Dupuy-Berberian: A double-barrelled partnership

“Dupuy-Berberian: A double-barrelled partnership” / Comics-International / Paul Gravett / April 29, 2003

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.

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, out this summer in English from Highwater Books.

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
(www.beeldbeeld.org). 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'.

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, Numbers 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 appears this year 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.

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.




 

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