Published by the indie stalwarts at Fantagraphics, Olivier Schrauwen’s Arsène Schrauwen is one of the most complex, and simply best, comics released this year. Ostensibly the story of the author’s Grandfather, Arsène, and his adventures in an unnamed African country, the graphic novel self describes as “a comic about Arsene, venture, love, architecture, freedom, fear, lust, the unknown, nothing, projection, expectation, new acquaintances, bullshit-artistry, entrapment.” That description sounds about right, yet also fails to capture the full scope of the book, which uses simplified drawings, collage-like text and two colors (red and blue) to convey a narrative that moves between the real and the fantastic with grace and facility. The result is an experience both utterly original and strangely familiar, like a dream.
Although English isn’t his first language, Schrauwen emailed with Paste from his home in Berlin, providing new insight on a modern classic.
Paste: Let’s start with a brief history of your work in comics. You’re still not that well known in the U.S., so some background about where you started — I know that you studied comics at school and have worked in animation — would be helpful.
Olivier Schrauwen: When I was 21, I was asked by the Franco Belgian magazine Spirou to come and work for them. I did a few strips, but found the work extremely frustrating; there were just too many restrictions. In the following years, my work only appeared in alternative small-press zines until I was asked by Bries, a Flemish comics publisher, to do a book. That book became My Boy. It was published in 2006. After that, I did three more “official” books: The Man Who Grew His Beard, Mowgli’s Mirror and Arsène. The rest of my work appeared in anthologies and self-published zines.
Arsène Schrauwen seems strongly informed by graphic design, with repeating visual elements throughout (the cover is a great example). Do you have a background in design?
Schrauwen: I don’t really have a background in design. I studied animation, and the emphasis there was on “nuts and bolts” technique. For the most part I taught myself how to do things, like many comic-artists I guess, through trial and error. The graphical style, drawing style, book design and so on is mostly derived from the general idea of the story. Sometimes there’s no general idea; then I’m in trouble.
Paste: The story moves between reality and fantasy. Do the different colors represent more realistic and more fantastic elements? If not, how did you choose which panels were red and which blue?
Schrauwen: The meaning of the color changes is not fixed; it depends on the context. For instance, the red can suggest a sweet and romantic feeling, but it can also illustrate hellish torment. The choice to work with two colors comes from the fact that I printed it first by myself, on a printer that can only print two different colors at a time. When you overlap the colors you can have quite a rich palette, but I figured it was more appropriate for the story to just juxtapose the colors. It’s a bit crude and brusque, but so is the story.
Paste: Tell me more about printing the book yourself. Was it screen printed? Did you hand bind the pages, too?
Schrauwen: I’m printing it in three parts. I still have to do the last part. It’s done on a Riso printer. It looks and works like a photocopy machine, but the printing looks much nicer. I do the folding, stapling and thumb splitting on my own, mostly because I don’t want to bother anyone else with it.
Paste: The full-color section at the very end seems to be the most straightforward part of the narrative. Is that why you drew/colored it the way you did?
Schrauwen: That’s right. I wanted it to feel more conventional, as if you wake up from some illusion. It’s still the same two colors, but the blacks you get in the overlap make everything look more like a “regular comic.”
Paste: It seems like there is a movement in comics at the moment that focuses more strongly on innovative coloring — for example, Dash Shaw’s work in New School and Doctors; Asterios Polyp. Do you think that’s true? Do you consider yourself part of it?
Schrauwen: The coloring has an enormous impact on how the art is perceived. It’s easily underestimated though, a bit like music in film. We have the luck and luxury that we can consider this aspect. Photoshop has made everything more manageable, printing techniques got more sophisticated. It’s maybe also more commonplace for the author to take care of the colors himself.
That said, I often have a very clear vision on what the page should look like formally, but no clue what the colors should look like. I just try different things until I get it right. I’m also slightly color blind, which doesn’t help.
Paste: What influences your character design? Your coloring?
Schrauwen: In the case of Arsène it seemed clear from the beginning that the narrative would be carried by the text, and there’s a lot of text, so I knew the drawings could be fairly simple. I could leave a lot of things, like backgrounds, people’s faces, etc., out without hurting the atmosphere or the clarity of the story.
The way the characters are drawn kind of fluctuates throughout. Depending on how I wanted a scene to be perceived, they’re drawn more realistically or more cartoonish. I must say that all these things happen intuitively though, without much premeditation; the character design happens while I’m already drawing the pages.
Paste: The narrative of the book comes out of the colonialist tradition (e.g., Joseph Conrad). Is that by design? What influenced the book outside of the world of comics? Have you seen Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo?
Schrauwen: This film might’ve been an influence. It was the first of his films I saw. His work is interesting because it seems so opposite to mine. He’s supposedly incapable of irony, and the making of his films is often as insane as the movie itself. This was certainly not the case with my book.
But you’re referring to the boat being carried over a hill. In fact, [Fitzcarraldo] had a demountable boat. He had it carried over land, and when they found a navigable stream, they’d put it together.
It’s difficult to cite the influences because I always draw on things that i saw or experienced in the past. I try to avoid direct influences when I’m working. Reading the colonial part in [Céline’s] Voyage au bout de la nuit might’ve been an influence; reading [Kafka’s] Amerika, which I found both unsettling and sinister; seeing Bodys Kingelez’ maquettes; moving to Berlin and seeing the awesome and ridiculous Potsdamer Platz; traveling to Gambia and seeing the awesome and ridiculous Arch 22 in Banjul; and a whole lot of often, very banal personal anecdotes.
Paste: I guess I didn’t mean the literal events so much as the grandiose plan in the middle of the jungle. It’s like a less depressing Heart of Darkness.
Schrauwen: Well Herzog is aiming for an “ecstatic truth,” one he can achieve through lies, even in his documentaries. I find that idea appealing. Still, I think Arsène is more akin to Amerika and Voyage au bout de la nuit in the sense that the unknown territory they’re describing is really unknown; they haven’t been there. The tone of my story is less gloomy, though. When I think up my stories, it’s always a joyous thing even if the story itself is quite grim.
Paste: I’m sure you’re going to get this question a million times, but how much of the story comes directly from reality? Any of it?
Schrauwen: The storyline itself is almost entirely fantastical, although my grandfather did spend a few years in Congo, and he did export animal hides. He never told us anything specific about his experiences there. He didn’t talk much in general, and if he did it was in the form of a joke. Some of these jokes, which I took quite literally when i heard them, found their way into the story in some form. The story is mostly just a concoction of personal anecdotes and fantasies. Whatever I’m describing, even if it is quite absurd, it has to feel somehow significant and urgent, otherwise I wouldn’t have any interest in working on it.
Paste: I mentioned Dash Shaw earlier. He also works a lot in animation, and I see some similarities in your comics styles. How do you think working with moving images affects your approach to comics?
Schrauwen: People who work in animation, especially if they work alone, are very considered about what they’ll put on the screen and what not. You know that you’ll have to draw everything 100,000 times, so you only want things that are essential and effective. This has its effects on the form but also on the content. The stories are often metaphorical or allegorical. There’ll be very little of the kind of backstory you’d find in, for instance, a novel. I tend to throw all unnecessary stuff out.
Apart from that, I’m just very interested in movement. How the characters move from panel to panel, their body language… and also the timing and the rhythm of the story, whatever happens when you start reading instead of looking.