From our continental correspondent: Emile Bravo – Make children think
When he was asked to do his own interpretation of Spirou, he returned to the venerable character’s origins. His Journal d’un Ingénu (Diary of an Innocent One) is widely regarded as the best Spirou story in years. Last year My Mommy Is In America And She Met Buffalo Bill (created with Jean Regnaud, and published in English by Fanfare Ponent Mon) was named the best youth-oriented book of year at the Frankfurter Buchmesse, the first graphic novel ever to be bestowed with that honour. Belgian comics magazine Stripgids’ Roel Daenen had plenty of reasons to have a long conversation with French cartoonist Emile Bravo, which we present here with the kind permission from Stripgids..
At first, it doesn’t look like he’s in the mood for an interview. Emile Bravo comes straight from a signing session. “I’m really pissed off now,” he says “Collectors! They’re not even real readers. You just see them popping up everywhere, hunting for a nice sketch”. But soon enough this foul mood passes. Sitting in a quiet café, with a good cup of coffee, he quickly gets in the mood and he tells his story in a very lively manner, illustrating it with animated gestures. It’s a story in which My Mommy plays an important part.
‘I’ve been friends with Jean Regnaud, the book’s writer, since we were kids, and I’ve worked with him a lot. So far we’ve made four books together, and it always went without any problems. Normally we would write the story together, and then I’d draw everything. Voilà. My Mommy was a different story. Jean came to see me about five years ago and handed me a text, telling me that I should just read it (smile). “And”, he told me, “If you like it, I want you to illustrate it”.’
‘I read the text to My Mommy and I was very moved by it. I’d known Jean for years, and I knew he had lost his mother at a very early age. What I didn’t know was in what circumstances he found out that his mother had died… I was completely overwhelmed by the story, and I didn’t think I’d be the right person to illustrate it – that’s how much it had moved me. I knew everybody in that story, Jean’s father, his brother and his grandparents. Even the nanny. It was just too heavy, emotionally speaking. But in the end Jean managed to convince me, exactly because I was this close to it, and knew everybody. But that didn’t make it any easier, to be honest.’
You say that you “illustrated” the book. Is there a distinction between illustration and your other artwork?
“Not really, no. We didn’t want it to become a traditional comic, with a sequence of panels or a fixed number of pages. I’m not really concerned with following the classical conventions for a comic. Fixed frames or not, I couldn’t care less. Creating a comic for me is simply telling a story in little drawings… The relation between the text and the artwork is not that important to me. The story should be told throughout the text and the story, though. Take the Spirou book that i created. That was a story with obvious references to the grammar of the classical children’s comic, because that was the dominant format in the 1930’s, when Spirou first appeared on the scene. The strict format with sequential strips of separately encased panels is an inherent part of language.’
‘But, beyond that, what makes a comic, a comic? For me, it’s quite simple. A comic, that’s a series of images and dialogues, presented as a whole. If you don’t have any dialogues, the text will work on a purely narrative level. In the case of a comic, text is predominantly limited to dialogues. And the rest should be told, or rather shown, by means of the artwork.’
For My Mommy, I very consciously picked a limited number of colours to define the mood of the story. Every chapter as its main colour, meant to support the message we were trying to get across. When little Jean learns that his mother really is no longer around, I used a very clear, almost aggressive tone of red. But in the text you won’t find any pathos, and that’s what I particularly like about the book. It manages to move its readers without resorting to melodrama. Little Jean learns that the adults around him have kept something important hidden from him. But in the end this allows him to be a lot freer, a lot more independent, without the ballast of not knowing.’
In My Mommy you use a fairly naive, strongly simplified style. Is that in order to reach out to younger readers?
Evidently. It’s a story for children as well as for their parents. Make no mistake – just because this is an emotionally raw or confrontational story, doesn’t mean it’s not meant for children. I’d be very disappointed if parents weren’t to give this book to their children. It provides an important bridge between the way children look at the world, and the way their parents see things, with all their experience. I can assure you that children really love this story. Naturally, every child is different, and each has his own sensibilities or impressionability, but they all get it. Some keep hoping that the mother will one day pop up somehow, (smiles).’
‘I think should be allowed access to any good book, even if it’s predominantly meant for adults. I think that’s the case for all classic literature, the books that don’t just entertain, but also help you grow and understand life. I think I’ve set myself the task to use my comics to prepare children a little for when they grow up…. As you know, people used to tell fairy tales to children, stories that quite often had a particularly horrible ending. These stories had a very profound function: they made young people aware of the challenges and the dangers of life. And you can be sure that you need to prepare, now more than ever. I don’t thing you should overprotect children. On the contrary; I rather thing you should traumatise them a bit (loud laugh). That’s why it’s immensely more interesting to talk with children than with adults. We shouldn’t bore them with moralising tales. We should simply try to help them.
Let me guess – that’s also the motto for your series, Une Epatante Avonture de Jules (An Amazing Adventure Of Jules)?
“For Jules I normally start from things that I noticed when I was very little myself. I somehow realised that all those fairy tales just didn’t add up, with their stories of beautiful princesses and horrible dragons. I was interested in more serious subjects, things you could call existential questions. I quite often thought about life and death… I think one of the reasons was that my parents were already fairly old when I was born (laughs). I was very scared that they’d die of old age. What would happen to me then? And if they died, where would they go? Those were the kind of things I worried about.’
“I was, and still am, a real dreamer, a boy that would stare at the stars for hours at night. But at the same time I wanted to know how things worked, and why they were the way they are. And pretty soon I realised that we as humans don’t really amount to much. Life is over in a jiffy, so you had better make sure you make the most of it. And that’s what I try to somehow weave into every story.’ (laughs)
You like to place your characters in key moments in history, such as Spirou in 1939 or Alexis Strogonov in 1920. Why is that?
‘People often have the feeling that they simply roll along with the way things are, with history. I beg to differ: I think we create history by ourselves. In Journal d’un Ingénu (Diary of an Innocent One) Spirou, a mere bellboy, tries to shape the way history unfolds around him. A bellboy, somebody who’s hardly noticed opening doors for people, tries to have an impact on things almost against his better knowledge. And in the end he fails because of a stupid accident beyond his control – after all, it’s a comic, a story, and not a historical essay.’
‘But the idea remains! (Gets excited) If at this point in time any intolerant or racist politicians -or worse, dictators- are able to grab the power, we as ordinary citizens bear a certain responsibility too! What I’m trying to say is that every one of us exists as an individual being, and that we should act to our own best ability. We should not wait for heroes to take the stage. Take Aleksis Strogonov, who lives in the time between the wars. That period is particularly interesting, because you can see the consequences of the First World War fester into what later becomes the Second World War.’
‘My father was a Spanish fugitive, who had to flee his country because of the civil war. When I was little, he often told me about that period, and about what happened in the rest of Europe at that time. He was a young, republican soldier who was doing his military service in Barcelona when the war broke out. He had almost been enlisted in the franquist army. My grandfather was an army officer who was stationed in Zaragoza, which had chosen Franco’s side at the start of the war.’
‘In his stories, my father never talked about his heroic actions, or the struggle – he rather talked about this political consciousness, and about how the war had shaped that consciousness. He had to flee for France, along with many of his countrymen. So, it’s almost thanks to the Spanish Civil War that I’m around now (laughs). Maybe that’s why I’m so interested in history.’
‘I think it is very important that people should have a good understanding of the past. What interests me in my own stories, like Strogonov, but also Spirou, is the humanist aspect of the characters. You shouldn’t be talking history for history’s sake. History quite often is one big mess, something nobody is able to untangle anymore. Aleksis Strogonov ends up in Berlin, and meets a gang of German ultranationalist – him being a Russian! It’s not really clear for him at that time what that gang stands for, and what they are up to.
Why did you go back to pre-war Brussels with Spirou?
Because Spirou is a Belgian! And because Belgium fascinates me. It’s a fantastic country. I am a very outspoken anti-nationalist myself – I travel a lot, and everywhere I meet human beings, not Germans or Americans, or whatever. All those so-called “cultures” – they don’t just belong to one people! Everybody takes part in all cultures. Cultures and religions belong to everybody, including you. You are a human being, which makes you part of humanity. I don’t really see how you can claim a culture for your own… That’s what nationalists do, claiming different aspects of culture for their own, and often in a very brutal and violent manner. They claim the “only” and “true” identity of a people… That’s just nonsense.’
‘The French are very good at that. They’ll bring up that glorious history, about the “forever France” and nos ancêtres, les Gaulois… I think that’s just conning the people, to be honest. If you apply that to Belgium, you’ll see a small country that’s been trampled underfoot by armies from all corners of the world for ages. There’s this surrealist humour, and the lack of “Belgian nationalism”. Belgians tend to take themselves not too seriously, and that’s a quality I like very much. But there are always certain people who try to benefit politically from a certain dissatisfaction.’
‘Things aren’t that great in France at the moment, you know. They’re cutting back on health care and education. The reason? We’re ruled by a gang of imbeciles! I have a theory about that. In the past people were numbed by hunger and long working hours. Nowadays we’re kept dumb by the media, by television. Television could be a fantastic medium, if we used it for communication and education. We’re no longer citizens, but merely consumers. How do you expect people to live together? Everybody only thinks of his own little gain. I’m sorry to say this, really. But I hope that the simple thing of me making books for children makes a difference somehow. As long as young people start thinking about the things they read, there’s hope. And I’m not talking about picking up weapons or manning the barricades. It’s about using television in a more conscious manner, and about stopping being afraid.
‘People are afraid of everything. Children’s books will probably not change that much, but I’m always trying to change people’s expectations, and make them think: the princess can be incredibly ugly, or a sweet little bear can be very cruel, things like that .
What can we expect from you in the future?
At the moment I’m preparing the next Jules book, the sixth one already. It’s about the end of the world. Not about all the ecological disasters that are looming, but about the human condition. I’ll probably use it to present some of my own hang-ups, such as possessions, profit, the organisation of society, the professional rat race… When I go to speak in schools, and talk to the pupils, they understand what I’m talking about very well. That’s one of the great advantages of a series like Jules: it makes a conversation between generations possible. Kids ask their parents or grandparents what the universe is, or God, or what makes up time… When I talk to children in a classroom, I always start with the same question, the question that should be asked time and again: “Who am I?” That question changes your point of view, and everything becomes more relative. I want to make people think and talk. When I succeed in that, I’m a happy cartoonist.
FPI would like to thank Roel Daenen and our comics cousins at Stripgids for kindly allowing us to share this with an English language audence, and to our own Wim for translating it.