Charles Forsman: How long have we known each other? 10 years? Though I feel like we haven’t been able to catch up in the last few years so I am glad to have this chance to catch up with you. You have a new book coming out in North America that you did with cartoonist, Wauter Mannaert called Weegee. It’s the true story about a famous or maybe infamous street photographer in New York City in the 1940s. You cover this a little bit in the afterword, but I’d like to hear you expand upon it. How did you encounter Weegee and what was it about him and his story that made you want to make this book?
Max de radigués: Hey Chuck… Yes, we live too far from each other!
I’ve always liked street photography and I’m always curious to see more. When I was in White River Junction in 2009-2010, I did a 24 hour jam comic with Alec Longstreth. Because we had been watching a lot of old movies, we had set up a constraint for us inspired by the classic movie plot, “country girl coming to NY to be a star”. Then I went to the Schulz Library and grabbed every photography book from the 20's up to the 40's. That’s when I first saw Weegee’s work. It was very different from any street photographer I had ever seen. I really drowned in his images. I then stumbled on his work everywhere. I saw an exhibition in NY and read his autobiography. When you know more about him, Weegee appears like a loveable genius and a hustler asshole. He seemed almost too perfect to work on…
I did tons of different version of the script, some very factual and some completely fictitious. In the end, the book is based on facts but I took a lot of liberty with them and with how Weegee thought and acted.
I know Wauter also knew of WeeGee independently. Is that what made the collaboration happen? Were you both planning on doing a strip about him?
At first, I was planning on drawing it myself but my drawing is very clean and naive and we would lose a lot of the ambiance that is essential to the book. I always felt like New York was one of the character of the book so I needed someone able to render that. Wauter and I share a studio space in Brussels and he could see me struggle on the script and drawings of this book. His drawing is very detailed and realistic but still very cartoony, like Will Eisnerish in a kinda way. He knew Weegee’s work and it seemed very natural to offer him the script. And what he did with it exceeded all my expectations. I’m really happy he did it.
How long did you work on it before Wauter got involved?
A pretty long time, because I did a first draft of the book in 2012 and it didn’t work so I put it aside. Around 2014, I tried a new version with another cartoonist and that didn’t work out. So a few month later Wauter and the French publisher Sarbacane was on board. So our collaboration started in early 2015? And I was mostly ready with the script at that time.
I find it really interesting when comics tackle subjects which require representing and depicting other visual media. In this case, photography. I guess what I want to know is were the photos we see WeeGee take in the book real photos that you sort of fictionalized how they were set up? Or were there detailed notes or articles that you had on hand to piece this stuff together?
I read tons of thing on Weegee, everything I could get my hand on. The funny thing is that Weegee liked to brag and was happy to lie when it would make a better story, make him look better. So one book would say something and the other the opposite. But Weegee liked to talk, so there are tons of anecdotes on what he did to make this or that pictures. I also found newspaper article with his pictures so I could have the context and the facts. So most of the set up are true or inspired by some of the anecdotes he told. It was a lot of fun for Wauter and me to show, not the picture he took, but how he took it.
It made me less scared to tell something wrong indeed. But at the same time I was worried to put things in and Weegee fans being like “everybody knows that never really happened”! I wasn’t and I’m still not a expert in the history and I didn’t want to upset people who know more than me. That’s why I always present the book as a fiction based on his life and not a biography. I’m not sure anybody cares but it allowed me more freedom...
To that end, I know you included some of his original photos in the french-language version of the book, why did you decide to omit them from this new version?
In the French version, the book is printed on a glossier paper and in duotone, one black and one grey, so the printed pictures of Weegee look amazing. We only included a few, 15 or so… But Weegee isn’t as well known here and we wanted people to realize that this guy existed and give them opportunity to discover his work.
In the US, the book is printed on a paper that suits perfectly the drawings but not pictures. And anyway, Weegee is more of known figure, so it made less sense. And I guess, money comes in too. We obtained the rights of the pictures for the French edition but it wasn’t cheap. Conundrum is a smaller publisher and is already taking a risk by translating us.
I’m really happy of how the book turned out and the pictures were just a small bonus for the French edition...
I’m interested in knowing what form this collaboration looked like. Were you the writer and Manneart was the artist? Or was it more of a blurred line? Did you often work on the book side by side in person?
So, as I said, they were many steps and attempt to that book. I thumbnailed everything several times. In the end, I wrote the final version as text on the computer with only description, dialog and I would put something like “2 pages for this scene”. I didn’t want to influence him too much. He would thumbnail a few pages and then we would talk about it. I never showed him my version but I think the pace pretty close, even if his version is way fancier than mine… I had spent so much time on that script that I didn’t want Wauter to feel too constrained. I wanted him to have space to be himself. The book is a collaboration and not him doing what I ask him too. That would be too boring for both of us. So I would talk with him about his thumbnailing and ask him to change things and he would do the same for my writing...
Knowing your style, I can glean that Manneart probably did the finished art. And I just want to say, he really did a bang up job. I feel like you guys must have done a lot of photo reference to show NYC in the ‘40s. What was that like?
I had accumulated a lot of books and had also created a secret tumblr account with Weegee’s work as well as movies and pictures from other period artists. And Wauter loves to look at references and find the tiny details that will make it feel real. This isn’t the type of book to pass judgment on its subject but I’m wondering about your personal feelings on Weegee. Obviously his photos are visceral and quite alluring but as you show in the book, he often would move corpses and almost act as a director to setup his shots. Like getting a grieving widow to pose with the dead body of her husband. How much truth is there to him doing that? And what do you think of that sort of thing?
It was another time, far away from the NCIS type of police. When you look at pictures of Weegee, there is tons of people watching the crime scene, kids playing and fooling around. I feel like Weegee would do anything for a good pictures. There’s stories of him renting an ambulance and dressing up as a doctor, of him having intel from people all over the city, and tons of other great tricks he would use. In the book, there’s one point where he finds a body in a trunk and ask the cops to count the stab wounds, then takes a pictures of himself looking in the trunk. When he tries to sell the photo to the newspaper, they say, it’s too trashy, he goes back in the dark chamber and makes the body disappear. That pictures then gets approved. That’s a true anecdotes and it’s a good example of how far he could go for a photo and how smart he was about it. He’s known for his extra sensitive film to shot in the dark, and did a series of people making out at the movies. He published his pictures saying “look how young people make out in the dark when you're not looking!”, when actually he paid those kids to make out. Making up pictures to make a good story was more important than the “truth”. I really like that about him.
I also feels that he’s very contemporary, he’s documenting his present fully, insert himself in his pictures all the time. There is a “voyeur” dimension to his work that we can’t help to see in our everyday online.
Moving away from Weegee...Like I mentioned in the beginning we go back a ways. I feel like you have a pretty interesting perspective on two different worlds of comics. Maybe two different small press worlds to drill it down a bit. You’ve published books in North America and of course in France/Belgium where you are based. I want to kind of bend your ear about publishing and maybe your perspective on how things are different on either side of the water. First, I want to ask about l’employe du moi, the publishing Co-op you are a part of in Brussels. Can you tell me a bit about how that is set up? I’ve been thinking about publishing co-ops lately and wonder why no one in comics has done something similar in North America. Maybe you have some insight into that?
Yeah, I always wondered why there aren't more small publishing house in the US. It seems like most of any alumni for a French or Belgian art-school start a project with his classmate that pretty often becomes a publishing house. I lot of them come and go but a lot stick also. L’employé du Moi, started as a weekly zine made by students of a school in Brussels in 1999. After a bit more than a year, they were tired of the intensity of that rhythm and decide to move to bigger anthology project. To make that project exist, they created a small publishing company. It started by them just doing anthologies and publish themselves and slowly they started publishing other friends and people they were meeting. I got in, in 2006, because I shared a studio space with them and I was very interested in the process of making a book, not just drawing it but the whole process until it reaches the reader. I think it really helped me a lot in my cartoonist career to be able to talk like equal with the publisher and to have a sense of what I can and cannot do technically.
Today, we are five people in the house, Sacha Goerg, Stéphane Noël, Phlippe Vanderheyden, Matthias Rozes and me. I’m not sure about the word Co-op. I think we are the equivalent of a non-profit… i’m not sure what the differences are between the two.
Does the Co-op generate enough money to pay for living wages? Or is it more of a self-sustaining thing and not something the partners can live on?
None of us get paid for the work we put into the company. Everything that comes in goes to making new book or paying the cartoonist. That’s one of the main reason that we are able to survive… If we had to pay one of us for the work, we would need to make way more books and put much more time in them. And I feel, we already are at the limit of what we can do. All of us, each put a day or more a week into l’employé du Moi. On the side we have to continue our career as cartoonist, illustrator, teacher… Deal with the family life, most of us have kids now so that’s also time consuming (in a good way…). We now publish between 4 to 7 books a year and that really is the maximum. We want to work closely with the artist, we want the object to make sense and be great, we want to follow the book once it’s out… So that’s our limit. I would of course love to have one or two people working full time and getting paid, it would really make a difference for us and for the books, but that’s not possible in current economy.
Do you think a publishing Co-Op could work in an uber-capitalist country such as the US?
It seems like the underground is much more alive in the US so I think it would totally work. Our books sell between 700 and 1300 copies per book on average. It’s not that much compared to big zinesters in the US. I think a successful zine sells around the 500 in America, no? And publishing in English, you can sell anywhere in the world. So it would make complete sense to work like that in the US. It seems that there is initiative but that it’s usually a one person thing. Like you did with Oily. But the reason is probably geographic, you don’t especially live close to other cartoonist that you would want to work with. In Belgium, people are a one hour drive away at the worst…
But, things are changing, no? Retrofit, Peow, and other small house are popping up. And technically, Conundrum Press is a one man job. It’s pretty close to our way of working.
A thing we have in Belgium and France is that we don’t have a monopoly on distribution like you guys. We have a small distributor that distribute most of the indy comics and they do a great job! So that helps!
I ran a teeny tiny publishing thing for 2 years and it took a lot out of me. Do you ever feel like you can’t be a cartoonist and publish other people’s work?
Well, sometime I feel I spend more time on someone else comics that on mine and that’s very frustrating. But it also a unique way to apprehend someone’s work. I think I learn a lot. And we usually try to follow the artist during the writing process and give him criticism..so even if I sometime wish I could just focus on my own work, I think it’s helping me being a better cartoonist. And as I said above, I think I have a lot of control on my own books thanks to all the things I learned as a publisher.
What’s your perspective on comics in North America? I’ve seen a little bit of how wide the breadth of publishers and types of comics exist in Europe. And cartoonists in America often talk about it like it’s this perfect land where comics sell like hot cakes and artists are more respected. Is that true? Are we right in thinking that? Do you laugh at the way the industry is set up in America?
The industry is completely different. I think it’s easier to make a little bit of money with comics in Europe. Even, if it’s better than the US, it’s not a perfect situation… Most of the industry lives from very bad commercial comics like yours, except it’s not superheroes. I guess the division between what’s indy and what’s not is more blurry. Big publishers almost all publish something close to indy books for example. Myself for example, I work with several publishers, some indy like l’employé du Moi, some mid-size like Sarbacane (Weegee’s publisher) and really big ones like Casterman, publisher of Tintin and Bastard. The industry in the US seems so much more divided. The Marvel kind of publisher against the Fantagraphics one. Here, a big publisher pays attention to the indy scene and wants to publish work out of that scene… at least to get some artistic credibility… Like Ed Piskor did recently in the US with his X-Men book! Maybe things are evolving there too...
I know one big difference that I would like you to talk about is the existence of government money supporting arts. That is something in the US that is a pretty foreign concept. Especially in comics. Could you talk about the ways in which that kind of support finds its way into the Franco-Belgian comics industry?
Yes, that is a big, big, big difference. Our government actually thinks that culture is an important part of the image of a country. And comics is part of that culture. So as a publisher we get some grants to help us pay for the printing cost, I would say one book out of three gets a grant that pays for half of the printing cost. They also pay for our booth at Angoulême’s Festival and for shipping our books there. It’s also possible to get a grant as a cartoonist to help you live while you work on a project and these go from 3000 to 9000 euros usually. And finally, they have a translation grant to help pay for the cost of translation for a foreign publisher who wants to publish an Belgian cartoonist.
So, yeah, big difference here…
Back to your own work. You have another book coming out in English later this year, called Bastard, In full disclosure, I published some of this book in English before I wound down Oily as a going concern. This is a bit of a departure for you I think. Bastard is almost a straight up action/crime comic. The main characters are a woman and a little boy who are on the run in the United States. They have a bag of cash and a gun. Can I ask what spurred you to start this comic? And why set it in America?
So, in French, I’ve been publishing a lot of coming of age stories and people start to see me as the John Hughes of comics. I wanted to break free of that “guy that makes comics about teenager” image. I wanted to make a big action comics with violence, car pursuits, guns… the whole shebang. But, the truth is that I pretty quickly fell back into my tracks. As you said, the book’s two main character are a mom and her son on the run and even if there is a lot of action, the focus of the story is on their relationship. And Eugene, the kid has to grow from young boy to adults in a very short time. Still I think it’s different from anything I’ve done before. One other thing that made me want to do an action comics is that I’m always struggling with my drawing and the best way I found to progress is to challenge my abilities. Cars, actions scene, radical black and white seemed like the perfect challenge…
For this comics, I want the characters to be able to drive for a long time. If the book was set in Belgium, the would leave the country in a little under 2 hours ! Then I would have had to deal with different countries and language. Only in the US can you drive for hours in the big wilderness… Also, I took that drive myself, the book starts in California up to New Mexico and ends back in Alameda, San Francisco. I went to see my friend Alec Longstreth in SF and drove to his wedding in Santa Fe. So most of the place they go to I also did...
I think sometimes, like me, you work on comics “without a net.” Or rather, you are making up bits as you go along and don’t have rigid plan or structure. Is this how Bastard started?
Yeah, I only had the 12 first page and did it as a zine and directly launch a subscription on my website. I only script one chapter at a time. After 8-9 issue, I know what I want to do… For Bastard, I decide about the ending only around chapter 11 of 16. I really like working that way. On purpose I put tons of little thing in each issue I can decide to use later on or not. Even the title was chosen for issue one. It was pretty open, I could use it literally with one of the character or as an insult. In the end, the title makes complete sense and even if I picked it pretty randomly, it was a determinant factor in my writing later on…
Bastard like a lot of your comics you publish as zines first. This is something I’ve taken from you and still do myself. What is it about publishing chapter by chapter that keeps you doing it this way?
I love working that way. When I do my YA comics I script the whole thing before I start drawing the final page. But with the zine, it’s a mix of improv and writing stunts… I’m usually pretty scared, “How on hell will I find a solution to this story? How can I make sense of all this?”... It’s very challenging and it force me to go where I wouldn’t naturally go. Also, working on a graphic novel chapter by chapter is less tiring. You don’t have the pressure of working on a book and even if you work on it a long time, you have something new to show every month. It’s a pretty ideal way to work for me. Switching between serialized zine and more traditional comics is a good balance.
For Moose I had to add like 50 pages to the book once the zine was done. But for this one, there are only a few pages less that I cut out of the book for a page turner reason. Even if I work on them as chapters, I want the book not to have chapters and to feel like it was made as one piece. So, to have the good rhythm I have to sometime cut or add a pages to make sure the pages I want on the right page are there…
Thanks for speaking with me, Max. What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a series of three YA adventure books, Stig & Tilde. It’s about twins, a brother and sister, living in a northern country close to a huge lake that has thousands of small island. Back in the days, when they hit 14, parents would send their kids to the lake where they would have to survive for one year. Nowadays, kids just go for one month on a big island without adult supervision. There, they have everything they need, food, house, swimming pool, internet… But of course Stig & Tilde get lost and crash on another island haunted by the ghost of a 14 year old kid. It’s a mix of adventure, romance and horror. Issue one came out in April and I’m working on the second one for October, and the last one should come out next spring if I manage to hold up to those very tight deadlines…
Oh, and I’m also working on the French version of a great book by Charles Forsman… I’m Not Okay With This will come out in September in French under the title Pauvre Sydney! (Poor Sydney !) and i've still got a lot of things to do before I’m ready to send it to the printer.
When done with Stig & Tilde, I’m hoping to start a new zine, maybe sci-i? I’d like that… We’ll see…
HA! Thanks for the plug. Talk to you soon.