Penelope Bagieu is a French illustrator who over the last ten years has become more involved in making comics and graphic novels. Some of her works include Josephine, Not Bad, White Page, and Stars of the Stars. She also has a comic blog, My Life Is Quite Fascinating, where she portrays everyday life in a humorous light.
In honor of her debut English-language graphic novel Exquisite Corpse (published by First Second), we discussed with the artist her career and newest work.
How did you find yourself doing graphic novels?
By accident, mostly. I always wanted to make cartoons (actually, as a child, I said wanted to grow up to become Tex Avery. Great ambition). I studied animation in art college and everything. But then, one thing led to another, and I started to do commissioned illustration for magazines (mostly because I had a rent to pay), and one of these magazines offered me to do their weekly last-page comic strip, and I thought “hey, why not, it’s not that far from what I want to do, which is drawing and telling stories), and it had a little success, and it was turned into a book, and another, et voilà.
How are the stresses of making a living off of art?
On that aspect, I think it’s the same everywhere: very few people make a real living off of it. I’m lucky enough to be one of them, but most of the cartoonists I know also work for advertising agencies, or take commissioned anonymous jobs to make both ends meet. Comics is such a long-term business. It’s hard to be bankable when you need years to finish a book. French politic on books and arts in general is very compliant and we pay less taxes than most of the self-employed people in other domains. We also have our cherished law on the price of books, which prevent stores from giving away books on sale like it’s a TV screen. But it’s a very fragile economy.
How did you get the title “Exquisite Corpse?”
As often, my editor came up with the idea. I don’t want to reveal too much of the story, but I thought this surrealist technique of writing, in which a story alternates from the hands of one author to another, and also had some sort of macabre to it, well, it made sense.
Obviously the story takes place in France, and the main character is a woman. What kind of parallels have you pulled from your life for the book?
Well, that’s it, pretty much! Except all the inspiration on her crappy dead-end jobs and moron ex-boyfriend, that I kept in a corner of my head from my previous own career in crappy dead-end jobs and moron ex-boyfriends. I knew it would be useful one day!
What inspired you to write this story?
On one hand, it was a part of the world I come from, that is the people who never read and only know a famous name if it’s on TV, and on the other, this other world I got to know later, that is the tiny literary Parisian scene, a planet that spins by itself, without a care for anything other than prizes, critics and book reviews. I don’t judge either of these two worlds, and I don’t think any of them is better than the other. I just wondered what would happen if they happened to collide.
Not giving too much away, the main male character is an author who thrives on attention, and wilts without it. As also an author, do you feel any similarities with the situation?
Oh, the character of the author is so me. Which is why I have so much empathy for him. On the selfish aspect of creation, where nothing and no one exists but my story while I’m writing it. The world around me may fall apart, the plants die and the cat starve. It’s exactly like I’m starting a new love relationship and I’m totally devoted to it, and bore my friends to death while speaking about nothing else. I think it’s hard to be the boyfriend or the children of an author.
I think you tend to step up as you grow older, and don’t get fooled by people who make you believe you need them while they’re totally using you in a one-way system. But it’s not necessarily the case when you’re younger, or confused, or don’t really know where you’re going, like the character of Zoe. Because you have the feeling that these people you meet, who look so self-confident and strong, well they know. So you’re willing to follow them anywhere, and support, and help, and be used, because you think they have a plan. But in the end, they have no idea what they’re doing either and they need you just as much.
There are a few scenes in the book where breasts are exposed. With the U.S. having different censorship compared to some European countries, how do you feel that your book may either be censored, marketed to an older audience, or how it might affect who will carry it?
I found out about that while reading my first reviews! I read several times “uh-oh, not to be put in the hands of a younger audience,” and I honestly really scratched my head, mentally browsing my entire book and thinking “Wait, what? Where? Did I put any sex scene? Or a violent murder? Or a massacre? Oh, right! The image with NIPPLES!” So breasts are considered obscene here. Oh, well, we French have our weird little habits too, I guess.
The editor character seems to play an important part in Rocher’s career. Do editors really carry such an important role? How has your editor(s) affected your life and/or work?
There are two schools on this: either you consider you need to be absolutely alone to write, and you expect nothing from your editor but the publishing part, that is printing well and promoting even better. If so, you take his observations as interfering, because you know exactly where you’re going. I’m from the other school, where I need my editor to comfort me every ten pages, to be the cheerleader on the side of the road, to be able to tell me “this chapter is crap,” or “switch these two panels and it will be a lot more efficient.” Usually, I talk for hours with my editor while my story is just a tiny seed, something that is starting to itch my brain only. And we talk it over until it becomes clearer. And then, all along the writing process, I know that he knows my story just as well as I do. I always have this image of the crazy scientist in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Dr Finkelstein, who splits his own brain in two and give one half to his creation, so that they will understand each other perfectly. Well, I like that my editor has the exact same amount of information as I have on my own story. He can tell me at any time “Hey, you should read that book, it would help you on the subject,” because he knows what it’s truly about. Of course, it’s not easy finding people you trust enough, that you will blindly listen to them when they suggest you should dramatically change your story, or your images. But if you have these people around you, it is so comfortable, to know that you’re not alone, and that someone will warn you if you’re actually heading right into a wall. It’s a very lonely and insecure job, otherwise.
Haha, that’s a funny one! I suppose I’m at the point where I never really had bad-bad critics, and I still have the pressure of having had a very successful first book. I’m not famous enough to have really mean reviews, because if critics don’t like my books, they just don’t write a word about it, that’s how they show it. You must be very famous to have people finding a column in a magazine (and time, energy) to write all the horrible things they think about you. I didn’t marry my publisher, and I still have millions of ideas for my future books. But I quit reading things about my books a long time ago: I usually rather take credit for things that people tell me to my face.
What do you hope readers will take away after reading “Exquisite Corpse?”
I hope they miss their subway stop while reading because they’re too captivated by the twist, the tension and the suspense. Do you think they could do that for me?
Be sure to pick up Exquisite Corpse by First Second at your local retail store.