RIP Alex Barbier, Poète Maudit

Alex Barbier (1950– 2019); photo © Valérie Berge, all rights reserved

On January 29, a storm called Gabriel whipped the whole of France with eighty-mile-an-hour winds. Up on the Swiss border, citizens in snowbound Saint-Claude were hunkered down. But just before 8:30 pm, one group of neighbors caught a whiff of smoke in their building. They ran to check its attic and basement, only to see the fumes were coming from an apartment.

Their urgent calls to its occupant got no response so, when firemen came, they broke down the door. Inside they found a man, unconscious. Battling snow and ice, they got him to the hospital. But all their efforts to save him proved vain. Reporters were told the blaze had come from "food left on the flames."

In a town of ten thousand people, this was the story: "Sixty-Something Man Dies in Smoke-Filled Apartment". Within hours, however, that headline changed. It's still out there on the Internet: "Artist Alex Barbier Dies, Asphyxiated at Home." Barbier was 68 but he was still an enfant terrible.

His death ran as a fait divers, one of the minor news reports whose focus is shock or sordidness. Central to the French press for more than two centuries, faits divers milk life's hazards and perversities. That Barbier should end up in their columns was not surprising. For his work had featured many of the genre's obsessions, from violent sex to juvenile delinquency.

Barbier was twice hailed with exhibitions at Angoulême: the first in 1994, the second in 2015. But his real moment of glory came in the late 1970s, via the pages of alternative journal Charlie mensuel. It was there he premiered a series called Lycaons (Wild Dogs). The stories appeared as an album in 1979 and were republished in 2003. Their title alludes to mythology, to Hesiod and Ovid's tales of God being served a slaughtered child (or children) for dinner.

Barbier's first installment of Lycaons (page 41) in Charlie mensuel, May 1975

What caused waves was less the story than Barbier's style. His tale did feature aliens, sex between boys, and animals in human form. But it steered as clear of narrative as it did of typical structures. Its text was hyper-cryptic, its chronology scrambled, and there was no space at all between the frames. Barbier's art, fluid and sculptural, was neither truly figurative nor really abstract – and it was drawn in something he called "ligne brouillée". While "brouillé" means "blurry" or "scrambled," the verb from which it comes can also mean "to be at loggerheads."

At the start of Lycaons, Barbier was 25. Before his obligatory year of army service, he had been working as an art instructor. But after one academic year, he was fired. (A telegram told him this was because of his "subversive attitude.") Was it really his red-dyed hair and his love of leopard-skin? "They may have fired me," he sniffed, "but they won't forget me."

Barbier's first installment of Lycaons (page 42) in Charlie mensuel, May 1975

Some of the ligne brouillée was derived from Barbier's first materials. Having purchased an inventory of vintage inks secondhand, he discovered that many had dried up in their bottles. He managed to dilute these with something called Correc-bille, a product for reactivating cranky ballpoint pens. The artist started to use these inks, as well as the fluid itself, almost like watercolor. The way he did it is now seen as an important early instance of "colour directe."

Couleur directe is just what it sounds like – applying colors to comic pages as you create them rather than afterwards, as an adjunct to the drawing. In Franco-Belgian comics of the 1970s, couleur directe contradicted what was a universal practice. For decades, in a process seen as ancillary, the artist's finished drawings were colored using bleus or "blue lines." The whole idea of couleur directe constituted a major change.

Although color was subject to numerous codes, it had always been subservient to line. The whole way Franco-Belgian colorists worked reflected this. With few exceptions, until the late 1970s, theirs was an accessory and often anonymous job. Colorists were seen as assistants and were rarely credited before the 1980s.

There were few early examples of couleur directe in Europe. During the 1950s and '60s, these included Dan Dare by Britain's Frank Hampson and, in Tintin magazine, the work of Paul Cuvelier and Jacques Laudy. But the first true example came from North America. It was 1962's Little Annie Fanny, created for Playboy by Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman.

The first Francophone album to be realized in couleur directe was Arzach, by Moebius, in 1976. Arzach had begun as a series in January of 1975; it was part of Métal Hurlant's initial issue. Métal also featured such color from the American Richard Corben. But, starting in 1977 with Jean-Michel Nicollet (Ténébreuses Affaires), François and Luc Schuiten's Carapaces, and Jean Torton's series Champakou, more and more Franco-Belgian authors took up couleur directe.

The list of those who used it grew to include names such as Enki Bilal, Max Cabanes, Nicolas de Crecy, Emmanuel Guibert, Loustal, Alex Varenne, and Vink – as well as Anglo-Saxon artists like Dave McKean, George Pratt, and Bill Sienkiewicz. But the foremost historian of couleur directe, Thierry Groensteen, feels its greatest interpreter has been Lorenzo Mattotti.

Alex Barbier's Lycaons came out in 1979. But it had been appearing as a strip in Charlie mensuel since May 1975. A year earlier, during his military stint, Barbier had created a "manifesto." This took the form of a sixteen-page story, beginning in monochrome but finishing up in color. It was his demonstration of "what bandes dessinées should be," and it won him a place in the pages of Charlie mensuel.

The artist's first story there was printed out of sequence (he never thought to number the boards he submitted). But – among detractors as well as fans – the effect was swift.

As Thierry Groensteen wrote more than thirty years later, "The destructive power of Lycaons… should have obliterated any ideas of the juvenile still clinging to the bande dessinée… In it, reader discovered a little bit of politics, a little bit of fantasy, a little bit of getting high and a lot of sex (especially between boys) in a suburban, American setting of expansive deserts, seedy houses, bedrooms and car interiors. It was resolutely adult work from an artist who refused to make concessions and who showed remarkable confidence in the bande dessinée."

Barbier's first installment of Lycaons (page 45) in Charlie mensuel, May 1975

Until its demise in the mid-'80s, Charlie mensuel remained Barbier's showcase – the only place, the artist claimed, he ever wanted to see his art published. Georges Wolinski, its editor from 1970 to 1981, remained Barbier's champion until his death at Charlie Hebdo.

In terms of disseminating couleur directe, however, it was Métal Hurlant that became a driving force. From artists like Jacques Tardi and Jean-Claude Mezières (Valerian and Laureline) to offbeat contributors like the Bazooka collective, many adopted the practice specifically for its pages. But Alex Barbier was persona non grata there. His name made only one appearance, in a small critique calling his work "artistic in the worst sense of the term."

Barbier always scorned suggestions that he was avant-garde. While he admitted the influence of Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, and Lucien Freud, the artist insisted that he was a classicist. As a child, he had fallen in love with Hergé's L'Affaire Tournesol but the comic artist Barbier really loved was Franquin. ("He may have been depressive. But that guy just gives me endless joy.") In addition to Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and William Burroughs' The Wild Boys, his shelves were stuffed with Franco-Belgian comic classics. Although he fulminated about contemporary artists, Barbier loved Géricault, Courbet, and Caravaggio. His favorite authors were Proust and Céline, and there were Proustian allusions in his very first strip.

He was often asked about his work's socially controversial features: the homosexuality, drugs, and morbid sex. Barbier freely admitted that much was autobiographical. Told by journalist Pierre Pololomé that people would always call his work pornographic, Barbier replied, "Probably. But, what do you want, that's how it is. It's a bad choice of term, however, because pornography is something very different. It's an end in itself, which is absolutely not my case. It would be idiotic to get hung up on that."

Equally, Barbier refused any idea that dealing with sex and death meant artistic misery. "My subjects never cause me pain," he said in 1999. "It's really the opposite, it's explaining myself that helps. When I work, I get enormous pleasure from it." Although he loved to paint, Barbier always claimed that comics were "essential" to him.

The artist's second album, Le Dieu de 12, was published in 1982. For his initial work, his great inspiration was the crime writer Stanislas-André Steeman. But, by the early '80s, he was in thrall to Burroughs' cut-ups. In Barbier's Le Dieu, France is under the control of extraterrestrials. Set in the country's one free city, the story's universe is one of depression and decay. In 2011, when it was reprinted after decades, Le Nouvel Obs called Le Dieu a "legend noir": "Faded yellows and eerie greens lend its intrigues a spectral luster. Its bodies struggle to free themselves from enveloping shadows, but it's their faces which seem to be dissolving, as if the artist couldn't quite manage to fix them on paper.… Its narration seems barely real, composed of phrases that are both droll and desperate … 'Learning he doesn't exist is a low blow for any God.'"

Le Dieu de 12, Alex Barbier, 1982, Albin Michel

Barbier was unhappy with its initial reproduction (which he later described as "absolutely disastrous"). But worse was to come. First, in the early 1980s, his publisher was sold. Then, in an arrangement that foundered after two dozen issues, the declining Charlie mensuel merged with Pilote. Barbier soon found himself without an outlet. By 1983, he was tending bar in Fillols, a Pyrénées village of less than two hundred souls. Famous for its radical past, Fillols is home to numerous artists, bohemians, and marginal types.

Despite his isolation, Barbier continued creating his stories. Until one night when some unstable character – never identified – torched his minuscule studio. "It was during the winter," Barbier told Vincent Bernière. "This guy arrived asking for Alex Barbier's house. Which is still rather disturbing plus … it was actually my wife who pointed it out for him! None of our houses were ever locked back then. Maybe this guy was starting a fire to try and get warm or something like that, but he set fire to the little wooden shack where I worked. That was where I kept my art and everything went up in smoke." The only originals that survived were thirty boards from Lycaons, on show in a gallery, and thirty that were already sold.

With this loss went the definitive evidence of Barbier's contribution to comics history. But, during the mid-1990s, he was rediscovered. Initially, the interest came from a Japanese magazine. But, in 1993, Thierry Groensteen mounted a Hamburg exhibition entitled Colour Directe. This led to Barbier's first Angoulême exposition. As a result, the artist met 35-year-old Guy Delcourt. A former editor of Pilote, he was now the founder and boss of Editions Delcourt, a newish and slightly less traditional publisher.

By then, Barbier had two completed stories: Comme Une Poulet Sans Tête ("Like A Headless Chicken") and Les Paysages de la Nuit ("Landscapes of the Night"). Right after they met, Delcourt published both of them. Yet neither managed to garner real attention. With the emergence of many fresh players – L'Association in 1990, for instance, and Editions Cornélius in 1991 – the non-mainstream audience had new places to go.

It took another half-decade for Barbier to find his champion but, when he did, it was a house whose independence matched his own. His new publisher was Fréon, a Belgian collective founded in 1994. A set of artists who had met at L'École de Saint-Luc, they combined radical politics with a devotion to the difficult. In the world of bandes dessinées, Fréon opposed all hierarchies, whether they were "classic," "alternative," or "avant-garde."

The Belgians greeted Barbier as a symbolic predecessor and included his work in their anthology, Frigobox. In 1997, Fréon published De la chose, a collection of Barbier's erotic paintings. They followed this with the first installment of his trilogy Lettres au maire du V ("Letters to the Mayor of V"). A second volume, Autoportrait d'un Vampire d'en Face ("Self-Portrait of a Vampire"), appeared in 2000.

Barbier said he preferred these newer books. "Before, I was tortured and that's no longer the case. I've managed to resolve my existential problems." He even felt, he said, more at ease with color. "My relation to color stems directly from my way of life. Right now, I'm free and I'm feeling good… That means my colors are free to evolve; they can overflow, ejaculate, bleed or pool… They just go where they like and I finesse them later."

In 2001, Fréon fused with French alternative publisher AMOK, to create "FRMK." FRMK (pronounced "Frémok") then re-released both Lycaons and Le Dieu de 12. This, of course, was no easy task, given that the original pages had almost all gone up in smoke. In the new editions, the pages that were lost are indicated with burnt-match icons.

One of Barbier's burnt pages used for Le Dieu's cover in 2011; courtesy FRMK

In 2006, FRMK published the final volume of Lettres au maire du V (Pornographie d'une ville). But, in 2014, Barbier announced he was giving up the bande dessinée. He was simply going to paint. "I recognize that my production may seem minuscule. But I've said everything I had to say. I don't consider myself to be inexhaustible." As his parting shot, FRMK published Barbie's La Dernière Bande ("Last Comic"). The 2015 show at Angoulême was organized around it.

Barbier's FRMK editor is artist Thierry Van Hesselt. He oversaw the retrospective, a hundred pieces filled with werewolves, vampires, lascivious youth, and aliens. They displayed all the themes Barbier broached over and over again: domination and suppression, licentiousness, and violence. It was, Vincent Bernière wrote, "closer to the Marquis de Sade than Mickey Mouse."

The show's press release quoted Van Hasselt. "Barbier's work," it read, "has a haze, a kind of abstraction, that lends itself to narrative tension. His ligne brouillée channels multiple sexual questions that it conducts all the way back to childhood." In terms of La Dernière Bande, this was literally true. The story featured some unusual pastiches: sexualized versions of Franco-Belgian children's classics.

The artist adored such games. Many of the abandoned buildings seen in his Lettres au Maire are real landscapes, located near his home in Fillols. (At one point, the artist drew a comic about his village). In 1996, at the urging of his wife, Barbier created a local comics festival. He called it BD Plouc – literally, "Yokel Comics." Held every year from 1997 to 2006, the celebration drew names like Charlie Hebdo's Gébé and Charb, Joann Sfar, Dominique Gobelet, Matt Konture, and Jean-Christophe Menu. To celebrate Barbier's retirement, it was reprised in the summer of 2014. That year, a special feature a display called Calcinés ("Carbonized"). It centered on boards from the 1983 fire.

Alex Barbier at Festival BD Plouc; photo © Valérie Berge, all rights reserved

Barbier celebrated his comics there, but he wrote them in Saint-Claude – the place where he was born and where his life ended. Every year, said the artist, he would spend four months in the town. He used the time to work, totally alone, in an apartment which was once his grandfather's.

Like many Saint-Claudiens, that grandfather made pipes. Since the 1800s, the city's briarwood smoking tools have been famous around the world. (The city's pipe museum boasts a giant, Pop-like sculpture of its product). Barbier's Saint-Claude apartment, he noted, still contained "probably two tons of pipes."

Barbier made that joke in a communiqué penned for FRMK. The pipes, he noted, were the sort of thing that made him a misfit.

"I'm an outsider," he wrote, "In comics and in the world. And you know what? I LIKE IT! Everybody drives a car: NOT ME! But I get around anyway. Everyone has a mobile phone: NOT ME! But I talk anyway. Everyone has a computer: ME TOO! But I also have a pen. In my country, all cartoonists publish an album every year, because they have the fear they will be forgotten (and they're not always wrong). BUT NOT ME! I am unforgettable. The proof: EVERY DAY I THINK ABOUT MYSELF! All the designers are trying to be as readable as possible, to get the most clarity possible (that famous ligne claire): BUT NOT ME! I think that, whatever the work of art, there needs to be darkness in it. Because the world we live in is like that: it's blurred. That's why I invented a drawing school, of which I am the ONLY MEMBER, and I called it LA LIGNE BROUILLEE! Eh, voilà!"

Rest in peace, Alex Barbier. You're still one-of-a-kind.

With special thanks to Valérie Berge, Vincent Bernière, Bruno Canard, Aaapoum Bapoum at 15, rue Serpente Paris 5e; Lorane Marois at FRMK, and, especially, Thierry Groensteen's excellent catalogue for his 1993 show Couleur Directe.