This conversation with the renowned French cartoonist Jean-Claude Mézières took place in 1986. Mézières had met Gil Kane the previous year — in either 1984 or 1985 — at the annual Angoulême International Comics Festival. They gave Mézières a Lifetime Achievement Award (little did they know) in 1984, and exhibited his work the following year. Mézières remembers meeting Kane in one of those two years, but does not remember which one. Kane and I would often travel together to comics conventions then, and in 1986, we flew to London to attend a convention, and on to Paris. Our idea of a good time was to find as many cartoonists and publishers as possible, buttonhole them, engage them in long conversations and learn as much as we could about the regional comics scene. As nearly as I can piece it together, Kane must have contacted Mézières beforehand and arranged a time to meet.
We arrived at Mézières’ Paris studio shortly after noon. It was a one-story walk-up as I recall, spacious, with a lot of natural light, and airy. It used to be his apartment; he converted it into a studio when he and his wife and his young daughter moved to larger quarters not far away. Naturally, I brought my tape recorder and insisted on taping the conversation. Mézières was welcoming, gracious and forthcoming. The three of us got along so well that Mézières invited us back the following day, so the “interview” took place over two consecutive days and has been stitched together.
Kane and I were both interested in the history of French comics. Kane was passionate enough about comics to have explored French comics as much as he could without knowing French and with virtually no French comics having been translated and published in the States at this time. Mézières’ work had not yet been published in English, so our only familiarity with it was with the art. Much of our conversation consisted of peppering Mézières with questions about French comics history and the contemporary scene, all of which he answered candidly based on his unique perspective and subjective experience working within the French comics industry.
I hadn’t talked to Jean-Claude in many years but got back in touch with him when we were editing the book we reprinted this interview in, Sparring with Gil Kane, to check my facts surrounding how the visit to his studio came about. We kept in touch since then and I last saw him a couple of years ago in Paris at a group dinner arranged by comics historian ex-pat Jim Vadeboncoeur. The wine and the conversation flowed until we closed the place. I was of course saddened to hear of Jean-Claude’s death, but this interview gives you a flavor of him in his heyday.
— Gary Groth, January 30, 2022
* * *
This conversation appeared in The Comics Journal #260 (May–June 2004)
Jean-Claude Mézières was born in Paris in September 1938. He attended art school (with Jean Giraud/Moebius) at age 15; spent a year in Algeria with the army in his early 20s; and visited America for two years starting in 1965, where — among other things — he worked as a cowboy on a ranch. Seeking to jumpstart a stalled career in the comics magazines, Mézières joined forces with writer Pierre Christin, now living in Paris. The pair soon collaborated on the seminal Les Mauvais Rêves (“The Bad Dreams”), a 30-page story serialized in Pilote.
Christin and Mézières’ acerbically written and expressively drawn science fiction story marked the debut of the iconic French comics characters Valérian and Laureline. Warmly received, the story led to further assignments for Christin and Mézières featuring the pair. This eventually led to more than 15 albums and a place for Valérian as one of Dargaud’s five bestselling series. American audiences never quite warmed to the series’ relentless cross-references and leftwards political orientation, and very few cartoonists have followed in the artist’s idiosyncratic visual footsteps. Yet in addition to being popular for a very long time, the series has become influential in science fiction circles for its commitment to liberal criticism and Mézières’ unique design sense.
The following interview was conducted in 1986 by Gil Kane and Gary Groth, and one can detect the slightest bit of graying in the formidable artist’s career arc. He is a fully engaged and very funny, self-admitted craftsman with compelling opinions on art, politics and ethics. In terms of the interviewers, the artist Kane acts as the more personally knowledgeable and as a kind of peer/host; the editor Groth quickly picks up on the flow of the conversation and settles into the role of the more traditional inquisitor. Some of the more entertaining exchanges involve Mézières’ deadpan reactions to a few extended Groth/Kane digressions on art and commodity, and as such remain in the transcript.
— Tom Spurgeon
GIL KANE: One difference with the European cartoonists is that so many of you started in humor. There was you and…
JEAN-CLAUDE MÉZIÈRES: [Jean] Giraud.
KANE: Giraud, [André] Franquin, and [Joseph] Gillain. And it seems to me as a result of that you brought a certain freedom of gesture and expression into your material that allowed you to pull away from the established techniques and styles and approaches. How did you start in gag cartooning?
MÉZIÈRES: Well, it’s true that most of the European cartoonists started with humor. I was born in 1938; so just after the War, there were almost no realistic artists. Some think that [Edgar P.] Jacobs was realistic — I think he was halfway, not so much. He was very well-known, appreciated, but the great shock on realism was Jijé [Gillain] when he started his first Jerry Spring album.
KANE: Right, Jerry Spring.
MÉZIÈRES: I wanted to go there. When he put out his first Jerry Spring, I was amazed. I can remember precisely where I saw the first pages, and I was on my knees. Really. I showed it to Giraud. We agreed it was the best thing. And we knew American realists, realistic artists like Hogarth, of course, and —
KANE: Milton Caniff?
MÉZIÈRES: No. I didn’t know him. Red Ryder by Fred Harman.
GARY GROTH: Hal Foster?
MÉZIÈRES: No, I knew Foster later.
KANE: When you saw this material, were you in school?
MÉZIÈRES: Yes, I was in school. Until the age of 15, I was in high school, and I wasn’t good. But I wanted to go to an art school because it was the only thing I could do. I was intelligent, too. So, I went to this art school in Paris, which was a technical art school, at the age of 15. It was four years. And in the same school, in the same class, there was Jean Giraud.
GROTH: You said that Jerry Spring by Jijé was the beginning of a realistic tradition in French comics?
MÉZIÈRES: There were definitely others: realistic people before. Corentin by Cuvelier. Cuvelier was a fine artist.
KANE: But he used a very traditional style.
KANE: The thing about Jijé was that when he started Jerry Spring, you recognized something vital and different and explosive It was infectious.
GROTH: Approximately what year was it that you saw the Jijé work?
MÉZIÈRES: 1953–4. I think it was the beginning of that year.
GROTH: So, you were in your teens.
MÉZIÈRES: But my drawing was not realistic at all. I was on the verge, in between Hergé and Franquin, and I was working, doing stories. I have something here. [Presents art.] Do you know this? It was made for Angoulême, for the exhibit.
KANE: Oh, really?
MÉZIÈRES: And that’s what I was doing when I was 15-16. It was in the middle of Morris and Franquin. That’s earlier work.
KANE: Tssshhhh. [In awe.] Fifteen-sixteen?
MÉZIÈRES: But it wasn’t good. I mean, it was good. But if you could see what Giraud was doing when he was the same age! There’s a book where it shows the same drawing at the same age.
MÉZIÈRES: I must say, it’s been tough for me to be friends with Giraud since the age of 15. [Laughs.] It was tough on me.
KANE: When did you go to the United States? I know you had a period here.
MÉZIÈRES: It’s later, much later.
KANE: After you started Valérian?
MÉZIÈRES: No, before. OK, I went to this art school at the age of 15. I had already started publishing little things like that because there were some comic magazines. The one I was working with was Catholic. And I must say that the quality of the publication was not very good. They had some excellent artists, but they would just take anybody because comics were not in fashion. People knew about Tintin, and that was it. There was plenty of room for people who wanted to make a little drawing and be paid for it. We were 16 and we were paid — not much — for a drawing, so it was fantastic. So, I published a few stories, not as books, but only in magazines, and then I went into the army. The army took me two-and-a-half years, because of Algeria.
When I came back, I didn’t like my drawing, my comic-strip drawing. I knew I was not good enough. I was always dissatisfied with my work. So, I went into illustration. Just coming out of the army, Hachette, a big publisher, was making a history of civilization, and there were tempera paintings to make. I started as a layout [artist] and then I went into illustration. I had old books with old drawings of Giraud and I’ll show you that later. That art school taught me how to work tempera. Not much — it was not technical, on the contrary. But I did that, and then I went into advertising with the son of Jijé. Because Giraud, who was already working on Blueberry, or just starting Blueberry, was also working with the son of Jijé with a small advertising studio. Giraud was making illustrations for advertising, free booklets. When the big publishing of the history of civilization collapsed — it was not well made at all, it was a financial disaster — they closed down the project, which should have run 20 books. My friend Giraud said, “Why don’t you see Benoît, the son of Jijé?” And so, I went to see him and I said, “I’m starting my studio, would you like to work with me?” And he said yes.
GROTH: What age were you?
MÉZIÈRES: I was 22, 23. It was ’60, ’62.
GROTH: I have two questions. One is what attracted you to drawing comic books in the first place?
MÉZIÈRES: My brother. My older brother was seven years older than I am, and he drew comics. But he never went to a professional [school]. He went to the Beaux-arts school, and then he left … sickness and problems. But I’d always seen him, my big brother, drawing. And I did some early work when I was 10 years old which were the continuation of his stories. [Laughs.]
GROTH: My second question: could you give us a historical context of the ’50s French publishing scene?
MÉZIÈRES: In the ’50s, there was Tintin and Spirou. There were other things which I didn’t know. There was Coeurs Vaillants which was the Catholic publication, I didn’t know it, and Vaillants, which was the communist publication — I didn’t know it, either. I knew only the Belgian production of Hergé and Franquin. And Morris, which I loved the best. So, my drawing was very humoristic.
KANE: You suggested to me that at one point you had what amounted to an association with Gillain, and I know that Giraud also had an association with Gillain. Were you assistants or associates of his?
MÉZIÈRES: No, Giraud was an assistant, had been an assistant with Gillain for one book. He did one Jerry Spring book, he did the inking for that. But I never worked with Jijé. Never, never, never! I was working with his son, and we’d been working together on advertising projects sometimes. He was making the final art when I was making the layout or something like that for soap products, I guess. Terrible crap! I was doing terrible things. At that time, ’64, Giraud’s mother was living in Mexico City, and he’d already gone to Mexico when he was 16 years old when we were at school. And I had the idea of going with him. I bought my ticket when I was 16, my boat ticket to New York, without the permission of my parents. My father was sick, my brother was sick, I wanted to get the hell out of there. But when my parents discovered that I’d already made the reservation for my tickets, they said “How can you? Are you crazy, you want to go to America?! Why not to the moon or something?” [Laughter.]
So, Giraud left and met his mother in Mexico when he was 16, and he stayed there for six months. And that’s why he was in the second year of this art school, and never came back to school. He became a professional in comic strips at the age of 17.
As I continued school, I was producing those drawings, too, but not really very well, and working with the son of Jijé until 1964. Giraud went back for six months to Mexico, and we promised each other to meet in America this time. I was grown-up, I had no permission to get. And in fact, I left for America the week after he came back. [Laughs.] And we never went to America together until last year. We met in L.A. last year, finally, after 20 years.
KANE: When you went, were you already involved with Valérian?
MÉZIÈRES: No, no, I was not even working in comics at all. I wanted to head for the West and be a cowboy. So that’s what I did.
KANE: How much time did you spend there?
MÉZIÈRES: I spent a year-and-a-half.
GROTH: What did you do in that year and a half?
MÉZIÈRES: Bum around. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Did you find it a fruitful experience?
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah. It was a good time of my life, no doubt about that. Because I had from Jijé a working visa from a friend of his, who was a Belgian fellow, who had a plant in Houston. They made a working visa for me. But I thought that this working visa allowed me to work everywhere and anywhere. I was not aware that it was only Houston. I stayed in New York, and I went to Seattle, to the wedding of somebody I met. So, we drove across America … I even wondered if I would survive that, but we didn’t get killed. So I stayed in Seattle for one month, and then when I went to Montana, starting working on a ranch in Montana because it was summer. A lot of work, a lot of shit: and no riding at all, no riding. I didn’t set my butt on the back of a horse: it was really tough. So, I went to San Francisco. I just had addresses of people there. And I went to San Francisco. And there, my idea was to work at an advertising agency. I visited a few small advertising agencies, showed them some of the work I brought from France, and one small place said, “Why don’t you try to make things OK with your visa and come to see us next week?” I went to the Immigration Service and he said, “What are you doing here in San Francisco? You should be working in Houston, Texas!”
I said, “I’m going there.” [Laughs.]
I knew it was bad, and I realized after three months that I was not allowed to just work, but only in Houston, at this place. I had almost no money left from the money I brought from France.
But then [enter] my friend [Pierre] Christin, whom I’ve known since we were two years old. We met, Christin and I — I can tell that to the American magazine, it’s very important — we met in the cellars of our [houses]. He was living next door to my place in the suburbs of Paris. We met during the air raids at night when everybody was … you know, the sirens were screaming, and everybody was rushing down to the cellars. He was going to the same cellar that I was, and that’s how we met. [Laughs.]
KANE: How did he start writing? Did he have any training as an artist?
MÉZIÈRES: Christin was a university professor. Christin has always been a straight-A student. I knew him from a very young age, and then I lost him, and finally, when we were about 15, he became friends with Giraud and I. He was going to a high school next to our art school, so we were taking the subway together. We wanted to make movies. I always wanted to make movies, and not drawings, because my drawing was not good enough. Christin was writing, but not very much. He was a university student, and then as he got married early and had a child, he needed a job. And he wanted to come to America also. And as Giraud was going to Mexico, Christin and I said, “Well, we’ll do something.” So, he went for a year as a visiting professor at the University of Salt Lake City, Utah. He thought that someplace in Utah is not a bad spot for the West. Which in fact is not a bad spot at all. I went to the States first and went to Seattle, Montana and San Francisco.
But by the time it was September, Christin arrived in Salt Lake City. When I knew I couldn’t stay in San Francisco because I had no money left, I went to Salt Lake City to stay at Christin’s place. He was renting an apartment. He was a professor, he had money — a little money, but some money. I slept on the couch for a month or two. And then I did a little work for a small advertising agency in Salt Lake City, little jobs. But then I went back to a ranch, and I started really working on a ranch. I had fantastic experiences. But soon it was winter, and in winter, there was this high snow, and in the mountains, there was no real work to do. I certainly had no money, and Pierre was saying, “Why don’t you go back to comic strips? Because that’s the thing you know the best.”
And we started making a short, six-page story for Pilote, which we didn’t know. I lost interest in the new publications, but it existed. And we knew Giraud was working, already, on Blueberry. He’d just started Blueberry the year before.
GROTH: About what year was this?
MÉZIÈRES: This was ’65. And Giraud started in ’63, I guess. So, we did, Christin and I together, a little humorous six-page story that we sent to Giraud. Giraud showed it to [René] Goscinny, who put it in the magazine because they were publishing 64 pages each week. Each week. And there was a full, six-page story in each issue, each week. This meant you could be good or bad. So it got printed. We made another one, which was a little bit better. We got paid for it. So I could pay my return ticket. I had no return ticket to France, and my visa was expiring. I had to go back. So I left on the last day of my last visa, after going back to several ranches, of course, which were not paying much but was a good experience. So I came back to France. And coming back to France at the end of ’66, of course, I went to Pilote, where I met [Jean-Michel] Charlier and Goscinny. And he said, “You did a nice job with those two stories. Go on.” Goscinny gave me a complete story [written] by Fred. Fred was beginning to be published, but his drawing was not … it was very unusual.
MÉZIÈRES: It was crude, unorthodox… a special style. He was also putting out scripts for other people. [Jean-Marc] Reiser was doing the same also. So I had a 28-page story, which I did.
KANE: It looks pretty good.
MÉZIÈRES: It was very much influenced by Jack Davis. I knew Mad.
GROTH: It looks like you still bear a certain inspiration from Davis.
MÉZIÈRES: There’s still a little something behind. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROTH: You mentioned Fred?
MÉZIÈRES: Fred is the one who does Philémon. He wrote this story which was to appear in color. It was the first long story I did. 28 pages. I did that in early ’67. Fred’s story, there were two problems. He was not writing scripts typed, but he made little drawings, which I felt was terribly …
MÉZIÈRES: Constrictive. Oppressive on me. I wanted to start changing a lot of things, but he didn’t allow me to change as much as I wanted. I had absolutely no part in the story. So I felt that this was a good experience, but it was not my way of working. Christin was becoming a university professor in Bordeaux. He was living in Bordeaux. Three days in Bordeaux and three days in Paris, and back and forth. He’s been doing that for 20 years. We talked together and said, “We’ve got to work together because we can exchange things. Let’s do something. Let’s do a story.” Christin was not an expert as a scriptwriter at all.
KANE: What is he a professor of?
MÉZIÈRES: Journalism. But he had no experience in writing comics. He was just a good reader. He knew comics. So we said, “Let’s do something.” What are we going to do? I was coming back from being a cowboy. I said, “No, look, there’s Jerry Spring, there’s Blueberry, forget it … Let’s do something new.” Well, we loved science fiction. We knew science fiction literature.
KANE: He did too?
MÉZIÈRES: He knew it very well. Yeah, yeah, yeah. At that time, it was not appreciated by anybody. Even the publishers did not like science fiction because it was not selling well at all.
KANE: It was all historic and Western and private eye stories.
MÉZIÈRES: It was really a very narrow market for the fan. But we thought it was a good idea because we can express one thing. We are not thinking of doing 20 books. We’re just thinking of making one short story. We have the freedom of doing what we want. So we did Les Mauvais Rêves … “The Bad Dreams.” The first story.
KANE: I saw that in a compilation of Pilote. One day I went into the French bookstore in New York, and I found this collection of Pilote and I saw the Valérian material for the first time. Where they’re cruising down the river in New York.
MÉZIÈRES: Yes, the second story.
KANE: Was that the second story?
MÉZIÈRES: It’s the second story. The first one is the one in the Middle Ages, the one in the Mézières book. The one right here. [Indicates story in book.]
KANE: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.
MÉZIÈRES: Ah, yes, you’ve seen this one. This is the first story.
KANE: Oh, I see.
GROTH: Can I ask you what your attraction to the American West came from?
MÉZIÈRES: Movies. For a boy raised in France, this is my inspiration.
WE DIDN’T PLAN ANYTHING
KANE: How did you arrive at Valérian? I know you wanted to do science fiction, but how did you arrive at the name “Valérian,” the look of Valérian and so on?
MÉZIÈRES: We didn’t plan anything. Working with Christin, Christin is — I’m saying this because he’s not here — he’s a very bright, very intelligent person, and he is maybe not a hell of a scriptwriter as much as he is a tricky one. He refuses the old fables as Charlier is using. He is trying to always do something different. “Let’s be creative.” So it’s true that we were just experimenting, and I had absolutely no idea what I could draw. Because in fact, I was not aware of American publications in science fiction. Superheroes have never been my stuff and I must say will never be. So I knew nothing. That’s why I just started from …
MÉZIÈRES: My old friend Giraud was very often with me, and he was not doing a lot of his Moebius stuff yet. He had been doing some of his early Moebius comics.
KANE: The humor material, yes.
MÉZIÈRES: But then, at the time I started Valérian he was doing almost no science fiction at all. He was doing Blueberry. I found all my early original pages on the back of it. If you turn it, you see sketches drawn by Giraud… showing me things. It’s very interesting. The back of old pages you can see Giraud’s drawing showing just how you shouldn’t do that. But always later, saying, “You shouldn’t have done that this way.”
KANE: It seemed to me that you had a quality that was the equal of Giraud. There was an adjustment in his priorities and in yours, but you struck me as being quite original.
GROTH: [Indicating story.] Can you tell me what this is?
MÉZIÈRES: It is just a short, six-page story for Pilote. This was done in ’74. Just a small autobiographical writing. I always liked to do something very different in between two books. I did this for Métal Hurlant.
GROTH: How recently would this have been?
MÉZIÈRES: This is 1976.
KANE: I must admit that your work when I saw it was an inspiration to me. I borrowed very liberally from you in order to get my science fiction stuff started. And all of your conceptions were so fresh that I found you a reservoir of possibilities.
MÉZIÈRES: There was no material available, so I had a few science fiction covers of paperbacks from books I read. It’s true that I had to find my inspiration on something else. I always refused to draw from the drawings of somebody else. It’s the French. You know the French. “Let’s be unique.” Cyrano de Bergerac: “Climbed not very high, but all by myself.”
KANE: The way I remember all the artists is who came from Hergé and who came from Franquin and who came from Gillain.
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah, well, maybe I couldn’t imitate anybody else. [Laughter.] I had a surprise when a fellow by the name of Angus McKie published a story which is named …
GROTH: … “So Beautiful and So Dangerous.”
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah. It appeared in Heavy Metal and I was at [Enki] Bilal’s place, and I was looking at the pages of the magazine … and “Look at this …”
KANE: A cold swipe.
MÉZIÈRES: “Am I a paranoiac or is this …?”
So I got mad and made a photocopy of the two pages. I sent it to Heavy Metal, but they never answered me. McKie answered me. He said, “Ah, I love your stuff very much, and I was very late …”
I said, “OK, let’s not make a fuss about it. But if your science fiction is a copy of my science fiction … It’s imagination. Where’s the problem? Let’s try to create something. If you don’t have imagination to do that, draw something about race cars. Take good photos.” [Laughter.]
GROTH: Do something original.
MÉZIÈRES: Do something original. But it’s true, also, I have been inspired by other work. And I find it by now very difficult. That’s why we are changing Valérian to something less outer space and more [down] to earth. Because, as the movies are coming out and [with] magnificent special effects, I think I can’t do that, [not] with my painting. And I think it’s no fun to be following them when they have been following me.
KANE: One of the other qualities that I see in the material is a complicated, metaphysical quality in the writing. It seems to me that the material is now being written on an entirely different plane. I never know what to expect from each succeeding book.
MÉZIÈRES: For me, it’s the same. [Laughs.]
GROTH: How closely do you collaborate? In other words, how much are you involved in the story?
MÉZIÈRES: In the story, very much. At the very beginning we talk a lot, we see each other very often, and we discuss what could be the next story. In fact, I give him clues of what I would like to draw. And of course, he’s thinking of a story where he sees something fun for me to draw. The scripts he’s giving to Bilal I wouldn’t be able to draw, and the stories he’s giving to Annie Goetzinger is something I can’t draw either. Christin is always serving the needs and the wants of the person who’s drawing for him, because he’s always searching for his possibilities. And of course, when you catch the ball, you throw it back to him and give him more.
KANE: You have a genuinely organic collaboration. Each one works towards the strengths of the other.
MÉZIÈRES: Yes. It’s not the story of Christin illustrated by Mézières. It’s our story.
KANE: So you are each half of the same person.
MÉZIÈRES: I don’t change a word of his text until I discuss it with him. As I say, since I wouldn’t allow him to draw mustaches on my characters, I don’t change a line of his text until I find it necessary and we agree.
GROTH: Can I ask you the mechanics of how you work? Does he write a script after you two discuss the project?
GROTH: Does he write a full script?
MÉZIÈRES: Yes. He writes a full script. Fifteen, 20 pages of script. Very detailed. Which will change, of course. It’s the base of the story. We agree on the base from A to Z, the base of the story.
KANE: So the 15-to-20 pages is actually a scenario for the oncoming story.
MÉZIÈRES: Yes, yes.
GROTH: How closely is the finished product related to the original?
MÉZIÈRES: A good deal. It used to be like that. It’s not like that anymore, especially in the last two books. We found that if I was too aware of the continuous story, I would find it a bit dull. So Christin played tricks on me. He didn’t want to tell me the very end and the thought that he was cooking for it. “No, you’ve got to get the surprise.” He was keeping me alive. If for three years, you are drawing this and that, it’s like … too cold for you. But most of the scripts we did before, I found the 20 pages of the script of The Métro Châtelet, which was very detailed. We had to cut the end because the end was to take place in Mexico. We cut it to Brooklyn because it was 30 pages before we realized it was not possible to go to more country.
GROTH: Is there a point when he gives you the final script? He says, “This is what it is,” and then you have latitude?
MÉZIÈRES: Oh, yes. Yes. The script, it’s the backbone of the story, and we agree on the backbone of the story. And then, after that, he starts giving me 10, 15 pages of dialogue. The pages of dialogue are not detailed at all in the description of the majors, because he knows I know the story, so he doesn’t need to give me any details. On the contrary, what he gives me is feelings of what should be, the feeling inside the drawing, inside the atmosphere.
KANE: The perfect writer.
MÉZIÈRES: It’s not “To the left you should see this and that.” My God, I draw, he doesn’t. But what should be inside the mood of the drawing, he gives descriptions of that.
GROTH: At what point does he actually supply the dialogue as it will appear in the book?
MÉZIÈRES: After the script is finished, he starts giving me ten pages like that. I follow the dialogue very closely. It depends also if it’s a very [heavy] dialogue sequence or if it’s a less [heavy] dialogue sequence.
SUFFER FROM DRAWING
KANE: Hasn’t Christin begun a collaboration with Bilal as well?
MÉZIÈRES: Yes. He’s working for an incredible number of people now. He works for Mézières. Bilal, he’s written six books for Bilal. He’s written four books with Annie Goetzinger. He’s working with other younger artists. He’s always trying to do something which will be totally different as an experiment. He always loves to experiment. And he always says that when he writes a script for somebody it’s for you. It’s never, “You can’t draw it so I’ll give it to the others.”
KANE: His collaboration with Bilal tends to favor Bilal’s personality and strengths.
MÉZIÈRES: Yes, because Bilal works the same with Christin.
GROTH: You say that he wouldn’t give you something that Bilal could draw because it might not appeal to your strengths. What kinds of things don’t you like to draw?
MÉZIÈRES: It’s hard to tell, but it could be not the drawing but the story. If you ask me to draw a story about race cars, I would say no. [Laughs.]
MÉZIÈRES: Because I have no interest in drawing from photos of race cars. But I always think of the story and not the drawing because the drawing is the bricks of the story. I don’t enjoy drawing. I have a very hard time drawing and I try to do everything except drawing. Drawing? Not me! It’s difficult.
GROTH: You don’t like the act of drawing?
MÉZIÈRES: No. I suffer too much. I really suffer from drawing. I never draw for my pleasure. I’ve never made any drawing which I’ve not been paid for. [Laughter.] You’ve got to pay me to get a drawing.
KANE: I know exactly what you’re saying.
MÉZIÈRES: Some people just draw all the time … all the time. They have little booklets in their pockets, and when they go to the subway they draw. When they are at the cafe, they draw. I never, never, never …
GROTH: Do you find an enormous amount of pleasure after you finish drawing it?
MÉZIÈRES: After I overcome the disagreement of seeing it. [Fake scream.] That’s a terrible, terrible, terrible … [Laughs.] After a while, it’s not so bad. Usually I don’t like my drawing.
GROTH: Gil, you’ve never expressed any dislike for drawing.
KANE: As a matter of fact, that’s exactly the way I feel. I mean, even when I work quickly it comes hard. I have to struggle. And I watch somebody like Jack [Kirby]. He draws like he’s tracing it. And it all looks right and it all works out right. I have to figure everything out. I have to struggle with all of the elements in the picture, and I’m never satisfied with my work, either. However, after it’s over, it’s over.
GROTH: I’ve had artists tell me that they actually find drawing provides a kind of sensual pleasure.
MÉZIÈRES: For some people, I’m sure. But not for me. Especially because I have fun setting the page. Setting the drawing. OK? But then after that, when you start really chiseling the thing…
KANE: Right, right, right.
MÉZIÈRES: It’s terrible. I can show you. I kept a few samples of bad drawings, which have gone in the wastebasket. I started keeping them because I thought it’s funny, you know, because it’s so bad. It’s so damn bad. And when I start again, I always can compare it. I was right. Even if this one which has been published, I could have redone it again. It would have been better.
GROTH: Do you practice in the sense that you might go out and draw buildings or landscapes or people?
MÉZIÈRES: No, because I don’t think I’m able to do that. The drawing is not my interest. The story is my interest. In fact, once again, the directing is my interest.
KANE: My feeling is that the reason is because you came out of humor. And the artists who don’t come out of humor are obsessed with drawing and the quality of drawing. The artists who come out of humor are only concerned with the idea. They are in the service of the idea all of the time.
MÉZIÈRES: Yes, very true. For me, it’s absolutely my concern, because the drawing, the quality of the drawing is always with what’s inside of the story. I mean, we see so many bad comics with beautiful drawings. But what’s inside? Muscles everywhere. And for what?
KANE: Anybody can learn to refine their drawing to a point where it’s not bad. Inspiration is something else entirely. The artwork that I value most is [by] artists who are concerned with the idea. They are always the most original. [Frank] Frazetta is never concerned with the idea. He represents to me exactly the kind of art which is an empty virtuosity.
MÉZIÈRES: I know some arms and legs are not well. Absolutely of no importance in the story. If the story is good, if it’s well shown, if it’s efficient … It’s true my drawing is not very good, but some of the best artists in France are like that. Gotlib, he is not a good artist. Even he knows. He always said, “I don’t know how to draw architecture.” I remember he asked me to draw something for him because he was not able to. Yet he does fantastic books. Of course, if you are good at the story and good at the drawing, it’s not bad. But it’s not so important. I know my drawing has a certain charm, and charm is important.
GROTH: So you try to convey a certain emotion or feeling, rather than an anatomical exactitude.
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah, yeah.
GROTH: How do you work on conveying that feeling? Is that a conscious process?
MÉZIÈRES: It’s always in the service of the story. So, we have in mind what the story should be, and I always try to get as close as possible to the idea of what the quality of the story should be and then to fill up the drawing with as much as possible of what’s given the reader.
GROTH: What you’re saying is entirely anathema to the kind of specialization found in American comics.
MÉZIÈRES: I must say that I really don’t like most of the American comics, which I don’t know very well. There’s probably a good quantity of artists, but I find absolutely no appeal in those stories. I don’t read the comic strip stories at all.
KANE: Believe me, you’re lucky.
MÉZIÈRES: In France, too, you are lucky not to read all of it.
GROTH: Why do you not read many French comics?
MÉZIÈRES: I think that when you work in comics, you should look outside for something else. I appreciate a good book. I know who is doing what, and sometimes I miss things, also. But I think that it’s a question of emotions. You should not be like the snake, biting your own tail. And people who draw like him or love this man, this artist … find your inspiration and your curiosity through something else.
KANE: That’s one of the advantages that the Europeans had over the Americans. Because of the necessity of doing volume, it was absolutely necessary for the snake to bite its tail. There was no other way to survive. And the whole process of development has been entirely different, and significantly, in the last 20 years, you could see them break apart. The Europeans follow a tradition of their own, with continual progress. And with the drawing, not the writing, but with the drawing so full of ideas that it initiated and drew writers of some intelligence and imagination. The worst thing about American material is that it has a vitality, so it brings young people to the material who only want an involvement with vitality, but who have no ideas and who never come into contact with richer ideas that are outside of the material.
MÉZIÈRES: I have experience with that in Quebec, in Canada, where I met students for a little seminar on comic strips. And those were very much influenced by American comics.
GROTH: Feeling as you do about being so involved in a story, haven’t you ever thought of writing?
MÉZIÈRES: Well, I made some small stories, short stories, all by myself.
GROTH: Did you find that fulfilling?
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah. It’s very hard, very hard for me. When I want to do something on my own, what kind of story could I tell? I don’t know exactly. I like the discussion with Christin; we have an antagonism. I’m very much against what he’s proposing me. But this gives me an idea. “No, let’s not do that.” “Oh, yeah, OK.” It’s swish, swish, swish, always, you know? This I find very, very …
MÉZIÈRES: Stimulating, yeah. When I’m alone, trying to do something alone, I feel that I don’t know where to start. Probably I never tried hard enough because Valérian is also something where I have so much part in the creation of the idea at the base of the story that I’m not restrained at all working with a scriptwriter. If I was sick and tired of that, I would probably have more desire to do so on my own. I made several experiments on my own, and I still think I should do something else. But as I don’t draw for the pleasure, I find it two times harder to be alone, with nobody to really push me. When Christin, I start reading the scripts — “yes yes yes yes” — I come to my mind.
KANE: Your situation is that you have interests that are outside the range of material. Very often you get to the point where you are not interested at all in the kind of ideas that are appropriate for comics. You find that it’s impossible to start thumbing through the material and coming up with an idea. You’re no longer interested. On the other hand, the drawing presents an entirely different situation. The drawing can keep your interest.
MÉZIÈRES: — and also because the choice for the beginning of one Valérian story allowed us to change and to draw something totally different. If I want to do something else the next Valérian will do it!
OUTSIDE MY STUDIO
KANE: At this point you’ve been working with Valérian now, what, 24 years?
MÉZIÈRES: Twenty years. Nineteen years exactly. I started Valérian in ’67.
KANE: Does the strip satisfy all of your interests in terms of comics or are there projects that you and Christin have talked about that are outside of Valérian?
MÉZIÈRES: Well. Yeah, there’s always interest in other fields. Especially when I am hoping to work with several people and do something outside my studio. We made some video experiments which were interesting but totally a loss of time and money — because it was an experiment — but that really pleased me. I still think of experimenting [with] something with a video. But it is so heavy, money-wise, that you don’t have the responsibility of the program at the beginning. I have contact with people in the movies. I’ve been working on this movie last year, which was something I wanted very badly for many years. I was thinking, “Why don’t they ask me to do something? [Laughter.] And I’m not very satisfied, not with what I’ve produced for this movie.
KANE: What do you find more satisfying?
MÉZIÈRES: I like the pressure, and I found some pleasure in being pushed and to work for a flick and to have people waiting for me. When I deal with a whole page, I feel that I have to be very cautious of everything. There, I felt a certain freedom. And I enjoyed it very much. A freedom of expressing. It doesn’t matter. My drawing had no importance. If it was a good or bad drawing, well. The idea was on the costume, the setting of the scene. So I enjoyed that. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t satisfy me. I think the final solution is to make our own movie as what Bilal is doing. His drawings are big like that. Just felt pen, you know. But it was good. It was fun. It was just absolutely with no importance. Bilal is doing his own movie. He is preparing his own movie right now, with a script from Christin. They are working together, and they are making it and it seems like they are going to be doing it.
KANE: Between Valérian, which has now become sort of central to your whole existence, and, at the same time, the possibility of films and such, do you find yourself fulfilled or are you still sort of casting about for something?
MÉZIÈRES: I don’t want to pile up the books. I don’t want to be the man who makes 45 Valérian books. This has no interest to me. I enjoy doing Valérian, but I don’t want to make Valérian my whole life, the center of my life. It is possible to do other things. You should not lose your energy on little things. It is dangerous sometimes to do too many little things. A book is something important. It’s true that last year the work on this film was exciting to me at the beginning. Christin said, “Remember that in two years what will be important will be the book that you produced this year.”
GROTH: Do you feel less involved?
MÉZIÈRES: I don’t think I agree with the directing. And I think the story itself is not good. Christin has been working on the story with them, and he’s been very disappointed. In fact, it’s not a good subject anymore. I think it’s too late for such a movie. So, I don’t know. But I am ready to work on another movie.
KANE: So at this point, you’re in a position where you’re comfortable with the Valérian material that you’ve done and you are in a position of waiting and seeing.
MÉZIÈRES: No, I can’t wait much because I don’t earn that much money. So I can’t allow myself not to work.
KANE: I thought all the French cartoonists were millionaires. [Laughter.]
MÉZIÈRES: Ask my wife. No, I always try to have enough money for my needs. I’m not rushing to work, because I can’t work quick on two things, but I don’t want to work under pressure and bury myself in work. I can less and less do that. I find myself working slower and slower and slower.
GROTH: Do you have the sense that you’re constantly growing and developing as an artist?
MÉZIÈRES: No. I think that I do some work better than other. I don’t define myself as an artist. I define myself as a storyteller. I’m a storyteller.
BOOM AND CRASH
KANE: Do you have a lot of optimism about what is happening in European publishing today? Do you feel that you are in a boom period or do you feel like you are approaching a crash?
MÉZIÈRES: I think the industry of comics in France lately is not in good health at all. It’s been fantastic for the last 10, 15 years. But I can see it with the sales of my books or even the bestsellers. The sales are not very good because people don’t have money. This is an economic point of view. We can do nothing about that. On the production of comic books in France, I think there’s been a fantastic period before, but right now it seems to be very limited. Once again, I don’t read comics. I look at it. I like some drawings. I don’t like some other drawings. Some of them I just can’t stand. Some books are maybe good. But I don’t like the drawings so I consider them bad. I don’t think the production is very good. I think the production is aimed to be cheap … not cheap, but commercial, really commercial. Naked girls. I have nothing against naked girls, but one butt in each frame? No! All you see in some magazines, you see only butts, only pricks. OK, it’s a liberated story, but it’s such a dumb story. I’ve got nothing against butts if it’s a good story!
GROTH: Do you think those kinds of stories are cynically done?
MÉZIÈRES: Butt sells. And necessarily, it will not sell long.
KANE: Do you think it is connected to the time in which the material is done? That, in effect, those butts and such are typical of a very exploitive quality that requires intense material? In American films, we have nothing but nudity and murder.
MÉZIÈRES: Goscinny started Pilote in 1959, and the beginning of the revolution in comics started when I just came back from the United States. I think in ’65, ’66. I was like a surfer on the top of the wave. [Laughter.] I was part of it, really lucky. People were doing what they wanted to do, and if they wanted to draw butts and sex they did it, because it was their feeling. And it was fine. But right now it’s going back. The mind of the publishers previous to this revolution was “Our audience wants nice stories. We should do that for little kids.” Now our audience wants butts, wants sex, wants murders. And so you do that, everybody is doing it.
KANE: Do you have the feeling, though, that a lot of young writers, artists who are growing into the field, know nothing else? They really want to do murder and butts and stuff like that.
MÉZIÈRES: No. I think it’s because first they are not looking too much outside the comic strip. They should look more. But that, I think, is a question of some sort of economic pressure. That if they don’t put enough of that in the story, the publisher would not take it, not buy it. I think, still, quality pays in France. And it’s true that you can find some comic strips with no butts and blood or no sex really. But, it is difficult right now; sales are not very good. And what sells well is what I should call vulgar. It is vulgar because it is stupid.
KANE: You feel that the artists and the writers who are coming up now, if they had choices, they would not reflect the attitudes and the obsessions of the material that’s being published, that they would have concerns and interests that would be outside this range of concerns?
MÉZIÈRES: I think they could and they should because it could be refreshing. It would be so different.
KANE: I agree that they should, but do you think that they could? Do you think that without pressure they would be doing the same thing? Do you know Liberatore’s work?
MÉZIÈRES: Yes, I do.
KANE: Do you think that if Liberatore had no pressure that he would be doing something else?
MÉZIÈRES: No, I think he is like that. But he says himself he’s more of an illustrator than a comic strip storyteller. He is doing comic strips because it sells better than illustrations.
KANE: Do you think there is no special pleasure and delight that he may draw from the material that he’s doing?
MÉZIÈRES: Oh, yeah. But what he is doing is top quality. What Liberatore is doing is fine to me. I have nothing against his work because I think what he’s publishing is excellent work. If he likes the things he likes … fine. No problem. What I am against is that some younger people are not specially gifted for what they are doing. It’s not their style. It’s not their quality.
KANE: So, you feel it’s entirely economics?
MÉZIÈRES: I think it’s entirely economics. That’s why I think that comic strips are not in very good health. Still, there is room for creativity. The magazines don’t exist anymore. They are almost on the verge of extinction. Magazines like Pilote are not in good health. A young artist has to try things. Nobody arrives with a ready-made idea of “I’m going to do this,” so what you need is to be published. You need to experiment [with] things, and a magazine is where to experiment. Short stories. Eight pages. Six pages. Twelve pages. It’s bad, but you completed it and you [are] paid for it. Making a book, a 46-page book, when you are a beginner … well, you know, the first ten pages will be so different from page one to page ten. And he would do it again, or decide it is no good. It can’t succeed.
GROTH: Are most French publishers guilty of that exploitative mentality?
MÉZIÈRES: I think it’s been difficult. I’m not aware of the economic pressure. The machine just started turning too fast, because it’s true you can’t sell the same book for three months without bringing something new.
KANE: You’re saying in effect that the publisher is a victim of the time as well.
MÉZIÈRES: I think the publisher is a victim of the fantastic growth of the sales.
GROTH: Which publishers in France would you say have resisted that trend?
MÉZIÈRES: [Pause.] I don’t know. I think, maybe Casterman, which is more solid.
MÉZIÈRES: Conservative. Dargaud has published so many bad books which were going right from the printer to the dump. Really. Who’s going to buy that? And many publishers do that. There’s been maybe a little too much emphasis on comic strips in France. It’s been fantastic for the business.
ART AND STORY
GROTH: I was curious about something you said Saturday.
MÉZIÈRES: I said a lot of bullshit. [Laughter.]
GROTH: You said you were a storyteller and not an artist, and I was wondering what distinction you were making between the two. How did you mean that?
MÉZIÈRES: Hmmmmm. My preoccupation is more of telling a story through drawing, and I don’t find myself as a canvas artist, you know. Especially I don’t find myself as a one-drawing artist.
MÉZIÈRES: I’m much more in tune with putting several drawings together and finding a rhythm. Finding the specifications of comic strips, which is good drawing, of course, but the narration, the graphic narration, which is definitely something which interests me.
GROTH: Is it your highest priority?
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah, yeah. The graphic narration. And building the narration through images. We are just beginning to discover that we can do something different than putting frame, panel, frame, panel, frame, another page, another … We can do so much more than that. And that’s something which is really interesting and which is steadily evolving and will, I hope, go on in its evolution.
ARRANGEMENTS AND RHYTHMS
KANE: You told us on the last piece of tape that you get material from Christin that you and he have sort of talked over and arrived at. Then ultimately, you get 15 pages of typed copy. From that point on, how do you go about arranging the work, interpreting the copy? How do you approach your work?
MÉZIÈRES: I think it is going back to almost a moviemaking of a book. It’s finding the sequences, and I have a feeling that the sequences should start from one page and finish at the end of another page. I like the abrupt cut of turning the page and looking at — not finishing the sequence halfway in the page because the scriptwriter has many frames in that page. So I make very small sketches of [the] page and I find a rhythm of what’s important in that sequence, and what’s less important, and to try to set it on two, three, four pages, if it’s necessary. So it gives a respiration, a breath of music in the drawing, in the rhythm of the book. I set the pages and I do little sketches framing some sequences, or on the contrary, put more emphasis on this sequence.
KANE: What happens if your rhythms and Christin’s rhythms are somewhat different?
MÉZIÈRES: I set the rhythm.
KANE: What if in effect, he’s overwritten? What if you have too much story?
MÉZIÈRES: Well, I would cut things out. I would say, “Pierre, this is too long. This is no good. We have to work something different.” And he will, of course, agree with me. He has no choice. He has to agree. [Laughter.] Pierre would, of course, always accept to cut down things. It isn’t a movie. To add things — if I say, “This is too short. I need three more frames here. What do you want?” If I have the feeling that it’s too short, I would find my solution for stretching. That’s why I set more pages, so I don’t need to stretch one sequence. I just take my time in that sequence.
GROTH: Now speaking of rhythms, you said that you get a script in parts. That you like to sort of be kept guessing as to what’s going on.
MÉZIÈRES: I know the story itself, but I don’t know the details of the story.
GROTH: I was going to ask you if that’s in any way problematic in terms that you don’t know the exact whole?
MÉZIÈRES: Oh, no. I know exactly. It all depends on the subject. It is true that Pierre could play tricks on me at the end of the story because we were dealing with a very precise subject. So it was no real problem. When we deal with science fiction we’re creating an alien world, Pierre says, “OK, it should be, you know, a fantastic city.” [Claps hands together twice.] That’s it! [Laughter.] It’s up to me. Of course, we talk [about] what are the people living in this city doing. But he says, “It should be beautiful.” “It should be great.” “It should be dark.” So when we deal with small science fiction subjects, I know all of the story of course, because [there were no surprises in what I’ve drawn;] I didn’t draw something that was absolutely necessary at the end of the story. There’s nothing set rigidly in our way of working. He knows that I should not retouch his text. He always agrees on retouching the text if I put the proof that it’s necessary. It’s OK. No problem. For example, in Ambassador of the Shadows, when Laureline is sitting on that stool and all the riders come and grab her? It’s a sequence I just found. It’s when I started creating those centaurs that the idea of playing this Afghan game — you know, when those riders grab a goatskin — the whole idea came from a photo I saw at the time of that game in Afghanistan. I just thought it was a good idea. So I did An Afghan game involving a goatskin served as inspiration for this sequence from Ambassador of the Shadows. I showed it to Pierre. I said, “Look, Pierre, I think I found a little something funny.”
“Oh, yes, that’s funny.”
GROTH: Can you articulate what your thematic preoccupations are? In other words, the kinds of characters and conflicts and the social circumstances you enjoy examining most?
MÉZIÈRES: It’s difficult to answer that question.
GROTH: Do you work from that end of it?
MÉZIÈRES: We tell a story and Pierre feeds the inside of the story, with little notations, which would be political and sociological. No. It’s like in my drawings when I add a little extra salute, a citation or something. It’s coming after the structure of the story.
GROTH: Does Christin come up with a basic plot or synopsis and then you work on particulars and specifics?
MÉZIÈRES: No. It’s always exchanges. But when the story is typed, all the most important material of the story is there. I’m always trying to not overlap his work, but to put more of the inside of our story in the drawings so it’s more rich.
GROTH: Let me ask you this: do you feel that there’s something about your collaboration with Christin that makes you do better work than you would ordinarily, without him? Or with someone else?
MÉZIÈRES: There’s one thing for sure. I work with Christin. I don’t think I would be able to work with somebody else.
GROTH: On Valérian.
MÉZIÈRES: On anything.
GROTH: Oh, I see.
MÉZIÈRES: On anything. I mean, it’s either Christin or nobody. Because I have the feeling — I made an experiment one time, with an American science fiction writer. His name is Scott Baker. He lives in Paris, and I know him very well. His wife did two translations for Valérian. And, as I talked to Scott Baker, I said, “Why don’t we try to do something together? But another way: you write the story, and I pick from your story ideas to make my own comic strip — OK, let’s do that.”
So, he started writing. He wrote probably 80 pages, and we realized it couldn’t work. Because, I said, “Look, those 80 pages, I read them.” Thirty pages of the beginning of the story, we agreed on it was the beginning of a big caravan in the desert. Fine. Great. But then after, he started going into the mind of the people, and that part, I don’t feel it. What will it be? Will it be one-third of the book or only one-tenth of the book? And then he said, “I don’t know, because I write in circles.” With Christin, we speak from A to D, to E, to M, to P, to Q, to Z. I know where to jump. Baker wrote the beginning of something he didn’t know where he was going. I would have to wait until he finished the whole book to start picking what I wanted.
GROTH: You feel as though you weren’t participating.
MÉZIÈRES: It was just impossible to do. It was just impossible. We agreed that we were very good friends and that, but it could not possibly work.
GROTH: Now, were you unable to use it because of technical problems, or because you didn’t feel an affinity to what it was?
MÉZIÈRES: From what he wrote, I thought it had no interest on my part of the narration. Right or wrong.
KANE: You need a more linear sort of situation, where the thing has a progression, and you can’t keep jumping or breaking out of that progression continuously, the way writers do.
GROTH: Why is that? If comics are a narrative, why can’t you use the same techniques as a novelist?
KANE: When you work with pictures you need a simpler structure than when you work with prose. He can be oblique, he can leap forwards, backwards, sidewards. He can do writing that is not illustratable.
MÉZIÈRES: Maybe the book would have been great, and maybe the part I was rejecting would have been a beautiful part of literature, but it was absolutely useless to me.
MÉZIÈRES: Because it was some dreams in the heads of the people. Maybe I could, if it had been only two friends, two beautiful friends, I could do it, but this was 40 pages! And to me, the way of telling the story for a comic strip is very different from adapting a book. That’s why I met several publishers in Paris saying, “Why don’t we take a beautiful, first-class science fiction book and make them as a comic strip?”
I said, [Slaps thigh.] “Bullshit.” That’s kind of terrible. I remember there was one publisher, I just took my flamethrower and killed the project.
He said, “You killed my project, but you were right.”
GROTH: Isn’t setting up a rigid rule like that self-limiting? [To Kane.] You’re saying that there are things you cannot do.
KANE: No, I’m saying that it’s hard to do.
GROTH: I would think it would just be a matter of using the language of the medium in which you’re working. In other words, I think Blow-Up was an example of the kind of complex structure.
KANE: It would be almost impossible to catch an artist doing 300 pictures or frames in order to settle on a single expression that would be as convincing, as complete as an actor can throw away in a second.
GROTH: Seems like you’re saying that comics are innately inferior, because you can’t show certain gradations of emotion or perplexity.
KANE: I don’t say that. I’m just saying that up to this point, for instance, they simply haven’t used everything. In a comic strip, you’re dealing with broader situations and broader gestures because you rely almost entirely on images.
GROTH: I don’t understand why you don’t see comics as capable of the kind of subtlety analogous to a good actor.
KANE: I think it’s possible, but for instance, I think he spends a year on an album. What do you think, Jean-Claude?
MÉZIÈRES: I think that there’s no limitation to comic strips. It’s just the ambition of the artists. I have a feeling that if I wasn’t working with Christin if I was working with somebody else, I would have to train that scriptwriter to bring me what I need. If I spend too much time to explain to him what I want, it’s no use.
KANE: It’s the same thing as with a libretto writer in an opera, or a lyricist on a song, and that is he’s there essentially to deal with the composer’s strengths.
MÉZIÈRES: What you say is very funny. That’s what Christin is saying in his introduction here. He speaks about his role as a scriptwriter as a librettist writing for the opera.
GROTH: Do you think there is a sense in which the writer should challenge the artist? In other words, where the writer shouldn’t simply just write exactly what the artist most likes to draw, but try to push the artist?
MÉZIÈRES: No. Because nobody knows what he likes to draw. I never say to Christin write me a story where I can draw this and that because I don’t know what I want to draw.
MÉZIÈRES: But Christin has a very clever feeling of “Oh, that type of situation would probably look good in his drawing.” And he suggests things which we see, or we reject. But it’s never precisely like that. It’s suggestive. My God, if things were so simple, there would be a cookbook on comics. Why do we succeed some books, why do we fail on some others? It’s because nobody knows what to do, even after 20 years of working together. The book we are doing right now for Autrement, we have no idea if it’s going to be a good book or not. We are just trying to do what we want to do, well received by the public or not.
KANE: Do you find many cartoonists with strong political attitudes? In the United States, you hardly ever see a cartoonist or a writer of comics with any kind of a political attitude. They all seem terribly ingenuous.
MÉZIÈRES: It also depends on the times. When we started working on comics 20 years ago, people were definitely more politically oriented than Christin and I, much more politically to the left than nowadays. It was May ’68, with the revolutionists, and it came just a year after we started working in comic strips. The left has come into the government these last five years in France, so things changed. The burst of strong political stances has come out as a political science fiction book. People were saying, “Oh, I like your drawings, but I don’t like Christin’s text. It’s too political.”
KANE: Oh, really?
MÉZIÈRES: His ideas on political stories and now on women’s positions is something that he wrote very voluntarily, and which made a success of Valérian, no doubt about that. But in the beginning it was not very well received. People thought it was too much, “Oh, comic strips are not made for politics.”
KANE: Besides Christin and yourself, are there any people who are overt in their political feelings and in effect reflect those feelings in their work?
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely.
KANE: Who would you say?
MÉZIÈRES: Franquin! Franquin took very positive political stands with his Black Ideas.
GROTH: What about Muñoz and Sampayo?
MÉZIÈRES: Muñoz and Sampayo are very politically minded, of course.
GROTH: Now, when you say political, do you mean ideological? Or political in the cultural sense?
MÉZIÈRES: In the cultural, yeah. Because, in France, times of strong beliefs — you find nobody with, you know where you stand, but somebody still waving a flag, no offense, I’ve changed, the revolution that we saw in South America or in Vietnam, didn’t come to the hopes we were putting in, and times change, and so, it’s true that 20 years ago it was more easy to put a strong stand on opposition to this and that. Now, it’s still very politically oriented, except that things are more subtle.
KANE: I saw a book, a piece of work by an artist whose work I like very much; his name is Franz.
MÉZIÈRES: Franz, yeah.
KANE: He did a piece of work that I saw originally in Albin Michel’s magazine.
MÉZIÈRES: No, L’Echo des Savannes.
KANE: They had one scene where they had what was clearly Vietnam, and they had this guy, this group landing, and of course what they did was they absolutely butchered and massacred everything, primarily women and children in every situation. There was a scene of a woman giving birth — you actually see the baby emerging from the vagina — and they’re cut down. Now, my feeling of course is that, clearly, he has an anti-American stance.
GROTH: Except that’s almost inadvertently ideological. The audience doesn’t care who he’s killing, as long as he’s killing somebody.
KANE: In this case, that’s exactly the point. The artist and writer do care who they’re killing. It seemed to me one of the strongest generally anti-American statements I have seen in comics. Have you seen that?
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah. Don’t you think it’s somewhat cliched? I’ve seen pages; I’ve not read the book. I think it’s a little bit too easy to make a strong criticism like that in comics, where the language is already concentrated. I think that to have such a stand, so strong, it becomes really for the dunces. To me the message is not strong, it’s just, “Oh, war is not good.”
KANE: Wait, wait, wait, I think that’s an important point you’re making. Are you saying that the artist himself or the creators themselves may not be political, they’ve just taken what is generally considered a contemporary idea and simply drawn it?
MÉZIÈRES: Once the images are so simplified, so simple, I think the message, the political message, which may have been important, dissolves in this simplicity. In fact, there’s no political message left, it’s just images of cliches, once again. Instead of the good guys now it’s the bad guys. I think that real political comic strips should be much more subtle.
KANE: Oh, I agree.
MÉZIÈRES: Showing that things are not easy at all. That’s why I like what we were saying yesterday on sex. Of course, it is good to have the variation on sex to use in a story if you want to use it, but if it becomes every time, there’s no change, no liberation, it’s another cliche.
KANE: Let me rephrase the comment. Only the stupidest of the comic book artists would have a “Japanazi” attitude in drawing material and would still likely show them knifing and bayoneting American babies and so on and so forth in order to build their case. They would do it out of complete stupidity. There’s a timidity involved, most of these guys.
GROTH: Well, Savage Tales is pretty political.
KANE: It is? I don’t follow that.
GROTH: It’s right-wing. Its politics are loathsome, and Marvel just published some book called Merc, which stands for “Mercenary.” The first issue was an anti- Sandinista tract.
KANE: You mean to say it’s a comic book?
GROTH: Yeah, a comic book. One of the New Universe titles. It’s clearly a Nicaragua analog, you know, fake Nicaragua. The politics, as he says, are all simplistic and cliched.
MÉZIÈRES: I just wanted to say that in Europe, of course, everything is political. You find opposition to the voice of the government everywhere. Political parties are very small compared to the number of people who would vote for them. The French and the Europeans are very concerned with politics, but at the same time, they stay away from easy solutions in comic strips or in the movies.
GROTH: How would you characterize the political content of Valérian? How was it integrated into the story?
MÉZIÈRES: It was a deliberately political story from the start. As I said, we never knew what we would be doing, we knew damn well from the beginning what we would not be doing. We would not have a hero. We would not have a savior of the Free World. We would not have the man who fights against the bad ones. We would not have bad ones. We have no bad guys and good guys. We just had the testimony of somebody, he was a witness. Valérian has always been some sort of a witness of some weird affair, and he had a little something to do with it. He did not even know for sure that he had to do it that way. And Laureline was most of the time opposed to what he would be doing. The construction of the personality of Laureline has become more and more important because she was a strong opponent of Valérian’s actions.
GROTH: What do you find politically offensive about the concept of a hero?
MÉZIÈRES: It’s fascism.
MÉZIÈRES: Comics have been swamped with fascist or right-wing heroes from the start, and we’ve tried to do something a little bit different. Once again, it was just an experiment, and we have created a hero who is not much of a hero.
GROTH: But there’s an attitude that I would characterize as typical among American comics creators who see heroes as necessary exemplars of morality, someone you can look up to. Do you think that has any validity to it?
MÉZIÈRES: No. In France, I don’t think they have a hero. In fact, Valérian is a very pale image of a character. He’s not good at much. Even saying that heroes are fascist is something I don’t like to say because, in fact, I wouldn’t say that in French. I say it in English because it’s more easy for me to express, but in French, I would refine my thoughts. No, it’s because comic strips have always had heroes, and we wanted to deal with situations. It’s true that most of the adventures of Valérian deal with situations into which we thought we needed a hero for the reader to follow the action. But in fact, it’s never, the hero as a motor of action. He’s just a witness.
GROTH: Right. Now, what is it about the hero that you dislike? Is it his sense of perfection? Being above moral ambiguities, not living in the real world?
MÉZIÈRES: I don’t know. I don’t find myself an artist with a big “A,” or anything, but we tried to always create something different, new and genuine. We were very ambitious. Christin and I have always been very ambitious in what we do. It’s very ambitious — not on the sales or the market but the quality of what we are trying. We are trying to do the best we can. To take a hero is just too simple. It’s politically against our thoughts because it’s reductive. I don’t know how you express that in English: it’s too simple.
MÉZIÈRES: To show an adventure dealing with civilizations and alien civilizations, we can describe the common world. But if we read a book on only one leader, De Gaulle or whatever, it’s not interesting, the story of one leader. What’s interesting is the story of that leader in conflict with other people or the country, and that’s where you start dealing with civilization, and from our side, we try to do it.
KANE: How long does it take you on the average to evolve a structure, a story, a theme? You’re doing material that is not typical or usual. Do you have any more trouble putting it together, does it take you any more time?
MÉZIÈRES: Oh, no. Especially after such a long training that we have. We start, I would say, with useful notations. Because it’s obvious we will not build a story a certain way — we don’t spend any time saying, “Oh, no, we can’t do that.” We know each other. When Christin starts proposing me ideas of what could be, I’m not waiting to react. He’s bringing is the right ideas. When I fight with him, it’s on the storytelling of what happened between spots A to Z, and how we tell the story or, “Let’s put a little bit more action there.” This was my reaction in the beginning — I was ready to make a hero in the beginning. I understood, of course, that we would not make a real hero, but I had the temptation of “Let’s have a little action there.” Christin really has destroyed to me this idea of having a hero who does the action. I mean, sometimes, in Ambassador of the Shadows, Valérian disappears on page 12 and comes back on page 45.
GROTH: What is your perception of the American deification of the hero myth figure? Do you think that’s in a sense dangerous?
MÉZIÈRES: I wouldn’t say dangerous. I would say boring. First, as a cartoonist, to draw always the same character over and over again, in each and every frame. You’ve got this same damn drawing. I couldn’t bear that. So it’s much more a pleasure to bring other things.
GROTH: Well, now, if you see the hero as a kind of fascistic figure, it’s more than boring.
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah. I don’t read many comics. I’m not familiar with the latest production of American comics. So when I say straight things like that, it is maybe true, it’s maybe not so true anymore. I have an idea of superheroes, and I’m not speaking of other productions, which are not of superheroes.
GROTH: Now, do you think that there might something equally boring or debilitating about the flip side of the coin, such as Liberatore’s view of the world, which is dehumanizing?
MÉZIÈRES: Well, it is. Liberatore is a problem because I think he is such a talented artist that the force of his drawing is always fascinating. I don’t know. I’ve never read a story of Ranxerox. I’m not a fan of Ranxerox, so I can’t tell, but his drawing is fascinating.
GROTH: Do you think his skill as an artist can transcend his subject matter or content?
MÉZIÈRES: I think it’s subordinate. I think that, to answer your question and to go back to something we said the other day, that the quality of the graphic artists in Europe, and the variety we have, unfortunately, is not equal to the quality of the scripts. And I don’t know about Liberatore, because I’ve never read a story he wrote with Tamburini. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It’s not my taste. I don’t read those books. Even the opposite of the hero can be as dull and bad as the hero if it’s not well thought [out]. And I think that, unfortunately, that too many comic strips in Europe are fairly poor, or using the old myths of the private eye, the gangster. It’s not renewed, there’s nothing new. They are just looking at the old movies and trying to imitate the old thriller movies again and again.
KANE: One thing that seems obvious is that clearly Liberatore, like every other artist, is essentially a product of the material that he himself liked and was influenced by.
GROTH: It’s unlikely he’s ever been affected by material like his, though.
KANE: No, but he’s also in touch with his own time. My feeling is that Ranxerox couldn’t exist in another time. I agree with you, I think Liberatore is an artist of genuine force. I think he is a very good artist. But I’m wondering to what avail his skill and his force will be, if somehow, something doesn’t come into his life.
MÉZIÈRES: I can maybe appreciate one Ranxerox book, two books. Can you imagine 15 or 25 Ranxerox stories?
GROTH: Assuming for the sake of argument that there are certain artists who are very good artists but whose work can be considered decadent, do you think it’s less important what they draw than that they draw? Do you understand what I mean?
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah … once again.
GROTH: Is it better that they’re drawing anything than the fact that it may be a very ugly and dehumanizing portrait of the world?
MÉZIÈRES: I don’t think we have the mission. Writers write for their own sake. So I don’t think there should be a moral majority on this; censorship is the worst thing that can happen anywhere. It’s just that you’ve got the real talented creators and then you’ve got the followers. I mean, you’ve got to be a damn good, a forceful creator to tell those terrible stories. I have nothing against those terrible stories. But if the second-rate artist does that because he thinks that’s in fashion … [intellectual] laziness is something that I don’t like. Followers.
KANE: It seems to me that we are merely people who respond less to moral good than to success. Bilal’s success all of a sudden will allow or force his competitors to consider points of view that now are entirely beyond them, and the field will then sort of relentlessly roll towards a new standard, a mark on the wall that Bilal has set, just the way that other artists and other writers have set marks on the wall, independent of moral judgment. Do you understand what I’m saying? Subject matter and thematic material will simply be seen as a product to approached as a basis of success. It’s the way Spiegelman used his old man and the Holocaust as a clear mark on the wall. This will be a very good way to get recognition and at the same time a degree of success.
GROTH: You’re suggesting motivation where I don’t think you’re really in any position to assign a motivation.
KANE: I’m only speculating.
GROTH: I mean, I agree with you in general, there’s a commodity mentality.
KANE: The whole newspaper strip business that existed from about the mid-1920s to about 1950, essentially was a commodity that people recognized. Everyone did some variation of that situation. But it was always the same situation, it was always the same commodity, it was always a comic strip. Ultimately it led nowhere. It simply died when the commodity itself had exhausted its possibilities. It looks like it’ll take a commodity to advance some part of comics onto a higher level. Not forceful work like yours, and not provocative thinking, say like Christin’s.
GROTH: I’m not sure I understand.
KANE: What I’m saying is that if what they do becomes a successful commodity, the process is less important than the result. It’s like when television goes for dramas about cripples and people who survived some terrible trauma, you understand that they’re taking high-minded material and reducing it to pulp. Roots was just ordinary melodrama, and because it had a touch of social significance, it became the biggest thing on television, but more than the biggest thing on television, it became accepted by serious, thinking people, who in effect said, “Television has reached a new maturity.”
Tightrope, with Clint Eastwood. He was an actor who, of recent years has been getting —
GROTH: Get back to your idea of a commodity being able to raise the standards.
KANE: Clint Eastwood has gotten a lot of criticism for essentially being a Dirty Harry personality, a point of view which became objectionable to many people. They began to degrade his acting, to degrade the kind of vehicle in which he appeared. Then, all of a sudden, he made a movie called Tightrope, which from my point of view, was essentially the same kind of vehicle. But it was shot mostly at night and had to do with a sex murderer. All of a sudden, he is now regarded as a brilliant actor, a brilliant director, a man of extraordinary subtlety and a risk taker.
GROTH: OK. But wait a minute now. I think earlier you said you required a commodity to raise standards, but all Tightrope did was raise his value as a commodity.
KANE: No. What he did was he integrated something like sexual pathology into his movie on a most overt and simplistic level, but that was enough to raise the movie above all other Clint Eastwood movies.
GROTH: In the eyes of certain people. But you thought it was trash, anyway.
KANE: I’m sure I did, but not the whole public, and not 90% of the popular critics who were reviewing the movie. Now anybody who wants to do something serious recognizes that, and that’s how the world works.
GROTH: If art is an expression of the higher intuition of the human spirit, that human spirit is not legitimately cultivated by pursuing a commodity.
KANE: That’s absolutely true, but my feeling is, that the percentage of people who recognize the difference is so marginal that merely to include a new thing, like sexual pathology —
GROTH: But you’re just using the relativized scale of the mob as a scale of value.
KANE: What I’m saying is, I feel that comics will advance. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that it will come less from a superb achievement, than simply taking some subject which people have hitherto regarded as not typical of comics.
GROTH: What do you think of all this?
NO UNKNOWN GENIUSES
GROTH: Have you heard of Sturgeon’s Law? In America.
GROTH: Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is shit.
MÉZIÈRES: Ah. I heard [Jacques] Tardi saying the same, about comic strips.
GROTH: Do you think that applies to comics in France, or would you not be that harsh?
MÉZIÈRES: I wouldn’t be that harsh. I think too many publications are not good enough. Everybody has the right to try to earn his living, and if some people can earn their living from drawing not so good, OK. But I think it spoils, and definitely, too many average-quality books have been put out lately. It spoils the market. So I don’t know if I’m all the way to Sturgeon’s Law — I’m not forbidding people to work, it’s not that, but it’s asking for more quality and more intelligence. Especially because the quality’s there. Most of the time the graphic quality is there, the problem is the purpose of those books are so dumb, you read those books in thirty seconds and you say, “What’s that?”
Oh, it’s a cop. Nothing.
GROTH: Now let me ask you a follow-up question, which is, do you think that the best work in France sells the best?
MÉZIÈRES: Up until today, I think so. I think that there is no unknown genius of the comic strip in France.
GROTH: Because it’s so easy to publish?
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah, it’s easy to publish, and the public is demanding. And it is true that the best and the most well-known people are the best artist and the bestsellers are, really, they are good. You can agree or not agree with the content and the quality of the books, but it’s professional, very professional. Most of the bestsellers are good books. Most of them.
GROTH: Why don’t we ask you who you think are the best artists working in France currently?
MÉZIÈRES: I don’t know because —
GROTH: You don’t follow it that closely.
MÉZIÈRES: I know, I have friends, I play soccer with the comic strip team, so they are friends, so I would say, and give their names. It’s difficult. Remember, the wave has collapsed. It’s more difficult, and it’s easy to say that Moebius is not producing as interesting work as he was producing a few years ago. Bilal is at the crest of his creation. Will he go on? Will he drop back? That is something I don’t know. Most of the people who made the reputation of the rise of comics, from Pilote in the ’60s, ’70s, are not producing very much now. Gotlieb doesn’t produce much. Druillet is into animation because he had a very hard time with the books, and the sales of the books.
GROTH: Well, when you say the wave has collapsed, you’re talking about a particular generation of cartoonists?
MÉZIÈRES: Yes, my generation.
GROTH: Who are in decline?
GROTH: Now, how do you feel about your position in that generation?
MÉZIÈRES: I may be the last one. [Laughter.] On the surfboard, the last one.
GROTH: You still feel vital as an artist, though?
MÉZIÈRES: Well, yeah, I’m putting big hopes on Lady Polaris, which should show that the old dinosaurs are still going strong. No, I really don’t know what will be the audience for this book, but it should show that we are really trying hard to bring new things and — not stay away from Valérian, which is not regarded as very bygone and past, but just to shake yourself and try something else. So, we go back to Valérian soon, much refreshed and we try more.
GROTH: Can I ask one more question? Do you think the new generation of artists — Liberatore, Manara, Bilal, Tardi — are equivalent in quality to the previous generation?
MÉZIÈRES: From the names you’ve given, some are, some not. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Do you know what the follow-up question is?
GROTH: Which names?
MÉZIÈRES: [Laughs.] Manara I don’t like. At all. I think he’s just pfft. He draws beautiful, but … I love his ladies, but he has nothing to say.
GROTH: No content.
MÉZIÈRES: Nothing to tell, and his drawing is just spaghetti. Manara, what else did you say?
MÉZIÈRES: Tardi. I like his work very much. I think he’s a bit repetitive and, I think, boring, really boring. Bilal is doing quite well.
GROTH: Well, Liberatore, we know your …
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah. But that’s all the people who are more important. [François] Bourgeon is important, as a sales and artist. I don’t know if I like his work as much as he’s famous for it, but …
GROTH: Now, who is this?
MÉZIÈRES: Les Passagers du Vent [The Passengers Of the Wind], he did from Casterman, he did those, you know the history of two girls on a sailboat, in the 18th century. It’s been a fantastic success.
KANE: It’s terrific stuff, absolutely.
MÉZIÈRES: Very interesting, very fancy storytelling, drawing.
KANE: Yeah, I don’t know, but the storytelling —
MÉZIÈRES: But it’s good, let’s make things clear.
GROTH: Can I throw in a couple of more names? Francis Masse.
MÉZIÈRES: I … I just can’t read that stuff. I know it’s great. I can’t, I just can’t.
MÉZIÈRES: Muñoz and Sampayo, yes, definitely very good stuff. I never read their books, but I know it’s interesting. It’s maybe a little heavy, maybe a bit too always the same stuff. You know, I like people to surprise me. Too many graphic artists are good craftsmen. I think our job is more into craftsmanship than into art. It’s good, but then you’ve got sometimes to kick yourself in the ass, you know, to change a little bit. You have stamps and you mail it in.
KANE: A whole generation does not go forward intact, they fall away enormously, so the great strength of the older generation is to know what not to do. The great strength of the younger generation is they bring all of their new references in with them. But no generation moves forward intact, because only the strongest, the most adaptable of the artists keep on producing.
MÉZIÈRES: I may forget many important people that if I was able to read the thing afterwards, I’d say, “Oh my God, of course! I didn’t say this and that!” So I mean to apologize.
GROTH: What do you think of Bernet’s work? Torpedo?
MÉZIÈRES: Very good craftsmanship. Useless. The story, I don’t even read it. But I am not a reader of comic books, so those stories are not made for my tastes. I think it’s very good craftsmanship. By the way, my sister does the coloring for Torpedo.
GROTH: Oh, is that right?
MÉZIÈRES: Yep. All three versions.
GROTH: That seems to be a common observation of yours, that the artist’s work, the artist’s drawing is always better than the story, or is better than the story many times.
MÉZIÈRES: I think this is the big problem. It’s the crisis of storytelling.
GROTH: Now why do you think that is?
MÉZIÈRES: It’s because you don’t earn a living writing stories until you’ve got 12 books published. You get paid ridiculous sums, which are not much also for the order of work there is in a bad story, you know. It’s enough money for a bad story. It’s not enough money for somebody who really works out. That’s why scriptwriters usually do another job.
GROTH: I see. Why does the writer get paid so much less than the artist here?
MÉZIÈRES: It’s because in one evening you can turn out 20 pages, 30 pages of a comic strip.
GROTH: Usually a bad comic strip.
MÉZIÈRES: No, even a good one. If Christin has been thinking of that for months, and then one evening he can turn out 20 pages, it’s been really writing and preparing everything before, and it’s a damn difficult job. It is a not very rewarding job because everybody speaks about the art. To be really efficient, it has to be a team. And that team, I think it’s up to the graphic artist to find his script. Because no publishing company has good scriptwriters waiting in a drawer to say, “Oh, we’re going to introduce Mr. So-and-So to painter So-and-So.”
GROTH: Why don’t you think that French comics attract better writers?
GROTH: It’s a good question.
MÉZIÈRES: It’s a good question. It’s a damn difficult job. Once again, I think that it’s not taking a good writer that you will get a good — it’s from the start two friends who should get together and find their qualities.
GROTH: Can you ask you approximately, what is the breakdown in pay, in other words, what percentage of the total creators’ income does the writer get versus the artist?
MÉZIÈRES: It’s everybody for his own. The publisher says, “You get eight percent, ten percent of the cover price, the retail price. How many people are you working with? One, two, three, four, five? It’s your problem.”
GROTH: So you’re saying that each person involved decides among themselves how much?
MÉZIÈRES: Yes. So, some people do 50-50. I know Goscinny and Uderzo did 50-50. Whereas Christin, we took it differently. Until recently, until these last five years, where we found that it was, that the reputation of the script was really a good part, so we put 50, a little bit more, no, we put 60-40. But then, we decided to give five percent to my sister, the colorist. So now, it’s five percent to the colorist, and 57 for me and 43 for Christin — if I got it right.
GROTH: In the States, the letterer and the colorist are paid a flat fee, because they’re essentially regarded as labor. That doesn’t appear to be the case in France. They are actually a part of the eight percent.
MÉZIÈRES: We decided to give that. Because it was not the publishers. [Gérard] Lauzier was the first one who started giving a royalty to my sister.
KANE: Your sister colored Lauzier’s work?
MÉZIÈRES: She did Fred, she did Blueberry — at least four or five, the best of the books. She did the first Lauzier, Lili Fatale. She did 35 books.
GROTH: Prior to Lauzier doing that, how were the colorists paid?
MÉZIÈRES: On a flat fee, so much a page.
KANE: You’re saying that a lot of them are still paid that way?
MÉZIÈRES: Everybody’s paid that way. She’s just getting that because we decided it was fair. I don’t think many people do that.
GROTH: Do you have people in this country who are only letterers?
MÉZIÈRES: No. Well … I know a girl who’s doing that, but for translations. She was the one who did the lettering for me in English.
GROTH: But not predominantly in French?
MÉZIÈRES: No, not predominantly in French.
GROTH: The artist is the letterer?
MÉZIÈRES: Usually, there’s that.
GROTH: What kind of rights do you get from the publisher in terms of films or animation?
MÉZIÈRES: This is to be negotiated. And on the prices of sales in foreign countries. Because Valérian has been translated into 15 languages, and I get, with the author, 50 percent of the sums the publisher gets after a deduction of 20 percent for the agent.
KANE: Fifty percent of the net?
MÉZIÈRES: Yeah, 50 percent of the net.
GROTH: Now, do you have an individual contract for each book?
MÉZIÈRES: Yes. It allows me to renegotiate every time. [There is] a new breed of publishers, new, small [publishers], more specialized, people your age or even younger who have been fed with the milk of comic strips from their youth and are becoming publishers now, it’s something to see. It’s very, very new. Next to the big publishing companies, there are small publishers.
GROTH: Are they sort of invigorating the —
MÉZIÈRES: One or two I met today, and the other day, too. It seems to be booming. “Crisis? We have no crisis for us. We double, triple the market.”
KANE: They started out in America as less than fleabites. Then they become fleabites, and now they are regularly negotiating with the bigger companies.
MÉZIÈRES: Maybe it changed. And, because many big publishing companies have sold their books so easily, they’ve never really worked. Asterix, Dargaud. They printed 5000 copies of the first book. Five thousand copies, and then, “Oh, yeah, let’s print 10,000.” And then when Goscinny hit 100,000 copies he was telling me that he had a very hard discussion with Dargaud. He said, “I want 15,000 more, right now.” And the editor said, “Oh, no, let’s stop, it would never sell then.”
GROTH: [Laughs.] Right.
KANE: In a way, the larger publishers are nowhere near as skilled. They may have more information, but they are nowhere near as skilled at staying alive, at negotiating, at reaching their market and at assessing their product. Most of them are hired people who are outside of comics, know nothing about it, their circulation, distribution, tone or mood or anything else. They cannot stand up against these younger guys who, as I say, lack experience and information —
GROTH: And money. Money.
MÉZIÈRES: Bilal was saying that Dargaud just now seems to be recognizing Bilal when he meets him in the corridor. This year he sold 130,000 copies of his book, so now he seems to recognize him. But Bilal has been with this publishing company for 10 years. I’m never sure he recognizes me. [Laughter.]