In stores this week, one of Top Shelf’s big releases of the season is an import from France that also happens to be one of the company’s thickest volumes of the year—but that doesn’t mean “Lucille” is an epic story. Like “Blankets,” “Lucille” is a story of two teenagers in love. Debeurme changed his art style to tell this story of teens who journey across Europe against a backdrop of anorexia, suicide and alcoholism, balancing the operatic and the personal in a way that feels very honest and familiar.
Debeurme is well known to readers in Europe where he has published a number of books. When “Lucille” was released in 2006, it was awarded the Rene Goscinny Prize and named one of the five “Essential” graphic novels of the Angeloume International Comics Festival. Since then he’s published four books including, this year, a sequel to “Lucille.”
“Lucille” is his English language debut and his first book published in the United States, and Top Shelf has also agreed to publish the book’s sequel “Renee.” Debeurme was a guest at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival in New York City last month, one of just a handful of cartoonists invited to the event. CBR News spoke with him via e-mail. Debeurme speaks and writes English very well and any awkward phrases or constructions are due to the interviewer’s poor French language skills.
CBR News: This is your first book released in the US, but you’ve been publishing comics in Europe for almost a decade. Would you mind introducing yourself and giving us some background about your education and career?
Ludovic Debeurme: I was born in Paris, and spent my childhood between the city and a small place in Picardie, in the north of France. It was a very special place, a house on the top of the huge white cliffs, just in front of the sea. Just behind the house there was a forest. Those elements had a great influence on my future artwork. A lot of my books take place in such a landscape. I noticed that in my art, as in my night dreams, the water element often works as a symbol of the unconscious. The cliffs could be compared as the point to take off and stop or begin a new life. The moment to make some decisive choices and the spot from where you could have a larger sight on the unconscious world (the sea). And the woods are that place where you can get lost and find something about your wild behaviors. A resurgence of primitive urges.
My father is an artist, a painter, and my mother teaches music. I make music and draw. I learned a lot just watching my father at work. He showed me some tricks with painting and drawing, but didn't want to really teach me art. I think he was frightened that I would have done that as real work when I became older.
I spend my day between making music and drawing. Sometimes it's so hard to decide which one I have to practice, sometimes it's easy like a breath.
After high school, I went to university, at the Sorbonne in Paris, in the art department. It was conceptual art oriented. I learned about art theory, but nothing about how to practice it. I had to teach myself: seeing people in the streets and drawing them for example. After that I began as an illustrator for newspapers and children books. I did that for a long while. Too long, I guess. I began to understand that I suffered not telling my own stories. During my childhood it was so important for me to tell and write stories. I forgot that and was getting obsessed just with drawing.
At this point I met Charles Berberian, the cartoonist from the duet Dupuy-Berberian, he introduced me to the comics publisher Cornelius in 2000. I made for them the comic book “Cefalus.” That was like an emancipation. I loved so much that experience that I continued it! After that I published “Ludologie,” an autobiographical book, and “Mes ailes d'homme,” a mix between comics and illustration. Then “Lucille” in 2006 by Futuropolis publisher, “Le grand Autre” ("The Great Other") by Cornelius, and “Renée,” the second part of “Lucille.” I published two books very important to me in the recent past years, that are more like free drawings, “Terra Maxima,” and “Le lac aux Velies” with the singer Nosfell.
Where did “Lucille” begin? With an image? A character?
I began that story in a very strange and bad period of my life where I couldn’t draw any more. So I went to this place I mentioned before, in Picardie, and after few days, I began to draw that first picture where you can see Lucille walking. My creative process often begins with a walk. The characters walk in a landscape, on a road, as my mind walks to find the way of the story. It's a way, I guess, to connect the character deeply to me.
Initially there were several characters, but I left the other stories and just kept two, Lucille and Arthur.
When I start a story, I don't really know who are the characters, what are their personalities, their motivations. I wait, and try to listen to their voices in my mind. They begin to talk, and tell me their own stories.
Why is the book titled “Lucille,” because she’s only half the book and not really the driving force of a lot of the plot?
At this time I was with a girlfriend who had some serious eating disorders. She was just coming out from a severe anorexia crisis. I think it was a way for me to understand her and express something that was very hard to live with for me. I had during my childhood until [I turned] sixteen some eating disorders too, that became phobias after that. Lucille was on the one hand a part of me, and in the other hand was so different from me. For the first time of my art experience, I tried to speak for a girl. Trying to feel her behavior, her growing sexuality, her anorexia, etc. It was so weird. I felt guilty and inappropriate that a man authorized himself to speak for a woman. In my past books I explored more my own ghosts and problems. But I realized after that it made sense for me. And that it was more interesting to start to explore a far place, like Lucille is, and then trying to focus more close to me, than just work on my own experience.
That's one of the reason why “Lucille” is the title of the book. It's the starting point. It's the axis. Arthur is like a related chemical agent.
In your earlier books you had a spare visual style but in “Lucille” it’s even more pared down. Why go in that direction, because the plot elements are so heavy?
“Lucille” is a dark social story. It takes place in a realistic world. I felt it was appropriate to get more simple and lighter in my drawings. When I work on a more fantastic book, I need to be more descriptive. I need to create volume and a kind of reality where it lacks some. It's a kind of balance. In “Renée,” I used both styles, because “Renée” has some fantastic visions, for example.
Now as you’ve mentioned, “Lucille” is the first volume of a larger ongoing project. I know the sequel, “Renée,” comes out this year in France. Could you talk a little about the sequel and what you wanted to explore in this series?
Renée was already released in France in January. The book introduces some new characters, Renée and Pierre, as the story with Lucille continues. It's more deeply about violence. How aggression that can't be expressed with speaking and words, can incarnate. How the body always reveals what the mouth can't tell. Comics is the perfect art for translating that, because it is exactly at the frontier between drawings and words. The theme here is at the frontier between body and speaking.
Are there any plans for your other books to be printed her in the US?
Top Shelf is going to publish “Renée” in 2012. I'm very happy with the beautiful work they did with the “Lucille” English version. I'm lucky!
You were in New York for the PEN Festival a few weeks back. I was wondering if you wanted to talk about the experience, both at the festival and in New York.
New York is a massive shock! Of course it's a commonplace to say that. But there will be for me a "before New York," and an "after New York." I liked so much the way this city blends modernity and history. It's close to Paris, but the history of Paris is older. [In New York] it's the twenties and thirties that you can explore. I like the nostalgia it delivers. A Nostalgia from a not so old past.
“Mes ailes d'homme” told about a fantastic view of New York. A part of the book takes place in the USA, but when I did it, I hadn’t been to the US. Maybe now, after visiting, New York, Los Angeles, and some other places here, I could authorize myself to make a new book on it.
Thanks to the PEN festival I have met some writers and cartoonists. That's so important for an artist, those experiences.