Bastien Vivès is still young, and looks even younger, but the 31-year-old from Paris never got to be promising. Prolific, with more than twenty books and albums published since his debut in 2007, innovative and with a strong contemporary flair, he is the frontrunner of a new generation French cartoonists. Unlike his predecessors in the nineties, when the artist-driven publisher l’Association attacked established goals and limits of the comics industry, Vivès says he has no ambition to turn the medium upside-down. On the contrary, he celebrates the popcultural qualities of comics.
I met Vivès at his studio Atelier Manjari in Paris some months after he had launched the manga inspired adventure series Last Man in 2013. The acclaimed series for young adults is now being translated by First Second. In France, it has already reached volume seven. Vivès told me the aim is to create twelve volumes through four years. The books are in a typical manga paperback format, counting more than 200 pages each.
Last Man has been a bestseller in France, and received this year the award to best continuing series at the prestigious Angoulême festival. It has previously received the comics award at the festival for children’s literature in Montreuil. An animated TV series based on the books is premiering in France next year. Last Man is likely to give Vivès a final international breakthrough, with editions also in Italian, Spanish, German and Korean.
Master and apprentice
Although his first graphic novels, the lighthearted and youthful drama Elle(s) and Hollywood Jan about a daydreaming school boy and his action hero friends, has stylistic features similar to manga, it is surprising that Vivés is devoting several years to such a clean cut manga series as Last Man.
It’s hard not to consider the action packed Last Man as a striking contrast to the sensitive love stories he has been known for. Such as the meditative pool drama A Taste of Chlorine, his third graphic novel from 2008 and another award-winner at Angoulême. Dans mes yeux (In my eyes) is an even more minimalist description of love, consistently portrayed through the eyes of the boy in the relationship. With stylish references to French arthouse cinema, Amitié étroite (Close friendship) tells a larger story of ambiguous relations and daring the leap from friendship to love.
The masterpiece Polina from 2011 is a coming of age story about Russian Polina, who dedicates all her efforts into dancing ballet so that her teacher is pleased with her. She forsakes friends and boyfriends, but at theater school she realizes that her master’s view of ballet is not the one and only. The main character was inspired by Polina Semionova, who in the early 2000s was prima ballerina at the Berlin State Opera only 18 years old. The graphic novel was chosen as the best of the year by the French association of comics critics (ACBD), and even received the comics award of the bookstores. Polina is also a bestseller, with a circulation of 40,000, and was translated into English last year. The success gave Vivès the opportunity to pursue his dream project Last Man.
A conceptual cartoonist
Vivés is a conceptual cartoonist, with innovative storytelling techniques often being the most fascinating aspects of his books. A Taste of Chlorine does not only have a turquoise palette infusing the taste and smell of chlorine and public pool, but also graphically depicts the contrasts between movements above and below water in a striking manner.
Dans mes yeux is in both text and picture a first-person narrative, and as far as I know the only graphic novel that keeps this subjective perspective throughout the book. One of his latest projects are six smallsize paperbacks with minimalist strips, each with its own topic such as computer games, family and war. All books have two images on a page, no framing and is drawn in a whimsical, almost abstract, black and white.
Atelier Manjari is a large studio, open and hall like, housing fifteen men and women. Most of them are cartoonists, but some are mainly working with design and photography. The tables are separated by shelves stacked with the typical French large scale comic albums. The premises belongs to Bastien’s father, the painter Jean-Marie Vivès, and the rent is comfortable, I am told.
The French comics industry is suffering from dwindling sales, and to compensate the publishers have increased the number of titles to such an extent that this has created another problem: excess of supply. According to the yearly report from ACBD, more than 5,000 albums and books were published in 2014. This makes for great diversity and opportunities to be published, but also means that a typical title does not sell enough to provide an income that creators can live on. Some years ago, sales of five to ten thousand copies were considered the norm. Now, these numbers makes the book a bestseller. Young cartoonists, such as Vivès’ colleagues in Atelier Manjari, have especially been affected by the low economical returns of releasing a new book.
Vivès and his comrades Balak (Yves Bigerel) and Michaël Sanlaville have rigged up a small island of tables, filled with computers, monitors and digital art tablets. Balak is experienced in animation, Sanlaville in video games. Last Man books and Japanese manga are spread out between the wires and water bottles, an empty can of Coke Zero and an opened package of biscuits. Vivès has a colony of Japanese toy figures neatly set up next to his drawing board. This is a suitable starting point for our conversation.
Being in the 11. arrondisement and not far away from the Place de la Bastille, I thought I should make a point of the new French comics revolution, but you are not climbing the barricades?
I will not make revolution or anything like that. I want to make comics in the way that also Asterix is a comic. For me it is important that the comics are popular culture. That is what I want to explore. I love pop culture, including the American and Japanese. Stanley Kubrick was obviously one of the great directors, and he did just genre films: horror, science fiction, historical drama. I work with popular genres, and will say something about human relationships. In the same way that Peter Pan is about what it is to be human, and Toy Story is not just an adventure.
The sales of French comic albums are dropping, the industry is under pressure, they say. What do you think about the situation?
I’m not afraid for the future of the auteur comics. They have their market. The mainstream comics face bigger challenges, though. The French mainstream has stood still. It’s the same emphasize on albums, with these grand and familiar series, and readers getting older every year.
You have been instrumental in an attempt by big publisher Dupuis to reach younger readers and introduce new artists, the serial story Les autres gens (Other people). A self-conscious soap from youth culture written by Thomas Cadène, where some hundred artists have illustrated episodes. The comic is published both online and in manga-style books. Last Man is aiming at an even heavier online presence.
Children do not go to comic book stores. We make every effort to make the comic available to everyone. We are developing a platform where one can not only read Last Man, but also buy products linked to the series and talk to other fans about it.
Last Man takes place in a medieval universe. The first part of the story portrays a martial arts tournament where the young – and fatherless – protagonist becomes the helper of a tired fighter. The series has comedy and parody elements, but is primarily an action-packed drama. What is for you the main theme of this project?
Last Man deals for me with a child’s relationship to his mother. The child experiences how wonderful his mother is, but also that she is a human being with different personal aspects.
What makes this series your dream project?
I’ve absorbed the Japanese impulses since I was a child. I drew what I saw in manga series, toys, video games and anime. It’s in my blood. Last Man is true to the manga format, but depicts a Western medieval age. We are French with all our history, and this makes our manga different from the Japanese comics.
I notice that you say “we” and “our”. I understand that Last Man is made in the same way as an animated movie: you write the story, Balak does the storyboard before you and Michaël Sanlaville draw the pages. What does the series gain through this collaboration?
It was important for me to involve someone who is an expert at doing storyboards. French comics lacks this part, the staging of the story, normally it’s just an author and a draftsman.
You’ve set up a “manga island” of tables with computers, monitors and digital drawing boards. Your collaboration seems to be very close, almost intense?
There is this notion that comic creators work in solitude. I’ve, however, always made comics together with others. At first my brother, then at art school and now here in Atelier Manjari. It’s not only artistic collaboration, but the social value of being with other people that inspires me. We work on Wacom Cintiq digital drawing boards, and this immediate collaboration would be impossible if we drew on paper. We share files and work seamlessly on each other’s pictures. I have to work in a much larger format than in print, and it is easy to scale the frames on screen. I also make many changes while I draw, and this is, of course, infinitely easier than on paper.
French publishers translate large quantites of manga, and the Japanese style has influenced severel domestic series. Still, Last Man is probably the first fullblood manga series made in France?
We do break away from the French tradition of one album in a year, which I think to the readers is quite unsatisfying, having to wait a whole year for just 40 new pages. The more frequent release schedule of Last Man would not be possible without the collaboration we’ve set up.
Who are you making Last Man for?
Mostly for children. I think a lot about how a young boy or girl will experience the series, and I want the kids to grow up with Last Man. It is both some eroticism and violence, but we see everything through the eyes of the young protagonist.
The graphic novel Polina, your greatest success, has a front page with a little girl attempting an arabesque. Her neck and one foot is firmly held by the teacher. With glasses, solid beard and robust body, he is the personification of unassailable authority.
I wanted to tell a story about art and the relationship to a father figure. The relation between Polina and her teacher is quite different from an ordinary family or lovers’ relationship. There is a lot of respect, but no emotion. The relationship is very much intellectual.
You mentioned that you had no particular interest in ballet before working on the book. Did you do a lot of research?
Not really, I only saw some documentaries. I didn’t want to make a book about ballet as such, but about art. The book deals with the process of devoting oneself to art, finding your own expression, and how hard it is to be alone in your own creation. There was no need for me to be very specific on the technical aspects of dance.
The story is being told through several layers in time. The movements both in time and place are described through subtle changes in style. The frames in general have a full gray background, producing a contrast to both the black line and white surfaces. Performing on stage, the gray tone vanishes, and the dance is portrayed through white characters on a black background. I think you, visually speaking, has got quite a lot out of the ballet dance.
The graphic and dynamic aspects of dance was important for me when chosing ballet as a motif for the book. A cartoonist sitting hunched over the drawing board was not particularly suitable, and since cartoons are lacking sound, it was not possible for me to use a singer. It had to be dance or sports. In dance one can express a lot without words, and sport is not art.
I consider you to be a strikingly conceptual cartoonist. Several of your books have a consistent narrative technique or storytelling device which you pursue to the outmost. One example is the subjective viewpoint of Dans mes yeux. Did any of these books in fact begin with your interest in exploring these techniques?
No, it always starts with the story. Then I try to find the best way to convey it. For me storytelling is about three things: readability, narration and emotion. The drawings must find a form or expression where all this comes together.
To me it seems like quite some leap from your previous arthouse graphic novels to the manga Last Man?
I do not see any big contradiction, as all the series are reflecting my own situation and interests. The first impulse to tell a story often comes out of your own life. When I created my first books, I had been single for several years, and was obsessed by love stories. I could not think about anything else. Now I do not find the love stories any longer interesting. I am happy with my life and girlfriend.
So it all boils down to the good old catharsis?
Have you heard about the Peter Pan syndrome? I don’t know for sure if I have it, but all I ever dream of and want do stems from my childhood. Some of the motivation when I draw Last Man is that I would really like to make toys of my characters.
With a popular series, I suppose it’s also good money in such toys?
It’s not big money in making comics. If I wanted to earn really well, I would create computer games. As an artist there are so much I could do, but I chose comics because it’s a passion.
What do you mean by comics being your passion?
The grand about making comics, is that I create stories and characters that people talk about as if they are alive. I’m like a god and I can create. Real life is not what interests me the most. Comics takes me back to my childhood. If I had to choose between the comics and everything else around me, I would choose the comics.
Bastien Vivès reading list
Polina. Jonathan Cape 2014. (French edition 2011.)
A Taste of Chlorine. Jonathan Cape 2011. (French: Le goût du chlore, 2008.)
with Balak (Yves Bigerel) and Michaël Sanlaville: Last Man. First Second 2015. (French edition 7 volumes, 2013-2015.)
La bande dessinée. Shampooing/Delcourt 2013.
La guerre. Delcourt 2012.
La blogosphère. Delcourt 2012.
L’amour. Delcourt 2012.
La famille. Delcourt 2012.
Le jeu vidéo. Delcourt 2012.
Les melons de la colère. BDCul 2011.
Amitié étroite. Casterman 2009.
Dans mes yeux. Casterman 2009.
La boucherie. Vraoum! 2008.
ELLE(s) Alice, Charlotte & Renaud. Casterman 2007.
with Florent Ruppert og Jerome Mulot: La grande odalisque. Air Libre/Dupuis 2012.
with Merwan Chabane: Pour l’empire. Dargaud 2010-2013. 3 volumes.
with Alexis de Raphelis: Juju Mimi Féfé Chacha. Ankama Editions 2009.
with Michaël Sanlaville: Hollywood Jan. Casterman 2008.