TCJ 300 Conversations: Jean-Christophe Menu & Sammy Harkham

Posted by on December 14th, 2009 at 12:49 AM


If we think of ourselves as geologists and the comics field as seismic activity, we would be led again and again to the global epicenters that are Sammy Harkham and Jean-Christophe Menu. Operating a hemisphere apart as artists and publishers, Harkham and Menu have arguably done more than any other two creative figures to shake up the status quo and influence those who take comics seriously as an art form. Each has always followed the beat of his own drum, both having entered the comics field by publishing their own comics.

Born in 1964, Menu started out with self-published zines like Le Journal de Lapot in 1981, but was soon publishing edgy works by other creators under the auspices of the publishing house Futuropolis. In 1990, he co-founded L’Association, the adventurous publishing operation he is most known for, and in 1992, he founded the experimental OuBaPo, a group dedicated to exploring the formal boundaries of comics. A man of many manifestos, Menu has been an outspoken champion of the avant-garde aesthetic tradition in France, and his strong opinions have sometimes led to ruptures and confrontations even with his L’Asso co-founders. In 2001, he launched his own publishing company, J. C. Menu.

Though born in 1980 in Los Angeles, Harkham spent his formative comics-reading years in Australia, which may account for the outsider perspective that informs his groundbreaking Kramers Ergot anthology series. Both in his own Crickets comics work and in the organizing and designing sensibilities that have shaped Kramers Ergot, Harkham has found a way to merge spontaneity, craft and narrative in ways that have captured the attention of the comic-art world. Kramers began as a 48-page minicomic in 2000 and, nine years later, it is still provoking debate: KE 7 has shed its minicomic origins, having grown to a whopping 16 inches by 21 inches and carrying a $125 price tag.

The Journal takes great pride in performing the introductions between these two strong-minded iconoclasts and providing the venue for their first ever in-depth conversation.


Sequence from Harkham’s “Somersaulting” in Drawn & Quarterly Showcase Three, ©2005 Sammy Harkham.

Sammy Harkham:
I guess before we get into aesthetics or whatever else, I am interested in what it is like in France right now for comics, since so many notions I had 10 years ago of what the comics industry was like in France is starting to happen here in the States — wider acceptance in bookstores and the general culture, with the most mediocre books being the ones that sell the best, and all the big corporate book publishers have comic imprints. It’s a weird time here — every shitty cartoonist under 30 seems to have an agent and is making deals. Do French cartoonists have agents?

Jean-Christophe Menu:
No, it’s very rare that French cartoonists use agents. Draftsmen who draw for the ad world, press, promo and so on do have agents, but not comic artists. From my point of view, it seems a very American tradition. I sometimes had to work with the agent of an American comic artist, and I found it quite pointless because I knew the artist personally and I had to deal with a go-between who didn’t even get all the points of the project. On another hand, when L’Association made the French Quimby the Mouse, we made it all in the most tiny details with Chris Ware himself, and thanks to him, because it would have been impossible to obtain such a good result with a go-between. So maybe in America the first sign of success for a young cartoonist is to get an agent, which is still very strange for us, but maybe will happen here one day!

Otherwise, the other statements you make (shitty books that sell the best; big corporations making ersatz so-called “independent” graphic novels; pretentious, mediocre 25-year-old cartoonists flooding all possible publishers), I’m afraid these points are definitely shared between the U.S. and France.

Another thing, related to my first question, is: What do you see as the history or trajectory of French alternative comics that you and L’Association are a part of? I have no sense of the history of alternative comics in France, what things were happening in the past that L’Association came out of. And I would love to hear what that history is from your point of view.

From Menu’s “Meder et La Pute,”, ©2003 L’Association.

Wow, a big subject. I’ll try to make it short. For me, the real alternative story began in France with Hara-Kiri in 1960. Even though it was not an “alternative” of anything else, really, and it was not just a comic magazine. You also got texts, cartoons, photo-stories, all very provocative and irreverent. A bit like Mad, I guess, but quickly very much more radical. A kind of humor impossible to hold nowadays in France. The same Hara-Kiri staff (Professeur Choron, Cavanna, Gébé, Topor, Siné, Cabu, Wolinski, Reiser, Willem, etc.) launched in 1969 both Charlie-Hebdo (a weekly satirical politics magazine) and Charlie-Mensuel (more focused on pure comics, translating Krazy Kat as well as Guido Crepax, making known Francis Masse as well as Alex Barbier). When Gébé or Reiser were doing their “comics” they wouldn’t call it comics, because at this time “comics” was still kid stuff. So they called it just drawings or they didn’t name it at all, they just did it, and of course it was the essence of comics language… In 1970, Actuel was launched in the international underground wave, translating Crumb, Shelton and others. In the meantime, the children’s weekly magazine Pilote became more and more “adult,” till three of its best artists, Gotlib, [Nikita] Mandryka and Claire Bretécher, quit it in 1972 to found L’Echo des Savanes. It was the first time that recognized cartoonists decided to quit the business and create by themselves their own independent support. In 1974, Moebius, [Philippe] Druillet and [Jean-Pierre] Dionnet did the same in founding Métal Hurlant, an SF-oriented comic magazine. And Gotlib founded Fluide Glacial in 1975. This was the peak time of the “adult” independent press in the French ’70s. And Futuropolis, which didn’t have a magazine, improved the field in publishing comics in true art-book forms, with a real thoughtfulness and care about the book designs. It was “books” and no more “albums,” “bande dessinée” and no more “BD,” as Etienne Robial said, and which was one of L’Asso’s future basic statements. Other small houses like Artefact followed this strategy. L’Echo des Savanes began to publish books with Editions du Fromage and Métal Hurlant with Les Humanoïdes Associés. But quickly, these magazines and structures escaped from the hands of the artists who created them and fell into the claws of commercial people. For example, L’Echo des Savanes stopped in the late ’70s but reappeared in 1982 as a soft-porn, quite crappy magazine. So went the ’80s, as we all know: progressive co-optation of counterculture, extinguishing of the experiments and the transgressive attempts. But of course, on the other hand, the children’s stuff — not always dumb — and the dawning shitty, “adult” stuff were already there in the ’70s.

The ’80s, especially in their second half, were indeed a pain in the ass for the young artists of my generation: open-minded magazines dying one after another, classic publishers only looking for more predigested products to take from the freezer and thaw out, Futuropolis repeatedly stopping, etc. No place to develop personal attempts in comics except in fandom venues, and those minicomics often sucked. I met Stanislas and Matt Konture in 1983. We began doing fanzines (they also quite sucked at the beginning) and handmade little books at that period, had our first “true” books in Futuropolis and began making confrontational statements against the industry. We made the sole issue of the Labo anthology with Futuropolis in 1990, after meeting Mokeït, Killoffer, Lewis Trondheim, David B., and a lot more cartoonists who declined to be part of the subsequent L’Association, which we created later in the same year, 1990, after stipulating we could make again a separate project such as Labo on our own. So, L’Association was a way to come back to what the ’70s had known as alternative comics, in particular operations founded by the cartoonists themselves, with a mix of other influences, mainly coming from literature and the French 20th-century avant-garde movements.

That’s how I would quickly and personally sum it up.

From Menu’s Lock Groove Comix #1, ©2008 L’Association.

Could you be more specific about the influences on you and your peers and what made you the artist and publisher you are?

For me personally, it’s quite complex, because very early as a kid, I wanted to do comics. I don’t even remember when — even before I knew how to read. I would ask my mother to tell me what was written in the balloons. And as a kid, I had a very huge body of work of little comics adventures. When I arrived at puberty, it was like I had an entire career in my desks. At that time, I was completely into Spirou, a Belgian popular children’s magazine (which had, and still has, both crap and very good stuff). Maybe that’s why I’m not interested in making a mainstream career, I’ve already done it! As a teenager, I discovered Fluide Glacial, Métal Hurlant, Gotlib, Moebius, Crumb, etc. I think my personal evolution was formed during the time that I passed through childish/adolescent/adult comics. But to attend the university in an art department was very important for me. There I learned to love other art forms than comics. It’s also the time when I was deep into Surrealism, Dada, OuLiPo, Situationists and other avant-garde movements. L’Association was a mix of popular comics culture, the ’60s and ’70s underground, and avant-garde ideas and statements. Plus there was, around 1986/’87, a real alternative in the music scene in France, where little independent labels proved they could exist and make it big. (The success was around the band Bérurier Noir — don’t know if they’re known in the States, very politically engaged French punk rock with beatbox.) These labels showed it was possible to begin from nowhere and conquer a true place [in the market], so this was an example to follow. (I was close to this scene cause I knew a band, Les Satellites, for whom I made the sleeve of their first LP.) But the other founders had their own influences. Killoffer was into superheroes; I had never been. On a graphic level, Futuropolis was the more important. They did books (well designed, well focused) with comics inside, and not albums. So the influences were really numerous and from a lot of fields.

My first question to Sammy is bound to the astonishing progress I saw between Kramers Ergot #3 (never seen the first two) and the latest incredible #7. I suppose the production support of Alvin Buenaventura has an important part in the object’s improvements, but your choice of artists is also always getting wider and sharper. In the last issues, all the best of the U.S. are there, but also a lot of European and French cartoonists, which I think is quite new for the U.S., which was, from my point of view, for a long time quite isolationist about comics from abroad. How do you interpret this kind of new open-mindedness? Have you been personally curious about European comics and how did you discover it?

From Hervé Tanquerelle’s contribution to Comix 2000, ©2000 Hervé Tanquerelle.

I have no idea who almost any of those cartoonists are! Someone should do a collection mapping the trajectory of the underground comics artists of France.

I think in the States, even knowledgeable fans of European comics have very little sense of what came before and influenced artists like David B., Trondheim, yourself and publishers like L’Association and Cornelius.

Thanks for the nice words about Kramers Ergot. I never had a firm rule not to include European cartoonists in the anthology, and have had Europeans in each issue since #4. After issue #3, I sent letters to a handful of French publishers asking them about the English rights to certain strips and I heard absolutely nothing from any of them!

I always want more European artists in the book. It’s just a hard thing, as you know — just getting someone’s e-mail is tricky. And the potential language barrier, trying to communicate what you want as an editor, all these things add up to make it difficult to get in touch. Hervé Tanquerelle, for instance. I really love the one comic I have read of his, in Comix 2000. I think about it all the time. I have never seen any other work from him and have always wanted to write him, and it’s impossible! I can’t find anything on the Internet, and nobody I meet knows him. Comix 2000, actually, is where I discovered a bunch of cartoonists I later worked with, like Conrad Botes, who did a great strip in that, as well.

Now, that said, I don’t really connect with most of the comics I see from Europe. Some of that might have to do with the language barrier and bad translations, but even in the drawing, so much of the work just looks impersonal, a construct of “style” and affect, like bad magazine illustrations but in comics form. The drawing looks insincere, all style, no heart, no genuine inspiration. And a lot of the stuff I have seen seems more interested in the formal aspects of comics, and that approach leaves me cold. I’d rather read something cartoony and funny and honest, than work that plays with the idea of cartoon iconography — Mickey Mouse ears, Dick Tracy’s nose, Tintin’s hair — and feels like the artists need to show the reader how smart they are, so they paint it in oils with a brush, make it very arty and postmodern, or add lots of dicks. That drives me nuts. We have all these formal cartoonists doing that sort of thing in America too, but in Europe it seems everywhere and is taken seriously, published by respected publishers, winning awards, etc. and of course in the middle of all that somewhere are the handful of great cartoonists who seem to exist in a vacuum, doing their own thing.

I always figured this had to do with the introduction of Moebius (and Crumb somewhat). Because his drawing is so seductive to so many people, and financially successful, it had this effect on everybody where they felt like to be a good cartoonist meant having a distinct “style” instead of story: You can just have weird shit happen. And I like Moebius a lot, by the way.

I always figured that was the biggest thing L’Association brought to European comics: the idea that straightforward comics, comics that reveled in being cartoony, comics where the drawing and the writing are truly interconnected, could be as aesthetically pleasing as anything else, if not more so. That it created a context for readers to understand all this stuff.

And believe me when I say I totally understand that I sound like an ignorant prick.

I was lucky in that there was a very good comic shop in Los Angeles — Meltdown — that got a lot of European comics in. So I would see books by David B. and [Joann] Sfar, Fabio, Blutch, yourself, and also all the volumes of Lapin; they basically would get in all the books from L’Association and Cornelius. All the European comics looked great to me, because it all looked like fun material — Westerns, pirate stories, golems, monsters — but looked like personal work. And of course, all those books were so well designed. So I would just pore over all that stuff and wish that someone would publish the work here, and beyond that, publish like that here — nice paper, nice design. I never could understand why the work wasn’t being brought over to the U.S. Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics did a little bit, but to my mind there seemed to be a lot of good work that would have an audience in the U.S., no problem.

From Harkham’s Poor Sailor, ©2005 Sammy Harkham.

Well, I’m happy to hear that Comix 2000 at least was useful for this! (Such a crazy project was also an occasion for us to discover a lot of cartoonists abroad.) I also think that a lot of so-called “independent” French or European comics can find a U.S. readership. I was always surprised in the years before that so few of them had been translated, and I’ve noticed a change in the last few years in the States. Maybe the success of Pantheon’s English version of Persepolis helped; it had kind of paved the way in France for big publishers to include the (so-called again) “graphic novel” approach, mainly only reached before by the small independent publishers. Now Sfar, [Emmanuel] Guibert, [Guy] Delisle, [Philippe] Dupuy & [Charles] Berberian, etc., are widely available in the U.S., and on another hand, I’m happy to see Fabio, [Florent] Ruppert & [Jerome] Mulot, [Stephane] Blanquet, Blexbolex and others beginning to regularly appear in the U.S. Best anthologies like Ergot.

I quite agree with your perception of the comic market in France. I hate this mainstream. I’ve long hated it also because it was taking all the shelf space and because it gave the impression that this standard (the classic 48-page hardcover “album”) was the only way of considering comics in France. It’s like the commercial point of view was the only way of talking about what was really an artistic thing. I’ve fought this for years. But now all is very confusing here, as you’ve got both new, small, independent publishers who are producing garbage, and big companies copying all the improvements the small press has made, and sometimes are nevertheless producing fine books. A lot of good cartoonists born in the alternative scene are now working for these companies, sometimes for good, sometimes for useless stuff. The companies mainly do it for a better image. Not sure it can last. These evolutions in the comic-book field (let’s say the market), added to the “crisis,” make beginning things uneasy for the genuine alternative houses like ours. There’s too much in production, but on the other hand, we’ve never seen so many good books being issued. Plus, it’s like everybody, including the worst big, old BD companies are trying to care about how the books are designed now! And also, every “big” or “small” publisher is now interested in translating stuff from abroad, when a few years ago, it was only the hardcore alternative scene that was interested. Now every mediocre comic from the U.S. or from Japan is semi-assured to be translated in France by somebody. But often they would just sign it all without making any distinctions. Because now it’s cool for every asshole Frog to publish any small-sized black-and-white autobiographical stuff and any foreign stuff.

From Menu’s Mont-Verité Chrono-Poche #1: Le Marraine des Moines, ©2008 L’Association.

The thing I’ve noticed for a long time is that the mainstreams of the different countries, let’s say the commercial crap, is almost always sitting where it started. Nobody abroad wants the French sword-and-sorcery mainstream bullshit, and the same thing for the bad superhero stuff in the U.S. and the shitty mangas in Japan. Only the works with a kind of universal content is able to cross the borders and interest other continents’ readers, I believe. That’s how you can get Julie Doucet, Max Andersson, Chester Brown, David B. or the Spanish Max translated in 10 or 12 countries. I’m sure L’Association sells more rights abroad than a bunch of big comic companies. Why? I think because we are places where the artists are free to go as far as they want with their own universes and styles. No market or commercial obligations, not even to please somebody. So all the defects of the local market, trying to please the local audience, are avoided. Free and pure art isn’t restricted by local tastes. Don’t you think your superhero junk is as terrible as our awful mainstream?!

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