[Left to right: Matt Madden, Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian.]
It’s perhaps the ultimate sign of how insular a nation we’ve become that, even in a world as tightly knit as the American independent comics scene, the names Charles Dupuy and Philippe Berberian remain largely unknown. This can, at least in part, be chalked up to the fact that, until two years ago, it was nearly impossible to find translated versions of their work in North America.
That changed in 2006, when Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly simultaneously released two fantastic examples of the French artists at the top of their form. Get a Life anthologized the first three volumes of their best-known work, Monsieur Jean, the story of a successful novelist living in Paris, which, in many ways has served as something of a literary nome de plume for both Berberian and Dupuy.
The second book, Maybe Later, while excellent, is decidedly atypical, with both parties drawing and scripting their own vignettes, a marked change from the their celebrated collaborations, which generally extend to every aspect of the creative process.
We had the honor of speaking with the artists the eve of a rare talk in New York City.
It’s been ten years since you’ve been to New York.
CB: We were supposed to come over last year, when we were invited for the Book Fair of Toronto, but somewhow it didn’t happen. The scheduling was bad. But ten years ago, we used to come here once a year, for the thrill of discovering the city and working for the New Yorker, but at some point I said, “enough of New York. Let’s try some place else.” But I think it’s time to come back.
But you’ve been to other parts of the states since then?
CB: Oh, San Diego, for Comic Con. It was strange, because I’ve been to New York more often than Barcelona. And I’m really excited about Spain, these days, and South America, too.
Has most of the traveling been to promote books?
CB: The first time we were in New York, it was personal travel.
PD: Just to discover the city. The first time we came to the city, we made a book of sketches. But that was a long time ago. I think it was—
CB: In ’95.
PD: My daughter had just been born. So, imagine…
The last time you were here, you worked on a sketchbook. When you travel, are you constantly trying to imagine the sorts of books that might come out of the experience?
CB: Well, Phillipe published a book, two years ago.
PD: An American Election. Because I came to Tulsa, Arizona, for the last presidential election, and made a book after, in France. It talks about the election and drag queens in Arizona.
Is it a comic?
PD: It’s not really a graphic novel. I did the illustrations and there are 40 pages of comics in the book. That was the last time I came to the United States.
And this last book, Haunted, was one that you did by yourself. I’m assuming that’s why both of you came out.
CB: I don’t know why they invited me [laughs].
PD: I think they invited you because last year we should have come to New York for Maybe Later and…
CD: Get a Life.
PD: It’s true they just published my book, Haunted, and it’s an occasion to come back, with three books on Drawn & Quarterly.
The talk you’re giving tomorrow [last Wednesday at Housing Works in Manhattan]. Will it be primarily focused on Haunted or your collaborations?
CB: We’ll answer the questions, you know? If the questions are focused on Haunted, I’ll let Phillippe do the talking, and I think I’ll take a nap—catch up on the jet lag.
Working apart is a fairly recent phenomenon for the two of you.
PD: Yeah, it’s the first time I’m really doing this. It’s true that it’s recent, because after 20 years of working together, I did this one alone, but Charles wrote some books for other artists and now he’s working on another.
CB: I did a book about music. But it’s not a comic book. It’s drawings and mainly writing about music.
What was the catalyst for these solo projects?
CB: Phillippe had some difficult issues that he had to deal with, on a personal level. I couldn’t get involved with them. So it was a step further into what we did ten years ago, which came out as Maybe Later. In that book we drew our own pages, but this was a matter of going through hard times, and he was really into that difficult moment.
PD: There are just some subjects that you have to deal with alone. When a subject is good to work on together, we work together.
[To Dupuy] Your parts in Maybe Later seemed to have you working through some of these emotional issues.
PD: Yeah, yeah. It’s true. But with Maybe Later, it’s not really the same thing, because the idea with the book was to talk about how we are when we’re working on a comic book. We did that when we were working on the third issue of Monsieur Jean. We decided to have everyone do their own pieces, while talking about our own work. But it’s true that after that, we took different ways, because we wanted to talk about different things. The interesting thing about the project was showing that sometimes your life can be separate from your work. It was weird, when I was reading the pieces that Charles did, he was talking about things that I could feel. I could have said the same thing.
So the process involved reading the other person’s pages and then working on your own?
PD: Yeah. And for Haunted, it’s completely different. It’s the kind of book that you’re working on at one moment and talking about personal things. When I read the book now, I can see that I’m not just talking about myself, but some family stories as well. This is really mine. I can’t imagine that if Charles was writing about his own life, or when he was a kid in Beirut—what could I say about that? I’ve never stepped foot in the city, so I couldn’t be in the book.
Every time we consume art—whether it’s a book, a comic, or a piece of music, we’re constantly trying to read things into it about the artist himself. You two must get a lot of questions regarding who is specifically doing what. Was that part of what prompted Maybe Later? The ability to real claim something for yourself?
CB: We never plan things prior to a project. We always go along with the project. Whenever an idea pops up, we talk about it, and it’s not necessarily intended to be shared, at the beginning. It depends on the reaction. Say I have an idea—I’ll talk about it with Philippe, and he reacts to it, we’ll probably develop this idea as a collaborative project. But then again, if he doesn’t bounce back, then it’s probably not such a good idea, so I’ll probably put it aside and move on to the next idea, or maybe bounce back to an idea that he suggests.
Do you find that the more the two of you work together, the less often ideas are rejected?
CB: Actually, it’s more like ideas standing in line, and we just go from one to the other, until we’re sure that this one is the more exciting one for the moment. For instance, the book I made about music—it’s not as heavy a subject as the one that Philippe was doing with, when he made Haunted. You don’t want to share another’s bad taste.
But when I started working on this book, it was supposed to be a book that we were going to do together, but I ended up doing it on my own, because Philippe started doing Haunted. He was really obsessed with these matters and had to deal with them. But when we started working together, 20 years ago, we didn’t know that we were going to have more than, say, one story that we would do together. And then when the first story was over, we said, “let’s try something else.”
And it’s the same thing with the illustrations—there’s another part of our collaborations, which is as important as us drawing graphic novels. It’s us being illustrators. We never intended to share this part of our work, but it happened that way, so there’s a certain excitement of bouncing back to each others’ ideas, and even though I sometimes enjoy working on my own, I’m really happy to work together, and it’s still exciting when we work on new projects.
When working one your solo books, were you still consulting with each other?
CB: Yeah, I was reading the pages.
PD: You can see how what you draw alone can be useful for your work together, too. You find things out through exploration, and think, ‘I can use this the next time I work with Charles.’ Working alone isn’t a risk that we’ll separate, but the possibility to put more into the next collaboration
[Continued in Part Two.]