If French comics can be said to have started more than a century ago (with Becassine, the simple country girl, or the pretentious Fenouillard family, drawn by Christophe, and Herge’s hero Tintin celebrating his 70th birthday this year), the modern comic book in France owes its current status to the new talent and new publishers that appeared in the 1960s, who found a new market in the social and political counterculture that created the May 1968 revolution. At least this is what Greg Fallon, president of BA Comics thinks.
Just as the 1968 revolution was, like the 1789 one, as much a bourgeois as a working-class affair, so the readership of comic books today remains resolutely bourgeois – 61 percent of families in the middle classes regularly read and buy bandes dessinees, compared to 43 percent of the working class. And just as revolutionary aspirations have become muted with time, so the character of the BD has evolved from the anarchism, satire, and escapism of work in the 1960s and 1970s by artists such as Bretecher and Gottlib toward subtler themes of character development and more ironic humor, as in the work of F’Murr and Maester.
The same change can be seen in the treatment of classic literary texts in comic-book form. While some works of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert, and Honore de Balzac appeared in the 1970s in illustrated and simplified versions mainly for the educational market, these have long since disappeared, replaced in schools by videos of television adaptations or films. The legacy of classic texts exists either in references to the classics, ancient and modern, in contemporary humor, or in new themes developed from old models. One collaboration among designer Marc-Renier, writer Cothias, and colorist Marie-Noelle Bastin extends the Dumas story of The Man in the Iron Mask over a series of new adventures; the fifth, Le Secret de Mazarin, was published by Glenat in 1998.
Another strand of the comic book sits between homage and pastiche, such as stories set in England (Floch & Riviere’s recent Underground and Blake and Mortimer series, both set where Hitchcock meets Agatha Christie), while Tardi’s stories of Adele Blanc-Sec are set in a 19th-century Paris seemingly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.
Prior to Heuet’s Combray, the only major adaptation of a literary model in the last ten years was Tardi’s 1994 version of Celine’s Voyage to the End of the Night, one of the darkest and most pessimistic works of French 20th-century fiction, which was presented as a complete text illustrated with small, heavy monochrome images. It is closer to an artist’s book than to traditional BD (its length – 192 pages – and heavy dependence on text set it apart from the standard 48 A4 pages of full color). Tardi’s reputation as an established BD author justifies the book’s location on the BD shelves. Combray is full color and slightly larger than A4, but uses a 72-page length to tell a story that takes 258 pages in the standard English edition. Combray centers on the narrator’s childhood, both in the family’s house in a country village and in late 19th-century Paris, and introduces a number of the characters, including Swann, Gilberte, and Bloch, who reappear in later volumes.
The first volume of Remembrance of Things Past was published (at the author’s expense) in 1913 and the last two in 1927, five years after his death. His reputation was created not so much in France as elsewhere in the world; he entered the French literary canon only in the 1950s, when his complete works were published in the prestigious Pleiade series. His use of evocative and insistent language, and his themes of memory, disillusion, and art, link him to 20th-century writing, although his subject matter – the social life of the bourgeoisie – and grand gallery of characters harken back to Balzac, Trollope, and other 19th-century models. Perhaps because of its modernity, the novel has always been assumed to have been autobiographical. There is certainly a consistency between Proust’s views and his narrator’s, and points of matching detail between, for example, his parents’ house in Ilieres, near Chartres in France, and the fictional house at Combray. The extent of the autobiographical assumption has blinded some critics to certain creative aspects of his writing – for example, his humor.
Stephane Heuet has also assumed a strong autobiographical presence and carefully researched the locations known to Proust, the artists he knew, and the theater and opera he saw. He also read Remembrance – all 12 volumes – 14 times in preparation.
“The first time I read Proust was in my late teens, and I found it difficult and dull,” he says. “The language was complex and the cultural and social milieu unknown to me. It was only on rereading Proust later that the passion of his quest for truth and honesty, and the extraordinarily visual nature of his text, came home to me, so I decided to create a comic book version that would ideally appeal both to those familiar with Proust and to those who have not read him, or started and been discouraged.”
With Combray completed, he is now working on a two-volume set of Within a Budding Grove, to be followed by The Sweet Cheat Gone and Time Regained. Though this selection does not follow the strict lines of the original, it will, Heuet says, provide a complete narrative to the reader unfamiliar with Proust, encompassing the works central themes of hope, deception, and loss, within the frame of the narrator’s own experiences. He will then produce Swann in Love (in the original, the second part of the first volume), an independent story set before the narrator’s birth but prefiguring the narrator’s own experience.
Heuet’s main difficulty, as he sees it, has been in selecting images that will carry the narrative forward, while preserving enough of the original language to convey its tone, and balancing these elements within the format of the BD. It is his first attempt at a bande dessinee. “While I can always plead ignorance of the conventions of the medium,” he says, “if I had understood what would be involved when I started, I don’t know if I would have begun at all!”
He has also come in for a fair share of criticism from Proust lovers, for his necessary abandonment of the long, nuanced, complex descriptions of individual emotions and reactions that Proust’s style embodies, and from comic book enthusiasts who dislike his drawing style and his dependence on text links. Heuet describes his own drawing style – a tad defensively, perhaps – as Tintinesque, meaning a line of even density and flat, ungraded color, with a minimum of detail, especially in facial expressions. “This allows the reader to follow the action and the characters more easily,” Heuet insists, “and Proust has such a forbidding reputation for complexity that I wanted to show that he could be read and understood simply.”
Combray sold a respectable 20,000 copies in its first six months, which compares to 50,000 for a new volume of an established popular strip or a year’s sales of Swann’s Way, the most popular volume of the original text, combining hardback and paperback sales. It remains to be seen whether the whole task of bringing Proust into the BD world will create a new readership for the original, and whether the format will support the more thoughtful, less active evolution of the rest of the narrative.
Indeed, the appearance of Combray is perhaps a signal of change in the world of BD itself. The comic book buyer of book chain FNAC’s Paris stores says the market for bandes dessinees moves in waves: “Ten years ago, everyone was saying that BD was dead, that it had run out of inspiration. But a new generation of author/designers came along and reinvigorated it. And new publishers have appeared, interested in developing new talents.”
Delcourt, which published Combray in 1998 as well as an excellent rendition of part of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, was founded by a collector of bandes dessinees, and experiments with untried as well as established formats. But access to multimedia, either onscreen or online, is growing in France, and it is not clear whether the comic book format can retain its dominance. Already, many of the top graduates of French and Belgian graphic design schools are being drawn to television and cinema animation, whether in Europe or Canada and the U.S. While the levels of graphic skill in bandes dessinees stay high and varied, the formula is beginning to lose its edge, and publishers are looking at new solutions. In 1998, Casterman published adventure series for some established heroes, including Blake and Mortimer, that use not only a different format but also a graphic approach based on text (letters and faxes) as well as illustrations. But if you start killing off the heroes, where do you go from there?