Emmanuel's Travels: Guibert talks "Alan's War"

Emmanuel Guibert came to America one time before this April, and although the previous trip served as a research journey into the California towns where his friend and biographical subject Alan Cope grew up, he may be learning more this time. With a whirlwind tour that took him from Maryland's Washington College to New York City's PEN World Voices Festival and finally to this weekend's Toronto Comics Arts Festival, the French cartoonist's first North American book tour holds a treasure trove of stories for both readers and the artist himself.

Last year, Guibert's acclaimed graphic novel "Alan's War" hit American shores courtesy of First Second Books, and the critics exploded with positive responses. The book tells the story of Cope, an American G.I. who relocated to France after World War II, in his own words, accompanied by Guibert's drawings. The pair met by chance in 1994 and became fast friends with the older Cope regaling the artist with stories of his life.

"When I met him, the first thing that struck me was his talents as a storyteller, and that's what led me to do these books," Guibert told CBR News from his Toronto hotel. "I think if Alan would not have been 69 when I met him in '94 but 59 and had not lived through any war, his talent as a storyteller would naturally have driven me to cooperate and make stories with him. It's not because he told me a story of war that he interested me. It's because he just knew how to tell stories. Of course, I'm obliged to agree with the fact that in meeting this man, there were suddenly the answers to a lot of questions I had been dealing with before, and he was there like a provider of details and answers about periods of the past and events I was certainly highly interested in."

Cope passed away in 1999, but the friendship he shared with the cartoonist lives on through Guibert's book as well as his plans for further volumes on Cope's life and through the people he's met because of the work. "After his death, the choice to keep on telling [Alan's] story without him was a choice that was very important for me. It's not that I wondered whether I should continue or not. I always knew I should continue. I always knew it was a useful and essential reaction against the death of my friend. But I felt a real moment where you feel that you've been writing, keeping on working on the story of someone who's disappeared, and then you see readers coming to you and calling Alan by his first name and more. At that moment, you have the feeling that life keeps on going. It's a nice moment."

But beyond the multitude of fans and critics who have reached out to Guibert after reading the book, the artist has also been introduced to faces from Cope's past who lost touch after he relocated to France after the war. "One of the interesting things that has happened because of the volume about the war is that I've been able to reconnect with some people that are in the book, and they were 16 or 18 years old at the time, and now they're more than 80," Guibert explained. "I received quite recently news from one man who appears in the book, and someone picked up the book in America in a book store, flipped through it and said, 'Oh! I know this man!' They reached me, and told me about them. I've just spent four days in Ohio with someone he knew in 1945. We met and exchanged a lot of memories. They told me memories of meeting Alan in 1945, and I told them about the old man that he was. I like those sorts of exchanges. They're like a sequel or continuation of the story."

Guibert's next English language book, "The Photographer," hits comic and book stores later this month, and between "Alan's War" and the new volume's exploration of the work of photographer Didier Lefevre's chronicling the work of Doctor's Without Border's in 1980's Afghanistan, the artist is finding plenty of opportunities to share the stories that drive him as a creator with a whole new audience. And best of all, the creator finds that so many in the modern audience are no longer hung up on the novelty of serious real-life stories being told in comics form. "All these people are obviously talking about graphic novels to me, but the most satisfying thing to me is that they first of all talk about the topic, about the subject of the book. It may not be such a big deal today that the form is a graphic novel.

"What we discuss first in the case of Alan or 'The Photographer,' is memory, history, photographs, medicine, politics, etc. And this is what I appreciate the most. I'm always ready to talk about my work and am very eager to hear reactions and questions about the topics I'm working on. That's the most interesting part. The technique of the work and its history can be said in ten minutes. When that's said, what remains is the discussion of the subject. Really that's what's happened in America over the past few days, and I think the target has been hit several times. I met people who went straight to the heart of the story without worrying too much about how the story was told."

Of course, Guibert draws upon many different types of stories in his work, and First Second's reprinting of collaborative efforts like he and Joann Sfar's children's series "Sardine In Outer Space" or the pulpy adventure tale "The Professor's Daughter," have opened up a whole new audience to the cartoonists work. Guibert admits that creating so many different kinds of comics over the years has proven a strength he did not expect to find at first. "When I started in this job, I had the habit to work on one project and then another only after waiting for the first one to be finished first and etc., but I soon realized it wasn't the proper way to work for me because it would put too much emphasis and importance on each project from a nerves and stress point of view," he explained. "Around 1994, which was decidedly an important year in my life, when I met both Alan and the people who were to become my very best friends in France and who are comics authors more or less of my generation, some a little older like David B. and some a little younger like Joann Sfar. It's by sharing my days with these people because we were working side-by-side in workshops in Paris that I learned how to work on different projects at the same time, and I realized it was much healthier to have in front of me [multiple projects] like an oven with three of four courses cooking at the same time, trying to achieve each of them in a tasteful way. Now I wouldn't be able to work in a different way than to have a lot of things going on at the same time."

Next in his creative schedule comes the herculean task of telling the story of Cope's California childhood. "The good news is that war is over," laughed the cartoonist. "The story of Alan's childhood in terms of the amount of pages would be as important as the war is, so I have something like 250 or 300 pages ahead of me only about his childhood and his genealogy. I talk about his parents and his parents' parents, which will lead us to the Civil War in America. So, a lot remains to be told. The books about his childhood will be deeper and more universal than the one about his war. In a sense, I'm happy I started with the war because I certainly needed to be older to deal with the childhood and to have more experience. Now the moment has come to write the story, and as I'm writing I'm realizing I'm dealing with some essential questions in life.

"And when the story of his childhood is over, I'll carry a long beard and so will you," Guibert added, noting that in the long term a third volume on Cope may be in the works. "When it's over, I'd like to make a very last book about the old man I knew, which would be a book not with Alan saying 'I' but with me saying 'I,' and I already know that it won't be a comic or a graphic novel. It will be a traditional book of literature. Though I have done a lot of sketches when I was by his side, and I think those would be the perfect illustrations for such a project.

"And I think what's happened to me since his death is that the story is getting more and more interesting because I'm meeting more and more people - people from his own story are now people from mine. As I travel in his footsteps trying to reconnect with his past, this becomes a story in itself and an interesting one. I'm at the point where the story I've been writing for years now is obviously writing me. After accumulating the experience, there will come a time I guess when I will use all of that to conclude the story of Alan with a portrait of the man I knew and maybe a kind of self-portrait of the man I became thanks to him. We'll see."

Meet Emmanuel Guibert and many more comics creators from "Scott Pilgrim's" Bryan Lee O'Malley to "Understanding Comics'" Scott McCloud at this weekend's Toronto Comics Arts Festival.

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