“I Always Start A Book From A Single Image: Some Kind Of Vision”: Antoine Cossé on Metax

Photograph ©Melissa Bugarella.

Antoine Cossé is arguably among the most interesting comic artists active in Europe right now. Metax, his latest graphic novel, was released by Fantagraphics at the beginning of this year. My expectations for it were quite high, and now that I have this orange brick in my hands, I can say that the book was totally worth the hype. Metax marks Cossé's first publishing experience outside Europe with his longest graphic novel, after his collaboration with the British outfit Breakdown Press produced over half a dozen releases which, along Joe Kessler’s and Richard Short’s works, were essential in building the reputation of a small publishing house run with a DIY ethic by a bunch of friends for over a decade.

Metax is the story of a fortified city where the ruling monarchy is undermined by an inner revolt of weird individuals and powers - a place where life and the forces that rule it seem to exist thanks to an almighty mineral named Metax (a mysterious substance reminiscent of the spice from Dune). Cossé’s art is evocative, fleeting, and charming. With just a single brush stroke he can summon the shape of an animal or a person, or just a feeling, with the difference between these images pleasantly entrusted to the perception of the reader. Cossé tells adventure stories that are as strong as a myth and as magical as a fable.

Cossé was born in France in 1981; he’s been living in London, England, for 20 years, though he also lived in Italy for a short while. Looking at his career as an artist, these very few geographical and biographical details intrigue; Cossé's body of work sums up so many well-digested influences, which he seems to observe from a safe distance.

I had the pleasure to meet Antoine Cossé on a few occasions here in Italy. I discovered a humble and honest artist, of the kind who can generously share feelings and thoughts on art and life. So when Metax was released, I couldn’t wait to speak with him about the book. Unfortunately, this time we couldn't meet again, so we talked on Zoom. He was in his flat in London, and I was in my studio in Bologna, but our conversation brought us to the time he has spent in Italy and to his childhood in France, to explore the influences behind Metax and his artistic path.

-Valerio Stivé

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VALERIO STIVÉ: When did you start working on Metax? Where were you at the time?

ANTOINE COSSÉ: I always start a book from a single image: some kind of vision. I try to remember these visions and store them for the future, then I go on from there.

I started Metax in 2017, when I was living in Turin, Italy. It all began with the image of an explosion underground. I think I did a mini strip, just a few pages, perhaps during the time I was finishing La Villa S. [published that year by Les Requins Marteaux]. Anyway, this is to say that the origin of Metax goes back a while, but I fully began drawing it six months before the pandemic started.

So it was before COVID. I thought about the pandemic while reading the book. But we’ll talk about it later on. Now that you tell me you started working on it in Italy, I can recognize some typical Italian architecture in the first pages of the book.

Yes, Turin. Those are the places near the house I used to live at the time.

Then the landscape changes and also gets metaphysical, almost De Chiriquesque.

The city inside the walls is Turin. Then it transforms into London, during the car scenes. All of the landscapes and places in the book are a mix of all the places I lived in during the three years it took to finish it.

Architecture seems to play a huge part in your book, as much as characters do. That reminds me a lot of Celestia by Manuele Fior, where the city is so important to the story. The books share a similar vision of a future, there is an old system against the new... you both seem to be working in the same direction. It is an interesting take on sci-fi.

I love Fior's work, and I feel very close to his approach of drawing comics. Also, I like how images and stories work in his comics. It feels very European.

I mostly look at photographs, and often the ones that make it into my drawings have buildings in them.

The reason I was asking where you were while you were working on the book is because I recognized a difference between Metax and your other books. Your previous works are much more focused on travelling and open spaces. While the city in Metax looks like a Middle Ages city or an ancient Middle Eastern city. It is closed. It looked to me as a metaphor of what we were experiencing during lockdown.

That's true. As I said, I properly got into the writing and drawing of Metax six months before the pandemic hit us all. At that time the city walls didn’t even exist in the book. It was all about explosions.

Three sequential pages of explosions from Metax.

As I continued to write the story and draw the images I guess it became more claustrophobic, and suddenly there were walls and austere architecture. I only see this now though. It makes sense that two years of lockdowns would somewhat transfer into the book.

There is also a virus.

That’s because in the two years before Metax, I was very interested, almost obsessed with the plague. I re-read The Plague by Camus, which I really like and that got me started. All of this information spilled into the writing of Metax. I even started a book about the Plague, a love story set in the Middle Ages. But then COVID arrived, and it all felt a bit too on trend. [laughs]

I’m sure there will be discussions in the next months and years about what storytelling has become during COVID, yet while reading this book I felt its contingency, and I felt it unfolding in a subtle feeling rather than in explicit images.

As I said, I didn’t think about the connection at the time, but inevitably it’s there. The book was drawn and written almost entirely during the pandemic, and printed at the very end of it. It goes without saying that it wasn't planned to be. I guess making comics takes time and life just goes on in the meantime.

You said you started this book from a single image, not from the idea of a story.

That’s how I start every single project. I have lots of images that I think about and put on paper, or drawings and photographs that I collect. I also keep postcards of paintings and artworks on my desk. Then at some point, from a very vague and loose idea, I start a book.

I am sure there's nothing remarkable about this process, I suppose lots of artists do the same.

Once I start drawing, the story sharpens itself slowly, and then the narrative finds its own speed and meaning. I just have to trust that these images will go somewhere, and I have to allow the process to take me there. The books may look chaotic or surreal, but it’s extremely methodical to get there.

When you have those images in front of you, how do you work on the story?

With Metax, I really wanted to do a sci-fi book, but a “Hollywood”-style one. I had this image in my mind of a man underground: a miner. This man, The engineer, became the main character of this big sci-fi fresco. [laughs]

But then things became more personal, something else slipped in that always appears in my comics. It’s not particularly Hollywood in the end.

So, you don’t write a your story down before sitting at the drawing table.

It depends on the book. With Metax I wrote part of the story at the start.

Generally with my books I have the same process: I try to imagine the finished book like I assume a filmmaker would do with a movie. I need to have lots of images and scenes, lots of small stories, then at some point, I put them all together. Nothing is random, but at first these scenes and sketches are in a random order. Only when I have sequences of 15 or 20 pages completed I start to order them. That is what I did with Metax.

I guess I have to keep in mind that the pace in comics is different to filmmaking. I have to draw everything, and it takes time. Yet I draw with the story running in my mind, and try to chase after it.

I’ve noticed that it looks like you work at different sizes, and that you put together different drawings that are possibly not supposed to be comics in the beginning.

Metax is all drawn in A4, and for the first time the book is almost the same size as the original drawings.

Did you have someone helping you with this book?

I showed it to my wife, who helps me a lot. I always need to ask her if the story works and if it’s comprehensible. She is very important to me. I have a lot of fun doing it, and she stops me from getting too carried away. [laughs]

I also show it to my cartoonist friends, but nobody really [has] the time to very thoroughly check on someone else's book. My friends Joe [Kessler], and Tom [Oldham] helped me going through it too. But in the end it is very solitary.

I find your experience very interesting, because you are sort of a stateless artist. You are not a French comic artist, neither a British comic artist.

[laughs] I don’t know what I am. It’s awful. I’m in the middle. I guess for English people I am really French, and for French people I am a bit weird because I live abroad.

It’s a bizarre situation. People don’t understand why I chose London as well, it’s now so expensive as a city. 20 years ago it was a very different.

But that is probably a way to have a different approach, to create something different.

Yes, probably. I didn’t start publishing comics in France. I think you might be conditioned by who you start drawing comics with rather than where you are. Internet accelerated all of that, of course. You grow with a group of artists and publishers and you are influenced by them, by what they read, by what they look at.

The childhood influences will be different though. It’s quite strange really, because I have been in England a long time, almost half of my life really. I don’t know.

Do you think your career would have been different in France?

Yes of course, but would I even have done comics? I don’t know.

In England not many people were doing this kind of comics when I started almost 15 years ago. Joe [Kessler], who teaches at the University I studied in, tells me that more students are into comics nowadays.

But there isn’t an industry like in France. The difference is massive. You have festivals, and all sorts of comics in France. You have funding, institutions who are behind it. It is more recognized.

Here in the UK it’s a bit like in Germany, it’s still a bit of a desert.

The interesting thing was that we felt we could try something. Maybe the difference between comics and other artforms are more blurry here? Meaning, in France if you do comics, you are a cartoonist: it’s very defining. But it’s also great because it’s valued and recognized. I don’t know.

When did you start making comics?

I used to draw a lot as a kid, with my brother. But unlike him, I did start drawing comics very early.

At 13 I did a 50-page comic I still have somewhere. It’s a very naïve adventure comic. A guy in my class asked me to do a porn comic for him. I said no to the porn, but I told him I could do something else instead. He was very disappointed, and I don’t think he was particularly impressed by the thing I drew in the end.

At 16, I was selected for a high school prize at the Angoulême comics festival. I was invited to go there. I didn’t know anything about the comics world at that point. It was so weird to see all these people doing it professionally. I also remember the other kids, who I felt were miles better than I was. I don’t remember being impressed nor excited by it. Very strange. It’s like realizing you’re good at something and you didn’t know how big that thing was.

Then I didn’t do any comics for a while. It totally fell off my radar. I did a lot of music, played in bands. Then I did university in France, in law, for a couple of years, which I dropped.

I did an art foundation course in France, and I still didn’t do comics, because 20 years ago in art school people were like “nah don’t do comics.” It wasn’t discouraged, but it really wasn’t considered a thing to do.

I moved to England to do my BA at Camberwell [College of Arts]. It was an illustration course. They had a really great library, so I started reading American comics again.

And now, what comics are you reading? I see a lot of influences from Japanese comics too.

A lot of the Garo stuff, like [Yoshiharu] Tsuge, Seiichi Hayashi, Tezuka. I didn’t know anything about manga before the guys from Breakdown introduced me to it 10 years ago.

I didn’t watch cartoons on TV as a kid. In the '90s in France every single kid grew up watching cartoons, but in our house there wasn’t a TV.

To be fair I have a lot of comics at home, but I read novels and fiction a lot more. I read comics when I want to get excited, get back at it. But the ideas never come from reading comics.

Which comics did you read as a kid?

Some volumes have been published in English under the title The Bluecoats.
In our house we had a lot of Tintin and Asterix, more Tintin than Asterix, and Les Tuniques bleues [created in 1968 by artist Louis Salvérius and writer Raoul Cauvin], which is massive in France, a series about the American Civil War, and it’s a comic for kids but almost felt like it was for adults. It was great. I read that a lot. I used to copy Les Tuniques bleues a lot.

My parents didn’t have any comics for adults. They didn’t read comics.

This is the difference with England and probably America: parents in France would buy comics [for] their kids even if themselves didn’t read them.

Then a médiathèque opened in my town. A médiathèque is a cultural center, where you can rent out books, comics, CDs. If they’re good they are amazing, and in mine they had lots of comics and CDs. You could take whatever you wanted with your card. Kids' comics were in the same room as Adult comics. So, it was easy to slowly move towards more mature comics.

What kind of comics were these?

They had full-on adult comics. It was the early '90s, so no books from L'Association yet, but loads of '70s and '80s erotica, historical and sci-fi comics, a lot of violence and sex in leafy suburban Meudon. [laughs]

Obviously, kids were not allowed to rent out those books. But the trick was you take four Tintin and Asterix comics and put the dodgy one at the bottom, you try that and if the lady sees it you can still say this one is for my dad. My dad is probably known as an avid erotica/sci-fi reader in my hometown.

So, I read a lot of stuff like that when I was a kid, which made much more sense when I rediscovered them later.

I can see influences from those classics in your comics, also from artists like Hugo Pratt. Seems like history has a big part in some of your books - I think of Mutiny Bay, and also Metax, in a more obscure sense. How do you prepare a story? Do you study a lot?

I can tell you what I’m doing for my next books. After I finished Metax I started two new stories. I’ve got the one about a plague. I was copying faces from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films.

Which Pasolini movies were you watching?

The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Also, I checked what year the plague started, and I did a lot of research on the costumes on books and the internet. They are aimless researches 'till I start something.

The other story I’ve got is set in the south of France, just after the First World War, and this is more personal, from old family stories. But it’s still very loose, I’ve got 20/30 pages of each.

I have to admit that I found Metax really mysterious. In the story, the Metax itself is a sort of metal, but you do not see it, you are not allowed to know much about it. Yet it is so powerful, everyone is after it, and everything depends on it. It feels like the book could be so political, in a subtle yet strong way. There is a great difference between what happens inside and outside the walls, and also there is a riot going on. It looks like a story elusively and profoundly connected to current issues.

You can try to write a book and ignore society and what’s going on around you, but in the end it will all get into your story one way or another. I think it happens more in this book than the others, with less filters, because literally we were living a clearly visible crisis. We also live in a very divided and unfair society. It preoccupies me, so obviously this ends up in my stories.

I think you always end up being political, whatever you write, if you write it well obviously, and that’s a big if.

If you don’t want to do something political then it will be political because you decided not to do it. Do you know what I mean?

But there are big themes, and you have to be careful in order not to make these themes the story itself. That was hard to do with this book, because it was anchored in something real. There was a thin line I hope I didn’t cross.

In this story there are a lot of things you don’t say, so many details you omit. That is not an easy way to tell a story. How did you manage to do that?

That was my fear with this book. I’ve reread it and thought about it too. At the end of the book, the people are all flying above the city, in a way, and we never go down to [the] people’s level... where they live, how is life for them... it will be for the follow up book. [laughs]

The more we talk about it the more we find elements that come from the pandemic. And the book doesn’t look like an escapist device, but rather like a way to observe and study what we were going through at the time.

Yes, I am sure in a way doing the book kept me a bit saner during these times.

What’s the reason behind the dance we see at the end of the book?

I do love musicals, it’s obviously tricky to do it in a comic form. Drawings of dancing are very beautiful though. I like the idea of a dance interlude. It really breaks a story, even without the music.

Dancing and drawing are one of the first thing we did as humans, so…

But the idea come from the movies of a French director I really admire, Leos Carax. His movies have a lot of beautiful dancing scenes.

In the end it all feels so free and spontaneous, yet such a complex and mature work.

Well then it’s a success, because it was incredibly hard to put together.