Artists Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian have charmed European comics audiences for decades with the continuing adventures of Monsieur Jean, the tale of a successful novelist living in Paris. Based largely on the artists’ own experience, the series has been hailed for its keen ability to betray the subtle nuances of modern life.
Haunted, a rare solo cartooning work by Dupuy, made its English debut, earlier this month. The book marks both a welcome glimpse into the artist’s individual strengths and sharp move away from the subtle realism of the team’s work on Monsieur Jean. Dupuy’s panels are stripped of their polish, leaving behind rough sketches that depict the dreamlike narratives of a man searching for deeper meanings in something so simple as taking a morning jog in a Parisian park.
In this second part, we discuss the genesis of Dupuy’s latest book, and the impact both artists expect it to have on their work, moving forward.
Philippe Dupuy: Yeah.
At what point did you it occur to you to maintain the book’s raw quality?
PD: The idea was to draw Haunted as if you were writing. I didn’t want to work on this for many years.
How long did the book take to create?
PD: At first I worked on it for two months. I had to stop for a bit and then picked it up for a few more months. It was quick, and the idea was to not make too much work—doing the sketches and then the inking with all of the steps it usually takes. I was doing it on sketchbooks that I could put in my pocket. I was working on it in bars and cafes around Paris. They were very small drawings and was doing the pages as if I was writing. In the beginning, the idea was not to do a book, at all. I was not sure about that. Quickly enough, I saw that it was growing into a book. It’s very strange, because you don’t decide the structure, the idea of where you’re going. You see the book growing out from nowhere.
As a reader of Haunted, one is never sure where the stories are going to go, take, for example, the story of the duck. It sounds as if the process of creating the book was very similar.
PD: Yeah. That’s true—when I did the book, I was running every day. I would begin my days running, and when you run, you can clean your mind. And when your mind is clean, the ideas come. And sometimes you have a connections with various ideas.
With the duck story, one morning I was running and I really had to piss, but the waterclosets were closed. I went around the park and saw this little house and there were ducks in the garden. I began to run again, and thought about doing a story about people who have lists in life. “I have to do that, that, and that. And I want to collect things to do.” I have no idea why I had the idea that the duck would be like that.
But the idea of the book was no to try to control things. When I had an idea, I’d write it and try to make a story of it. The idea was to show things you can’t see. It was a bit of a challenge to write a book full of impossible things—things that are hard to explain.
You mentioned that you bounced a few ideas off of Charles, but being that the concept of book was to keep everything raw, did you ever actually wind up rejecting anything outright?
PD: I made a selection at the end. I wrote some stories that I didn’t draw. And there were some pages that I didn’t put in, because I didn’t want to explain things too much. But there wasn’t too much that didn’t make it, though in my sketchbook, there were a lot of things—people in the bar that I saw when writing and ideas that I had while running. I knew I was going to make a book, so I had two choices. The first was to make a facsimilie of the sketches, exactly as they are. And the other idea was to make it into a book, so I decided to make some selections.
Did anything come out of the book that might later become the fodder for a collaboration between the two of you?
Charles Berberian: When Phillipe started working on the book, I was very much into Tezuka’s work, and I was reading Phoenix and Buddha. I really thought we should bend our writing in that direction.
What exactly is it about Tezuka’s writing that you want to emulate?
CB: Well, going much more profoundly into the characters and the way they can change during a story. Going from a bad character to a good character. The humanity in Tezuka’s work is really amazing. I’ve never read anything like that, and when I started reading the pages that would become Haunted, I was amazed by the link to Tezuka’s work. I asked him if he had read Tezuka’s work, and he said, “no.” So I was very impressed by that. I think it helped us—for our next project, which we’re going to star working on in the next month, we will be going in that direction and reading Tezuka will help us a lot.
Does working apart give your collaborations something of a fresh start?
CB: When you’re working on a character like Monsieur Jean, you have a certain graphical vocabulary, and you can’t move out easily from that, because it’s a comfortable house with comfortable furniture. And it’s cold outside. You tend to want to stay indoors. Whenever one of us goes outside and says, “okay, you can come outside. It’s not so bad. It’s not so raining and freezing. Come out and we can try something else.” That helps.
So the next book isn’t Monsieur Jean?
CB: No. We’re outside the house.
You feel a sense of limitation, in terms of what you can do with the character?
CB: No, it’s just that we have to put our old clothes in the laundry and hopefully wear them again, after they’re cleaned up.
But when you’re working with a character with such a strong following, do you think people would react negatively if you made an abrupt change with him?
PD: Some will, I’m sure. When you change a few small things, some people are sad that it’s not the same as before. You can’t know, but I think we will do what we want. If we want to move everything with Monsieur Jean, we will do it. It’s always like that with life—when you lose something, you win something. We have to accept that we’ll lose some people who will have bad reactions, because we will end up winning some new ones in the end.
The concept is not just to change, it’s to move ahead. To do that, things can’t be artificial. When we’re changing our drawing or writing styles, it’s because we need to do that. When we began to make our pages separately on Maybe Later, it was because it was a good moment to do that. I think it’s the same when I was working on Haunted. It worked because it was urgent to draw like that.
The next book won’t be the same. We’re going to do the next one together. I think we might be draw separately—maybe some will be done together. We don’t know. We just started working on the story, and I think that will decide how we are going to work—separately or together.
Having worked on Monsieur Jean so long, do you have your own allegiances to the character? Are there certain things you can and can’t do?
CB: Yeah, that’s true. We just finished a book just before getting on a plane to New York. It’s stepping outside of Monsieur Jean, but staying inside the same neighborhood. It depicts the same characters but we don’t have to deal with the same issues. We can move onto new issues, different kinds of characters. The world around us is so amazingly absurd, and we feel the need to describe it. All of the characters around Monsieur Jean are almost flesh and blood now. There are so many things to write and draw about. The book we’re going to publish in May in France is basically a Monsieur Jean story without Monsieur Jean or any of the characters around him. So it helps us clear the path and draw in whatever way we want to draw—a thin outline or a thick outline.
So what makes a story a Monsieur Jean story, if not Monsieur Jean himself?
CB: The neighborhood. The fact that its every day life and it’s basically us. Even if Monsieur Jean is Monsieur Jean today, at the beginning he was us. He was a mask.
PD: I think the next book that will be published in May are the stories in the neighborhood that happen during the day, while he is working at home [laughs]. What he is doing isn’t very interesting, so we’re just looking down on the street, to see what’s going on.
CB: The two last Monsieur Jean books that were published in France—but not yet in the US and Canada—the more we dealt with those stories, the more the background character gained interest and were really present. Like Phillipe said, Monsieur Jean is there, but he’s writing.
PD: When we work on the next issue of Monsieur Jean, the last one would have been several years ago, so we can change many things. It’s like you have a friend who you haven’t seen in many years, and when you see him again, a lot of things have changed. He’s been married and divorced and lost his hair.
[Continued in Part Three.]