Etienne Davodeau has been publishing both fiction and non-fiction comics in France since 1992, several of which have become bestsellers and award-winners. His most recent book — and first to be published in the United States with an English language translation — is “The Initiates” from NBM Publishing. The book is a true story, documenting a year that Davodeau spent working with wine-maker Richard Leroy. At the beginning, Davodeau knew little about how wine is made and Leroy knew almost nothing about comics.
Over the course of the year, the pair talk with wine-makers and artists, and walk each other — and the reader — through the process of making a bottle of wine and producing a book, as well as the why behind each of their respective professions. The result is a fun and masterful book about art and passion and what it means to work and live. CBR News spoke to Davodeau about the book, his work, wine and life.
CBR News: To start with, would you introduce yourself to American readers who are less likely to be familiar with your work? Talk a little about your background and what is it that drew you to comics.
Etienne Davodeau: I was born in 1965, in a village in the West of France. I grew up in a politically active blue collar environment which I portrayed in my book “Les Mauvaises Gens” (“The Bad People”). I always loved drawing, storytelling and books which are, in my view, one of the most beautiful inventions of the human species. In the intersection of these three interests, quite naturally, lies comics.
I’m curious, what was the book you did just before “The Initiates?”
Before “The Initiates,” I wrote and drew “Lulu Femme Nue” (could be translated as “Gertrude, Lady Nude”), which tells of a woman who leaves her family to just hit the road. This book is being done into a movie by the Icelandic-American director Solveig Anspach.
Where did the idea for “The Initiates” come from?
I know the winemaker Richard Leroy for quite a few years. His conception of wine, the rapport he has with his vineyard was interesting to me for years. That guy has enormous knowledge of wines the world over. So, excellent casting, you could say! And so the day I heard that, at 50, he had never read any comics, I got the idea for this cross-initiation. Which is why “The Story of a Cross Initiation” is the subtitle of the book in French.
Why were you interested in following a winemaker as opposed to another profession?
I live in the same village as Richard, in the vineyards of the Coteaux du Layon, near the Loire. It was a chance for me to immerse myself in the profession of these people I come across every day. But of course, you could have this same experience with other professions which are also very “drawable” and “tellable.” So for example, in the house next to me a violin-maker just moved in. To see violins being born through his hands is absolutely fascinating.
What made Richard the person you wanted to learn from and teach?
Richard is almost my neighbor. He’s a winemaker who’s not just content making an agricultural product, wine, and selling it. His ambitions are much more global. Wine, according to Richard, is not just an alcoholic drink made from fermented grapes. It’s first a link between nature and man, and then a link between men. A kind of social and cultural object. And I wanted to take advantage of his “virginity” when it comes to comics to tell of his discovery of this art which has been occupying my days for more than 20 years.
What surprised you most about the process of making wine?
It requires competency in many different areas: geology, biology, meteorology, cooking, etc. It’s also, for those winemakers renouncing chemical procedures, incredibly hard work, physically. I spent a year and a half in Richard’s vineyards and I participated in all the stages of the work. I can tell you emphatically: wine is more tiring than making comics.
There are a lot of similarities between being a winemaker like Leroy is and being an artist, trying to create something personal and something that’s not for everyone. Is that something you were conscious of before starting the project?
Yes, before doing this book, when I heard Richard talk of the world of wine, I told myself often that I could say the same thingsÂ by just replacing the word “wine” with “comics.” And it’s, among other things, to verify the existence of these parallels that I launched into this adventure.
As I mentioned, most American readers aren’t overly familiar with your work, but from this project alone it seems you take great joy in drawing the landscapes in the book. Do you enjoy it and has this long been an interest of yours?
I live in the countryside. I like very much drawing landscapes. Vineyards, with their straight lines, are all the more pleasant to draw in that they underline the curves of the landscape and so, to some extent, they facilitate the task. Vineyards draw the landscape with us.
You like to alternate between fiction and nonfiction and many of the conversations with people in the book, both winemakers and artists, talk about the need for different kinds of work in our lives. Richard loves every aspect of his work and every stage of the process, many of the artists talk about the different kinds of work they do. Does working on both fiction and nonfiction fulfill that for you and do you think that is it important to do different kinds of projects?
Yes, that’s fundamental for me, like breathing. A documentary book is an enormous amount of work where, to the usual steps of a graphic novel (script, layout, drawing and eventually color) you add those of documentation, interviews and time spentÂ on those places, for “The Initiates” in vineyards, cellars, and in all those — happy! — trips. Once I’ve finished this kind of book, I’m often exhausted. Then I feel like creating a piece of fiction where I work by myself in my studio. And then after those months of solitude, I again feel like getting some air, I again am hungry for meeting people and to start another documentary.
What are you working on now and what projects are you starting to think about?
I’m presently workingÂ on a book happening at the Louvre Museum. Very different from vineyards. [This is next title in the Louvre series NBM has been publishing.] My French publisher Futuropolis has an agreement with the museum which gives me free permanent access. I’m spending a lot of time there. I can go there when it’s closed, even at night. An incredible luxury which I’m not shy to enjoy. I’ve imagined the story of a guard who meets people planning a burglary “in reverse.” In other words to get a painting in. It’s an ugly painting done by one of their ancestors, and these people who are not very sensitive to the world of art, don’t understand why the Mona Lisa, for example, has the right to be there and not their little painting by their ancestor. It’s a comedy. I’m having a lot of fun. It will be published in France November of this year.
As a final question, I have to ask, has working on the book made you more particular about the wine you drink?
Nope! And that’s horrible! While drawing “The Initiates,” I spent two extraordinary years. I met fascinating people, I had good laughs with my bud Richard, and I learned a ton of stuff. That includes finding out my taste bud capacity is quite limited. But I haven’t given up on getting better. Richard’s helping me. I make him read comics, and we still open lotsa bottles.
Thanks to Stefan Blitz and everyone at NBM for making this interview possible.