Olivier Schrauwen & the Madness of Beards

Posted by on August 11th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

This is your European corresponder speaking, straight from the slums of Belgium, a city in Brussels (that’s a joke for you Americans). I will be your inbetween for such important facts as to why French Fries are much better in Belgium than France and a little something called ‘The Belgian Comics Scene’ that is slowly conquering the international scene even including countries cut off from Belgium by bodies of water.

I’m a graphic designer by profession and a regular contributor at comics news site Brokenfrontier.com where I post my writings and have also designed (and still am) the iPad’s first digital comics magazine The Frontiersman (also available for free at the site as a pdf download). But at the TCJ, I’m shooting my mouth off about Belgian comics aka the rantings of one lone Belgian about the international comics  scene so let’s dive straight into the first one. Presenting for your pictorial pleasure Olivier Schrauwen & The Man Who Let his Beard Grow …

Olivier Schrauwen is not a total unknown  in the American comics scene. Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) mentioned Schrauwen’s first graphic novel My Boy as one of the must reads in 2009 and Schrauwen has been published in Fantagraphics’ Mome anthology. Here are some keywords though for the unintiated: Belgian, comic genius, graphical masterblender, darkly ironic, perfectionist. His latest comic is a cynically comedic collection of short pieces made in the last two years entitled The Man Who Let his Beard Grow collecting vignettes from the alt magazines Mome, Canilona and Strapazin.

The collection (in Dutch) is published by Bries, one of the leading alternative publishers in Belgium and despite the title of the book, not every story features beards or other forms of facial hair. Schrauwen admits that he himself is a bit lost as to the origin of the title though he ‘did have a beard himself throughout the whole process of creation‘. If there is a thematic thread, it is Schrauwens’ oblique outlook on human nature, the comedy of petty thoughts, the undercurrent of violence juxtaposed with the banality of everyday. If there is a visual thread, it is Schrauwens’ own typical pacing and linework despite the experimentation and different pictorial  styles. The result being a book that feels fresh with every turn of the page.

The stories themselves are more like linear absurd ideas than anything else, easing their way into a sort of payoff … or not. However, Schrauwen succeeds in creating characters with a few strokes that come across as unique in both body language and looks. His characters being so recognizable because they are so typical for human beings. The pettiness, the sudden outbursts of violence, the non-caring, all is exploited to present a rich tapestry of humankind as a selfish beast.

He almost always foregoes on white dividers between panels, opting to divide panels by thin black lines. I’m guessing this is where his animation experience comes into play. Succeeding panels can often be read as a one continuing motion even though the background changes considerably in time (a neat visual trick in itself). I wouldn’t say that he has a painterly style but he does use colouring as a brush, not every panel or foreground element is drawn with black lines, Schrauwens is in touch with the soul of the story and colour to him is just another type of delineation, another tool in the toolbox. This often leads to highly graphic compositions and panels like in an untitled story where his panels are incorporated into a sort of decorative Persian tapestry.

One of the recurring themes of Schrauwens’ work is the divide between reality and fantasy. Often the two are juxtaposed visually by different styles, line work or colouring methods from one panel to the next or even in the same panel. It is a theme that suits Schrauwens experiments perfectly and leads to a rich and textured world.

Though he himself is not particularly influenced by or has a tendency to go retro in his daily life, it is indeed how the pages and the characters’ worlds often turn out. According to the artist ‘I just started doodling and this is how my drawings appeared so I just assumed that this is my style of drawing.’ If you are familiar with his previous work, you’ ll raise an eyebrow in the story “The Imaginist” where the modern world intrudes in the strip in the way of someone buying a mobile phone credit card in a store! The madness of it all!

And just to show you that Belgian appreciates good comics, it has a sticker on it saying (loosely translated) ‘Bookpointer: Culturally Relevant and Literary Book’. Ladies and gentlemen: Belgium, where comics creators are treated right!

Quotes from Olivier Schrauwen were taken from the following interview at cuttingedge.com (in Dutch) and check out my interview with Olivier Schrauwen about his english debut album My Boy at brokenfrontier.com

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3 Responses to “Olivier Schrauwen & the Madness of Beards”

  1. Kristy Valenti says:

    Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds just sent me a note informing me that the company is publishing this book this spring.

  2. Beautiful! That is excellent news. Thanks, Kristy.

  3. Dries says:

    Excellent indeed!