14th Nov2011

Event – Frederik Peeters & Paul Gravett in Conversation

by Chris Thompson

Around 40 people gathered last Friday night (November 11) to listen as Paul Gravett interviewed Swiss artist Frederik Peeters at Gosh! Comics in London. Peeters, who is best known in English for his autobiographical tale Blue Pills, appeared as part of this year’s Comica Festival to promote the release of Sandcastle from Self Made Hero (which I reviewed recently).
I was on-hand to take notes as the two comic heavyweights discussed Peeter’s career in comics, including his early days, other European works, and what’s coming up next. It was a fascinating evening, so I hope you’ll enjoy my brief rundown captured in bullet points below …

  • One of the first things Paul Gravett did was mention the inclusion of Blue Pills as one of his 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die. In addition to plugging his new book, it also set the tone for how important Peeters is as an artist.
  • Like many people, Peeters started drawing when he was just a child. Unlike many of those people he never stopped.
  • He started doing short tales about his life, but he would quickly grow bored and, within a few pages, turn himself into a superhero or something.
  • A lot of his early work started in and around a shop in Switzerland much like Gosh! (only smaller). He found a lot of inspiration from Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and Japanese manga.
  • Peeters originally studied Latin due to a strong passion for history, so he may eventually do an historical book one day.
  • He then moved on to a degree in Visual Communication which, he says, was useless. The students were mostly taught about marketing and computers, so he barely picked up a pencil during the entire course.
  • His professional career began around the age of 18 with his first contributions to Bile Noire, an anthology published by Atrabile.
  • The names Bile Noire and Atrabile both translate roughly as Black Bile. The idea comes from medieval medicine and the belief that illness comes from bodily fluids. Black bile resides in the spleen and is the source of melancholy.
  • Atrabile have published, and still do publish, a number of books – ranging from anthologies and smaller releases through to grander and more extravagant silkscreen books.
  • One of Peeters’ early paid gigs was for another publisher. He was to illustrate a story someone else had written about Swiss cowboys trying to hijack a train. It was a crazy idea and he said he needed a long shower afterwards to wash himself clean.
  • Blue Pills started as a personal experiment, and he’d already completed 35 pages before he showed it to anyone.
  • He showed it to his friend (who was also his publisher at Atrabile) to get some feedback and advice. His friend read it and said nothing. At first Peeters was worried, but he soon released the silence meant he was on to something good. His friend said that it must be published and that Atrabile wanted to do it.
  • Peeters started the experiment (aka writing Blue Pills) about one year into his relationship with Cati. That’s one reason why a lot of the story is told in flashbacks.
  • At that point he was only selling around 500 books, so Blue Pills was intended mostly for family and friends. If he’d known how big it was going to get it would have been paralysing and he may never have finished it.
  • Peeters is an avid reader, especially when it comes to sci-fi. He read a lot of Ray Bradbury, Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, and others growing up. One of his goals is to create his own brand of ‘Franco science-fiction’.
  • He was also influenced a lot by cinema before he discovered comics, particularly Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner). Star Wars and Star Trek were not big influences, though he does acknowledge their presence in his early years.
  • Comic influences came later on in the form of Moebius, Herge, Charles Schulz, and others. Later he discovered other European artists, including Jean-Claude Forest (Barbarella). He is still very fond of Tintin and feels it stands up even today.
  • His manga influences started with Otomo’s Akira, but he soon discovered Tezuka (Astro Boy), Masumoto (GoGo Monster), Urosawa (20th Century Boys), and more.
  • Most of the manga creators seem to work in studios with a team, which is something Peeters envies but doesn’t expect to achieve. Ideally he’d like to achieve a marriage between manga and classic European storytelling.
  • Lupus, his sci-fi epic, was published as four massive volumes by Atrabile in Europe. It took Peeters four years to complete and has yet to be translated into English. When it does he’d like to see it released in an omnibus edition.
  • Lupus is named after the disease of the immune system and came from a drunken evening with a friend trying to come up with the most ridiculous character names possible.
  • Peeters doesn’t like to know the whole story ahead of time – it becomes boring to him. He prefers to explore with the characters and make discoveries as he goes along. For example, he’ll write 10 pages, then be thinking about the next 10 while he’s drawing those ones. It’s a very organic way to work.
  • Some original art was being passed around the audience at Gosh! It was interesting to see that a lot of Peeters’ work is drawn in segments, almost like comic strips or frames, which are then stuck together to form complete pages.
  • Peeters first met Pierre Oscar Levy (his collaborator on Sandcastle) around 7 or 8 years ago when he called to enquire about the film rights to Blue Pills. The rights have subsequently reverted and someone else has it now, but it’s what originally brought them together.
  • He describes Levy as crazy-looking at times – a left-wing French Jew who was causing trouble on the streets from an early age. Levy was a teenager during the late ’60s, so he grew up during an exciting time of protest and unrest.
  • Levy actually stayed with Peeters for two days to film him and the family as research for a Blue Pills film. Peeters had been hesitant at first, but Levy assured him it was for his personal use as he came from a documentary background.
  • It was those two days (and the time leading up to them) which cemented their ongoing friendship. Since then Levy has introduced him to a number of new books, films and influences – including Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys.
  • About two or three years ago, Levy approached Peeters and said he’d written something especially for him. Peeters explained he only did his own stuff, but agreed to read it anyway. The story was Sandcastle and he was immediately hooked.
  • Sandcastle was written like a movie script or treatment, complete with set descriptions and dialogue. The original script had a complete ending to explain things, but Peeters found it disappointing. Not that it was a bad, but he felt it became less interesting when explained, so he simply left it out.
  • Talking about other work, Peeters explained that Pachyderm was his homage to the American comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. They are one of his secret passions, though he doesn’t have the same level of wit as Billy Wilder and others of the time.
  • Peeters likens Pachyderm to a three-legged chair – it’s not comfortable or easy to read, but it leaves a lasting impression on the reader (or so he hopes). It’s also quite a surreal book with lots of illusion involved, so in many ways he considers it an experiment just like Blue Pills.
  • The book is very atmospheric and takes place in Switzerland during the ’50s. It tells the story of a woman who is married to a diplomat and cannot have children. Something happens to the husband early in the book and she takes the opportunity to reclaim her freedom and independence.
  • His latest project, Aama is for the prestigious French publisher Gallimard. Unlike Lupus, which was completely improvised, Aama features a clear ending that is used as the starting point (similar to Wilder’s Sunset Boulevarde).
  • Peeters shared the idea for Aama with his editor on the way back from Angouleme a couple of years ago. The editor started falling asleep, which Peeters took as a bad thing, but the editor explained he was being lulled by the story – not unlike a children’s bedtime tale.
  • Gallimard don’t really do sci-fi, so Peeters had to invent a new genre when pitching it. Aama blends hyper-technology with true science-fiction, but is written in a classical style. It’s very literary with lots of text, and is nowhere near finished yet.
  • He feels it will sell well in the English market when it is eventually released because it features a monkey-robot called Churchill.

So, there you have it … A lot was covered during the hour or so that Paul Gravett and Frederik Peeters were in conversation, but hopefully this report gives you a small glimpse into what it was like. Thanks to Gosh! Comics, Self Made Hero, Comica Festival and, of course, Frederik Peeters for another top-notch event – it’s a great time to be a comics fan in London!

09th Nov2011

Event – Comic Gosh!p Book Club (Batman: Year One)

by Chris Thompson

Although I missed the inaugural get-together of Thinking Comics‘ new comic book club last month, I was more than ready for the second one tonight (November 9). This time around the focus was on Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, as well as Josceline Fenton’s excellent webcomic, Hemlock. Josceline herself was on hand to share insights into her work, though I can’t say the same for that slacker Miller.
I arrived about 5 minutes late and things were already well under way. In total I counted just over 30 people, so there were a number of us standing (or leaning) on the periphery. Not bad for the second meeting of a group discussing comics. There were also tea-making facilities and some yummy Bat-cake for afterwards, thanks to the fine people at Gosh! Comics London.

A lot of interesting points were raised by those in attendance, and there was a definite freedom to speak up if you felt inclined or just listen quietly if you preferred. I’m used to going to events at Orbital Comics here in London, but at Gosh! I felt a little out of my element. Fortunately that didn’t last long and I was starting to ease in by the end. I’ve collated some of the thoughts and findings in bullet point below for those who couldn’t make it and are interested …


BATMAN: YEAR ONE by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli with Richmond Lewis (DC Comics)

  • Mazzucchelli’s work on Year One was compared to Alex Toth, Milt Caniff and various European styles.
  • John Miers suggested that (at least in Frank’s mind) the Batman saga is book-ended by Year One and Dark Knight Returns since they both appear to take place in the same universe.
  • The fast pacing of the book helps you to fly through it, and that could only be achieved in a comic book. The comic form also allows for two distinct narratives – Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne – with a possible third in the form of Selina Kyle.
  • I mentioned that Mazzucchelli was most likely chosen for the storytelling he brought to the book. Batman and Bruce Wayne were always more or less prominent depending on who was providing the narrative. For example, in the closing moments of the book when Gordon loses his glasses, everything is seen in brief flashes and shadows without any great detail. This is something Miller probably couldn’t have achieved himself.
  • There were some obvious comparisons to Taxi Driver, especially when Bruce heads into the night incognito and ends up tangling with the hookers and their pimp. Perhaps Frank was channeling a little Travis Bickle?
  • If Year One is the beginning and Dark Knight Returns is the end, then did someone at DC consider All-Star Batman & Robin to be the middle arc? That’s what Steve at Gosh! suggests.
  • It was noted that the colours had been re-done for the trade paperback, and the efforts had been quite worthwhile. Unlike George Lucas and Star Wars, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to go back and fix things.
  • There was also a great discussion about whether Batman is actually a super-hero … Is it powers, the costume or the heroic acts that make a hero super? The concensus, I believe, was that actions mattered most, so by that count Batman is a super-hero. I’m sure there’s still some who disagree though.

HEMLOCK by Josceline Fenton (hemlock.smackjeeves.com)

  • Josceline started doing comics when she was about 10 based on a How To Draw Manga book her father bought. She’s trying to move away from the direct manga influence, but it’s still what she’s known for.
  • The idea for Hemlock first came up in 2006, then resurfaced again in 2008 with Starvation Soup.  It finally came back as its own series (with changes) because Josceline loved drawing The Witch (Lumi).
  • The Snail House (Richmond) became a much bigger part of the story due to public response. She hates drawing him because he’s so big, but it’s what she constantly gets asked for.
  • The inclusion of the tale of Baba Yaga comes from her Scandinavian heritage and stories she used to hear as a child rather than any ifluence from Mike Mignola or Hellboy. Josceline’s Swedish ancestry seems to inform quite a lot of her work.
  • One person noted the unique use of sound effects, and how each one felt different and special. Josceline said this was probably because her typography had been criticised by teachers at school, so maybe she tried extra hard.
  • It used to take her about two hours to complete a page, but now it takes about a day. It’s most likely due to her being a perfectionist and feeling the pressure as her audience increases.
  • The Snail’s language doesn’t really mean anything, but there are some particular symbols that do. He has a symbol for most of the main characters and one for saying hello … apparently it sounds like clicking if you say it right.
  • Josceline has a large collection of art books and takes a lot of inspiration from fashion art and historical design. I sense a call from Project Runway imminently …
  • Hemlock is planned as a series of six volumes overall. She is currently working on Volume 4 online and Volumes 1, 2 & 3 are now available in print (www.lulu.com/spotlight/mildtarantula).
  • Her original art is done on A4 (slightly larger than the finished product) then scanned in before gray-tones and captions are added. It’s actually intended for print and not for the screen, but the webcomic seems to be working.
  • Although she tries to stay a couple of updates ahead, Josceline hasn’t been doing well at that of late. The original pages she showed us were actually from the next update due later this week!


So, there you have it … If you were curious about Batman; Year One or Hemlock then you have some food for thought. And if you were curious about Comic Gosh!p then you now have some idea about the length, breadth and depth of our coverage. Next month’s meeting, to be held on December 14, will cover Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, as well as John Miers’ Babel (www.johnmiers.com), so why not come along?

One last thing I’ll leave you with is this great interview I found with Josceline Fenton earlier this evening. It clarifies and expands upon some of what was discussed tonight, as well as raising some new topics. Enjoy!


09th Nov2011

Review – Sandcastle by Frederik Peeters & Pierre Oscar Levy

by Chris Thompson

A group of strangers find themselves trapped on an isolated beach as things start going wrong. People are dying, children are aging rapidly and yet, despite it all, they can’t seem to leave. Can this motley group discover how to work together and escape the beach before it’s too late? That’s the basic premise behind this exciting new book from artist Frederik Peeters, writer Pierre Oscar Levy and publisher Self Made Hero.
Doug and the crew at Self Made Hero have done an incredible job of securing and translating some stunning European releases this year, and Sandcastle is no exception. Credit must be given to translator Nora Mahony who also translated David B’s Black Paths which I enjoyed so much earlier this year. With their current output, Self Made Hero are putting forward a strong argument for why more European volumes should be translated into English.
Art-wise, Peeters cleverly employs his style to contrast the tranquility of the setting with the growing uneasiness of those involved. It’s a delicate balance which puts you in the position of a voyeur – a helpless bystander observing silently as events unfold. I hadn’t planned on reading the book in one sitting, but for a brief period of time I was transported to the sands of that deadly beach and forced to watch the story play out.
Of course, the book couldn’t survive on art alone, and writer Pierre Oscar Levy does a wonderful job of creating characters you know. Not necessarily ones you like, but definitely ones you will know and recognise. The result is to reinforce the unsettling truth that you can’t always choose those you find yourself surrounded by. We go through life together and make do as best we can.
I won’t spoil the ending as the mystery is key to your enjoyment of the book. This is the kind of book I’d imagine Rod Serling writing in a Parisian cafe if he was looking to submit something at Angouleme. It’s no surprise to learn that Sandcastle was in fact nominated for the Grand Prix at the Angouleme International Comics Festival earlier this year.
As part of the excellent Comica Festival, Frederik Peeters will be signing copies of the book and taking part in a Q&A at Gosh! Comics London this Friday, November 11 from 6:30pm. Head down and pick up a copy of Sandcastle along with one of the free bookplates designed especially for the event. Maybe I’ll see you there …