Now is a exciting moment in the world of Charles Berberian and Philippe Dupuy. Released in an English translation on Drawn & Quarterly in 2006, Maybe Later gave readers the rare opportunity to view the artists’ work independently of one another, a chance repeated once again with the release of Dupuy’s solo book Haunted, earlier this year.
Haunted is, in many ways, a departure from the duo’s beloved and long-running series, Monsieur Jean, exploring a manner of storytelling not often present in the everyman plotlines of Dupuy and Berberian’s best-known work. Berberian insists, however, that the new book, along with a rekindled interest in the epic work of Buddha creator, Osama Tezuka, has opened up new methods of storytelling for the duo.
Even with their recent Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême—something of a comics lifetime achievement award—it seems that the duo best and most exciting work is yet to come.
You spoke wanting to tackle grand issues in this upcoming book. What are they, specifically?
Charles Berberian: It’s not really big issues. They’re basic issues of everyday life—this is what makes us laugh, or intrigues us. We like to walk around, observe people and things. Phillipe worked a lot in cafes. Sometimes he stops working on the script he’s working on and just listens to people and writes what they say down. I do the same thing. I spend a lot of time sketching in cafes and restaurants, and I always note things on the paper.
Philippe Dupuy: It’s crazy. When I write the dialogues of people, it’s just the things I don’t understand. I write what they say. When I go back, I change nothing. The dialogs are really good. It’s true that when you’re drawing, people don’t care so much, apparently. At the beginning they care, but soon they forget, and you are invisible.
Do you ever get recognized when you’re drawing people, or just walking down the street?
PD: No, it’s impossible, because you can’t recognize comic artists, because we’re not actors, or something like that. Just one or two times, people came and asked me, “are you the guy who draws Monsieur Jean?”
In the United States, cartoonists always seem to associate themselves with the underdog role. When books like Maus or Jimmy Corrigan come along and win them some respect, it seems almost like something of a shock to the system. Is the situation similar in France?
CB: [It’s the] same thing in France. It’s the same phenomenon. Maus was really a big breakthrough in France, and it took like ten years to fabricate a generation of writers and cartoonists—”graphic novelists”—to take over. And now in France, there’s a certain recognition, but it could be dangerous, with all of this attention and focus. I tend to think that French literature is a little too self-concious, so we don’t have the same kind of down-to-earth books that I really enjoy reading when I’m reading graphic novels, because I really feel authors connected with the real world. French literature today is into this sort of, “I’m writing a very important book.”
PD: They’re looking at themselves a lot.
CB: Yeah, and it’s not at all like English literature. There are a lot of French writers who are trying to write like Brett Easton Ellis. It’s terrible [laughs]. But there is a lot of generosity and invention in French graphic novels today. It’s very exciting. It’s as exciting as what’s being produced in the US and in Canada. I think the fact that we’re sitting on the border of being officially important but still in the underdog mindframe—that makes us special. I would like to stay on that border.
PD: You’re right, this is a problem. It’s a difficult question. I think that sometimes I’m fighting for the comics to be recognized. People think that everyone in France thinks that comics are great. That’s not really true. Many people think that comics are just for kids or stupid—they’re not really books. And we know that that’s not true, so we have to fight. But we don’t want to be stars. I’m happy to be recognized, like the girl who came up to me and asked if I was the guy who draws Monsieur Jean. I said, “yes, I am one of the two guys.” And it was enough. Imagine if people were doing that all the time. I wouldn’t want that. But I do want people to know that there are great books around. That the work of Art Spiegelman or Chris Ware or Charles Burns is much better than some bad French novel.
How did you react to winning the Grand Prix [de la ville d’Angoulême]?
PD: Oh, it was nice. The people who decided to give us that are people that we have a lot of admiration for. It’s embarrassing, too, because a lot of our friends should have won.
CB: They will! Now that we’re inside, we can vouch for them.
PD: But how do you choose one of your friends?
CB: Who will be the most friendly toward us [laughs]?
When a great work like Maus comes along, do you feel some obligation to be creating art on that level?
CB: I’m a reader and I’m also an author. I still remember that I started drawing because I was excited about what I was reading. These two activites are totally connected. And I think that back in ’85, we considered stopping drawing graphic novels, because we didn’t read any books that excited us as much as they had ten years ago. As I said earlier, reading Tezuka or Haunted or other books, gives me the excitement to draw. Making something important—I really think that what’s important to me or us is not what’s important to someone else.
PD: Yes, exactly.
CB: And this is sitting on the border of being the underground. I feel a connection not so much with the underdog as with the underground. The underground is not like a revolutionary thing. I was raised on a magazine called Heavy Metal in France, which is not really like the Heavy Metal you have here in the US. It was much more close to the bone. They would be the first one to say that Phillip K. Dick was a writer, and not just a science fiction writer, and I really like that. We could read reviews about Phillip K. Dick’s books and Egon Schielle’s paintings.
What’s important about what we’re doing is not for us to say. It’s for the people to decide, but as a reader or an auditor, I know that some minor books of authors when they were published are now considered important. Minor authors like Phillip K. Dick are really considered important now, while authors that were important back then are totally forgotten today. But maybe they will be rediscovered later. We can’t focus on that, when we’re doing a book. When Philippe started working on Haunted, it was really exciting.
PD: There aren’t really any big subjects in Haunted. I don’t talk about big things, about the world. But for me, the subjects are very important. You talk about Maus by Spiegelman. Everyone thinks it’s a wonderful book because it’s talking about such a big subject—the holocaust, but for me, the big subject of the book is the relationship between Art Spiegelman and his father. This is why that book is more interesting that other books about the holocaust. There are many books about the holocaust. My personal story has no connection with the holocaust—
CB: We all have connection with the holocaust!
PD: Surely, but not as directly as Art Spiegelman has, but if I have a connection with the relationship with his father. This is why I loved the book. I think when you’re talking about small pieces of your life—the good periods and the bad periods—those are universal. When you are a reader, the most important thing is that when you close the book, you don’t forget.
CB: Although something really terrible happened to me [laughs]. I was reading a book of short stories by Haruki Murakami and I really enjoyed them. I put down the book at some point and picked it up some months later. I couldn’t remember which stories I’d read and which I hadn’t. So I started reading this story, and I thought I had read it before and knew what was going to happen. I could really see it very clearly. And I continued and it was totally something else.
PD: That’s great! It was your story.
CB: It’s quite amazing, the relationship that we can have with books. It’s like standing on a mountain shouting, and then you hear your voice back. At the moment you read the book, you’re reading the book, and you’re reading what’s in your mind. There’s a sort of echo, and at some point, maybe you’re building up things.
You don’t have to explain everything when you’re writing a story, because there’s a contract between the writer and the reader in the space you leave when you’re writing. The reader can fill in the gaps. Maybe it’s not what you’re reading that’s memorable. It’s what you put inside. That drives you back to reading books, the fact something happened whil you were reading it. Talking about Maus—there are so many entries to that book. People who want to read about the holocaust or their relationship with their father can get something out of it. This is what’s very interesting about art in general.
[Concluded in Part Four].