Exclusive: First Second’s Idle Days Promises Beauty, Anxiety & Ghosts in WWII Canada

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Exclusive: First Second’s Idle Days Promises Beauty, Anxiety & Ghosts in WWII Canada

Entering its 10th year of operations this month, publisher First Second is expanding into the future by exploring the past with two new projects that sound hauntingly cool. Paste broke news on Antoine Revoy’s The Playground roughly a year ago, and now the imprint is prepping Idle Days from debut graphic novelists Thomas Desaulniers Brousseau and Simon Leclerc. This new tale follows Jerome, a World War II deserter holed up with his grandfather in a decaying house surrounded by an ominous forest. Isolated and increasingly anxious, Jerome soon encounters a succession of surreal threats including “a dead woman, alcohol smugglers, a witch, [and] a black cat” as his reality deteriorates.

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Writer Brousseau helms the webcomic Boire du mercure while Leclerc is a storyboard/concept artist for many a secret video game. Judging by the sunrise-colored sample pages below, Idle Days will ooze atmosphere and texture with a scratchy, densely-detailed style reminiscent of Dave McKean’s and Bill Sienkiewicz’ work. Paste emailed with both creators from their home in Montreal to discover more about this enigmatic new project and how it channels personal history, style and claustrophobia with passion and finesse.

Paste: Simon and Thomas, thank you kindly for taking the time to answer some questions. This is a huge long-form debut project for the both of you. Can you describe its inception and how your collaboration began?
Thomas Desaulniers Brousseau: Thanks for having us! We’re very glad for this opportunity to be discussing our work.

Simon Leclerc: Indeed, such a pleasure! So yes: I worked on my first comic in 2010 or 2011, which was published sometime in 2012, and then I went to study animation abroad at the California Institute of the Arts for a year. At that time, I knew that when I’d come back to Montreal I would want to work on a graphic novel project again, and I knew Thomas was writing short stories on his side. So I asked him to write a brief for a story that I could illustrate, and we built a pitch together when I returned. We knew our project was a tough sell to publishers, because we planned it as a 200-ish page fully colored book—but we planned it from the start as a book we’d want to do, not a book we’d want to sell. I posted some excerpts from the pitch on my Tumblr, and soon enough, First Second’s Senior Editor Calista Brill emailed me. And then I got pretty excited, because so many authors I admire are published there. And then I guess they trusted our pitch enough to sign two unknown authors, and now here we are!

Brousseau: It was such a great surprise. We were initially pitching the project to French publishers, and then when Calista contacted Simon, I translated everything in a rush and had like three people read it over. A few months later, Simon asks me out of the blue how well I could write in English, and I said: “Not too bad I think, why?” Then he told me First Second wanted to sign us and we went pretty crazy. I’ve been winging it since then.

Simon and I have known each other since high school, and though we played in a joke-band together back then, we didn’t talk much and were never really close. The summer before he left for California, he took the room of one of my roommates who was moving out and we got to know each other a bit more. I don’t think he had ever read anything I was writing, and I only knew his work from what little he showed people, which wasn’t much since he is a pretty secretive person. Sometime around the moment he offered that we collaborate on a graphic novel, he also mentioned his plan to move back in with us. Life was pushing us together for reasons other than this project, and although our work has been very compartmented in a way—him giving very little input on the story and me having complete confidence in his work—my initial idea for the story evolved in surprising directions. Although it is a very personal story, I see a lot of him in it, too.

Idle Days Interior Art by Simon Leclerc

Paste: This project takes place in your home country of Canada (maybe Montreal, too?), and lead character, Jerome, finds it both haunting and isolating. How much does Jerome’s perspective of the country reflect your own, or is his reflection more a result of his situation?
Brousseau: I think the story is drawn from more personal considerations than, say, national ones. Although I have spent most of my adult life there, this is not a story about Montreal but about the forest, and about a very specific place that has marked my imagination since childhood. I have a pretty strong fascination with the woods, but the idea of living there day after day is also quite far from what I’ve known my whole life; I don’t know that I could handle it as well as Maurice, the grandfather, seems to. That being said, maybe there is something to the fact that this is a story that takes place in some isolated place in the middle of nowhere, steps from the U.S. border, and that it verges on horror, ha!

Leclerc: Jerome, being a deserter, finds himself forced to live in his grandfather’s house, isolated in the woods nearby. The story then unfolds around that house; the forced reclusiveness gets Jerome interested in the previous generations of the house owners and their mysterious and tragic fates that weirdly relate to his. Along the way, the forest unveils its haunting characters: a dead woman, alcohol smugglers, a witch, a black cat, all while Jerome has to deal with his grumpy grandfather!

Paste: World War II is arguably considered the most morally-justified of all the major historical wars. What attracted you to exploring the perspective of a deserter?
Brousseau: Well I wouldn’t say that it’s really what I set out to do. I needed something that would keep the character stranded in the forest, and him being a deserter was mostly a convenient device. But once I chose to do that, I didn’t really question the morality of it. Although the vast majority of Canadians believed the war to be necessary and many enrolled of their own will, the people accepted it against the promise that there would be no conscription, at least for overseas service. French Canadians were particularly opposed to it, judging as in the case of the First World War that it was chiefly a European conflict, and particularly that of the United Kingdom, their historical oppressor. The Canadian Forces were also an organization where French-speakers were heavily marginalized… and I am cutting corners right now, but the bottom line is that the opinion of the majority of Quebecers contrasted with that of the rest of Canadians. And when the Government reneged its promise and imposed conscription, there was generalized dissent here. Desertion, or simply dodging the draft, was very frequent—the mayor of Montreal was actually sent to jail for urging people to ignore the registration—and these young “insoumis” usually had the approval of their community. The deserter/conscientious objector is a sort of mythical figure in Quebec, and speaking to people around me, I realized that most have a family story to tell on the matter.

Leclerc: To me, Idle Days isn’t really about the war. In our story, World War II acts as an outside force that constrains Jerome to live with his grandfather, alone in the wood. The reader gets glimpses of news from the war here and there, just like an outsider or Jerome would, but the story doesn’t really revolve around this. The war and the fact that he’s a deserter mostly prevent him from getting out of the wood, trapping him in that house, pushing him further into his isolation; and that’s when the house starts playing tricks on his mind.

Brousseau: All this talk of forced isolation and schizophrenic descent sort of makes me want to circle back to your last question on my perspective of the country and talk about Quebec’s place in Canada, but that’s maybe going too far off topic, ha-ha!

Idle Days Interior Art by Simon Leclerc

Paste: Idle Days also appears to be a story of a man bonding with his grandfather. Today, there are fewer than 700,000 WWII veterans left. Did either of your grandparents fight in the war? Do you have any personal connection to that period?
Brousseau: My father’s father, whom I never knew, deserted just before his regiment was deployed in Vancouver, worried that he would eventually be sent to fight in Europe. He apparently regretted it because the regiment never left British Columbia, and his friends otherwise “enjoyed a nice trip.” I hope I’m not being insensitive towards our veterans right now, that’s not my intention. But anyway, he hid with his uncle, a doctor in the village, and his experience has inspired the character of Jerome and some of the events of the story. Maybe it was a desire to know more about his life that lead me to write this story. But Jerome is also me in a lot of ways, and the relationship that develops between him and his grandfather is a sort of imaginary dialogue with pretty much all the male authority figures in my life, of which Maurice is the melting pot.

Paste: What relevancy bleeds through the situation into the political and military climate of today?
Brousseau: Well there has certainly been a rising of tensions around the world these past few years (or decades), and when I was doing additional research for a scene last fall, I stumbled upon an article in L’Obs that predicted World War III might have just begun; that was when Russia launched its first strikes on Syria. Being nose-deep in history books about WWII, it was demoralizing. But the war is only the backdrop of the graphic novel, and the character being a deserter, his relationship to it resembles most of our own today; he is cut out from it. But he listens to the radio and the conversations of everyone in the village revolve around it, and, as Simon said, all this contributes to the paranoid climate that sets in from the first pages. With the multiplication of terrorist attacks around the world and the growing feeling that no one is safe, the way we look for boogeymen, the current political climate may be similar in some ways.

Paste: Simon, you’ve used a unique coloring process in the past, illustrating lines on one document and coloring on another via light box, then merging both digitally. Are you employing that same approach here? What does it add to the storytelling and aesthetic?
Leclerc: You are right! I do use this process on Idle Days, but I wouldn’t call it unique; in fact, it’s pretty similar to a pre-digital coloring process some cartoonists would use back in the day, where they would draw the line art on one side of their sheet, turn it around and apply color on the other side with a light box. I kind of do the same here, with my black crayon line on one sheet and my oil pastel and gouache coloring on another, which I then scan and put on top of each other using Photoshop.

I found that coloring with oil pastels adds a lot of texture that would be hard to reproduce digitally, on top of being (to me) a good balance between the “happy-accidents” traditional mediums can cause and the great control over color digital tools afford. And it’s kind of fast. Kind of. Which is good when you are working on such a long graphic novel.

Idle Days Interior Art by Simon Leclerc

Paste: Besides your variant cover for Adventure Time, it appears much of your work is non-disclosed for legal reasons. As you have direct agency and recognition over Idle Days, does that influence your approach?
Leclerc: My “day job” is to be a storyboard/concept artist in the video game industry. I have a non-disclosure agreement on almost every one (if not all) of the projects I work on, and most (if not all) of them won’t be out in the public for months or years after I worked on them. And when they do come out, most (if not all) of the time, I still can’t really share what I did on them.

A book like Idle Days (and graphic novels in general) is great because it gives me the opportunity to art-direct my project entirely.

Personal projects demand that you raise your level of creativity, that you level up your inventiveness, because the thing you are making is your own. In my opinion, comics is one of the last mediums where the editors as well as the audience expect the authors to push and play with its boundaries as much as they do.

I choose the level of stylization I want to inject, the amount of time I decide to put drawing these tiny leaves on that weirdly shaped tree, or whether I want to leave that scribbly line that doesn’t really make sense on the nose of my character, but that I find oddly beautiful and satisfying.

I’m very excited about this, and I guess that’s how it influences what I do.

Paste: Ideally, how do you want Idle Days to influence those who read it?
Brousseau: That’s a tough one. Well, I never really set out to influence anyone, one way or another. I set out to write a story and that’s the story I ended up writing; it’s brought me to reflect on many aspects of my life and of life in general, and it certainly has a meaning and a message for me. But it’s basically a ghost story. I hope people have an enjoyable time reading it, and If they can find echoes in their own lives, well that’s just tops.

Leclerc: Hmm. I’ll try to have as much fun as I can drawing the best book I can so that, ideally, people will look at it and go: “Cool! That drawing of a tree looks gnarly!”

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