Magritte Comic Book Biography Captures the Artist's Surrealist Spirit

The subtitle of Magritte: This is Not a Biography isn’t kidding around. The graphic novel, on sale this week from London-based publisher SelfMadeHero and Abrams Books’ Art Masters series, does fill readers in on details of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte’s life, but the thrust of the book is clearly on conveying to readers the whimsy and absurdism of Magritte’s acclaimed paintings.

Writer Vincent Zabus and illustrators Thomas Campi bring a new approach to the Art Masters series line, which has previously chronicled the lives and artistry of Gauguin, Picasso, van Gogh and more. By letting the themes of Magritte’s paintings drive their narrative, Zabus and Campi have created a book that goes far beyond the traditional biography and authored a piece of art that is a true extension of their subject’s own work. Packed with wit, humor, and gorgeous painted illustrations, Magritte: This is Not a Biography takes readers into the experience of Magritte’s brilliance.

CBR spoke to Thomas Campi about the creation of the book, the team's focus on Magritte’s creativity, the blending of art styles and his upcoming biography of Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

CBR: How did you each get involved with the Art Masters series, and how did René Magritte become your subject?

Thomas Campi: This project was commissioned by Lelombard, which is based in Brussels, Magritte’s city, and they wanted to celebrate the painter with a bande dessiné. They contacted Vincent to pitch some ideas . We worked with Lelombard before, between 2011-12 for our first collaboration Les Petites Gens. After six years of collaboration and many conversations about movies, comics, books and art in general, he knew very well how much I love surrealism and dreamlike atmosphere, and that’s probably why he proposed me to work on this book.

How familiar were you with Magritte’s art and life prior to working on this book?

René Magritte’s always been one of my favorite painters and a big inspiration. It has nothing to do with his precise and classic technique; it’s all about the way he plays with objects, light, composition, oneiric and suggestive ideas. I’ve always been fascinated by his artwork. I love the simplicity and calm that his paintings communicate. He’s giving us a visual suggestion, not necessarily something we can relate to, but more something we can dream about.

That is something I try to do with my own work. I might say that all my effort goes into giving the reader a suggestion, a mood, a moment in time. My drawings are not realistic, not in a classic (academic) way at least, and I’m frankly not interested in such style. All I care about is giving the impression of something that reader can interpret/feel, not a perfect representation.

You capture the spirit of his work more specifically than his biographical details -- although those are there too. How much time was spent researching his work to capture than authenticity?

I always loved Magritte and already knew his work, but I took this opportunity to study his work thoroughly. I bought a book here in Sydney and I read more about him whilst having a closer look at the artwork. I’ve also been lucky enough that just before starting to work on this book I was in Brussels to present “Macaroni!” (again in collaboration with Vincent), so I took the time to visit by myself the Magritte’s Museum. Having the chance to see his paintings in real life, as well as photos, videos and letters was really insightful, probably what helped me the most in the making of the BD.

Was it difficult to find an approach to the book that paid tribute to his work while also presenting the clinical biographical details?

When I first started making characters studies and storyboards I felt a bit of pressure -- doesn’t happen everyday to work on a project about one of your favorite artists and a master of surrealism nonetheless. Then I thought that my artwork didn’t have to be perfect -- I had no intention to simply reproduce his style (except when needed like for some of his paintings). I was making a BD, it was my and Vincent’s project, it wasn’t a biography and it was not just about the painting. Once I understood that, every page I created was pure fun.

You integrated Magritte’s paintings into your artwork so effectively. How conscious of echoing his style were you?

I think I was echoing his style only when needed. If you take in consideration the panels with Charles where there’s no visual representation of Magritte’s past or artwork then you can see my style.

You work Magritte’s paintings into the story frequently. Do you have a particular favorite? Were there any pieces of his art that you wanted to include, but didn’t fit the themes of this book?

One of my favorite paintings is "The Empire of Light." I find it poetic and it really speaks to me, maybe because I daydream a lot. I would have liked to include "Golconda" -- every time I look at it I think it’s funnily creepy and can’t stop looking at all those well dressed men falling down the sky like rain, or maybe they’re flying?

How closely did you work together to match the visual homages to Magritte to the playfulness of the script? By that I mean, did you each propose different visual nods while working through Vincent’s script, and Vincent, did the script shift to accommodate Thomas’s visual suggestions?

When Vincent proposed to make a book about Magritte, I immediately imagined the book painted, no line work, no ink, just colors. The transition came kind of natural. I started working on the first pages without knowing what kind of direction I would have taken, but that was also the plan. I thought, “I’m just gonna sit down and paint.”

The steps were simple: I did storyboards, but no penciling because I didn’t want to define everything with a line, not even in the first steps of the creation of the page, then I painted over the storyboards. Even though it’s all digital, the process was somehow traditional. My mindset was the same as when I paint on paper, building every figure and background with colors, contrast, light and composition.

This is your third collaboration. Was the working relationship different from previous efforts?

The way me and Vincent work is perfect, at least for me. Before we begin working on a book we always talk a lot about it, and that happened also for Magritte. The scenario he writes gives me all the freedom I need. Most of the time he simply describes what is happening, but I get to decide part of the storytelling, if making a panoramic view or a zoom in / zoom out. For example page 11 (the splash page) in the script was actually a page with 8 panels. I combined a few elements, cut others, and made a splash page. We both change each other’s work - I make small changes on his script, he does the same on my storyboards.

I like to think about this book as a sort of jam session where me and Vincent, played together while thinking about Magritte. It’s a bit like jazz.

What’s next for you?

I’m about to finish a graphic novel in collaboration with writer Julian Voloj. The final title should be Joe Shuster -- Truth, Justice and the American Way. It’s about Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, co-creators of Superman, their life, misadventures, the birth of superheroes and the American comic book industry. It’ll be published in seven languages so far.

With Vincent I have a new project, the script is done and I’ve done a few studies and four test pages. We’ll see where it goes.

Magritte: This is Not a Biography is on sale now.

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