Your courses at the Collège de France contribute to the recognition of the 9th art. Is she in tension with her belonging to a form of subculture, of “bad gender” which offers her a lot of freedom but also plays tricks on her?
Benoit Peeters: The comic is not, first and foremost, a counterculture, even though it has included counterculture elements. Its path to legitimization is quite old, the notion of the 9th art appearing from the 1960s, when it already had its defenders.
Today, comics are likely to reach all audiences. Through milestones such as Persépolis, by Marjane Satrapi, L’Arabe du futur, by Riad Sattouf, or very recently LeMonde sans fin, by Christophe Blain and Jean-Marc Jancovici, we see that comics can spark debates society, without being dismissively sent back to his medium. It is not read primarily because it is a comic strip but for its ability to bear witness to the world.
Has comics always been intended for children, before addressing adults, from the 1970s?
B. P. : In fact, it began by addressing an adult audience in the 19th century, with the Swiss author Rodolphe Töpffer, inventor of the comic strip around 1833, who was encouraged by Goethe to publish his stories full of references and second degree . It is only, little by little, in the last century, in France and Belgium, that illustrated books intended for a childish public will appear, Cœurs vaillants, Tintin, Spirou… A prejudice is then created on comics considered as a substitute to “real books”.
The revival of adult comic strips was roughly contemporary with the creation of the Angoulême festival in the 1970s, when major magazines such as Next, Charlie monthly, Fluide glacial, Métal hurlant also appeared. They cross borders, free themselves from certain taboos, add a provocative dimension.
How do you react to the controversy sparked by Bastien Vivès’ exhibition in Angoulême, which was finally canceled after accusations of misogyny and child pornography on social networks?
B. P. : This case is trapped because it mixes three things. Bastien Vivès is a brilliant young author who has produced some remarkable albums, Polina or the Lastman series. His rapid rise may have caused annoyance.
Then, he made three albums in explicitly pornographic collections, more focused on the second than the first degree and sold in blister packs to an informed public. That these albums can offend, I completely understand. On the question of the representation, even burlesque, of children in situations of abuse and incest, there is no laughing matter, from my point of view, particularly in the context of the multiplication of cases of this nature. Last point: Bastien Vivès’ statements on social networks, including insulting attacks ad feminam, are indefensible.
However, it would be sad to make Bastien Vivès the scapegoat of a problem, that of sexism in comics, infinitely larger than him. For decades, albums, like those of Manara and a few others, have been sold everywhere and have not provoked such violent criticism, despite being the perfect embodiment of what is called “male gauze”, the objectifying reduction of the female body and sexuality to the male gaze. And let’s not talk about the many manga that circulate in the hands of children and teenagers, and convey, for some, the culture of rape and pedophile representations.
Is comics “an art of injured little boys”, as a character from the latest album by… Bastien Vivès puts it, taking place during the Angoulême festival?
B. P. : It has been made for too long by men, for men. Thirty or forty years ago, the atmosphere was quite macho, and the few female authors were not particularly well treated, often confined to shadow jobs, such as colorist. When the profession was feminized (about 30% of authors today), the designers wanted to deal with all subjects, without being assigned to their gender, but without reproducing all male stereotypes.
In 2016, 30 authors were finalists for the grand prize: no women! The Angoulême festival said that it was not up to it to rewrite the history of comics. But last year, Julie Doucet obtained this prestigious trophy, and, this year, Catherine Meurisse and Alison Bechdel are in the trio of finalists. Things are moving.
What do you think of the desire of certain authors to see Angoulême draw up a charter committing it to “carry out its future programming while respecting the rights of minoritized people”?
B. P. : I welcome the fact that stereotypes in the representation of minorities or gender relations are being challenged. That being said, the risk of a return to a form of moralism worries me. I believe there is a right to imagination and fantasy. Any work that only obeys specifications or a sense of duty would have lost its link with an inner necessity.
In the past, have comic strips been the subject of texts aimed at regulating it, or even censoring it?
B. P. : In the 1950s, in the United States, comics were accused of creating generations of delinquents, even triggering a comic book burning movement! To avoid government censorship, the publishers then created a label intended to erase violence and sex, which was akin to a form of self-censorship. In France, at the same time, the 1949 law on the protection of youth, passed by an alliance between Catholics and Communists, aimed to limit the influence of American comics.
Even if we should not reduce the polemics one to the other, we cannot help remembering this time, especially when we see the frightening return of censorship today, especially in the United States. States where books like Maus, Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece on the memory of the Holocaust, are withdrawn from certain public libraries.