‘Twas a dark and stormy night as I set off for Glasgow; howling wind and driving, slushy rain falling out of the dark night. I’m glad to say the dreadful weather didn’t dampen spirits though and any fears that it might put off people from venturing out to Glasgow’s Goethe Institut were put to rest; by the time the event was ready to start it was standing room only at the back. Awful weather or not it isn’t every day you get the chance to hear top comics creators from France and Germany talking here and so folks were happy to brave the conditions to see Mawil and Lewis Trondheim in conversation with Marc Baines.
(from left to right Lewis Trondheim, Mawil and Marc Baines at the Glasgow Goethe Institut; click the pic to see the larger version on Flickr)
Marc introduced both Lewis and Mawil, before handing over to each of them so they could talk to the audience about their work. Lewis began, discussing his work from the earlier days and the autobiographical work he did (although he wasn’t too interested in talking about his earliest fanzine work, he and Mawil having both started out with ‘zine work), saying he wasn’t sure exactly why he went down that route in the beginning and suspecting the fact that friends were doing similar work probably influenced him, plus when you are the subject of your own story you have easy access to the material since you’re always around yourself. He did point out with a laugh that regarding both the early stories and the art he was ‘very young’, while Marc noted that in his earliest work you could actually see him training himself as the art develops quite clearly from the first pages to the last.
Lewis then moved on to some of his later work, moving away for a while from the autobiographical work to more ‘funny animals’ (he likes funny animals, he later said that as a child comics like the Uncle Scrooge work by the great Carl Barks were among his favourites so perhaps those left a mark on some of his own work), humorous work, abstract work (he showed a page from an abstract work which he said was a record for him, whole thing completed within two days, very simply to do), ‘silent’ comics, working with Sfar on the Dungeon fantasy tales, comics aimed at younger readers but fun for adults too like A.L.I.E.E.E.N. (he said he doesn’t really draw directly for kids as such, which may be why they work so well, most of the best children’s books writers and authors I’ve met also have a similar attitude, its how they avoid ‘talking down’ to their child readers and its probably why they are so popular with the kids who appreciate that).
(Lewis Trondheim paints for a young fan, using orange squash from the looks of it!)
As anyone who’s read even a fraction of his comics will know Lewis Trondheim has a pretty diverse body of work in terms of style, age range and content and even the form of the comics themselves; he talked about how the traditional 48-page hardback album form so beloved of the BD movement in Franco-Belgian traditional is fine but you can’t stick with it all the time or it becomes too much of a constraint on how you tell a story, how he felt the need to use different formats and lengths to be free and allow stories to breathe as each tale required rather than making every story fit into the same prescribed format even if it meant shoehorning it in (and the fun we had trying to translate that concept!). He also discusses his foray into digital comics, both talking about his own comics blogging and that of other French comics creators (something Wim has touched on here before) and also his experiment with digital content for mobile phones (which again Wim has covered here).
I asked him about the mobile phone content and he seemed a bit ambivalent about it; on the one hand it was something new to explore and he went down the route of creating new work especially for it rather than simply adapting existing comics of his. He was also insistent on making it a mobile comic, so he eschewed animation or music – its digital and mobile, but he still wanted it to be a comic. It has been translated (as most of his print works have) into numerous languages, but even so he wasn’t convinced that it would be a huge success or that it was yet a medium where you could earn a decent living. Still, one thing that came up several times was that he enjoys a challenge – he likes to try different formats and styles and forms because it keeps him interested and feeling alive and fresh and this was not just a new format for him to try but a new medium, so he wanted to try it, although whether he devotes more time to it or not is unclear. He did make it clear that, like most of us I suspect, he still prefers paper comics – “I like paper,” he stated, before adding with a smile “And I like wine. Maybe more than paper.” There will be a physical print form of the comics work he created for the mobile market at some point though.
(a page from Les Petits Riens/Little Nothings by and (c) Lewis Trondheim, borrowed from his site where you can see more)
Trondheim handed over to Mawil with “try to be funny, I know you’re German, its difficult…”, cue much laughter, not least from Mawil himself, who replied “I don’t know about funny but I have more pictures than you”, indicating the artwork on display on the walls of the Goethe. Mawil began by sharing a picture of his studio space and discussing how he normally approaches creating a comic strip, beginning with “a pencil” before changing slides to a half finished pencil and adding “this one.” More laughter; in fact laughter was pretty much a constant throughout the evening from both artists actually, they both had the audience completely forgetting the yucky weather conditions outside and it was pretty obvious both audience and the artists were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
(Mawil shows us his studio space, leading to more banter between him and Lewis regarding who had the better studio and who was more or less tidy than the other)
Mawil continued on, gamely trying to fight distractions such as Lewis leaning across the table to fiddle with the laptop controlling the projector so he could bring up some more of Mawil’s art before proceeding to zoom in on certain body parts with a mischievous grin on his face (which is usually the best place to put a mischievous grin, after all). Mawil talked us through different methods he had for creating his pages, from the aforementioned pencil for roughing out scenes and how bodies should move in them to also using a computer for some aspects of some of his work, especially colouring – “one touch and its coloured” as he remarked modestly although I’m sure everyone present would be well aware it wasn’t quite that simple.
Marc asked him about the use of certain traditional comic devices, such as the sweat drops coming off a character’s face when under stress, or speed lines. Mawil responded that he had used some of these traditional conventions and would still from time to time, but mostly tried to avoid them these days. When talking about the use of a bunny rabbit character (in fact Marc noted both artists had a minor bunny thing going on in their respective works, although I think Lewis may have killed his off now; Mawil said his use of the bunny had resulted in friends always buying him bunny related gifts and pictures which he doesn’t really need!) Mawil explained that this began when he took an existing character he thought needed something more around the head design, added bigger ears which then became bunny ears so he went with a bunny character. And the advantage of the bunny character was that he didn’t need things like speed lines as the ears are perfect visual semaphore for the character’s movements and actions – the ears can be arranged to show the character’s direction of movement when running or falling, when he’s excited or alarmed they can point straight up, when he’s tired or despondent they flop down and when he’s hurt they can go all twisted (his Meister Lampe/Sparky O’Hare is a great example of this as anyone who’s enjoyed it will know).
Mawil also talked about different formats, using the traditional four panel gag cartoon strip approach for Meister Lampe to using a nine panel layout for much of the autobiographical We Can Still Be Friends, although he added that it was necessary to play about even when remaining with a form he’d decided on like that, pointing to an example on the screen which was a page I’ve always particularly liked in We Can Still Be Friends where he sticks with nine panels for a picnic with friends scene; it is, essentially one image broken into nine panels, he said, but I thought it was a lovely design, giving in effect an overheard shot of the picnic, but where a single large image would have been adequate I think it would have been static and breaking it into nine panels leads the reader around like a clock face, a full 360 rotation, giving a feeling of movement that a single large image wouldn’t, while also allowing the artist to remain within the framework of mostly using nine panels for the story. He did feel that giving himself some layout rules before starting work could help him “sometimes if you organize some rules for yourself its easier to have ideas”.
(the picnic scene from the English language version of We Can Still Be Friends by and (c) Mawil, published Blank Slate Books)
Working for newspapers was another area Mawil talked about and how it was a different sort of discipline to have to sit down and create a strip pretty much every day for a prolonged period of time for a major German newspaper, although he seemed to have enjoyed the challenge and appreciated the fact that the editors had decided not to do what many other papers in the country did and simply buy in syndicated strips from the US such as Peanuts or Garfield but commission home-grown cartoonists to create fresh work (especially nice to hear when it seems every week brings news of more newspapers cutting back on the funnies pages as part of their economy drives).
It can also prove quite useful – Mawil told us how his bicycle was stolen. Quite an old one, but special to him since it had been his father’s bike and he’d passed it on to him. So he decided to turn it into one of his newspaper strips, with a few small panels at the top then a single large splash image of the actual bike with details and the promise of a reward. If he actually had to place a ‘lost – reward’ notice in the paper it would have cost him money to place it in the personals ads, but here he was getting a big art page to do it and also be paid for doing it! More laughter. Lewis grins appreciatively and asks Mawil how much. Well, not a huge amount of money but enough to pay the reward if someone had come forward with the bike, he replied. Sadly the bike was never to be seen again.
For the papers he also used his strip to indulge in a personal bugbear, the enormous amount of building work going on in Berlin since the fall of the Wall and reunification (I must admit I hadn’t actually realised Mawil was born on the other side of the Iron Curtain in the old GDR, what we used to call East Germany) and the fact that this has all too often resulted in some very ugly buildings, so he made a strip about a tour of Berlin and as new structures seem to pop up everywhere his character becomes more and more agitated. I suspect many Berliners can sympathise. He also observed that his work in the paper reaches a bigger audience than his comics, which he finds useful given that the comics market in Germany isn’t as large as the one in France.
(Mawil persuses the Blank Slate edition of Sparky O’Hare)
On the subject of the Wall Marc asked him how growing up in East Germany has affected his comics reading, if all he could get were state-approved works or if Western material made it across, but it seems that some of it did cross the divide and some of the underground GDR work is also being collected and republished. In fact he’s now working on a new project about growing up in the old East Germany although he noted wryly he missed the boat a bit, he should really have planned to have that work finished and published in time for the celebrations around the 20th anniversary of the Wall being breached, but as he said next year is the anniversary of reunification so perhaps that gives him a good date to work towards to complete and issue it. Its certainly something I’d quite like to read.
All in all it was a good, long, friendly and pretty jolly session, ending with some questions from the audience; one woman asked Lewis why he didn’t have more female characters in stronger roles and he said that he wasn’t sure he could write a female character properly, perhaps, he observed, if he had been an elephant he would only have done comics about elephants before laughing again and apologising for not having enough leading women. Mawil answered quite honestly that he had plenty of women characters but he wasn’t sure if he wrote them saying and acting as real women might or if it was just how he’d like them to (more laughter), before Lewis interjected explaining it was basically impossible for them to understand women, they were a mystery (even more laughter). After the questions concluded both Lewis and Mawil were more than happy to chat to individual readers, sign books and create quick sketches (Lewis has brought along a cracking sketchbook he was happy to let everyone look through) and there was a wonderful array of work from both artists hanging on the walls to enjoy, plus some work from one of Marc’s students who, he told me, had recently signed a contract with Cape for a graphic novel in 2011 (which I’m sure we will be telling you more about in the future) and various books from both artists in English, French and German, as well as some other comics work from the libraries of the Goethe and the Alliance Français readers could peruse and Mawil’s English language works from Blank Slate, published by our own Kenny.
All in all a terrific night, well worth braving the dreadful weather for – I mean how often do we get the opportunity to see two top European comics creators like this in the UK? It was terrific to see how many other folks felt the same and defied the wind and rain to squeeze in until there was only standing room left and all of them and Mawil and Lewis seemed to really enjoy the evening. Mawil and Marc Baines are holding a comics workshop this Saturday (November 28th) at the Goethe in Park Circus, Glasgow from 11am to 1pm; you have to book it as spaces are limited, but I’m told they can still fit in one or two more people if you want to go along (details here). I’d like to thank the folks at the Goethe and the Alliance Français for putting on such a great event and inviting us all along and to Marc, Lewis and Mawil for being kind enough to let me take some pictures and record the evening. On which note I’m just testing out the audio from my small recorder and while I’m afraid its not up to the quality of the recordings the Book Festival were kind enough to let us air on here recently (not being from a direct live feed but the simple method of sitting recorder on the table and hoping for the best) it seems mostly listenable, so I’ll see if we can do something with that and hopefully post up audio of the whole thing for you to enjoy in the near future. You can see more photos from the evening on the FP Flickr here. Mawil’s own site can be found here and you can find his book on our website here; Lewis Trondheim’s site is here and there is a selection of his work on our webstore.