Monday, April 29, 2019

Monthly Stumblings #20: Jochen Gerner

Panorama du feu (a view of fire) by Jochen Gerner

Jochen Gerner was a founding member of the OuBaPo (Ouvroir de Bande Dessinée Potentiele - or, the Workshop for Potential Comics, best represented in the US by Matt Madden, Jason Little and Tom Hart). Modeled after the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Literature Potentielle - workshop for potential literature) created by Raymond Queneau, the OuBaPo aimed to explore new ground for comics using, paradoxically, constraints as a creative motor. The OuBaPo published four books to date (the last one in 2004) all by the dominating force behind the project, Jean-Christophe Menu and L'Association publishing house. Even if engaged in other projects the work of Jochen Gerner is never very far from OuBaPian creative processes.

Les Vacances de l'OuBaPo (the vacations of the OuBaPo), Oupus 3, L'Association, October 2000, illustration by Jochen Gerner.

Jochen Gerner views himself as a draftsman who does comics among other things. Represented in France by Anne Barrault Panorama du Feu was part of Jochen Gerner's second exhibition at said art gallery in 2009 (the first one happened in 2006). The theme of the exhibition was the four elements: earth, air, water, fire. A year later L'Association published Panorama du feu (the "fire" part of the exhibition, of course) in a cardboard box, surrounded by a paper ribbon with the word "Guerre" (war) written on it, containing fifty-one booklets numbered from zero to fifty. Each booklet is the reworking of what's called in France the "petits formats" (the little formats), cheap, mass art comics imported mainly from the UK (published there by Fleetway) and sold in newsstands from the 1950s (or even earlier) until their decline in sales during the 1980s and disappearance in the early 1990s. The genres included in Panorama du feu are War, of course, but also Western, Espionage, and even a Tarzan look-alike produced in Italy, Akim. In each of these eight page booklets (cover and back cover included; booklet number zero has twelve pages with an introduction by Antoine Sausverd) Jochen Gerner used two creative strategies: (1) the cover was blacked-out with India ink leaving a title formed by expressions found in the book and the name of the collection plus explosions and signs (circles, crosses) in (not so) negative space; (2) the interior retained some didactic essays, advertisements and other paratexts published in the original comic books, plus what Thierry Groensteen called "reduction" in Oupus 1 (L'Association, January 1997): the stories were reduced to four, five or six panels (one per page).
In Panorama du feu Jochen Gerner chose visual rhymes (airplanes or trucks in all the panels, for instance). He also favored more abstract images and close-ups.

Airplanes (in perfect order and in chaos) in booklet # 40 of Panorama du feu, L'Association, September 2010: visual rhymes.

Besides being a non-conceptual reflexion (as Jochen Gerner stressed, saying that his is not a theoretical approach) on violent representations in petit format comics during the Cold War, what I find fascinating in the comic book reductions performed by Jochen Gerner is the contrast between said supposedly entertaining violence and a clear intention to be didactic including in the books many scientific essays. Below there's an unexpected encounter between something as frivolous as Bettie and Veronica (Archie is here called Robert, by the way) and yet another image of violence. By mixing didacticism and comicality with the violence of war, the violent message was somewhat undermined or, at least, balanced by a variety of things, advertisements included.
Given the fact that Jochen Gerner reduced whole stories to a few panels it's no surprise that many make little sense letting the reader with the strange sensation that something incomprehensible is going on (cf. below: infra-narrativity).

Betty and Veronica run to join the French war effort during WWII? booklet # 33 of Panorama du feu, L'Association, September 2010: comicality undermines seriousness.

Page 38 of TNT en Amérique by Jochen Gerner, L'Ampoule, 2002.

The blacking-out of covers and interior pages (as seen above: a détournement of Hergé's Tintin en Amérique - Tintin in America -, 1946 version) has its roots seven years before. In the above page the word "feu" (fire) appears (twice) and pictographs representing flames and smoke (plus a car and the words "poursuite" - "chase" -, and "route" - "road") are similar to the covers in Panorama du feu. A look below at Hergé's page blacked-out by Jochen Gerner in TNT en Amérique helps us to reach interesting conclusions:


Page 38 of Tintin in America as published in 1973 by Methuen (originally published in black and white in 1931 /32 and reworked by Hergé in 1946).

Diegetically two things happen in this Tintin page: Tintin escapes a persecution and flees a fire. In the tradition of creating suspense at the end of every odd page Tintin is almost caught by the flames in the last panel. The persecution (by the baddies) is represented in TNT en Amérique by a car and the words "chase" and "road." In spite of Tintin riding a horse (the stereotype of the American cowboy imposes itself to a formulaic narrative) Jochen Gerner used a car pictogram to update the story. The animals on tiers two and three are almost ignored (the "almost" goes to the star pictograph, a symbol of trouble - emanata would have been more effective, maybe, but who am I to question Jochen Gerner's choices?, maybe he sees emanata as too blunt a sign?). Most of the attention goes to the fire with an ironic devil chasing the hero: can he be a villain destined to burn in hell's eternal flames in spite of his virtuous persona?
The general conclusion that we may extract from the TNT en Amérique example is that the two creative tactics described above (blacking-out and reduction) have the exact same result of reducing the deturned story to a skeleton.


On the left: page from Courts-circuits géographiques (geographical short-circuits), L'Association, 1997; on the right, the same page as reworked for XX/MMX, L'Association, 2010.

The image above shows, on the left, a page of Jochen Gerner's autobiographical book Courts-circuits géographiques; the image on the right shows the same page reworked for publication in XX/MMX (an anthology commemorating L'Association's 20th anniversary). As Jean-Christophe Menu noticed in his thesis La bande dessinée et son double (comics and their double, L'Association, 2011), the evolution from representational (even if caricatural) to ideographical is clear, but even the older page shows a tendency to what Thierry Groensteen called, in Bande dessinée récit et modernité (comics, narrative and modernity, Futuropolis, 1988) "the inventory" (a subset of his concept of the infra-narrative).

Malus by Jochen Gerner, Drozophile, 2002. A boon to a Ben-Day fetishist like me.

In Malus, as seen above, a silk-screened comic, Jochen Gerner illustrated real traffic disasters reported in newspapers. A creative tension is caused by the caricatural and schematic drawings depicting tragic events. A distance is created by the inadequate relation between form and content, or, to be more precise, the content isn't exactly what one would expect given the source material. An ironic Dadaistic distance pervades all of Jochen Gerner's work, but Malus is the height of this propensity. It shows Gerner's tendency to explore - and short-circuit; cf. the Betty and Veronica example above - violent undercurrents in the mediasphere. TNT en Amérique lays bare, by reduction, how violent Hergé's stories really are (TNT being, obviously, a reduction of Tintin's name and an explosive). The same happens in Panorama du feu.

Left: Buck John # 105 (Buck Jones, I guess), Imperia, February, 1958; right: a deturned by black-out Buck John comic (not necessarily # 105, of course), Panorama du feu, L'Association, September 2010.

As we can see below Panorama du feu is a dual object corresponding to its two lives in 2009 (in an art gallery) and 2010 (as a series of fifty one comic books):

Up: Panorama du feu as exhibited in Anne Barrault's gallery, September 2009; down: Panorama du feu as a box containing fifty one booklets, L'Association, September 2010.

In 2009 the fifty books were, as Jochen Gerner put it, like a giant battle ground as seen on a big control panel. Seeing the deturned covers behind glass encased comics come to mind. The act of reading is out of the question. On the other hand L'Association's edition does almost the opposite, readers have access to the booklets' content, but the ensemble is lost. Can these two forms of presentation be reconciled? I don't think so, but one of the best solutions, I think, involved Jochen Gerner. I'm talking about Salons de lecture (Reading Rooms), an exhibition at the La Kunsthalle in Mulhouse:

Salons de lecture, La Kunsthalle, Mulhouse, February 3 - April 3, 2011.

In Salons de lecture readers /viewers were invited to sit and read, as we can see above. As I said, reading and viewing can't be reconciled, but I like this Duchampian solution: it's a visual arts exhibition because the La Kunsthalle is a place where contemporary art is shown. Plus: there's the design with different colors for the six rooms available.
Here's Jochen Gerner's opinion:
Simply to place the boards adjacent to each other in a linear fashion is like trying to reproduce the phenomenon of reading a book. This can't be right. But the exhibition Reading Rooms plays effectively with the principle of the book on a flat surface. The effect in this exhibition is almost that of a wall placed horizontally on trestles. The exhibition design and the graphic systems used to mark the placement of the books, plus the captions printed on the table propel these books into another dimension.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Monthly Stumblings #19: Fred

Le petit cirque (the little circus) by Fred.

Fred is the nom de plume and the nom the pinceau of Frédéric Othon Theodore Aristidès. You may have heard about him because of Pilote magazine and his most famous series, "Philemon" (or Philemon if we are talking about the albums). Before that though, Fred had a career behind him as a single-panel gag cartoonist and an absurdist comics artist in the pages of several magazines (the Mad inspired Hara-Kiri especially). It was in said mag that Fred published (from issue #38, April 1964, until issue #64, June 1966) his masterpiece "Le petit cirque" (or Le petit cirque if we're talking about the 1973, 1997 and 2012 album editions). The series, in short episodes of two pages each (with the exception of the first three pages), was also reprinted in Pilote magazine (it appeared in twenty eight issues from #701, April 1973, until #741, January 1974).
In 2012 an important retrospective of Fred's work, Le petit cirque included, was shown at the Angoulême comics convention in France (at the Hôtel Saint-Simon, to be exact). To celebrate the occasion Dargaud published a new remastered edition of Le petit cirque directly shot from the existing original art (which means that pages #8, 9, 26, 27, 36, 37 - three episodes - didn't receive the same treatment as the rest of the book; there's no discernible difference between those pages and all the others though; the editors didn't explain why this is so). Now I'm waiting for a new edition of Le journal de Jules Renard Lu Par Fred (Jules Renard's journal read by Fred) with the original page layouts recovered. I hope that someone at Flammarion reads my appeal.

Panel from page 53 of the 1997 edition of Le petit cirque by Fred.

The same panel as above from page 51 of the 2012 edition.

Fred himself said, remembering the series' first album edition in 1973:
I was pleasantly surprised that time! When we took the pages out of the portfolio to print the album, we realized that the original art had yellowed. Time yellows everything, even the mementos hidden in the bottom of a suitcase. Gray had become sepia which added a melancholia of sorts. I love those atmospheres.
As we can see above the 1997 edition reproduced the sepia tones. The lines are far from crisp though and many wash details were lost to resurface in the 2012 edition only. The latter's matte paper retains some of the beige flavor that pleased Fred. Since Le petit cirque is a comics masterpiece I would say that this edition is one of last year's most important comics related events. Unfortunately it passed virtually unnoticed.

The first two tiers of the first page of the series as it appeared in Hara-Kiri # 38, April 1964.

The same tiers published in the albums (in this case, the 2012 edition). As we can see the logo and the episode titles, when they existed, disappeared.

The first two panels of episode two (three in the albums) as published originally in Hara-Kiri # 39, May 1964.

The same panels as published in the 2012 album edition. The logo and episode title were removed, a paper and pencil texture was added (notice the glue smears captured by the photogravure).

We can find the prehistory of Le petit cirque in a couple of circus related cartoon gags, but we can also find it in a series of strange, imaginative professions created by Fred for Hara-Kiri: the knitter of savage balls; the bearded seller of cotton candy (barbe à papa); the representative of holes; the countryside licker of stamps; the celery grinder; the mirror fixer... In one of his "little jobs" Fred created the human time bomb. That's where the little circus really started: it was destined to be the album's second episode.

The little jobs: the countryside licker of stamps. Notice the Fredian twiggy tree and the wind.  Hara-Kiri # 23, December 1962.

The first half of "L'audition"'s first page (the audition) with the human cannonball (the human time bomb appears in the page's second half), Hara-Kiri #37, March 1964. The little circus before the little circus: it is right there in the second panel.

But we may find the true origins of the little circus not only in time, but also in space, in what Fred calls Constantinople (aka Istanbul). Both of Fred's parents were Greek living in Turkey when WWI raged on and the war between the two countries was declared in 1919. They both emigrated to meet each other in Paris where Fred was born in 1931.
Fred, again:
It was the first time that I did something solid and everything happened naturally, the ideas, the emotions. Maybe because it's the story of people without roots, like my parents. After leaving Constantinople they traveled a lot too and it was my father who inspired me to create Léopold. [...] The Carmen of Le petit cirque is dark-haired and thin while my mother had brown hair and was rather plumpish, but she inspired me nonetheless.

The family that inspired Le petit cirque: from left to right: Eleni (Carmen), Yanis (Léopold), and little Fred (who, in the album, has no name); Trouville, 1930s.

Fred's iconography is very personal and explains the strange poetical power of Le petit cirque: the wind, the leafless trees, the circus, the peasants, the authorities, the mirror, the landscape, the city, etc... Apart from that what's great about Le petit cirque is its rhetorical complexity.

Le petit cirque, page 11 of the 2012 edition.

The above page gives the readers one of the keys to read Le petit cirque: the rhetorical reversal of the situations (the daily life of a patriarchal Mediterranean family is shown as circus acts). Another key is what I called, in Monthly Stumblings #16, the interpenetration rhetorical mode: two distant spaces meet in a third space where both may co-exist at the same time (more about that later). The last panel shows Fred's leafless trees with the wind blowing strongly from left to right expelling both the reader - the author too in a nostalgic statement about his childhood? - and the character out of the page (the sudden change of point of view from panel five to panel six shows that it's time to leave already). The overall atmosphere is scrawny and uncomfortable. The vanishing point in the last panel focus Carmen pulling the circus caravan (Fred explained the metaphor: "the caravan symbolizes the family and the head of the family is the wife"; needless to say that this doesn't convince me at all...). Notice how the horizon line gets lower and lower until we see a towering caravan getting out of reach. On pages 58 and 59 outraged peasants want to argue with Léopold and Carmen, but are overwhelmed when they find out that the caravan, despite its modest exterior appearance, is in reality a palace (not unlike Snoopy's doghouse). This, of course, is an hyperbole showing Fred's huge respect for his creatures.

Carmen discovers the violin tree in page 36 of the 2012 edition.

The violin tree is just one of the interpenetrations that I mentioned above. Others link circus people with animals (a clown is a rooster, etc...). The violin tree is the hope and the means to fulfill one's dreams. The problem is that Léopold, after picking one of the violins from the tree, breaks a string interrupting the process: the family is doomed never to improve their situation no matter how hard they try.

The first two panels of page 18 of Le petit cirque's 2012 edition. To the circus family the city is a menacing, blocky, empty space. Fritz Lang's expressionist Metropolis isn't far; an hyperbole, again.

Le petit cirque: second and third tiers of page 48 of the 2012 edition.

In the image above Carmen deflates an overblown bourgeois. The stereotype is a bit blunt, to say the least, but there's an interesting catch in the sequence: the relation between iconic and verbal expression. Fred puts an idea usually uttered in words ("she deflated him") into drawings. Something that isn't that usual in comics. The same thing happens in the rooster/clown interpenetration mentioned above: the clown is visually a clown; we only know that it is in reality a rooster because of what the characters say about him.
I could go on doing close readings of all the episodes of Le petit cirque (like the one in which Léopold and Carmen offer a wheelchair to their son and break his leg in order for him to enjoy his present - which he does, of course), but the above is enough, I guess...
In conclusion: the circus family wanders aimlessly in an inhospitable landscape, is harassed and hated by almost everybody else and they suffer setback after setback, but they continue their journey because they have to, winning a few small victories along the way... We only get to the sense of it all though after decoding the logic of the book which is the nonlinear, oblique logic of dreams.

Fred sets his little creatures in motion; second tier of Le petit cirque's 2012's edition's last page. Another narrative device: self-referentiality.