PENELOPE BAGIEU has mastered a magic trick, and it is this: Somehow, even as she suspends our disbelief, she can turn paper into flesh. And ink becomes lifeblood. Because within several pages of a work like “Exquisite Corpse,” her characters not only breathe and pulsate with vivid life. They also seem entirely, organically authentic in their own skin.
This trick, this knack, can be honed and sharpened, but I’m not sure it can be taught. Some creators simply seem to possess the power to mold, and animate, and play authorial God.
Crack the new English translation of “Exquisite Corpse” (First Second), the graphic novel that Bagieu first published in 2010, in her native France, and it’s easy to soon lose yourself in a world of French characters who, in some cases, have lost themselves, or at least the scent of their life path. This world centers on Zoe, a woman in her early 20s who seeks a reprieve, if not a salvation, from her dead-end job. Events kick into gear when she meets Thomas Rocher, a middle-aged, highly reclusive writer and former critical darling who has an ex-wife for an editor.
And within this storytelling triangle, Bagieu is especially adept at knowing all the angles — even employing meta-recognition of her devices when her author is discussing his own. At least two of the characters may themselves feel off-track, but the cartoonist’s dance of dynamics always feels sure-footed, and true.
Ahead of Bagieu’s appearance Saturday at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in suburban Washington, Comic Riffs caught up with the gifted, Paris-born cartoonist to talk about the private life of an artist, the public lives of one’s characters — and how the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo can shock a young Parisian’s sense of artistic freedom:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congrats on the newest wave of success for this book, Penelope. Now, most artists evolve so much in their 20s that I’m curious: Now that you’re in your 30s, do you feel a creative distance from “Exquisite Corpse” — is it like looking at a personal artifact from your past, five years on — or do you feel a continuing closeness with the material, the story, the characters, that there isn’t that artistic distance? How has time changed your relationship with this book?
PENELOPE BAGIEU: Well, “Exquisite Corpse” was the first whole story that I wrote; so far, I had only confined myself to strips for magazines — like my first comic, “Joséphine.” So this was, of course, a big challenge to me, but above all, it was a great package to eventually put all these things I had wanted to talk about, and never really had a room for. Things that really intrigued me back then [when I was in my early 20s]. So it is indeed a bit of a time capsule to me today, although it already shows all the roots of what grew later in my mind. I guess all your books are nothing but a step towards what you really mean to tell, one after another. None of them is less important to you than the next — you just focus more and more on what matters.
However, I do have a tenderness for “Exquisite Corpse,” in particular — it is still probably my favorite. Maybe because I enjoyed drawing it so much!
MC: Related to that, most writers say that a part of them must resonate within each character they create, and legendary animator Chuck Jones used to say that a part of him was reflected in each character he wrote for or drew. Are there aspects of you in Rocher, and Zoe, or Agathe — or is any one more representative of you, and others modeled more on other people?
PB: Oh, totally! It is not something that writers do on purpose, though. I guess we all try to come up with characters as distant from us as we can, but unconsciously inject so much of us in them, like Flaubert when he says, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” I only have myself as molding clay to work with, even though I try to use it in many different ways.
To quote you, Zoe is the artifact from my past: We were both in our early 20’s, and I had had my share of unsatisfying dead-end jobs and emotionally limited boyfriends. I also came from that universe where famous people are known for being on TV or are not really famous, surrounded with people who didn’t read much. It wasn’t very hard for me to depict that world where everything seems easy for the others, and everybody but you seems to have a plan and a path. Besides, like Zoe, it only took one good librarian to get me to eventually catch up on all those great books I had ignored so far — that is why Zoe starts with my own favorite book, “Belle du Seigneur.” Of course, I have a lot in common with Thomas — his selfish creative process, his reclusiveness and his insensitivity at times. Both of them are my undeniable children, in a way. As for Agathe, she’s the kind of woman I envy and who scares me a bit, who always seem in control of everything. She’s a bit of a mystery, even to me.
MC: By inviting Zoe in, Rocher seems willing to risk his big secret being revealed to the world. His motivations as a recluse, then, seemed intriguing and very revealing. I’m curious: I’ve only personally known one formerly famously reclusive artist — have you met or known one that Rocher partly inspired, or is there one you were intrigued by — or is this more about a character invention that intrigued you?
PB: I must admit the idea charms me: What if I took that step and decided once and for all to focus only on creating, living a tête-à-tête with my books, surrounded by them and nothing else? Would I really miss human contact?
We all do that when we’re in the core of the writing process. [At least I do.] Being the boyfriend, wife, child or pet of a writer surely is a tough job; you know there will come times, inevitably, periodically, when you virtually won’t exist anymore. You tend to live with a robot, totally absorbed, day and night.
I have this romantic vision of a lonesome writer, in a cabin with a view on a lake and a pot of coffee, silent, totally devoted to his book. Yet when I enter that phase, during the making of all my books, I turn into a lot less-romantic version of myself, in sweat pants, feeding on half-defrosted pizzas.
MC: So how did this book make its eventual way to America? First Second tends to have great taste, of course — did the [editor] Mark Siegel or someone else with French connections reach out to you? What was the process, and have how you found American readers to be? Culturally or literarily, is much lost in the translation?
PB: I met Mark in Angoulême, during the Gallimard dinner [Gallimard publishes both our comics in France] and he mentioned his intention of acquiring the rights of “Exquisite Corpse.” And I knew that my book would be in such good hands, not only Mark’s, but everybody at First Second, and also Mark’s brother Alexis Siegel, who works at the U.N. as a translator, and did such an amazing job in turning “Cadavre exquis” into its English version. For the first time — that is, contrary to Japanese, Gaelic or Czech — I’m able to actually read the translated version of my book, and it’s a very fine work of adaptation, regarding all the cultural references to France and Paris. I’m very lucky.
MC: A quick verbal cul-de-sac: [Because you’re] someone who has been knighted in France, I’ll ask you to speak for a moment to one cultural aspect of Charlie Hebdo. I’ve talked with [artists] from Paris’s “1968 generation.” As a younger person by a couple of generations, as well as a cartoonist, does Charlie Hebdo hold any national or personal significance for you?
PB: I think what struck us the most, as [more or less] young cartoonists in France, was that we never felt any threat on freedom of speech before. We hadn’t had to fight for anything we wanted to write, talk, draw about in our entire life. We were never exposed to any form of censorship. We can mock religions, draw nipples, use any injurious language we want, in any form, on any topic. We took it for granted that censorship was a very abstract concept, something that only happened in other dark and obscure countries.
And so, there it was: People had been shot, just like that, for drawing. My mind refuses to believe that this is possible. When the French trashy-fascist magazine Minute made its nauseous cover with the joke on Chrisitiane Taubira and her “banana,” we did a protest evening at the Théâtre du Rond Point in Paris; the magazine received letters, insults, outraged emails; I could have almost had the idea to ship them a little package full of dog’s poop if I had been more of a brat, but even in my craziest dreams, nobody would have ever considered physical abuse. That would have been such a totally disproportionate response that no one would have considered it, even the people who had been directly attacked [black people]. So the Charlie killing was like entering a new era, discovering a new form of the human brain. It was like starting to live with a new fact to consider: Some human beings could come up with those kinds of ideas. And worst of all, it was for a reason that we swept off of France ages ago and that I thought was long since forgotten: blasphemy. A word without a meaning to most of the French.
Charlie Hebdo, even though most of the young people I know had never opened it before — everybody has a subscription now; it’s like having a French passport — it was part of the background we had always had since we were born. It had always been there, it wasn’t questionable, or challenged. It was just there, like the Seine has always be there, like the right to vote, like an institution — even though this is not what they were aiming at).
During all these walks, these commemorations, the weeping, the anger, I think it was also about this: Brutal, blind, arrogant force had the last word. These people told us: “No, you’re not allowed to say whatever you feel the need to speak about.” That’s intolerable. We all have the frustrated urge to prove them wrong.
MC: Marjane Satrapi once told that as she gets older as an artist, she chooses her projects ever more carefully, because she calculates how many years of her creative life each might take up. In your early 30s, how do you approach potential creative projects? Because you’re used to multitasking — from blogging to webcomics to books, etc. — do you often channel your creativity in many areas at once, or do you carefully weigh each big project and the years it might take?
PB: I’m less and less multitasking! I know the two, sometimes three books I have in my mind that I really want to make ahead — I know they approximately take one or two years each, and I found out that time is often the real, and sole, problem. I already have so little time, I would love to have 40-hour days. And I can hardly find time to use the millions of little notes I made for future books. You can always find a way to get quick commissioned works from time to time when times are hard, but I focus on what is most demanding, and that is time to make the books I really want to make.
If you have rocks, gravel and sand to fit in a glass, start with the two or three big rocks and put them firmly at the bottom of the glass: Gravel will find its way, and you can always pour some sand in the little cracks in the end. Everything will fit, but only if you have a big rock-oriented agenda. And usually, rocks are also what you like to do best, and you have to love what you do, when what you do takes two years.
MC: [Some comics authors] have each told me that they try to strike a balance between their books and online work, so that each might creatively fuel or inspire the other — and they like the multiple outlets. What about you — do you use these different channels and formats as ways to balance your creative life, or do you need to focus more on one at a time for months, with laser-like focus and devotion?
PB: I tend to alternate long periods of working on my books — which is very serious because, you know, books will last forever — with quick, fun, more experimental things, on the Internet but even more in magazines. I like the fact that illustrations you make for magazines will, for the majority of them, finish their life in a trashcan with vegetable peelings. It’s almost like a drawing-happening. It’s time to try new colors, new techniques, perfect something you’ve tried in your drafts. It’s like a recreation.
MC: Is there a type of story — in genre or medium or format — that you’d really love to tell but haven’t done so yet? What might it be, and what would it take for it to happen?
PB: I have lots of short stories that I would love to make something of. Characters I’ve read about, memories, things that would only take four or five pages. I’ve been thinking about what to do with them and can’t find anything. I think grouping them all in a big book would be artificial and unrelated, and extending one of them into one, needlessly long story even worse.
I discovered the wonderfully rich world of storytelling podcasts such as “The Moth,” and thought: “This is it! Just a very, very good story — no need for decorum or effects or anything.” We hardly have a culture of strips in newspapers in France — there isn’t really any space for publishing short stories. But this is what I would love to find. And it would be such a breath of fresh air, once in a while, between the very serious business of writing a 300-page comic book!
MC: Certain artists, like Satrapi and Boulet, to name just two, create very cinematic comics. Yours, too, have a great “camera” eye. Which work of yours would you like most to adapt into film, if any? And related: If you’re dream casting, any actors you’d love to cast for “Exquisite Corpse?” I’m seeing a bit of Alan Rickman/Jeremy Irons [as Rocher], Juliette Binoche [Agathe] and Emma Stone [Zoe] …
PB: “Joséphine” has been adapted to cinema, and they’re shooting the sequel in France as we speak, but I chose not to be too much involved in the process, because it’s a whole other narration, and job.
Actually, “Exquisite Corpse” is also in the making in France, and I’m very curious to see the result! It’s starting to be a very usual thing, in France, to see your comic’s rights being acquired for the cinema. For some reason, French film producers seem to have just woken up and realized that comics were real stories, just like “real books.”
As for my U.S. dream casting, of course I have already thought it over, and it will be Edward Norton, Tina Fey and Emma Stone — good guess! And like Stan Lee, I demand a cameo.