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An Interview with Comics Collector Philippe Labaune

After 25 years in finance, Philippe Labaune turned his passion into a job by creating Art9, an association that aims to introduce European comics to the American public. From February 27 to March 7, at the Danese / Corey gallery (511 West 22nd Street, New York), he will organize Line and Frame: A Survey of European Comic Art, the first major exhibition of original European comic strips in the U.S. We asked him a few questions to better understand the specifics of European comics and their development since the era of the great Hergé (1907-1983).

French Culture: You have organized an upcoming exhibition on February 27 - March 7 at Danese/Corey (511 West 22nd Street in New York City), Line and Frame: A Survey of European Comic Art. This is the first comprehensive exhibition of original European comic art in the United States. Why, after 15 years spent collecting these strips, organize an exhibition now? Is it the end of your collection or just a step?

Philippe Labaune: The exhibition only features a few pieces from my personal collection and they will not be for sale. It took me too long to build it up and I am still active in the collectors’ market.

I don't think there is a collection in the world that could offer enough work with relevant artists to properly showcase 70 years of comic book history. Most of my collector friends choose certain artists, genres or periods that they love and focus on. Obviously I had to start the exhibit with Hergé. I will show, for the first time in the United States, two originals from Tintin. Unfortunately, I don't have a Tintin strip myself (but I would like to). Mr. André Querton, former Belgian Ambassador to the United Nations and Administrator of Dargaud, has very graciously lent us these two essential pieces. For an exhibition of this size that brings together 50 artists, I had to work with collectors, galleries, dealers, and directly with living artists.

French Culture: What is the specificity of European comics compared to American comics (Marvel, DC Comics, etc.)?

Philippe Labaune: European comics have long been produced directly for books, not for magazines and newspapers. For this reason, they target more varied and sophisticated audiences, including adults. This allows for more graphic and narrative innovation, whereas a significant part of American comic-books (not all) are produced by large companies for the exploitation of licenses; this system sometimes allows less freedom and creativity. Let's be clear, there is a lot of quality in American comics these days with artists like Windsor McCay, Jack Kirby, Frank Miller, and Chris Ware, but we are still too exposed to the world of DC, Marvel, etc.

French Culture: How do you explain the Franco-Belgian golden age of comics from the 1950s and 1960s?

Philippe Labaune: It was the post-war era and the emergence of a new generation, the baby boomers who craved entertainment before television had really taken hold. In Belgium, the weekly magazines Tintin and Spirou based on characters already popular before the war competed to attract new young readers. This paved the way for classics such as Alix, Gaston Lagaffe, The Smurfs, Blake, and Mortimer. In France, these same magazines were distributed by Catholic groups, which in turn incited the Communists to create their weekly Vaillant which later became Pif Gadget, inspired by American comic strips. Other classics like Rahan or Corto Maltese also appear. At the end of the 1950s, the Pilote magazine created by French authors and blacklisted by Belgian publishers became the crucible of Asterix, Blueberry, and Achille Talon. The magazine grew with its readers. Thus, Valérian was born at the end of the 60s, followed by authors such as Druillet, Bilal, Claire Bretécher (who has just passed away a few days ago...) and others who directly addressed a mature audience without creating iconic heroes. This new generation gave rise to new magazines, L'Echo des Savanes, Fluide Glacial, (A suivre…), and Métal Hurlant. Line and Frame aims to retrace this whole story.

French Culture: Moebius has greatly influenced cinema, sometimes by working directly for productions. What about his own influences? Were they cinematic?

Philippe Labaune: Moebius begins in Pilote by drawing Blueberry, which he signs with his real name Jean Giraud. He is then the successor of Jijé, one of the pillars of the Journal of Spirou for which he created another cowboy: Jerry Spring. Jerry Spring and Blueberry are sort of close cousins. However, the latter is shaped by other influences:  that of the western spaghetti on the one hand, and that of Tex Willer, the flagship character of the Italian comics known as Fumetti, on the other. When Jean Giraud takes Moebius for short stories, most often silent, he responds to the multiple influences of a counter-culture oriented towards psychedelia, which includes science-fiction literature as well as cinema and psychoanalysis. He then drew instinctively, like the automatic writing of a Jack Kerouac novel, but his route was spatial. In the mid-1970s, his meeting with the visionary Argentine filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, with whom he worked on an adaptation of Dune by Frank Herbert, was decisive. Between Moebius and Jodorowsky the influence is reciprocal.

French Culture: How has the recognition of "ninth art" progressed? Are comics fully considered today, or do they still suffer from a lack of legitimacy?

Philippe Labaune: In France, while 2020 has been declared the national year of comics by the Ministry of Culture, there are still some who oppose its artistic and institutional recognition. A visit to Angoulême, the Cannes festival of the comic strip in Western France that takes places each January, allows you to see the extent of the practice: museum, impressive exhibitions, quality meetings and debates, public success, visitors from five continents, impressive media repercussions, etc. But on this side of the Atlantic, even if the equivalents of Angoulême (the San Diego and New-York Comic Con) also attract an impressive public, the look is not the same in terms of quality and diversity. "Comic art" seems to be a concept that is still not widely recognized. Moreover, while there are many galleries specializing in comics from Brussels to Rome via Paris, there are hardly any in North America, except now for 15 days at the Danese-Corey gallery!

French Culture: What has digital technology changed in design and drawing? Do Hergé and contemporary designers still do the same job?

Philippe Labaune: Certainly. Digital technology is an additional tool for comic artists. Some are completely dedicated to it, some use it for specific tasks like coloring, and others prefer to stick to traditional tools. The most significant change with digital technology is based on the dissemination of works, with some readers only reading comic books, sometimes created with paper and pencil, like in the old times. This does not prevent me from also offering works by young artists like Mathieu Bablet or Pénélope Bagieu. Line and Frame is a glimpse of 70 years of creations, but also a glimpse of the future of the 9th art.

1 / Hergé, Tintin: The Castafiore Emerald, 1951, Strip/Black ink on paper, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy André Querton

2 / Enki Bilal, Vertebrati Couple II, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy Glénat

3 / Claire Bretécher, Les frustrés, Circa 1978, Illustration/Black ink on paper, 13 x 10 inches. Courtesy Glénat

4 / Moebius, Starwatcher, 1998, Illustration/Black ink and Watercolor on paper, 8 x 6 inches. Courtesy Jean Giraud

5 / André Franquin, Gaston: Hommage to 2 comic artists, 1972, Drawing/Black ink on paper, 8.5 x 6 inches. Courtesy Glénat

About Philippe Labaune
Over the past 15 years, Labaune has worked on building his personal collection of original comic pieces. After 25 years in the financial industry, Labaune sold his partnership and left to establish Art9. Labaune is a member of the Society of Illustrators and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

FEBRUARY 28 – MARCH 14, 2020
Opening reception Thursday, February 27, 6 to 8 pm