemplating his lineart hand is used on the cover of Ecrire l'Image, as Peeters felt it was an image that represented the criss-crossing of a whole series of layers – concept, photo, drawing, the man's features. It is both an image and a fragment in a series of images. Above all, it cannot be told in words, or in any one medium other than BD. The impact depends entirely on that specific criss-crossing.

In L'Ombre d'un Homme, Peeters intervened physically in the story by posing for the character all along the story. This was a very different process from describing the poses, and a whole new way of "writing" for BD, paradoxical even. "You can also write with images [storyboards], with gestures, with the voice." Writing the image is therefore redefined as anticipating the image and triggering [in the artist] the desire to realize it, perhaps even to surprise you with what they may put into it that you didn't expect. This becomes writing the other. The scenarist is not only a good writer, but also the one who gets the psychology of his collaborator as well as its evolution, to always present them with something they'll want to draw.

The universe of the Cités Obscures was expanded well beyond its original medium, with imaginary catalogs, exhibits and films, and even installations in the Paris subway.

Peeters then evokes his collaboration with other authors.
With Anne Baltus: Calypso, a story written to cater to the artist's likes: mosaics and swimming pools. Page 1 not only displays mosaics, it is also composed like one.
With Frederic Boilet: Love Hotel and Tokyo est mon jardin. Boilet's passion for Japan led them both to travel there for research. All of their collaborations were done in documentary mode and using l'écume du quotidien (the "foam of daily life", everyday details), the polar opposite of Peeters' entirely imaginary Cités Obscures. In Boilet's work, backgrounds sometimes disappear altogether, having no more reason of being as the focus shifted to the emotion of the characters - a device Boilet may have absorbed from Japanese manga. Peeters ended this overview with a comparison between the two artists he most worked with: Schuiten, most concerned with scenery and the universe in which their stories took place, and Boilet, who was most interested in nuances of feelings.

* My question to Peeters returned to the apprenticeship of codification he mentioned, which remains an issue in our part of the world. What about cases like Lebanon, I asked, which are only just trying to make an entry into the field of BD and have no codes of their own? We find ourselves torn between the established codes of the three great models (Franco-Belgian, American and Japanese), and have to make the difficult choice of the audience to address – local or international? Where do we begin, and are there precedents to look to?
His reply:
There are indeed 3 great poles of BD, but there is also a fourth now: the independents around the world, who in the margins of the medium have arrived at a sort of altermondialisation (alternative globalization) where they use a similar language, and created for instance the graphic novel, began editing small-format in black and white because it was more manageable, etc. There is therefore a renewal of the medium from its margins, and on can for one thing start with the internet, and link the conditions of the creation of a BD to the conditions of their presentation. You should also be telling yourselves, better create for 100 people I'm sure to be able to communicate with, than aim for too big; better appropriate a few elements from an existing code than to just copy it. Aping manga for instance makes little sense, as manga lovers would tend to prefer the original item over a copy made elsewhere. Above all, don't make a BD that wants to be of everywhere and ends up being of nowhere (qui se veut de partout et finit par être de nulle part). We always work from something we've lived, places we've been to, people we've met. Ideally a Lebanese BD would be a BD that's not afraid of being purely Lebanese, without aping other models – you should ask yourselves what you really feel like making. Today, all genres and styles are possible, so that you should not even take BD as the only possible form for you. The narrative nature of BD and the fact it's made to be reproduced are the main criteria of definition, the rest is accessory and must not be sterilizing.


Zelia said...

Amazing, Joumana! Thank you so much for posting this. And yes, I can see how your question caught atention. It's so pertinent, indeed a difficult choice. X3

Chad said...

This is gorgeous!