It is often assumed that meticulous planning, scriptwriting, sketching and preparatory breakdowns are essential stages in the making of any comic. Few artists would dare to trust a large element of improvisation in their process, but this is one of the key methods of the Swiss graphic novelist Frederik Peeters. He enjoys developing the alchemy between words and pictures intuitively on the page, still thinking and deciding as he creates, not so much ‘automatic drawing or writing’, but definitely not over-preparing it all beforehand in detailed scripts and rough layouts. Ideas, images and texts seem to flow from his mind and memories through his hand and pen into ink and onto panel after panel. Peeters dares to leap into the unknown with each new experiment, whether working solo or in collaboration. The results are breathtaking; like him, we can’t tell where the story and art will takes us next.
This method began in his candid autobiographical breakthrough, Blue Pills (2001), where he chose to record his immediate relationship with a woman and her three-year-old son, both of whom are HIV-positive. “I wanted to cleanse and challenge myself,” he says. “I needed a very close subject to draw fast without pencilling, writing directly in the comics language. It’s a very exposed way of working without much preparation.” The result was a detailed diary of living and loving with HIV, both public and intimate, made all the more compelling for its naturalness and lack of sentimentality.
The unsettling effects of a fantastical affliction on a family and other tourists vacationing on a remote coastline were the subject of Peeters’s graphic novel Sandcastle (2010), written by French documentary filmmaker Pierre Oscar Lévy. In an increasingly chilling, John Wyndham-esque timewarp, the holidaymakers and their children find themselves rapidly and uncontrollably ageing, forcing them to confront their personal issues and mortalities at short notice. “It’s a tale about the fourth dimension, with a strong sociocritical and philosophical side to it. Pierre wrote an explanation, but I dropped it, as I preferred to keep it more enigmatic.”
For the solo psychodrama Pachyderme, the third book in Peeters’s considerable catalogue to be translated into English, he has heightened the enigmas and taken his improvisatory techniques still further. “When I write the story myself, I always write directly onto the page, with no script. If something becomes very clear, I don’t restrain myself, I go with the flow.” Like in a David Lynch movie, his Fifties 1950s leading lady is Carice Sorrel, a concert pianist who abandoned her career for a childless marriage that she has now decided to leave. Searching through a huge hospital for her husband, who has been injured in a car accident, she encounters babies she can never have, a penis-nosed secret agent, an elderly reanimated corpse of her future self, and an alcoholic, womanising, big-game-hunting surgeon who is stealing gold teeth and trafficking in state secrets.
“Pachyderme hovers between romanticism, espionage and dreamlike symbolism. It’s not comfortable or easy to read, but I hope it leaves a lasting impression.” It certainly impressed Moebius, another brilliant improvisor in comics, from the seminal Airtight Garage serial in Métal Hurlant magazine to his five volumes of giddy, free-form play in Inside Moebius. The late French master of bande dessinée praised Peeters in a lengthy book review of Pachyderme, which serves as a foreword to the English edition. Moebius wrote here, “I want artists to take me far from every sensation I’ve ever felt before, into territory that is less the perversion than the reflection of some intimate, forceful urge.”
A fourth Peeters graphic novel, Koma (below), has also been translated in 2012, by the Humanoids in the USA and by USharp Comics, an imprint of Highland Books, in the UK. Its 280 pages compile six albums released over six years, from 2003 to 2008, and written by fellow Swiss Pierre Wazem. On a drab, industrialised, pseudo-Dickensian alien world, a bright young girl named Addidas is liable to brief fainting spells which can cause trouble while she is assisting her widowed father in his competitive chimney-sweep business. When Addidas ventures too far, she stumbles across a strange long-armed monster, part of a secret underground race which is somehow running the life force of the entire city. It’s a darkly poetic parable about self-determination and belief in change.
‘Motionless’, Peeters’s new improvised strip for ArtReview magazine (below) leads us again into unexpected territory. On the morning he was set to improvise it, his wife happened to tell him about a dream the night before of their eight-year-old daughter becoming pregnant, and this became his catalyst. In correspondence with Peeters for this new strip, I asked if I could see any advance sketches and he replied, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to send you a rough, because I’ll certainly improvise something strange, almost frame by frame, I don’t know yet, but I seldom do roughs. Or tiny cryptic things only readable by myself.” What he did send me was the script, so that I could proof the English for his dialogues. From there, I could only try to imagine what images he might conjure up to accompany them.
When the finished ‘Motionless’ came through, Peeters wrote further to me about its improvisation. “I love to improvise. But to do so, it’s always better to have a starting point, especially if you only have two pages to express yourself in. So the morning I decided to work on this, my wife woke up with a dream in her head. A dream about our eight-year-old daughter being pregnant. In her dream, she was worrying about how this little girl would endure giving birth. I thought it was funny because as a father, I would have rather thought something like ‘Who fucked my daughter?!’ I had my starting point. I mixed it with vague memories of the movie Notre histoire with Alain Delon. He’s sitting in a train when the film starts. Nathalie Baye sits next to him and says: ‘I will tell you a story. It’s the story of a man sitting in a train…’. I wrote the dialogues, cut them into frames, played with the rhythm, the silences. This is where the improvisation takes place, where a distance appears between the text and the images, where you can play with the subtext.
“The rest is technique. Coloured inks with pen and brushes for the background, and on separate sheets the characters in brush and black ink. And at the end, a lot of work with the computer to mount everything and add some final colours. My English publishers, SelfMadeHero, asked if it was possible to do something connected with the two books they translated, Pachyderme and Sandcastle. I told him it would be rather difficult, and that I would first try to do something connected to myself. The strange and unexpected result is that it is connected at the same time to my personnal obsessions and to both of the books!”
This Article partially appeared in the October 2012 issue of Art Review magazine.