Published by Cambourakis at the beginning of January 2018, Les Visés (“The Targeted”) tells the story of the last two days of the life of a mass killer. Thomas Gosselin (L’Humanité moins un, Sept Milliards de Chasseurs-Cueilleurs) and Giacomo Nanni (Chroniquettes, La Véritable Histoire de Lara Canepa) join their forces to confront us with the complexity and ambivalence of a thought that we witness falling apart, going off the rails to the point of no return. The story is freely inspired by the life of Charles Whitman who, on the morning of August 1, 1966, locked himself up in the tower of the University of Austin, Texas, before firing on passers-by, killing 16 people and injuring 32.
Interview with Thomas Gosselin and Giacomo Nanni
HOW WAS BORN YOUR INTEREST IN THE CHARACTER OF CHARLES WHITMAN AND THE DESIRE TO WORK ON HIS STORY ?
Thomas Gosselin: A little by accident. We all spend a lot of time reading things on the Internet, more or less interesting. I’ve been dwelling on Whitman’s biography. There was a drama there that provided a kind of frame, a “ready-to-use” container. I felt free to put anything I wanted in it. To be more specific, I had in mind for quite a while a beginning of a story with a guy who tries to tell the dream he just had, but can’t do it. Exactly what you see at the beginning of the book. Frustration rises and, during the day, the memory of the dream is transformed, metamorphoses. It was a starting point to stage the rise in power of madness that I liked. In the end, Les Visés combines this idea with Whitman’s true story.
Giacomo Nanni: Whitman’s story served as the foundation, but above all it is a source of inspiration. This is far from a biographical account. Some details stick closely to historical reality, others do not. Besides, our character’s name isn’t Whitman, it’s Emerson.
THAT IS CORRECT. WHY “EMERSON”?
T.G.: (Ralph Waldo) Emerson was a 19th century American poet, as was (Walt) Whitman. Just a wink.
THOMAS, AS BOTH A WRITER AND A CARTOONIST. WHY DIDN’T YOU PICTURE THIS STORY YOURSELF?
T.G.: Because I was working on another comic strip at the same timeand I’m a rather slow drawer but a pretty fast writer!
SO YOU CONTACTED GIACOMO NANNI?
T.G.: I think it was Giacomo who first asked me to write him a story. As it happens, the Visés scenario was almost finished. I liked Giacomo’s drawing: he has a visual culture very different from mine, I knew he would surprise me, propose ideas and images that I would not have thought of.
G.N. I had been living in Paris for some time and was beginning to understand the language well enough to appreciate the books Thomas had published for Atrabile, among others. I met him through cartoonist friends with whom he was sharing a studio (Alessandro Tota and Luigi Critone), so I proposed a collaboration. The script for Les Vises had already been written so I immediately started to draw from the dialogues and the story.
WERE YOU THEN WORKING IN THE SAME STUDIO?
T.G. Yes, Giacomo has joined the studio . In addition to Alessandro Tota and Luigi Critone, we share this place with Pierre Van Hove, Margaux Duseigneur, Matthias Lehmann, Pauline Barzilaï, all designers or graphic designers (it’s the same thing), Maïa Berling, a clown artist, and Volker Zimmermann, translator.
DID IT FACILITATE YOUR COLLABORATION?
G.N. Probably. Sharing the same working space, we were able to communicate very easily about the drawing and the text on a daily basis.
T.G. I don’t have a problem with the cartoonist making changes to my text and that’s what Giacomo did. I try to be as non-directive as possible in my scenarios. It’s a bit like theater, with dialogues and didascalies, I leave the draftsman to fend for himself.
THERE IS A MARKED HISTORICAL DIMENSION IN THIS BOOK. HOW DID YOU APPROACH THE RESEARCH WORK? ARE THERE MANY REFERENCES OR IS IT RATHER A FREE INTERPRETATION OF THE TIME?
T.G. The story takes place in the South of the United States, in Texas, at the end of the Sixties. There are plenty of films that can serve as references. At first, I imagined images with a blue sky that would take up more than half the space, great depths of field with lots of detail, but it probably wouldn’t have been very “narrative”. Giacomo did his own (huge) documentary research work, on authentic historical objects and details, but also to situate the time, the atmosphere.
G.N. There are indeed many references. I surfed the net in search of anything that could relate to the story I had to draw and gathered dozens of photographs of the time. I also watched documentaries about the University of Texas tower shooting. This led me to examine the consequences of this killing on North American popular culture. This helped me to better understand Thomas’ approach in writing his screenplay.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE MAIN CHARACTER, RICHARD EMERSON: FROM THE FIRST TO THE LAST PAGE OF THE BOOK, THE READER IS STUCK TO HIM, TO HIS THOUGHTS.
T.G. Yes. And between the real life of the character, his dreams, his memories, his fantasies, his thoughts, there is enough to get lost. The reader is somehow stuck “in Emerson’s head”, and experiences the state of confusion in which he finds himself,
SURPRISINGLY, EMERSON THINKS A LOT AND SEEMS RATHER “RATIONAL”?
G.N. : He thinks a lot, it’s true. He is not stupid and has the capacity to question the society to which he belongs, but from which he is somehow excluded. This tension interested us: on one hand Emerson is totally disconnected from the world around him, but on the other hand he adheres to it deeply. It is clear that his thoughts a landscape, an era, a place, an environment. But thinking, questioning, even a lot, can lead to a dead end. Emerson’s problem is that he’s wrong in his conclusions. He is very much mistaken. Anyway, Thomas and I didn’t want to depict some kind of shooting machine that fires at the crowd.
IN EMERSON’S CASE, “LOVE” MOTIVATES A LARGE NUMBER OF HIS ACTIONS, ESPECIALLY THE MOST VIOLENT ONES.
G.N. There is no wickedness in Emerson that’s true. On the contrary: he has a lot of scruples, the constant will to “do well”.
T.G. He almost convinces himself that killing is an act of love.
NOW LET’S TALK ABOUT THE SHOOTING. THE IMPLEMENTATION OF EMERSON’S FATAL PROJECT TAKES ALMOST THE LAST THIRD OF THE ALBUM.
T.G. And that’s not to mention that the character had already imagined, earlier in the story, what was going to happen!
G.N. I think it is the core of the book, its raison d’être. While working on this sequence, I tried to never lose sight of the respect due to the victims, while offering the murderer the leading role. This is a very particular challenge.
MOREOVER, ON THE VISUAL LEVEL THE KILLING SCENES ARE TREATED IN A SPECIFIC WAY, ALMOST IN CHINESE SHADOWS.
G.N. I wanted to show silhouettes in this part of the story. I therefore chose yellow as the luminous colour that allowed me to bring out the outline of the characters. It is finally black and white on a yellow background… And in the violent scenes , blood appears in black.
THE ONLY SPOTS OF COLOR: THE CHARACTERS THAT APPEAR IN EMERSON’S VIEWFINDER.
G.N. Yes. This device allows a distance from the horror, a neutralization of emotions. Faced with violence, we often find ourselves flabbergasted: “Why don’t I react ». I wanted to get close to that feeling. It would have been difficult for me to mention distress, grief etc. here. The book is situated in another register.
THE DRAWING WAS MADE ON A COMPUTER, WASN’T IT?
G.N. Yes, my drawing is totally digital. I’ve been working like this for years using the computer to process the color part of my books. So the transition was quite natural. And in Chroniquettes, which is a black and white book, I also used computers to create the frames. However let me point out that the choice of digital was not immediately obvious for Les Vises. Indeed As a matter of fact, I made the first 17 pages in ink before opting for a 100% digital work. These strips have been reworked on computer.
LE GAUFRIER WILL OFTEN FOCUS ON THE INCREASINGLY NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS THAT EXIST BETWEEN COMIC STRIPS AND THE PLASTIC ARTS. ANY COMMENT ON THAT?
T.G. I think it’s very good that these connections/bridges exist. Besides I see around me many comic book authors who refer to other art forms than their own. Actually these separations divisions are now outdated. Or at the very least they are economic or institutional distinctions that I care little about. As a matter of principle, we should draw our inspiration from the rules and research that are unrelated to our own disciplines. I have the impression that this porosity brings to attention some artists who had perhaps been forgotten. Like Philip Guston, who you suddenly see everywhere.
GIACOMO, ON THE SAME SUBJECT, PERHAPS YOU COULD TELL US ABOUT THE ABSTRACT COMICS SERIES. HOW WAS THIS PROJECT BORN HOW DOES AN “ABSTRACT” PAGE WORK?
G.N.: Discovering other authors’ “Abstract comics” made me want to give the exercise a try. It is simply an investigation on formal qualities. The dynamics of abstract forms must guide the reader’s look over the entire page. The work posted here, for example, is a reinterpretation of Superman vs. Spider-Man, the Battle of the Century, which I liked among other things for its colours. I have used a grid allowing me to obtain the same red, blue and yellow colors as those of the original page, I have erased the black lines and eventually superimposed the 6 square boxes (the Gaufrier) of the original model. The result seems rather interesting to me.
FINALLY, LET’S GO BACK TO COMICS. YOU’RE BOTH WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, REGULAR READERS. COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT A “HIDDEN TREASURE”, AUTHORS FROM THE PAST THAT HAVE MADE AN IMPRESSION WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER AND/OR A CURRENT AUTHOR THAT INTERESTS YOU SPECIAFICALLY, FOR WHATEVER REASON?
G.N. My treasures are not hidden. Let Thomas speak instead.
T.G. When I was a child, my mother, who is Irish, subscribed me to a comic book magazine called The Beano. She specifically wanted me to maintain keep up with my English! The Beano is a fairly cheap weekly magazine, with short, super-repetitive stories from one week to the next. There are variations around the particularities of a character, like Billy The Whizz who was very fast, or school children who make a mess: The Bash Street Kid, created by the genius Leo Baxendale.
As far as the current graphic novel scene is concerned, I thinkof François Henninger, a friend of mine. We did Luttes des corps et chute des classes together, published by L’Apocalypse. He is an “artist’s artist”, who has not yet had the chance to meet his audience. His books go quickly out of print or are published by editors with little visibility. His drawing is always inventive, Saul Steinberg style. It comes naturally to him, he is a discreet and efficient virtuoso. He’s someone who comes out of comics to go towards literature and art drawing but it’s still comics – but in the end we don’t care what the hell it is! In addition he has a lot of humour, both in amplitude and variety. (https://francoishenningif.tumblr.com/)
I also discovered Gerald Jablonski on the internet and bought his Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn. Since the late 1970s he’s been making comics to try to drive people crazy. Then you have to make the effort to go crazy… It’s very chatty, very repetitive, very dense. I haven’t even finished reading the album yet. The small tails of the bubbles make very complex coils, to the point of blurring the images. For me they are alchemist’s stills. The stories that take place in Ned’s farm almost always follow the same structure: a hyper-talkative narrator introduces the story, a calf and his mother argue with puns, a vandal horse confesses the various crimes by which he sabotages the whole world. Or they are completely mute stories, with two monstrous kids stuck in fractal geometry. The result seems to me very “psychedelic”. Not so much because of the delirious gradations, but rather because of the psychic experience, the alteration of consciousness… which occurs even without taking drugs, just through reading.
Thomas Gosselin’s blog: http://rocambolebijou.blogspot.ch/
Giacomo Nanni’s website: http://giacomonanni.com/
The site of Cambourakis : http://www.cambourakis.com/