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Dupuy & Berberian:

A Double-Barrelled Partnership

In a variation on Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted comment about London, I propose: ‘When a man [or woman] is tired of comics, he is tired of life’. The main reasons why most people give up reading comics are because they grow out of them and/or grow bored with them. I’ve seen it happen to friends of mine, when they plug that final gap in a superhero run or wind up buying the latest issues only to double-bag them without even opening them. As the years go by, it’s also not always easy explaining your expensive hobby to parents or partners. Ask Nicholas Cage, or anyone who’s Mum got rid of their prized collection.

In that respect, I’ve been lucky. Back in the mid-Seventies, when the Marvel and DC duopoly of American comics, and my interest in them, were at one of their lowest ebbs, along came 2000AD, Heavy Metal and the birth of independent U.S. comics to offer me fresh ideas and visions, comics I could continue to grow up with and it’s never stopped. These days, there’s so much more choice out there, I believe that if you keep your eyes and mind open, you’ll find the comics to speak to you your whole life through.

Dupuy & Berberian Self-portraits

Sometimes creators face these crises too. After closely collaborating for a decade, two Parisian bande dessinée auteurs Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian were also asking themselves why they carried on producing their albums. Now that they were thirty-something, husbands and fathers, they wondered whether the medium, so associated with their childhood and adolescence, could accommodate the themes they wanted to develop next. As adults, wasn’t it time to put away such childish things? Wouldn’t a film or a novel be more suitable?

To face up to these questions, they each agreed to keep a solo ‘secret diary’ in comic form, recording their feelings and experiences while crafting the third of their colour Monsieur Jean albums. The result is Journal d’un Album, one of the most honest and engaging autobiographical graphic novels in the genre and a fascinating ‘behind-the-scenes’ glimpse into the creative process (to be published in English as Maybe Later from Drawn & Quarterly in summer 2006).

Some 120 pages of funny and touching revelations confront how and why, despite all the obstacles, they continue to pour so much effort into making comics. It certainly isn’t for the money. Their stylish, attractive illustrations are highly in demand (you might have noticed their campaigns for the Nicolas wine shops) and bring in 90% of their income, allowing them to devote 90% of their time to their much poorer-paying B.D. passion.

One answer lies in their partnership of nearly twenty years, surely one of the most unusual in comics. We’re used to long-term close collaborations between a writer and an artist in this business, but it’s almost unique for two complete writer-artists to contribute both to the story and the art and work together so reciprocally and harmoniously, that they can’t tell who did what. Their freeform working method mystified their readers so much, they made fun of it by exhibiting mock-elaborate miniature mechanisms, for example showing mannequins of them both operating a single giant pencil. Some people have mistaken Dupuy-Berberian as one person with a distinguished hyphenated surname; actually since 1984 it’s become a sort of third person, a fusion of the two of them, a sum greater than the parts, almost another ‘entity’.

Monsieur Jean

Since 1989, their principal character has been Monsieur Jean, starting out like them as a big-nosed, big-hearted bachelor boy in his twenties. He becomes a modestly successful novelist, and, as their Journal discloses, a combined alter ego through which a lot of their personal experiences are filtered.

Two of his early short stories were translated in Drawn & Quarterly Volume 2, #4 and #6. In the first, Jean bumps into a former lover, now married and pregnant, with her overprotective hubby in tow. Chance remarks transport Jean back to their relationship and what might have been, like a wistful coda to his years of dating and staying single. The second opens on Jean’s 30th birthday and mixes a promotional shindig to Lisbon with his losing the book of poetry given by his grandfather which first inspired him to write. Kept safe inside it is a letter he wrote when he was still a teenager to his future self, aged thirty.

The first full-length Monsieur Jean album,  all 54 pages, appeared in English in Drawn & Quarterly Volume 3. The skill with which Dupuy
and Berberian interweave the various storylines and recurring metaphors, from a Japanese legend to the tragic fate of a painter, appears effortless. The sheer flexibility of comics allows them to jump from the mundane to the surreal, mirroring the way we all make leaps of thought. The story marks a turning point as Jean finally decides to make a commitment and follow his girlfriend Cathy to New York. The next instalment appeared in D&Q Volume 5, as Jean, now a papa, makes a family visit to Paris with their baby. He becomes embroiled in his impossible flatmate’s problems raising on his own the son from a previous relationship of his former girlfriend. Beginning in 2006, publisher Drawn & Quarterly will be reprinting the Monsieur Jean stories in a series of separate graphic novels, starting with Get A Life.

It’s a far cry from that earlier prolonged post-adolescence, both of Jean and of Dupuy and Berberian. They once admitted, ‘It seemed important to us to use the character of Monsieur Jean to try to move forward in our own lives. We adapt what we and our friends are living through to find stories for this poor guy, who serves us as an outlet for our day-to-day troubles.’ Jean looks set to grow older and grow up in tandem with his co-creators, and with his readers. To me, that’s the appeal of their comics - they are putting their own lives into them, by living their stories before they tell them to us.

Dupuy & Berberian Self-portrait

Posted: April 16, 2006

The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.

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