From our continental corresponent: Doel by Jeroen Janssen – probably the book of the year
In 1998 the Flemish Government decreed that the Port of Antwerp urgently needed expansion on the left bank of the river Scheldt, thus condemning the village of Doel to disappear. This small community would have been totally unknown for the rest of the world, were it not for the four nuclear reactors that had been built there in the preceding decennia, another endeavour that had not been without controversy.
Faced with the town’s inevitable fate, and probably enticed by the Government’s fairly generous buy-out practices, Doel’s inhabitants slowly but surely left, only to be replaced by a rag-tag bang of artists, squatters, activists from the left and right, the odd jumper (short-term contractors who do cleaning work in the inner core of the nuclear plant), etcetera. Government decisions were fought in courts and on the street, and as a result, Doel is now a ghost town, with empty houses covered in graffiti, only one cafe and a mere thirty inhabitants. Everybody knows this patient is dying, but due to the symbolic value that was attached to the town through the years of struggle, nobody is really willing to pull the plug.
Never in his life would Flemish cartoonist Jeroen Janssen have imagined himself living there, interviewing and drawing the people in the town, and sketching the ever-changing environment. His work predominantly is set in Rwanda, and when French publisher Patrick de Saint-Exupéry asked him to do a reportage comic for his magazine XXI, that’s where he wanted to go back to. But De Saint-Exupéry convinced him to stay closer to home, and to do something about that exotic little country in the north, his native Belgium.
After considering a few options, Janssen found himself in that little town, wedged between the Dutch border, a nuclear power plant and an ever expanding industrial port. He started sketching the buildings, the surrounding fields and industrial terrains, but above all, he observed the people. By blending into the background, an not asking too many questions, Janssen was able to win the trust of a group of people who felt betrayed by the press, the police and the government. He listened to their stories, without prejudice and without intent, simply registering the mood, the issues, the problems.
The result is Doel, a gem of a book, very luxuriously published by Oogachtend in an oblong A4 format, with 272 pages of sketches, notes, intricate drawings and stories. Janssen worked closely together with Lennert Gavel to combine artwork from his many notebooks into something that transcended a mere artbook. In the best journalistic tradition, it is an account of how the reporter himself evolves from a mere observer to somebody who is choosing sides. Not in a political sense, but solely picking the side of the obvious underdog in this story: the people who try to eek out a life in a doomed village.
The refrain of this song is the story of Sjarel and Marcella, two old people who lived in Doel all their lives, but had to leave due to health problems. Their appliances shop had slowly changed into a hostel for all the cats that had been abandoned by the people who moved away from Doel, and with its very striking protest signs (“Doel Must Survive!”) had become something of an icon in the protest movement. When it burned down because of a stupid short circuit, it seems like the final judgement has been called over the town…
Doel is a very local book, but at the same time its theme is universal. It tells of yet another case where “little people” have to make way for the interests of industry and business. Stories like these can be found all over the globe, on any scale, and cannot get enough attention. Doel is also a very beautiful book, combining quick ballpoint sketches with elaborate landscapes in watercolours and felt tip pen and beautiful typography, with the stories and dialogues dancing through the art like words tend to do around the fire.
I guess the chance of getting a hulk of a book like this one translated, with all its hand-lettered prose fragments and colourful artwork, are very slim. Still, I hope somebody will take up the gauntlet and give this book the global audience it deserves. Not just because it’s a story that needs to be told, but also because, as a book, it is the best one I’ve had in my hands in a long time.
Doel by Jeroen Janssen is published by Oogachtend (ISBN 9789077549810), counts 272 pages and costs 39 Euros. If you want to get an idea of what Doel is like these days, you can try this excellent impression from messynessychic.com.