Independents and/or Avant-Garde

In the latest issue of l’Eprouvette, a critical review published by l’Association, BD creator Edmond Baudouin provides a retrospective look on his relationship to the medium. Since he hadn’t read much BD, he started in the 80s to approach the medium with his own grammar, his own codes. This was not a deliberate attempt to go against the norm, but he found himself so uprooted from mainstream BD that he just did what seemed the most appropriate, regardless of pre-existing conventions.

I never decided to be an avant-garde author or to do difficult things, in the contrary, my mother can hardly read, and I always sought to make sure she would understand what I did. I did not want either to go to war against the “marvelous soup” cooked up in good old pots. […] When I showed my works to Jean Paul Mougin, who was then editor in chief of (A suivre) [an ambitious BD magazine] and collection editor at Casterman, he looked at it and said : “Maybe what you do is good, but I will never publish you, because what you do is art and BD is not art.”[1]

This statement, “BD is not art”, was not accepted by everyone within the profession, but it was widespread enough to prevent Baudouin from receiving Angoulême awards on several occasions. His work did not look quite as BD should. It was too bookish, too serious, too artistic maybe, but it was definitely not what people expected from the medium. On one occasion, a member of a jury told Baudouin he could not possibly give one of his works a BD award, for it would mean that BD was dead.

Then in 1992, he did get a prize in Angoulême.

And since that date, he has been working with a number of editors, French and Japanese, and people have stopped asking him whether he is creating art or BD. This is probably not the end of the story, but for the moment, it is quite possible to find a niche outside the conventions of mainstream BD and still be recognized as an important author.

“I always draw standing and sometimes, I dance at the same time”
-Baudouin in L’Eprouvette #2

Next to the standard hardback, 48-page, colour albums, there is in France a whole world of “independent” BDs, which have gained an increasing visibility over the last ten years. They have made widely acceptable the idea that the form of mainstream BD derives from commercial motives and not from the inherent limitations of the medium. This is not to say that there were no innovative BDs before the independents, but the real novelty here is that this rejection of the standards of mainstream BDs have been theorised and have led to the creation of dedicated editors seeking not only to challenge these standards but to provide a full-fledged alternative, with a minimum of compromises.

L’Association is at once the oldest, the most visible and the most appropriate example of these independents. As such, I will focus in the rest of this text on its projects and theories; bear in mind that reducing the whole field of independent editors to l’Association is obviously a convenient simplification. (Actually, dealing with l’Association as a single entity, thus disregarding the difference between its members is in itself another convenient simplification, yet, hopefully, a parcel of meaning may survive this process of reduction.) Authors like Trondheim or Sfar thrived within the structure, and while they have since achieved mainstream success, they still have some of their most demanding works published in the black-and-white soft cover form favoured by l’Association. This is not sentimentalism either. Just as the content of mainstream BD owes a lot to the material characteristics of the album, the BDs published by l’Association are not simply cheaper objects, they are not a first step towards standard albums, but they participate in a coherent aesthetic strategy.

The notion that the role of an independent editor is to provide a viable alternative to the mainstream makes it impossible to reduce them to an “underground” movement. Their aim is to challenge a monopoly, to do away with the accepted notions of what BD should be, not just to dwell in the margins, or to publish ostensibly outrageous material. They object the notion that BD should be a self-contained and immutable field, forever using a single form, the standard album, targeting a single audience and evolving in a self-created ghetto of mediocrity. When standardisations dictate that all albums should be 48 pages long, for example, you know there are stories that simply will not be told by mainstream editors. Indeed, the vast majority of possible stories cannot be told in sequences of 48 pages : the most striking achievement of mainstream editors is to have convinced the public that the album, a pure commercial artifact, is the “natural” form of the medium. Note that “BD” refers at once to that 48-page album and to the medium as a whole.

Following the lead of Futuropolis and a few others, l’Association has sought to expose this myth. They reject the whole idea of “BD” as a commercial-aesthetic complex created by mainstream editors and insist on the fact that they publish “books” (not albums) of “bande dessinée” (in full). And their publications do look like books, with their elegant typesetting, usually small format and sober covers; they have a lot more in common with the presentation of highbrow novels than with the average heroic fantasy album. This is not new in itself, but l’Association was able to use this alternative format — or rather these alternative formats, since they insist on the notion that the format has to derive from the content — to promote its alternative idea of what BD should be. Since their books do not fit with the other albums, it stood to reason that they would not be put on the same shelves in book-stores. The first step in a redefinition of BD, is to dispel the confusion between medium and genre.

Whenever you go into a bookstore in France, and it’s safe to assume it’s also the case elsewhere, you will find sections dedicated such things as “thriller”, “fantasy”, “science-fiction” and… “bande dessinée”. By choosing a different format, l’Association managed to make its production stand out of this dedicated section; their production fits naturally among other books. In effect, though, it mostly means a sub-section of the “bande-dessinée” shelves is dedicated to independent publishers, but this distinction is in itself a small victory; it enshrines the idea that a different BD is possible. And that it sells. For there was, in the history of l’Association, one “happy accident” which changed everything. That accident was Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographic BD, which sold one million copies worldwide; admittedly less than the last Asterix, but still a huge success for a difficult and intimate book. This changed the way independent publishers were perceived. They stopped being just providers for a space where talented authors could roam free for a select audience, while producing more accessible albums within the mainstream : Perspepolis proved that the form and standards chosen by l’Association were indeed able to attract readers that would usually not read BDs. The huge success of Maus in France should already have made that point clear, but the lesson had apparently been forgotten. Or maybe that was considered an exception, a unique editorial phenomenon. In any case, Satrapi’s book suddenly made l’Association a highly visible and critically acclaimed editor, a flag bearer for the entire independent movement.

It also encouraged established editors to try and invest that new market with dedicated collections, based on the idea that there was a public for adult themes and exigent BDs, that would simply not fit in the standard album. In short, ambitious BDs have been recognized as a commercially viable form, not just as a marginal phenomenon. L’Association rightly feels that it has been dispossessed of what it created in the early nineties, and has pointed out that the major editors have on several occasions shown a blatant disrespect for the works they published or translated. Choosing the example of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, they have also argued that those editors apply loose standards and promote tepid works as avant-garde creations. This intransigence is legitimate to a large extent, after all, l’Association did decline to publish Blankets,[2] but it raises the question of the ultimate goal of the independent movement. In 1995, their objective was to “de-mushroom” the “dear old corpse of Bande Dessinée.”[3] One could argue that they have succeeded in breaking down the monopoly of the standard album and the idea that readers should only be offered pulpish tales of righteous heroes. After all, you can find a decent selection of independent books even in such culturally elevated places as a Virgin Megastore.

The real issue here seems to lie in the blurring of boundaries :

Now that we find ourselves in our own field competing with marketing strategies, ersatz of sloppy collections […] and strategies of falsifications, we need more than ever the support of those who have helped the original Independents, we need them to see through the confusion and to join what is now more than ever a resistance. […]Each in our own way, we will have to face this voluminous and often disloyal concurrence, invent new forms of innovations and manage to have them as hard to appropriate by the mainstream as possible.[4]

In several recent publications, l’Association has stated strongly that BD can only remain innovative and lively as long as it remains outside the grasp of commercially-minded editors. The whole point of Plate-bandes, a pamphlet published early in 2005, was to underline the fact that l’Association had been and was still an “avant-garde”, which implied that it had to refuse compromises of any kind but also that it had to keep innovating if it were to retain its identity. This strikes me as somewhat paradoxical, since the group tries to re-qualify as a commercial take-over what could appear to the rest of the world as the proof of its success. BD has indeed been “de-mushroomed”. Besides, every avant-garde finds itself in the Red Queen world, from Through the Looking-Glass, where you have to run ever faster to stay in the same place. Predictably, such movements exhaust themselves. Since they work as publishers and creators, the project of l’Association is even more self-defeating : their success as publishers is bound to affect their status as creators, since an avant-garde remains so only as long as it does not represent the majority’s opinion. Their recent manifesto claiming the need for an avant-garde thus appear as a way to relaunch that project after it has run its course. L’Association and the other Independents won, but it means, indeed, that they will have to compete with “marketing strategies” and “ersatz” productions in their field. One can understand their wish to find a new place to dwell, even through such a doomed notion as l’avant-garde.[5]

L’Association usually inserts in its book delicately crafted postcards, allowing people to contact them.

[An important sidenote : the essence of any avant-garde movement is to explore the frontiers, the edge of the medium, and indeed, recent publications have stressed the necessity of interfaces between BD and literature or contemporary art, for instance. (The second issue of l'Eprouvette, for example, has a whole section dedicated to "the progressive erosion of frontiers", and earlier works have also emphasized the same point.) Both valid directions, of course. Yet, forced hybridizing seems to go against the notion of providing an alternative BD : i.e. something that will be identified as BD, even though it rejects artificial and commercial boundaries. Claiming that a specific work is BD (because it is narrative, or sequential, or anything else) as opposed to pictorial art, for instance, works only as long as readers are ready to identify it as such. And BD is a fragile medium.[6] Its identity is too fragile too survive a real formal breakthrough, and its boundaries so far have expanded through slow, careful accretions (doing away with the text, with the frame, with the hero, and so on, but rarely all in a single book). Indeed, while innovative, most of the books published by l’Association are fully identifiable as BDs, and if they undermine the narrative conventions of the medium, through free associations or through the emphasis on dreams, for instance, they rarely confront them openly. To be fair, I should add that this retrospective judgment (I came to independent BD fairly late) may be biased precisely because their project has been successful enough for their innovations to become widely accepted and thus invisible. Baudouin’s story, quoted earlier, would support this.

I really don’t think the notion of avant-garde does justice to the work done by alternative editors in general. There has, however, been a definite movement towards the constitution of an alternative field of BD in the last twelve years (since 1994), which still retains high standards and a definite identity in spite of a latent commercial take-over. This identity has even been strengthened by a policy of translation — Cornelius has edited very careful translations of Dan Clowes, for instance — and reprints — books by Gébé, Forrest or Crumb, to name a few — which has broadened the movement by bringing it a historical background as well an international flavour. A comparison with the history of Hollywood suggests that the relationships between a popular mainstream and more exigent independent movements, between the centre and its margins, are in a constant state of flux. In the future, the independents may well find themselves back in the far margins of BD, but for now, they occupy a privileged spot : within the commercial structure yet free of its most destructive constraints. Obviously, the announced commercial crisis in the field may change all that. Baudouin, in the autobiographical sketch quoted above, notes that he has been refusing more and more work opportunities in the last few years in order to avoid compromises. “And the nice part is that if I go on like that, there will soon be no more publishers for me; then everything I have written here will no longer apply and I will finish my ‘artistic’ life the way I started it, with no one to publish me.”[7] State of flux, indeed.

Join me next month as we get to the core of our discussion and look at some BDs, at last. What about that most improbable invasion of the mainstream by two notable members of l’Association : Sfar and Trondheim’s Donjon (Dungeon)?

NOTE : If you enjoyed this piece, there is an interview with JC Menu over at TCJ that might interest you.

[All the illustrations used in this article are © L'Association, used with their kind permission]

[1] Je n’ai jamais décidé d’être un auteur d’avant-garde, jamais décidé de faire des choses difficiles, au contraire, ma mère sachant à peine lire, je me suis toujours cassé la tête pour qu’elle puisse comprendre. Je n’ai jamais voulu, non plus, partir en guerre contre la “soupe merveilleuse” mitonnée dans les bonnes vieilles marmites. […] Quand j’ai montré mes planches à Jean Paul Mougin, alors rédacteur en chef de (A Suivre) et directeur de collection chez Casterman, […], il a regardé et dit : “Peut-être que c’est bien ce que tu fais, mais je ne te publierai jamais, parceque ce que tu fais c’est de l’art, et que la BD ce n’est pas de l’art.”
Edmond Baudouin, “BD ou bande dessinée”, L’Eprouvette n°2, 40.
[2] Menu, Plates-Bandes (Paris : L’Association, 2005), 38-9.
[3] J.C Menu, “Le soleil chauffe les plantes de la nuit”, Lapin 7 (january 1995), 6.
[4] “Aujourd’hui que nous sommes rattrapés sur notre propre terrain par les logiques de marketing, les ersatz de collections bâclées, les stratégies de falsification, nous avons plus que jamais besoin que ceux qui ont soutenu les Indépendants historiques ne cèdent pas à la confusion, et continuent à joindre ce qui est plus que jamais une résistance. […] Il va nous falloir, chacun à notre manière, faire face à cette concurrence toujours plus volumineuse et souvent déloyale, inventer sans relâche de nouvelles formes d’innovation, les plus irrécupérables possibles”, Menu, Plates-Bandes, 66.
[5] To be fair, l’Eprouvette 2 contains at least two texts questioning the use of the notion of avant-garde.
[6] The dispute about the origins of BD clearly illustrates how fragile its boundaries are. None of the distinctive elements of the medium (the word balloon, the frame, the strip, the recurring character) seem to be sufficient or necessary to define it, and theoricians have even suggested that there is no essential difference between a one picture narrative caricature and BD, thus doing away with the notion that sequence is what defines the medium. Thus, the only valid definition seems to be that BD is only what is perceived or marketed as such.
[7] “Ce qui est chouette, c’est qu’à continuer comme ça, il n’y aura bientôt plus d’éditeurs pour moi, alors tout ce que j’ai écrit ci-devant sera caduque et je finirai ma vie “artistique” avec personne pour me publier, comme je l’ai commencée.”

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Hi, I'm French. While completing my Ph.D, I've also done a lot of work in and about comics over the last few years, including a published BD, illustrated by my talented sister and an ongoing personal project. This is all in French, though.

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The Mignolaverse: Hellboy and the Comics Art of Mike Mignola


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