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Spiritualism and Reality Intersect in The Smell of Starving Boys

It’s 1872 and a geologist named Stingely, looking to capitalize on the expanding frontier, leads an expedition into western Texas to map and catalog the region. Along with him is the reserved and dapper photographer Oscar Forrest and a whip-smart servant boy going by Milton. The trio have any number of real-world worries -- shadows from both Oscar’s and Milton’s pasts in the form of bounty hunters, Stingely’s dark secret agenda and suspicious Comanche natives -- with all those things coming together in a shamanistic, spiritual clash surrounding Oscar and Milton’s growing relationship.

The result is a stunning, visionary western graphic novel, The Smell of Starving Boys, by two highly regarded European creators and published in the United States by SelfMadeHero.

The Smell of Starving Boys is written by author and filmmaker Loo Hui Phang, whose film Panorama won the Prix Nouveau Regard at the Torino GLBT Film Festival. She is also an Angoulême prize winner for Prestige de l'uniforme. Frederik Peeters, best known for his comics Blue Pills (a memoir of living with HIV in the family), the David Lynchian Pachyderme and the sci-fi Aama, handles the art, capturing the vast landscapes of the frontier and the intimate human connections between two young people finding solace in each other.

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Phang and Peeters both took times out to speak with CBR about the book’s complicated sexuality, the meshing of the spirit world with the physical, and the draw of the American western for European creators.

CBR: The Smell of Starving Boys straddles the rational world and the spiritual world. How did that divide come to be the focus of your book?

Loo Hui Phang: After my research, I wrote the first two-thirds of the book in one go. I knew that the last third would be the culmination, with a fantastical twist. Because the fantastic is part of my culture. I had Buddhist schooling, which depicts great permeability between the material and invisible worlds. Which is the very relationship that The Smell of Starving Boys is about.

Frederik and I wanted to add a weird element in the western genre, to break the classical scheme and drag the story to an unknown territory. The fantastic was an interesting component that allowed us to explore the limit of the Western. Our book is also a reflection about the identity of western stories.

What made the American western frontier the right setting for exploring those themes?

Loo: I like taking a genre and making its tropes obvious, in order to subvert them. Usually, westerns are stories of men in a hostile environment. What interested me was to take these elements and do something else with them. I didn’t want to be a slave to the genre; I wanted to use the western to tell an intimate story.

The American western deals with different themes: colonization, wild/civilization, genocide, masculinity… All these themes were already in my previous books and some of them appeared in Frederik’s books, too. We could find a way to explore our intimate topics through a genre, a background that we’ve never addressed.

The settling of the west is a very mythologized notion in American consciousness, but there is a strong tradition of European creators (thinking specifically of Moebius’s Lt. Blueberry and Sergio Leone’s films) really digging into that historical setting to great effect, perhaps demythologizing it somewhat (yet leaving behind their own sense of myth -- the iconography of Clint Eastwood replacing that of John Wayne). Did you feel any connection to this storytelling tradition? Do you feel that there’s something different in the European perspective on the American frontier?

Loo: I saw lots of westerns as a girl, but I’m no scholar of the subject. I remember a few very powerful scenes, a mythic dimension that laid the foundations for a culture. It’s an epic genre that I find very moving, because it’s a lot like the wuxia movies I also watched a lot as a child. Though I’ve never been attracted to western in comics, even if they’re great. Certainly, my unconscious is marked by cinematographic sensations. So, I’ve never read Blueberry. But my gap prevented me from being influenced and copying Moebius/Giraud. When I wrote The Smell of Starving Boys, I wanted to reconnect with a cinematography feelings.

Certainly, European perspective is different from American western. The distance we have allows us to disobey the tradition, to twist Western stories and find a different way to tell them.

Frederik Peeters: In 1999, I published Les Miettes [Crumbs], written by Ibn Al Rabin. It was an alpine western -- admittedly, which flourishes like hit men and railroad charmers -- but the basics of the genre were there. I’m an enlightened amateur when it comes to movie westerns, especially when the usual elements are somewhat awry, hijacked, off-kilter. I also love the beauty of the images in classical westerns. In comics, I kind of skipped over that. Maybe because the approach to westerns there was too reverential. But I read the Blueberry series for the first time while prepping for this book. And I think there’s no beating Moebius.

Oscar and Milton both have skeletons in their closets that they’re fleeing, and their mutual attraction is apparent from the start. Amid the shamanistic aspects, you grounded the characters in very real motivations and desires. Does that help bring readers into the more supernatural aspects later on?

Loo: The stories I write are mostly emotional. I need to feel my characters as if they really exist. Somehow, they are a part of me, they’re made of my own emotions. The attraction between Oscar and Milton is the main narrative drive. I crafted a past to Milton and Oscar, in which their personalities, intentions and reactions are rooted. It’s very important that the readers feel empathy for them, are attached to them.

I think shamanistic aspect work differently. They resonate in the readers’ unconscious, without any explanation. They don’t need either logical or psychological structures. The readers can accept them instinctively. Something magical doesn’t need any argument. But at the end of the book, desire, emotion and spirituality finally merge and resonate in readers’ minds and bodies. It’s an organic empathy.

You develop a complex, non-binary take on sexuality and romantic relationships. You didn’t necessarily need to, but you gave a lot of pages to exploring Oscar and Milton’s connection and what it means to each of them. Does their attraction fit into the spiritual theme of the finale? Or was all that care put in simply to create fully realized characters?

Loo: What Frederik liked in the western story I proposed to him was the homosexual aspect. Homosexuality is the other element that subverts the Western genre. We liked the idea that the main character is not a virile guy, like in western tradition. It allows us to explore the masculinity theme differently. Western is a men’s world. But what happens if we add a feminine component? What kind of chemical reaction can we get?

Even if our main character is gay, we didn’t want to dive into gender topics. It’s more interesting for us to avoid binarity and make the story more complex. Frontiers (geographical, cultural, ethnic, sexual) are crossed, in every way.

Our book deals with notions of death and life, destruction and creation, desire and darkness. It’s about the end of a world (the Natives) and the beginning of another (capitalism). Desire between Oscar and Milton is the only bright thing that survives the destruction; it’s the most potent resistance to greed of materialism. Desire is a spiritual strength. Whatever it is, gay or heterosexual, desire is universal.

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Frederik, this is your first western. Was it a genre you were interested in exploring prior to this project?

Peeters: Not particularly, as I had other ongoing projects. Since Loo was completely responsible for all the writing, I started work with a script that was finished, organized, and precise. But right from my first read, the fantastical-shamanistic dimension set off powerful images in my head. That’s how it often is when a script clicks with me. The images come right away, and many of them remain intact, as if engraved, until I put them to paper.

How did you connect with each other for this story?

Loo: I’ve known Frederik ever since our early days with Atrabile. After J’ai tué Geronimo [I Killed Geronimo] appeared in 2007, he asked me to start thinking about a story we might be able to do together. Since I needed time, it wasn’t until two years later that I offered him a choice of three stories, one of which was this western. I got the idea after visiting the American Art Museum in Giverny, and seeing a fascinating exhibit about the photography expeditions in the western United States. It made me think of a chamber piece under the wide-open skies, where the surroundings, the weather, and Indians could play a direct part in the plot.

Peeters: Years went by, I did lots of other things, and then Loo showed up again with a script ready to go and written just for me. We decided to add an element and tighten things up, but I loved the story right away. There was inspiration in the air, and I felt that there was a place for me.

The Smell of Starving Boys is available now from SelfMadeHero.

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