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Authors' Spotlight: The Best European Graphic Novels with Translator Edward Gauvin

27 April 2024

Guggenheim Fellow and Eisner-nominated translator Edward Gauvin recommended five European graphic novels that show off the continent's best writers, artists, and writer-artists in an interview byChenxin Jiang for Five Books. Two of them were SelfMadeHero books: Irmina, by Barbara Yelin (translated by Michael Waaler) and ABC of Typography, words by David Rault, art by Seyhan Argun, Aseyn, François Ayroles, Hervé Bourhis, Alexandre Clérisse, Olivier Deloye, Libon, Delphine Panique, Jake Raynal, Anne Simon, and Singeon (translated by Edward Gauvin).Below is an edited extract from the Five Books interview about why he picked them and about the European comics scene in general - just in time for the 2024 opening of the Sophie Castille Awards for Comics in Translation!

To start with, I’d love to get your take on what makes graphic novels in Europe distinctive.

Well… I’m tempted to say government arts funding, so… I will! While also noting that it still doesn’t always mean a living wage for the creators concerned. But really, the Franco-Belgian scene, central to Europe, is usually considered one of the world’s three major comics cultures, along with American floppies and funnies, and Japanese manga (central to Asia). In broadening my remit to “European,” I’ve tried to get out from under this 800-pound gorilla, picking works that attest to simultaneous or subsequent traditions: partly because I’ve translated a sizeable share of the comics from France in the last fifteen years, partly because a lot of my favourites remain untranslated, and this feature focuses on works available in English. So here are two works from France, one fiction, one non-, and one apiece from Germany, Italy, and Slovenia [see full list of books below]. I also cheated, a LOT: one series (a trilogy), two anthologies (one of which is also a biannual), a volume of collected works, and really only one work that might be properly termed a “graphic novel.”

Still, as we’ll see, many roads and career paths, if not lead, at least take a detour to France; the cultural and economic dominance of its publishers enables them to cherry-pick artists worldwide. America drafts foreign talent to draw licensed characters; France pairs it with writers for works that run the gamut from commercial to alternative. Some even get to tell their own stories as all-around creators, for as with manga, there’s not really one dominant genre in the European market, the way superheroes dominate ours.

Finally, contemporary French comics in particular are shaped by the fact that in the ’90s, many of the artists who would eventually become the stars of today’s comics pantheon couldn’t land a book contract to save their lives. So instead, they formed their own publishing houses: L'Association, Cornélius. As Canadian comics scholar Bart Beaty says, it’s like the alternative won — or sold out, according to some — and became mainstream. I should say, though, since this is a common aesthetic issue in an industry that prioritises visuals when deciding which books to have translated: Euro-alts still tend toward more “polished” art than the scruffier, homegrown look of stateside indies. And this comes back to where I began my answer, economics — cultural subsidies and the cost of higher education making art school more accessible.While teaching English at a college in the north of France after my Master’s in the early 2000s, I discovered European comics largely through friends, French fans well-versed in comics from both sides of the pond. I returned to the US shortly after Persepolis (2003) made the leap from Fantagraphics to Pantheon. Its success redefined what publishers wanted, paving the way for, let’s say, the third, more aesthetically “indie” French comics wave after those of Tintin/Asterix(children's adventure!) and Heavy Metal (adult science fiction!). It was the mid-aughts, the blog-to-book pipeline pumping hard; what were then still the Big 5 were launching their own imprints to get in on the new cash cow of comics, and lacking ready domestic talent or the know-how to find it, they’d bring over French books to pad out their catalogs. That mini-boom died with the recession, and since then, small presses have been leading the charge. Today’s scene is more diversified: many more presses doing many more kinds of European comics in English. […]

Let’s talk about Irmina, by Barbara Yelin and translated by Michael Waaler.

Irmina spans 1934 through to the 1980s. Yelin found a box of her grandmother’s memorabilia — photos, letters, diaries — and based the book on that woman’s life story. And it belongs to that evergreen German sub-genre of “What did you do in the war?” As Yelin writes in her sensitive preface, “What I really discovered in that box was a question — a disturbing question about how a woman could change so radically. Why she would turn into a person who did not ask questions, who looked the other way, one of the countless passive accomplices of her time?”It starts out with Irmina at Oxford, falling in love with a fellow student, a Barbadian, in blithe youthful ignorance of world events. They’re drawn together as outsiders, so it’s illuminating to see the difference in the freedoms denied them by race or gender. Then Hitler’s laws make it impossible for Irmina’s family, poor already, to continue wiring money for support. Increasingly demoralised, she is forced to return to Germany, where she lives out the war, eventually if ambivalently marrying an ambitious SS officer. The book’s second and longest part ends when the war does; the third then leaps forward to the 1980s and a reunion for the would-have-been lovers in a different world.This is also a work that affords readers many ways in: the first part lulls you into thinking it’s a love story, an idyll history rudely interrupts. And while it certainly has its place among family memoirs, or postwar ruminations on wilful blindness and complicity from Böll to Ishiguro, Irmina’s story powerfully illustrates a woman’s limited options for achieving any semblance of autonomy in those dark and complex times. Whereas the coda moves, with the character’s age, into more universal territory of regret.

What do you find most interesting or unusual about Irmina?

This is the work I referred to earlier as the only “graphic novel” on the list, and it more than earns the latter half of that contested term with its scope, unity, psychological depth, and artistic technique. Yelin insightfully pairs the external restrictions of a dictatorial regime with the increasing mental censorship that Irmina performs upon herself. Much of what Irmina sees during the war is filtered: through parted curtains and doors ajar, in narrow panels — a visual staging of how much she’s deliberately or desperately shutting out. These are punctuated with cannily deployed double-page spreads in which we see history at work: cityscapes, massive rallies, marches, burnings. And while Yelin had, prior to this book, worked largely in shades of grey, here the different eras and locations each have their own overriding colour schemes: blue for London, red for the war, and turquoise for the rueful, hopeful coda.

So here’s an instance of a work from the German comic scene.

I won’t insult anyone by saying there isn’t one. After all, comics magazine Mosaik has been around since 1955, born in East Berlin — the fall of the Wall actually hurt its sales! Off the top of my head, I’d say the best-known German-language comics name stateside is Ulli Lust, but she’s Austrian. New York Review Comics did a single book of Anke Feuchtenberger’s; Waaler’s done a bunch of Reinhard Kleist for SelfMadeHero. I will say that of the current generation, Flix, Mawil, and Sascha Wüstefeld have all published a fair amount in France. As has Barbara Yelin. Her first books came out through comics scholar Thierry Groensteen’s press, Éditions de l’An 2, based in Angoulême, that international comics capital of festival fame. You could say that the founding of leading German alt-comics house Reprodukt in 1991 mirrored changes then underway in France. Yelin published Irminawith them in 2014, with Actes Sud picking it up the next year, and SelfMadeHero two years later. Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Turkish followed; the book, her biggest hit, internationally inflected the path of her career. In 2018, Yelin was a writer-in-residence at Grinnell and that same year, Edna McCown translated a piece of hers in Words Without Borders. She lives in Munich, where she teaches and runs reading series for comics.[…]

And now an anthology of another sort — ABC of Typography, written by David Rault.

Right, so, Rault, a typographer who’d previously written about his trade, thought it a no-brainer that two such visual media should be paired, and was gobsmacked it’d never been done. With help from his publisher, Gallimard BD, he mustered up a nice roster, a real cross-section of today’s Francophone talent, from those who tend alternative to those leaning more mainstream. Eleven artists, eleven chapters from cuneiform to Comic Sans, the whole thing lent a gorgeous graphic identity by none other than the cantankerous, radical underground cartoonist and diehard indie Jean-Christophe Menu, who as a founding member of L’Association masterminded that publisher’s selection and design of forgotten classics brought back into print (he now runs his own press, L’Apocalypse). Together, they leveraged the anthology format, its inherent heterogeneity, into a bristling yet unified history of a ubiquitous yet somehow still niche subject. Think less “comprehensive” than “stimulatingly eclectic”: serifs, frakturs, Gutenberg, Garamond, Gill Sans, Bauhaus, newspapers and Letraset, even an insider’s annual festival, the Rencontres de Lure (who wouldn’t want to talk typography in summery Provence? Can I get a travel grant?).

Although only 130 pages, this was in many ways a mammoth project. The timing, when UK stalwart SelfMadeHero decided to do it, was right for it to dovetail with personal research into typography for my Bread Loaf lecture, “Translation as Design” (my specific interest in typography grew from a fascination with onomatopoeic sound effects in comics, the importance of whose plasticity as word-objects includes not only poetic phonetics but appearance as a pictorial element of page and panel). So any research time I spent on the book did double duty and predictably expanded as I dove down rabbit holes after references, obscurities, anecdotes, marginalia. As you might imagine, the proofreading process was especially fine-toothed, some fonts from the original swapped out with Rault’s approval. I’ve been a longtime collaborator with SelfMadeHero, and I often feel like a session musician sitting in on the book we all put together: editors, designers, proofers, creators.

Could you say a little more about the artwork and its relation to the typographical changes covered in the book?

A consistent pleasure was seeing individual artists’ hand-renditions of famous typefaces juxtaposed with their own hand-lettering: for instance, the evolution of Humanist typefaces, their intimate relation to hand and body, as narrated by Delphine Panique’s flirtatious cursive. The nature of the book — its very topic — grouped words themselves into pictures and text, art objects to be admired vs. chiefly communicative signifiers. Also of formal interest was how some artists picked panel arrangements traditionally associated with fictional storytelling, while others went with more infographical layouts. I’ve had my eye on Delphine Panique’s uniquely lyrical absurdism for some time, and would love to introduce her to Anglophone audiences, especially with Le vol nocturne, a mournful slacker comedy about witches.

I’ve also long championed François Ayroles’ work, which apart from Toronto darling The Beguiling’s Key Moments in the History of Comics is almost entirely unrepresented here (over the years, I’ve managed to smuggle a few of his short strips into translation-focused literary journals like Two Lines and the Arkansas International). Ever the eccentric, he’s no stranger to experiment and wordplay; you might call Une affaire de caractères [A Case of Characters], Ayroles’ murder mystery set in a city of writers, printers, and crossword fanatics, his audition for this gig.

Alexandre Clérisse is, of course, the pop-art wunderkind behind IDW’s Atomic Empire and Diabolical Summer, two graphic novels scripted by the erudite Thierry Smolderen, as well as his own Bugle Boy andScattered Pages. I remember him, shortly after our only encounter so far, at a festival in Manhattan Beach, standing riveted before a diner’s display case of tiki memorabilia. His retro palettes are well-suited to profiling Roger Excoffon, the James Bond of typographers whose work is immortalised in the Air France logo.

Jake Raynal’s strips have been a staple of satirical French comics mag Fluide Glaciale for 25 years, and I’m proud to have debuted him in English at Words Without Borders. Here he adapts his M.O. from his true-crime parodies Les Nouveaux Mystères, a faux-objective presentation undercut by mordant captions, to document the desktop publishing revolution that put fonts in the citizens’ hands.The prolific Hervé Bourhis, alternately writer (Space Warped from BOOM!) or artist (Heavy Metal from IDW’s Little Book of Knowledge series), does double duty here, packing the page with densely detailed microhistories of Eric Gill’s London Underground sign and Futura’s journey from the Third Reich to Wes Anderson.

The book covers lots of fonts that will be well known to readers — was there a particular story that was especially surprising to you?

My two takeaways from this book are actually somewhat meta: the first being that nonfiction is where it’s at in comics. I’ve been saying this for years now, but you know it’s true when the Gray Lady agrees. Lately, I’ve done almost nothing but biographies (Georges Sand, Orwell, Alice Guy, Isadora Duncan) for SelfMadeHero. Some of the most exciting work out of France in the last decade has been nonfiction, whether from superstar pop science explainer Marion Montaigne (the Mary Roach of French cartoonists) or award-winning quarterlies like La revue dessinée and Revue XXI, home to long-form comics journalism. In fact, EVERYTHING in La revue dessinée (where Bourhis is a regular) is in comics form, from recurring columns to reviews. They even have a sister publication for news-hungry teens, Topo. I find the research impressive and the global focus refreshing: Uber in Europe! Erdogan’s Turkey! Lebanese Civil War! International cocaine mules! Threats to the Sami people! A psychiatric retreat for burnt-out French cops! French Guiana's equivalent of “Indian schools”! And a lot of these later become books. Claire Alet and Benjamin Adam's comics adaptation of economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology was first serialised there. With help from Adam's clean, Ware-like line, reporter Alet effectively dramatises Piketty’s history-spanning ideas through a multi-generational family portrait. In vain have I tried stateside to find a regular or even one-off home for my favourite longform stories… but this may, again, be a discrepancy of funding. I mean, here the US we have… The Nib. Which has, despite founder Matt Bors’ valiant efforts, died twice.

The other is that typography and translation, long overlooked, are becoming more visible. The internet gives individuals a venue to geek out about them — the beginning of community. They’ve both been dismissed for affecting only form, not content — a reskinning of invariant meaning. But as our culture shifts to recognise how porous the border between the two really is, more attention has been paid to how changes once considered merely skin-deep affect our perception, and hence our experience — that changes to perception are changes to experience. Or to put in therapy-speak, you can’t change other people’s behavior, but you can change how you feel about it. And the first step is awareness. Computer scientist Stuart Russell has said that with the advent of artificial general intelligence, we’ll all become therapists — or as he puts it in his Reith lecture, “better at being human.” (I’d hope that happens in a world fairer for emotional labourers.) Typography, translation — awareness of these and other disciplines that, by negotiating interstices, inflect perception, enables a fuller experience of being human.

Edward Gauvin’s top five European graphic novels in translation:The Labyrinth, by Guido Buzzelli (translated by Jamie Richards)Last of the Atlases, script by Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen de Bonneval, art by Hervé Tanquerelle and Frédéric Blanchard, with colours by Laurence Croix (translated by Edward Gauvin)Irmina, by Barbara Yelin (translated by Michael Waaler)Dirty Thirty: Thirty Years of Making a Scene (special anniversary edition of Stripburger magazine 1992–2022)ABC of Typography, words by David Rault, art by Seyhan Argun, Aseyn, François Ayroles, Hervé Bourhis, Alexandre Clérisse, Olivier Deloye, Libon, Delphine Panique, Jake Raynal, Anne Simon, and Singeon (translated by Edward Gauvin)You can read about all five top picks here:

Edward Gauvin
The translator of more than 400 graphic novels, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Lannan foundations, PEN America, and the French and Belgian governments. His award-winning work has featured in the New York Times, Harper’s, and the Guardian. Comics he has translated have received over twenty Eisner nominations and two Batchelder Honors from the American Library Association. Among his recent publications are an intellectual autobiography of his pen name in McSweeney’s Quarterly, and Doctor Moebius and Mister Gir, Numa Sadoul’s collection of career-spanning interviews with the late comics master, part of Dark Horse comics’ Moebius library.

Interested in the Sopie Castille Awards? Click here to read more about last year's winner - Michele Hutchison for Barbara Stok's The Philosopher, the Dog, and the Wedding - on the LICAF website!