COCORICO! Charlie Hebdo’s Coco Tackles Plato

Cartoonist and auteur Corinne "Coco" Rey, photo Editions du Roc, © Editions du Roc, all rights reserved

Women in many domains bemoan their lack of progress but French caricature's brightest star is a femme. Part of Charlie Hebdo since 2009, Corinne "Coco" Rey also draws for L'Humanité, Vigousse, Les Inrockuptibles and live on ARTE television's 28 Minutes. Now, at 38, she has produced her first comic, Le Banquet. Co-created with celebrity philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, it turns Plato's Symposium into a graphic novel. Until March 14, at Paris' Galerie Art-Maniak, you can see its art as well as Coco's press cartoons.

It's a brief chance to see something singular – work that history's best press cartoonists would have loved. As with those predecessors, Coco's line is all her own. But its real tie to the greats like Gillray and Grandville lies in its communication of a ruthless acuity. Rey draws with real panache but she pulls no punches and always goes straight to the point.

Appearing on radio to publicize Le Banquet, Coco was asked for the umpteenth time how she views working at Charlie. Her answer has never varied. "For me, to be a dessinateur de presse means to be engaged, committed. But it also means looking at society with a certain distance … to be humorous and critical, able to give it a fist in the face. I don't feel we're around to deliver a message, but to overturn preconceived ideas. To wake up, to shock… in short, to help force debate. People ask 'what I did' after January 7 [date of the murders]. Well, I went back to drawing almost right away. For me, to continue drawing was a form of protection. Also I was afraid to stop, afraid that if I stopped I might not start again… It comforts me to know that our métier still matters. Although I've always understood why I chose to do it, now I understand that even more."

Cover of Plato's "Le Banquet" (The Symposium) by Coco and Raphaël Enthoven (Les Echappés)

Press cartooning, Coco feels, is a very particular form; to generate a quick impact, it must synthesize numerous things. "Often, it gets confused with caricature because caricature itself is part of press cartooning. But that's a tool which can help you make a point. Cartoons like ours have to be funny and efficient all at once and caricature is one means that end."

She feels, she says, less like an artist than like a reporter who draws.

After the massacre, a decimated Charlie staff struggled with their paper. Crammed into borrowed premises, huddled in the shadow of overbearing security, they were impeded by shock and the intrusive press. Eventually, some decided to leave and some continued elsewhere. But during those difficult days – and through all the months that followed – Coco just kept drawing. Working nonstop, she cranked out covers, strips, one-shot gags and headers. As always, too, she did complementary illustrations for the 20,000 words of text in every Charlie.

But one thing Coco really made her own: big 'investigative' pieces drawn in comic form. These, which sometimes sprawl over two pages, are a gimmick often used at Charlie. During 2015 and 2016, however, Coco brought it her own personal stamp. Her ear for the quirky and unexpected, readers rapidly found, was as keen as her eye. So was her sense for a potential topic. Coco covered not just rallies and demos but also "The Lépine Competition Of Amateur Inventions", "The Salon of Erotica" – even the "French Federation of Angry Motorcyclists".

"104° in Paris/ "They won't change our way of life!"; cartoon from Charlie Hebdo during the 2019 heatwave © Corinne Rey/Charlie Hebdo, all rights reserved

The show has two examples of this form. One, Ne Jetez Plus: Ré-u-ti-li-sez! ("No Time for Doubt: Stop Throwing Them Out!"), came from a newsflash about Americans who washed condoms "for re-use". In it, hospital staff demand re-cycled plastic straws for tracheotomies and engineers promise used Q-Tips will restore a cratered bridge. It also shows serial killers lining up next to a kid's playhouse marked "Maëlys". (The murder of Maëlys de Araujo, 8, led the French police to the mass killer called Nordahl Lelandais ­– but only after months of bathos in the media). Lelandais is shown next to Jason Voorhees, whining, "One-time-only victims, that's just not acceptable! What we need is real re-usability! " The tableau winds up with an injunction: "Don't just toss this page away, RE-READ IT".

At 2015's International Salon of Press Cartoons and Humour, Coco received – for a second time – the annual Prix d'Humour Vache or "Prize for Beastly Wit". Much like one of those events she relishes covering, the Salon takes place in a village called Saint-Just-le-Martel. Although it is home to merely 2,500 residents, Saint-Just describes itself as "the unchallenged capital of caricature, press cartoons and humour". (It's a claim they back up with a National and International Centre of Press Cartooning). Their Prix d'Humour Vache is an actual vache: a real, live Limousine cow worth €1,000. Only one artist besides Coco has won twice: her slain colleague Bernard "Tignous" Verlhac.

"Don't Toss It, Boss It!"; theme page by Coco, Charlie Hebdo, September 5, 2018 © Corinne Rey/Charlie Hebdo, all rights reserved

"Part of what keeps us going is that Charlie has to last, the paper has to live," Coco told the journalist Thomas Legrand four years ago. "I think a lot about all those people who marched on January 11; they didn't do it for nothing. During everything that followed, plenty of people have spat on that day and, to me, that's not okay. Whatever reasons all those marchers had, they were there in solidarity: to support the freedom of expression, to support Charlie, to support Jews, to support police. They marched against anti-Semitism and hate and terrorism. In short, they mobilised for big things that continue to matter. People can piss on January 11 all they want to. But that day existed and it's engraved in us all."

Charlie's most famous cover appeared days after that march. This was the so-called "survivors issue", with its slogan Tout est Pardonnée ("All Is Forgiven"). The runner-up, however, is Coco's creation of November 18, 2015. It appeared less than a week after attacks in Paris and Seine-Saint-Denis took 130 lives, injuring more than 400 others.

Cover of Charlie Hebdo after the Paris and Seine-Saint-Denis attacks, November 18, 2015 © Corinne Rey/Charlie Hebdo, all rights reserved

Many of those killed were at a concert in the Bataclan; many were gunned down drinking outside cafés and restaurants. Against a bright red background, Coco drew a reveller plugged full of bullet holes with the slogan Ils ont les armes, On les emmerde, on a le champagne ("They have guns but fuck them, we have champagne"). The cover remains one of Rey's own favorites. "I take a little bit of personal pride in that. Because, if November 13 shocked the world, for us its resonance was something more particular."

Coco's show bursts with the qualities in that cover: loyalty, stubbornness and unceasing inventiveness. Born near the French-Swiss border in 1982, Corinne Rey is soft-spoken with a wit is fast as lightning. She is also a bosseuse, a workhorse. At last Thursday's opening, she signed and signed copies of Le Banquet. Then, because fans were still waiting, she signed some more.

Corinne "Coco" Rey sketches Socrates on the gallery window before her opening © Clément Gombert/Galerie Art-Maniak

"I've worked with so many artists," says gallery owner Clément Gombert. "Almost every one of them says, 'OK, I'll sign for an hour – but that's it.' Coco worked the whole night." In the run-up to her vernissage, he adds, the artist did everything she possibly could to help. This included covering the gallery's huge windows with drawings.

Certainly it's all paid off. The show put Gombert's whole street – if not the entire neighborhood – in a better mood. Although it's been open for less than 48 hours, and in freezing rain, there's a constant flow of visitors. Says the owner, "Every drawing seems to make a viewer think of someone else, someone they're sure would love it. Maybe it's their best friend, their cousin or a guy at work. But it's been uncanny… Even before we opened, people were asking to come in on their lunch hour. Having a few laughs just made their day better."

Born near the French-Swiss border in 1982, Rey describes herself as "a mother and a smoker who's eternally trying to quit". Behind her talent for listening lies an "an ordinary family". Her father is a salesman, her mother a homemaker and she has two brothers. As Coco told 28 Minutes' Elisabeth Quin, "I'm still the little kid who loved nature so much she would nurse ladybugs in her room so they were strong enough to survive on a rosebush… The same little kid who loved documentaries about bug-eating plants".

"Too Many Mothers Are Isolated/ 'Need a hand?'"; cartoon for Charlie Hebdo © Corinne Rey/Charlie Hebdo, all rights reserved

Coco likes to say she studied at "the school of Charlie". But she spent five years at Poitier's l'Ecole européene supériure de l'image. There, her initial passion was for video, followed by one for engraving. A month-long internship at Charlie, however, changed that. Watching its press cartoonists draw, Coco saw her future. After graduation in 2008, she moved to Paris with her future husband. Before long, her own cartoons were showing up in both Charlie and the Swiss satire weekly Vigousse.

A lifelong fan of André Franquin's Gaston La Gaffe, Coco says the Belgian artist shaped her style. But so did Charlie colleagues, especially Cabu. Cabu, she notes, claimed the key was in a character's eyes; once they were right, the rest would always follow. Another 'school of Charlie' gift was the importance of touch: sticking with the basics of paper, pen and pencil. Watching Coco draw – at events, signings, even on TV – what strikes a viewer right away is her facility. Enormously practiced, she rarely sketches out a gag. Once she has an idea, she just goes straight to work.

The show is a striking demonstration of her versatility. At the opening, says Gombert, he was asked numerous times for the name of his "second artist". "I finally realised why that was. I had put all the art from Le Banquet on the left and the press cartoons were all on the right. The people who didn't know Coco couldn't grasp that one artist had done them all."

Original art for Pages 66 and 67 (Socrates hailed after he finishes relating Diotima's revelations); Le Banquet by Coco and Raphaël Enthoven (Les Echappés), all rights reserved

But she certainly did. If The Symposium is a model path to Plato, Coco makes its text on love actually lovable. (The show lets you see her first sketches for the book, the many cover drawings she finished, then rejected – even an array of projected, hand-lettered titles.) Most of the words in Le Banquet really do come from Plato. But it's been carefully shaped around a pivotal act: the refusal of Socrates – as famous for his ugliness as for his mind – to sleep with the hunky Alcibiades.

"The whole thing," says Coco, "revolves around this failed gay date."

Le Banquet comes from Charlie's own imprint, Les Echappés. Launched in 2008, Les Echappés has published a range of books, most of them drawn, written or created by staff. In 2018, the publisher launched their own set of classics. These are not texts-as-comics but the actual books and poems. All are illustrated by Charlie's artists: Riss did Molière; Willem, the Marquis de Sade; Juin, Voltaire's Candide and Foolz, Baudelaire's Fleurs de Mal. Coco's contribution is Sophocles' Antigone, with its rebel stepdaughter turned into a green-haired punk.

"Get lost, you sparrows!"; one of Coco's illustrations for Les Echappés' 2017 version of Sophocles' "Antigone" © Corinne Rey, Les Echappés, all rights reserved

Tangling with such literary greats proved inspiring. Why not, thought the team, get more ambitious and do a graphic novel? They asked Raphaël Enthoven for "Key Moments in Philosophy" and one he nominated was the legendary snub of Alcibiades. But his co-creator, Coco, liked the whole Symposium. Although she had never read it, it seemed to offer great material. First, it was all about love. Secondly, the story had opinionated personalities, gay love affairs, androgyny, a central wise woman and, of course, Socrates.

Rey also liked the setting: a dinner party the day after an all-night rave. "When the whole thing starts, everyone is still hung over. For the kind of artist I am – and for a first comic – the entire thing turned out to be a total treat."

It was also a smart marketing decision. For, although Enthoven is a media star, comics are one vehicle he had never touched. But he knew The Symposium was accessible. "I've always had a weakness for Alcibiades," he told Radio France. "He arrives late in the story and he's totally drunk. But he has a few more drinks and then he sees Socrates – someone he didn't expect to find at the fête. He barks out, 'Hey, this guy broke my heart!'' and then he tells his story. Alcibiades is handsome and a bit of a jerk. But Socrates, as everyone in Athens knows, is really ugly. So Alcibiades figures that seducing him is easy. That, by trading on his beautiful body, he can gain from this famous mind."

"Coco: Le Banquet and Press Cartoons" at Galerie Art-Maniak; photo courtesy Steven Patrick Sampson, all rights reserved

But his foolproof plan fails to work. "Alcibiades invites Socrates to dinner. They wrestle in the nude, they dine together by candlelight, they drink together, etc., etc. Finally Alcibiades gets so frustrated he just lays his cards on the table and says, 'Look, you can have my body for a bit of your intelligence'. Socrates responds, 'So you're telling me I should swap gold for copper? Because intelligence, that's something eternal… while beauty like your own is just ephemeral. Let's do something else together; let's figure out where a beauty like yours has come from'."

His précis, Enthoven laughs, isn't exact. "But the upshot really is 'Let's give birth to something more than just a one-night stand, let's produce greater knowledge and a better understanding.' So two people who, at heart, adore each other choose – in the name of love –not to sleep together…et voilà, Platonic love!"

Coco restores a grit and wit that would have pleased its ancient author. From the personalities and strategies to the joshing around, these pages catch The Symposium's spirit. (In addition to the lovelorn Alcibiades, Plato's cast includes a pedantic doctor, hyperbolic enthusiast, a comedian whose work later helps get Socrates killed, a gushing fanboy and a self-righteous gay love campaigner.

Original art from page 35 of Le Banquet by Coco and Raphaël Enthoven (Les Echappés), all rights reserved

The story's main ideas, introduced in a flashback, are also detailed by a woman: Diotima. "She's the character," says Coco, "who delivers Socrates' actual words about love and beauty, about the love of science. Since she's the only woman, we thought a lot about how to deal with her. (The pair almost modelled Diotima on an '80s singer). It was important to make her fairly singular. Also to separate her from Aphrodite – who I wanted to make into a stereotypical 'cute girl'."

Coco has long been adept at her own Greek chorus. In her Charlie cartoons, small pets and birds supply a mordant counterpoint. They appear in Le Banquet, too, alongside toga jokes, visual puns, anachronistic tunes, modern slang and countless drunken mishaps. Coco makes co-author Enthoven another character, thirsty, tunic-clad and eager to "clarify" philosophical points. Drinking and holding forth with the others, he winds up clutching a pillar chiselled 'DOLIPRANOS'. Doliprane, a French pain pill, comes in a tin tube and is popular for headaches.

Alcibiades tries to seduce Socrates with nude wrestling, original art from page 82 of Le Banquet, by Coco and Raphaël Enthoven (Les Echappés) , all rights reserved

Halfway through, the story grinds to a halt – as its draughtswoman pictures her artistic block. Coco spends a full page fretting over the problem of Plato's vision. How can she depict an essence of beauty beyond representation? While her cats prowl the page, "Coco" confers with "Raphi" via mobile phone. The solution, they eventually decide, is to show Socrates undergoing the revelation. Problem solved, the action starts again.

Doing a BD, says Coco, brought a new kind of freedom. "A press cartoonist always sees just what they're dealing with. You portray a person, you manipulate and critique them. You have plenty of visual sources; if anything, there's a surfeit. This was very different which made it a personal challenge."

She did it mostly by pen, with a lot of cross hatching. "That's usual with a pen, but I like the look of it. It's something I admire in people like Cabu and Crumb, great draftsman whose work I especially love. I wanted to privilege black and white and add just touches of color. Those I used to animate or emphasize certain things – or for sections like Aristophanes's speech, which is almost all in color…That way, it's more timeless; hopefully, it will date less."

Coco13. Unused cover study for Le Banquet with Socrates and Raphaël Enthoven, © Corinne Rey/Charlie Hebdo, all rights reserved

"I have no desire to wade into Photoshop. Maybe that's because in BD today – especially when it comes to color – you can get a sense you're seeing the same thing over and over. I wanted to make something more like me."

Proof that she has succeeded is there in the rest of the show, a kaleidoscope of news made bearable. It's a vivid reminder that French humor's second degré – so hard to really explain, yet so much fun to experience – is a means for humans to momentarily best their ills. An idea, says Coco, "may take five minutes or five days". But while our media grows more and more moronic, drowning itself and us in crocodile tears, such relief is welcome. The laughs Coco generates are naughty but they're bracing. They remind you nothing could be less attractive (or less effective) than a romance of suffering.

Last December, a smaller book by Coco appeared. This was A L'Origine, a collection of weekly headers from Charlie. All are different turns on a single painting, Gustave Courbet's infamous L'Origine du Monde ("The Origin of the World"). Painted in 1866 for a bon vivant, this is a headless portrait of the female nether regions. Even now, it's still a painting that can shock. (If you want proof, just visit the Musée d'Orsay and ask some guard the way to Salle 6. You'll get a knowing smirk from them and everyone around.)

Cover of Coco's "À l'Origine, Parodies of 'The Origin of the World' by Gustave Courbet", Editions du Roc, 2019; all rights reserved

Coco first cartooned the work as Charlie's "Culture" logo. At the time, this was a reference to recent news. A chance discovery had just clinched the name of the painting's model; the private parts, the world now knew, belonged to ballet dancer Constance Queniault. But, as the weeks passed, Coco adapted her cartoon to changing cultural news. If most of her allusions were just simplistic gags, all of them retained the ooh-la-la factor – which helped make the collection into a Christmas hit.

The book's introduction by Charlie's Walter Foolz could be used to sum up all Coco's work. "What can you say," he wrote, "about these constant battles between a troublemaking line and a creativity that won't surrender?"

Just like French politics, French caricature is the heir to centuries filled with alternating turbulence, repression and release. It was alive and well before the Bastille ever fell. Although the Sun King, Louis XIV, was never shown disfigured, he was often placed in less-than-flattering situations. One brave cartoonist pictured him as "the saddened Sun".[1]

One of Coco's collected Courbet parodies (referring to outrageous hairdressing expenditure); "À l'Origine, Parodies of 'The Origin of the World' by Gustave Courbet", Editions du Roc, 2019; ; all rights reserved

The French urge to visually mock has simply never faltered. It survived the Terror, Napoleon and the Restoration, all the while only gaining in dynamism. During the 19th century, from Charles Philipon to Jules Grandjouan, it served as an engine of subversion. But: if those activist artists' names are sometimes remembered, their ferocity and remorseless is not.

Also forgotten is what made their art so potent: the fact most understood laughter itself inside-out. All endured restrictions and many faced physical threats. A few, like Daumier, went to prison for their work. But their art became part of why France prizes wit and why the nation still regards it as a force.

Warnings about this were issued as early as 1792, by one of caricature's earliest critics. This was the virulent royalist Jacques-Marie Boyer, author of the pamphlet series Histoire des caricatures de la revolte des Français. In the vain hope of diminishing its power, Boyer analysed revolutionary cartooning. His efforts failed and, on May 20, 1795, he was guillotined. Yet he was right to note that, while many methods could overturn altars and topple thrones, "It is caricature that most ably, constantly and successfully manages to…arouse the public."

To preserve humanity, he went on to insist, "It is not the past or the future one must study. It is the present."

  • Coco runs at Paris' Galerie Art-Maniak through 14 March; some of the works showing are for sale on line. Le Banquet is out now from Les Echappes and available at the gallery. A L'Origine is available from Les Editions du Roc. (The Iconovores series about press cartoonists also has a 2016 volume introducing Coco.)

With special thanks to Galerie Art-Maniak, Les Echappes, les Charlie, RFI, Europe 1, 28 Minutes and France Inter

[1] See Annie Duprat's L'Histoire de France par la caricature (Larousse, 1999), Antoine de Baecque and Claude Langlois' La Caricature révolutionnaire (CNRS, 1988)