From Our Continental Correspondent – Translation Please special: Erik De Graaf
For this latest in the Translation, Please series, where Wim highlights some of the excellent and highly respected works from the Continental comics community and asks why no UK or US publisher is translating them for the English language market, we have something of a special post as Wim talks to one of the creators he admires and deserves to be more widely read in other languages (and not just English but some other European languages which haven’t embraced his work yet), Erik De Graaf; over to Wim and Erik:
Wim: Dutch cartoonist Erik De Graaf came to comics only late in life. He had been working as a graphic designer for advertising for a long time, when he found himself faced with a burn-out, due to too much work and too many deadlines.
Erik: I had been an avid reader and a collector of comics for all my life, especially with art in a sort of ligne claire style. Initially I followed the classics from the eighties, like Chaland, Clerc, Torres, Floc’h, Benoit, Swarte en Meulen, and later Dupuy and Berbérian, Avril, and American and Canadian cartoonists like Ware, Clowes, Seth, Tomine, and Rabagliati. And I had been toying with the idea of making my own comics for years, but I’d never really gotten around to it.
In 2000 I went through a tough spell: years of hard work came back to me like a boomerang, and I found myself home on sick leave, overworked. When something like that happens, it gets you thinking about what you are doing, and why you do it. I came to the conclusion that I needed something to compensate for all my work-for-hire, with its deadlines and pressure for clients. I needed something that I could pour more of myself into, and that I could work on at my own pace. And so I slowly and carefully started drawing short stories, based on my own childhood memories.
(late summer by and (c) Erik De Graaf)
Wim: They say that an unhappy childhood is a writer’s greatest treasure.
Erik: To be honest, I had quite a happy childhood, without real suffering, but with a succession of little sadnesses and joys. Like most children, I’d imagine. I wanted to catch those moments, which are probably very recognisable, in rather static, detailed stories and drawings, as if to stress the fact that they are memories.
Wim: Were you already thinking of publishing them in collections, or magazines?
Erik: At first I wasn’t really doing it with publication in mind (but I was secretly hoping for it, as any author would). Only after I had finished a few stories, I got the courage to show them to a few people. One of them was the guy who runs the comics store where I normally buy my books. He had been a publisher himself before, and he was very enthusiastic about my comics. He immediately offered to introduce me to (leading independent Dutch publisher) Oog & Blik, because he thought my work would fit in with the rest of their catalogue.
And a short while later I was invited to visit Hansje Joustra (Oog & Blik’s publisher). He browsed through my portfolio for a while and then he asked me, ‘What kind of paper were you thinking of? And what would you like your book to look like?
Wim: That was at least very direct!
Erik: Yes, I didn’t know what happened. Oog & Blik was going to publish my stories – they even intended to do two books at the same time.
Wim: And from then on things went very fast.
Erik: Yes, the first two books, Verbleekte herinneringen (Faded memories – Wim) and Gekleurd geheugen (Coloured memory – Wim) were published in the fall of 2000. They contained short stories with fitting colours, each featuring my alter ego Muis (‘Whity’). Nothing spectacular: stories about the loss of a dear friend, an exciting summer holiday, a dangerous adventure in a neighbourhood orchard, and an unwanted intruder.
(cover to Verbleekte Herinneringen by and (c) Erik De Graaf, published Oog & Blik)
Wim: What were the reactions in the press?
Erik: For the most part, they were very positive. Reviewers were wondering why I had waited so long, and they were comparing me to all kinds of greats. Some of them complained about the fact that nothing really happened in the stories. But that was the point exactly: these were memories, and you don’t really remember a sequence of events, rather a general idea of something.
In 2001, the third part was published, Gevonden verleden (Found Past – Wim), which was later nominated for the Stripschapsprijs, in its literary category (the leading Dutch comics award – Wim). And then finally, in 2005, all three were collected as the Verzamelde herinneringen (Collected Memories – Wim), with a signed and numbered silkscreen print.
Wim: Were your books ever picked up abroad? I can imagine that there should be an audience for it in France, with the ligne claire hype that still lingers on there.
Erik: Well, certain publishers from France, Canada and Germany have expressed to be interested in doing a translation, but thus far, nothing has happened on that front. Drawn & Quarterly picked up a story for their Showcase #2, Bout (Translated as Game – Wim), and they asked me to do the inside cover illustrations for that issue.
(one of the interior illustrations for Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #2 by and (c) Erik De Graaf)
Galerie Lambiek in Amsterdam put up an exhibition of new artwork that was related to the stories in 2005, and currently there’s a show in The Hague with art from Memories, and from my new book, Scherven (Splinters – Wim).
(Scherven – ‘Splinters’ – reaches the 1940; art and (c) Erik de Graaf )
Wim: Tell me more about Splinters.
Erik: After I had finished the Memories books, with my childhood memories, I wanted to do a story about the Second World War. I have always been interested in that period. Not only because of the history lessons I got at school, but also as a result of the many stories about the war my grandmother told me. She was a real story-teller – she could make an exciting story from something very obvious.
The story I wanted to tell would be about normal people in an abnormal period, rather than another tale about big battles. It’s about a couple of young people losing parts of their lives: their loved ones, their innocence, their youth, their belief in the future etc… The main characters are called Victor and Esther. Victor is a baker’s son, who lives in a small village, and a Jewish woman who fled from Germany in 1938. Esther and Victor are deeply in love and they are already making plans for the future. But then the war breaks out in may 1940, with Victor serving in the Dutch army and fighting at the front.
After the surrender Victor goes back to his village where he hopes to find Esther again. He is shocked when he discovers that, pressured by her father, she has fled again, together with her mother and sister. Only in 1946, by coincidence, they find each other back…at a cemetery. They tell each other their dramatic experiences and discover that a lot has changed…
(the lovers re-united post-war in Scherven by Erik de Graaf)
Wim: Are you doing this story in the same style as Memories ?
Erik: I’m really focusing on how colour works in my art, now. I use different palettes to signify to the reader in which period the story is playing at a certain moment. The period after the war, in 1946, is in greyish full-colour. During the war I use sepia tones, while memories from before the war are in black and white.
Wim: A story like this is certainly different than your previous ones – there’s not much autobiography left.
Erik: Part of the story is based on stories my grandmother and uncles told me. In the village where my grandparents lived, an army regiment was based, to defend an important airport near Rotterdam. The soldiers used to stay at the houses in the village, two or three in each house. My grandparents also gave accommodation to a few soldiers. One of them later became my real uncle, and another one became an ‘unreal’ uncle. The first part of the story is mainly based on what happened to them in May 1940.
I’m also planning to include actual documents about those days in the village in the book, to provide some background to the fictional story. As I see it now the story will be divided over two books. I hope I can finish the first book after the summer next year.
(the war spills over into neutral Holland in Scherven by Erik de Graaf)