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Interview with Alex Alice

As you look forward to the American release of Alex Alice’s graphic novel Siegfried II: The Valkyrie (available May 21 from Archaia), read an interview with his translator, Edward Gauvin. Here, he discusses working in different formats, the challenges of fantasy, and some of his favourite French and American comic artists.

What else has Alex Alice been up to recently? As part of the Picture This! Festival, he met with his American counterpart, Ron Wimberly, for a lively discussion on comic book adaptations. The two artists talked about their artistic processes and the strong influence of music and poetry on their work (the pacing of Wagner’s overtures in the beginning of Alice’s books, hip hop and Shakespearean meter for Wimberly).  After the event, Wimberly and Alice continued their conversation while exploring the treasures of Butler Library’s extensive (and constantly growing) comics collection, under the direction of Karen Green.

Edward Gauvin: You’ve worked extensively in two fields that seem at opposite ends of the technological spectrum: animation, which embraced digital tools early on, and comics, which perhaps faces more challenges than most print media in adapting to the digital format. As someone whose canvas is clearly the page, and not the panel, what do you think of digital comics? Do you see sequential storytelling—your own, or others’—being changed by digital platforms? Given your apparent preference for 2D animation, what do you find exciting or frightening about the emerging digital form?

Alex Alice:  What most digital comics do now is just to simulate the print reading experience, either by simply reproducing the page or by simulating the eye’s movement from panel to panel. This might save space in your living room but it is of little to no creative interest. On the other hand, for original “native” digital comics, the possibilities are fascinating and I’m sure we’ll see a lot of great titles in the future. I thought about exploring that for my next project, but frankly I’m not done with the possibilities of print. There are still a number of formats and experiences I’d like to make while I can. Plus I love books, bookshops and booksellers and I’m appalled by Apple’s censorship policies, so right now I’m taking the opposite direction and trying to make comics that take the full advantage of the printed medium and provide an experience you couldn’t have on a tablet. Without some idiotic Big Brother interfering and promoting self-censorship.


EG: Congratulations on winning the Spectrum Gold for your Siegfried III cover! You’ve done a fair amount of cover work, and you have a gift for iconic or emblematic images that compress a great deal of story into a single image. How do you find the discipline of illustration differs from that of sequential storytelling? Are there different narrative goals and constraints?

AA: Definitely, they require very distinct perspectives and different talents. It’s just two different art forms, as distinct as comics and painting – only with marketing considerations thrown onto the palette.


EG: With Siegfried, you’ve gone straight to the source of high fantasy, an image bank that can seem overplayed in our day and age. You once mentioned the difficulty in depicting gods. Do you have any specific artistic strategies for balancing grandeur and kitsch in epic storytelling?

AA: I think the choice of the media is paramount. I feel that gods, for example, have trouble with cameras. They need a certain amount of stylization, which drawing can bring. If they get too realistic, we stop believing in them as gods – they barely make decent superheroes. I think this must have something to do with the ban on representing God in monotheism: we just need the abstraction. Other than that, I think that words like “Kitsch” are usually ways to describe a failed attempt at grandeur. This can get pretty laughable, but one has to remember the problem of failed grandeur is the failure, not the attempt. So my strategy is pretty simple : since I picked up this subject matter, I might as well just to go for it, get better at it - and if I fail, well, hopefully some of my intentions will come through. Anyway, it beats not trying. I much prefer that to the most common strategy: humor as a way of diffusing the ridicule, the Joss Whedon way. It can be fun, yes, but in the end it’s a cheap way to cover up weaknesses. I’ve used some pretty dumb gags in Siegfried, but I’m trying to use humor in contrast to the grandeur, not to distance myself or pretend I’m smarter than my material.


EG: What French graphic novels do you wish would be translated into English (apart from the rest of Le Troisième Testament, of course)? What are some French works, classic or contemporary, that you find it absolutely vital for Americans to read? In the spirit of exchange, are there any American comics artists or creators that you particularly admire? Has their work been translated into French yet? Could you give us a quick sketch of one of your favorite American comics characters?

AA: It seems that one of the greatest artists in the franco-belgian school is totally overlooked in the US : Franquin. This fantastic draftsman has had a tremendous influence in the comic genre, I think it’s fair to say that the popularity of his works Gaston Lagaffe and Spirou is on par with Asterix or Tintin, but he’s virtually unknown in America. In the adventure comedy genre, I’m a huge fan of writer Alain Ayrole’s work on fairy tales and swashbucklers “Garulfo” and “De Cape et de crocs”. As far as American artists go, Frank Miller has been a huge influence on me. Two of my favorite American creators are Jeff Smith and Mike Mignola, whose work is translated in French (Smith’s Bone was translated by Alain Ayroles, by the way). In the recent production I have been impressed with Joe Hill’s Locke and Key – currently available in French translation, I believe. Great story in the genre we call in French fantastique, a word that I believe has no real equivalent in English (“Supernatural” just doesn’t carry enough nuance).