Nyehaus is pleased to present Made in France: Eight Artists and the Graphic Novel. There is only one term for it in French: bande dessinée. It includes graphic novels, comics, comic strips, comic book series, serial comics, mangas: all genres, without specifying size, format, or quality, and without any hierarchical differentiation. Indeed, it refers to everything in the form of graphic storytelling. The French have nicknamed it BD (pronounced “bay-day,” the first letter of each word in French.)
Bandes dessinées juxtapose all kinds of characters, universes, and stories. No subject is off limits, in them artists find total or near perfect freedom of expression; because of this they have discovered a considerable, attentive (and solvent) audience. Nor is it rare for film directors, novelists, and actors to get involved in bandes dessinées with varying degrees of luck. Each sees the medium for what it is: accessible and as legitimate as any other. There are funny BD, social BD; noir; film and novel adaptations; historical, romantic, sci-fi, political, satirical, erotic BD; BD of biographies, journalism, chronicles, autobiographies; BD for adults, for adolescents, for children, for everyone. Through BD you can travel to the Middle Ages, the future, Afghanistan, the U.S., in space or in Africa. Not everything is good, far from it; but for the artists, and particularly for storywriters like myself, the form represents the chance to break free from the politically correct, from the shackles of sterile convention-this is not a gesture to be taken lightly.
Bandes dessinées juxtapose artists from all corners of the world. It’s many-sided and international, its borders are flexible and open to those who are interested, or those who just find pleasure in it. It’s an imaginary continent: a poetic federation as the different artists assembled here show. This French phenomenon attracts artists the world over and puts their inimitable works on the market. This is due to two factors: on the one hand, the cultivated and courageous editors of the great period of the 70s and 80s-Etienne Robial at Futuropolis, Jean-Pierre Mougin at Casterman, Claude Moliterni at Dargaud-who gave the BD an essential boost which revolutionized it; and on the other hand there emerged an educated and curious public that never stopped growing or prospering, that wasn’t ashamed to read and love the BD, or even spend large sums on first editions or storyboards.
The question of whether the BD is an art or whether its makers are artists is irrelevant. There are paintings, films and novels that are works of art and others that aren’t. There are painters and novelists who are artists and others who are hacks. The same goes for the bande dessinée. Between two to three hundred new BD appear each month in France. Everyone has his own tastes, and it’s easy to say that this abundance is great, even if, to be honest, I often have doubts. But what counts is that there are true marvels in the lot, works of sincere and serious creators. This exhibition sets out to show the work of a handful of them, all active contemporaries. It lets us see the richness and variety of the visual worlds and graphic styles the bande dessinée has to offer its most demanding readers; after all, as André Julliard has said, it’s one of the last places where you can freely practice the ancient graphic arts. Each of its artists explores his own universe, affects a unique style like a painter or novelist, elaborates and perfects it with each new book.
The boards of these artists realize imaginative ideas that couldn’t be expressed otherwise, and it’s just this that gives the BD its purpose and justification. It’s what leads a creator to opt for the bande dessinée: he certainly couldn’t do the same thing in a film, on a canvas, or in a novel…This is also the reason why we chose to reproduce the boards in their original format whenever possible, because in them you can discover details, techniques, the way the artists work.
Beyond the differences among the artists represented here, the idea is also to show the diversity that can exist at the heart of the work of a single artist, specifically between the work he accomplishes in the context of the bande dessinée and the more personal works he does for himself, in the secrecy of his studio or drawing table to train or amuse himself. Who would’ve thought that behind the dense boards of Lax lay hidden a love of almost minimalist sketches of nudes filling his sketchbooks? Lax is a master of noir storytelling, of powerful evocations of individual destinies. The beautiful book L’Aigle sans orteils, about cycling, Lax’s other great passion, and Azrayen, which takes place during the Algerian War, truly prove this talent.
Who would’ve believed that Paolo Bacilieri harbored a passion for stripped-down, rather racy pin-ups? (Well, all right, that was easy to guess, and not only because I’ve always thought Paolo has a calm and unsettling genius concealing a wealth of unsuspected treasures.) Bacilieri belongs to the Italian school that swept up and revolutionized the European bande dessinée. Members like Hugo Pratt, Sergio Toppi, Milo Manara, Dino Battaglia, and Tanino Liberatore have since had lasting success in France. Paolo Bacilieri, much younger than these venerated “masters,” has returned to work in Milan where he publishes fumetti (the Italian term for BD), having completed the innovative underground title, Barokko, at Casterman. “Napoleone” is an example of Bacilieri’s more recent and on-going work, where we recognize his moves made between classicism and postmodernism.
Sergio Toppi stands at the heart of this exhibition as a representative of the fantastic Italians of this great period who were always in fashion and ahead of their time. Toppi has always exerted a strange allure for me; his suggestive storyboards are full of mysteries and poetic lines of flight. I spend more time with his boards than those of all other illustrators. Delicacy is mixed with madness and brutality in the atmosphere of Toppi’s stylized strokes. This mixture especially extends to his strangely evocative characters. There’s realism, then suddenly excess, suggestiveness, reference, and small discoveries I never weary of. There’s a breath of poetry, madness and power in this calm and smiling, quiet and polite man who seems shocked when you show interest in his work, from which he often refuses to be separated. We see these qualities in his portrait of Annibal and almost all his other characters. We also find fascinating traces of antique Italian art and centuries of culture, taste, sophistication and force. When I look at Toppi’s drawings I regret not knowing how to draw, how to sketch these economical lines from which such volume and shadows emerge. And I’m not alone: Frank Miller, connoisseur of the international bande dessinée, has asked Toppi for a drawing for one of the collections in the “Sin City” series. Toppi says he conceives his storyboards in black and white but his palette is also very beautiful-which is why it would’ve been a shame not to show images like the astonishing portrait of officers on glazed paper, where we see the effects of his colors and material.
In opposition to Toppi’s mastery of black and white, Miles Hyman, an American living in Paris, is known for his work with color. His illustrations, generally in pastel, often appear in the most important French newspapers. Hyman was also a participant in the Futuropolis movement of the 1980s noted for a very beautiful, large format alphabet primer in black and white, and for a book in the “X” collection. I have the pleasure of working with him right now on an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel Savage Night, in which he lets all the power of his style explode and brilliantly show in the way he reshapes visual worlds with a totally personal, never conventional vision.
Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot represent one of the most influential groups in French graphic novels: the authors launched by the famed arty publisher called L’Association. The two biggest figures of that group are Johan Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, who have since moved on to new adventures, but L’Association has continued to put new talents out.
Last but not least, Christian de Metter is one of the best representatives of the young French generation: he’s not yet forty. His most beautiful boards are executed directly with paint and brush and demonstrate the range of his talent. They are, what’s more, in his image: elegant, reserved, and effective. De Metter is currently working on an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Shutter Island, of which the first boards attest he will stand out in the world of bande dessinée; many novelists, I believe, will be sending him their stories in the future. Here then is an invitation au voyage in the International Graphic Republic Without Borders! -Alexis “Matz” Nolent