Schrauwen Explores 'Freedomtown' in "Arsène Schrauwen"

Olivier Schrauwen made a big impression on comics readers when his short comics were published in the pages of "Mome" and in his 2011 collection "The Man Who Grew His Beard." His work, strange and surreal, bears the influences of many 20th Century comics, but with a distinctly contemporary voice. They're strange and moving, full of delusional characters, and show Schrauwen's skills a master storyteller.

His new book, "Arsène Schrauwen" -- out now from Fantagraphics -- is about a young man who journeys to the colonies where he gets involved with an insane scheme to build a utopian city called "Freedomtown." While in the jungle, he falls in love with his cousin's wife and comes down with a fever -- though describing the book in these terms only scratches the surface of what's going on.

CBR News: I liked "Arsène Schrauwen," but it really felt like a book where I need more time to ponder it.

Olivier Schrauwen: I feel like I need another year to ponder it before talking about it. [Laughs]

Where did the idea for this originate?

It began with deciding to get a notebook and start writing stories. When I used to make comics stories, I would start by drawing and I wanted to write a bit and just write whatever come to mind. It was very enjoyable, and the ideas came very quickly. I made a few stories in this one notebook and one of these was "Arsène Schrauwen." I just decided to make it into a comic.

I have to ask, because it purports to be about your grandfather, how much -- if any of it -- is true?

[Laughs] Well, nothing is literally true, but some things are more -- in an oblique way -- taken from either something my grandfather said or something I experienced.

It starts out as one kind of story and it keeps changing over the course of the book. Was that always your idea from the beginning?

The original thing I wrote down was almost the same as the book. The same structure. It's not a very elegant story -- almost a shaggy dog story where this happens and then this happens. I knew what would happen when I drew it, but in the moment, there were certain parts that were influenced by how I felt at that point. That's why it's shifting, and the mood seems to change abruptly sometimes.

There are two points in the book where you instruct the reader to wait before reading further. I have to admit that I did not do that, but it was an interesting approach. Why did you include that?

I wanted to control when somebody takes a pause in reading. I published it first, myself, in three parts. I built it in a way that you could read one part and then wait a few months and then read the second part and then the third part. Also I thought that this kind of absurd story wouldn't work as a long story. The absurdism would get tiring or you won't believe the strangeness.

By having that statement, even if people don't wait a week, they are pausing.

At least for one minute. [Laughs] There are other intentional pauses built in.

Can you talk a little about how you used color and how that evolved over the course of the book?

Because I was printing it first myself, I had this printer that could only do two colors at a time. This was a technical restriction, but if you transpose the colors, you can have quite a rich palette. I thought that the story is kind of crude, and things can happen very brusquely, so it might be best to have this very simple juxtaposition of blue and red. Also, I'm from Belgium, from Flanders, and I grew up with these comics that were made in the forties. They were printed in wartime or after, when there was often a shortage of ink, so some pages were just blue and some were just brown because that's what they had. I wanted to do something like that.

The first time you went from blue to red is when the temperature changes as he travels, which was great, but then you play with over the course of the book.

Yes -- it depends on the context. It can be different.

You said that certain aspects of the book are crude in how they're presented, but so much of the book is not.

Maybe. [Laughs]

The main character, Arsène, goes off to the colony, which is never named until the very end of the book.

I wanted it to be a space that's not very defined. The faces are not defined. It's this undefined space and you can read a lot into it. And "colony" has a certain menacing tone to it, I think. It suggests something that's out there that's hostile.

It's about how the Europeans think of the colony and treat like this tabula rasa space, even though it's not.

They're totally ignoring this reality of the Conogolese people living there. They're talking about freedom and their own freedom and completely ignore the people living there and what's going on. When you read it, I think you forget about it mostly. That's an irony of the story.

It has a certain fairy tale aspect to the story, which works because Freedomtown is so absurd.

[Laughs] It's unrealizable.

I'm curious, how do you describe the book to people?

I'm not able to do that. Even I'm confused. [Laughs] The cover has all these words, and that's what I think it's about. When I start a book, I don't start with a clear theme; it's a bunch of ideas that circle around each other and hopefully something develops.

What it's about is something that comes out through the process of making the book.

When I know it myself -- when I have a total grasp on what I'm thinking and feeling -- it feels kind of dead to me.

You can't think, I want to comment on this or address this idea.

It happens sometimes, but I try to avoid that.

Did you spend a lot of time designing this city they're planning?

The thing was that when he first sees this maquette, I wanted for it to look silly and absurd, but he also has to have a little enthusiasm for this project. I had to balance these two things so it was not just simply stupid.

It's insane, but it can't be completely insane.

I think about this whenever I hear about Brasilia or some city in India. I live in Berlin, and if I see a building individually, I appreciate the architecture, but everything together makes it pretty terrible. It's an enormous waste of energy and money and it doesn't have any organic life to it.

How did you hit on the ending of the book?

The ending? It's a kind of non-ending. What is he going to do afterwards? He's been through all these things, but they haven't been processed yet. All that lays in the future.

He went off, had an adventure, didn't get girl, and decides to go home

Yes, that's exactly what I wanted to say. Maybe he went through a certain kind of evolution, but it's almost unnoticeable.

And he returns home on a boat and finds his bicycle where he left it years before.

With his valise full of money. [Laughs]

Did you translate the book yourself?

I wrote it in English, and then my editor helped me clean it up a bit, but he said, let's keep it the way you wrote it. It's a little peculiar. It's fun to write in English because I have less words, so it's more simple than when I write in Dutch. Now I have to translate it from English to Dutch, so it all sounds like Google translate. [Laughs] I think it will make it a different kind of book.

You have another comic coming out next year from Retrofit, "Mowgli's Mirror."

This is an old comic I made years ago. I made it quickly, which you feel it when you read it, I think. I made it quickly and spontaneously.

How much of your work have we seen translated?

I think only my first book hasn't been distributed in America, which is "My Boy." Then there's all the work I made for magazines that were published in Belgium but never collected. I write a lot of small comics for magazines.

All of my comics have been absurd, with very broad characters and unrealistic situations. I would like to make something more realistic and specific, that's a bit closer to my life. I have to figure out how to go about it. That's what I'm working towards. I want to make realistic things. I like caricature and I like the fact that the book is absurd. I try to make them feel natural, but I'm attracted to the opposite.

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