For the past month, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy has played host to a very special union of French and New York-based cartoonists and illustrators in their spring celebration, Picture This! The event has already brought to fruition conversations between Hervé Tullet and Mo Willems as well as Alex Alice and Rom Wimberly, and last week, the Society of Illustrators commenced a thoughtful and at times hilarious dialogue between Gabrielle Bell and Boulet.The pairing of these two cartoonists could not be more fitting, as both have come to popularity with their webcomics inspired from moments and anecdotes from their own day to day life. At a time when autobiographical comics are now met with a growing appreciation in pop culture along with academia, both Bell and Boulet served as an insightful look into the perspective and process of turning life into comics.
The fantastic Karen Green commenced the evening by questioning the kind of terminology autobiographical cartoonists face in identifying and categorizing their own work, with Boulet and Bell both drawing attention to the multifold choice of words they find themselves using to describe their art, from “autofiction” to “semiautobiography.” What seems to be behind the various jargon for them is the desire to stay away from being confined to a single genre, as their comics are not always completely biographical and both prefer the license to create work that can exist as both personal and fictional. The discussion then moved to the difference between constructing imagined and autobiographical pieces. Bell shared her range of influences, listing everything from personal stories to dreams, and she even articulated upon how she finds fictional work more difficult, as an author has more responsibility in building and establishing a universe for the story in comparison to the organic and recreational process behind her autofiction. Boulet shared a similar sentiment, mentioning that comics based on his life have a sincerity and natural flow, noting his method of automatic writing being vital to his routine. Both artists also stressed the relationship between both fields, as autobiography is often the foundation to creating fiction and paves the way to the imagined.
Continuing on the topic of authorship, Green inquired as to who exactly is the author represented in their work, and how their portrayals of themselves have shifted in their careers. Boulet expressed that his embodiment as character was completely accidental and the role that social networking played in his character manifestation. He began his webcomic in 2004 when social media was still in the infantile stage and used his character more as a means of establishing friendships and communication with other cartoonists, much in the same way that most indie cartoonists utilize Tumblr and blogging. As his webcomic begun to receive more response, the Boulet as character became more and more fictional, focusing on the comedic moments in his life, transitioning to what Boulet related as a Seinfeld/Louis CK personality. The stories Boulet chooses to put into his comics are highly influenced by the people who surround him, and claims that he is constantly accumulating material, attempting to use his brain as a kind of file cabinet for future endeavors. Bell’s evolution of character is likened more to a coming-of-age story, beginning with her representation as she wanted to be seen–a happy go lucky and easy going young woman. As her comics progressed, so did her character; the truer attributes of Bell came through as her model became more neurotic, shy, and expressive. Bell shared just how closely her work is tied to her own life, saying, “I have no control of myself but as a cartoonist.” This is exemplified through the careful planning and redrawing/rewriting she faces in story writing, quite in opposition to improvisation and freestyle approach Boulet uses.
Relating back to the theme of Picture This, both artists shared their own experience within France and the US, as Boulet is currently on a tour of the US and Bell has previously attended the Cannes Film Festival for her collaboration with Michel Gondry’s film in Tokyo! Reflecting back, Bell revealed her uneasiness with the expectation of drawing perfectly rendered art in signing her books, something that she believed the French comics community is more accustomed to. Boulet observed the difference in taste between the two audiences which he noticed on comments on his website, noting that more American readers are drawn to his work if he utilizes color and if the text is minimal (supposedly TL:DR “too long didn’t read” is a common remark). Interestingly enough, he also shared the discerning criticism of his self translations don’t come from his English-speaking audience but rather his French readers. Boulet’s observations point to a curious consideration about the growing phenomenon of the internet comic reader of today and a shift to what an audience finds most intriguing. With much of the indie comics being released for free at an expeditious rate, it seems that an abundance of text can be met with aversion, as the immediacy of eyecatching art/plots/character plays the most in favor to the webcomic.
Altogether, the discussion between Gabrielle Bell and Boulet served as an insightful and fulfilling look into two very talented and thoughtful cartoonists. With the moderating of Karen Green, both artists opened up a fresh dialogue juxtaposing two very different comic cultures and the unlikely connections that will continue to arise. Hopefully with the success of Picture This, new ventures of international comics dialogue will emerge and more surprising artist pairings can shed light on the flourishing culture of comics.
There’s still about a week left of Picture This events! Check out the website HERE.
For more on Gabrielle Bell, head on to her website.
For more on Boulet, check out his hilarious blog.
[Many thanks for pictures courtesy of the Society of Illustrators.]