View Full Version : The Twenty Best European Graphic Novels You Haven't Read (unless you're bilingual)

Jacob Lyon Goddard
05-25-2006, 08:19 AM
Nègres Jaunes by Yvan Algabé
("Yellow Negroes"), b&w. France: Amok, 1995.

The story in this elegant slim book revolves around a small family from Benin living and working illegally in France. Their lives are interrupted by a meeting with an elderly man named Mario, whose attempts to insinuate himself into their lives are constantly deflected. Throughout this novella Alagbé examines the economic and social instability of Africans in France — most effectively, perhaps, in the relationship between son Alain and his white girlfriend and her family — as well as the history of French colonial relations with African nations. Nègres Jaunes is a quiet tale that builds to a shattering climax in which the consequences of a life on the margins of a society are made all too apparent. Beyond the subject matter, Alagbé's strong rendering in stark black and white (alternating highly detailed images with drawings that are startlingly minimalist) and his willingness to abandon purely figurative representational styles in key moments make Nèlgres Jaunes one of the most memorable comics of recent years.
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Faune by Aristophane
b&w. France: Amok, 1995.

The success ratio of Aristophane, who passed away earlier this year, probably outstripped any of his contemporaries. His three major works, Faune, Conte Démoniaque ("Demonic Tale"), and Les Soeurs Zabime ("The Zabime Sisters") were each masterpieces, and he never produced a poor page of comics in his all-too-brief life. Faune illustrates what a brilliant a cartoonist he was. The book's hero, Faune, is a seethingly resentful pan-flute-playing forest fairy who adds spark to his boring life by killing women and young boys in the local village. The resulting conflict with the villagers is the thrust of the narrative, and the key to tale is the way Aristophane makes us both resent and pity this bored and self-indulgent figure whose constant petty betrayals and casual inhumanities fill the book's pages. In telling this story, Aristophane demonstrates uncommon visual deftness, deploying dynamic layouts filled with distinctively energetic inky brushwork. While virtually unknown outside of the French small-press scene, Aristophane had all the marks of genius, and his passing was a tremendous loss for the art form.
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L'Autoroute du soleil by Baru
("The Highway of the Sun"), b&w. Japan: Kodansha and France: Casterman, 1996

In the mid-'90's the giant Japanese publisher Kodansha began to take a strong interest in European comics, and offered several artists the chance to exercise unprecedented freedom in exploring long narratives. In the case of L'autoroute, crossing bande dessinée with manga resulted in the best of both possible worlds. French auteur Baru took the opportunity to unfold, across 430 pages, a remarkable social-realist buddy movie. A French-Algerian smooth operator named Karim Kamel and his admiring accomplice Alexandre are looking to escape their small-town frustrations, so they hit the road for the south of France, lured by fantasies of a glamorous life of crime. The sheer space of this book allows Baru, a gifted draughtsman and storyteller, to achieve a rare depth of characterization along with a narrative that feels as open as a highway. Sold back to Casterman, the book won the "best album" prize at the Angoul&eirc;me Festival in 1996.
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Le Voyage by Edmond Baudoin
("The Voyage"), b&w. Japan: Kodansha and France: L'Association, 1997

Le Voyage proved that L'Autoroute du soleil was no fluke for Kodansha — they knew what they were doing. When they hired the celebrated French cartoonist Baudoin, he decided to expand one of his earlier short works into a full-blown novel. Le Voyage tells the story of a man who is under such pressure that he deserts his work and family and disappears — a phenomenon by no means confined to Japan. In this tale of self-abandonment and rediscovery of one's relationship to the world, Baudoin's incredibly supple expressionistic brushstrokes brilliantly visualize the protagonist's shifting mental states, at times even symbolizing thoughts and moods as erupting out of the top of his head. This book shows how and why Baudoin has been such a strong influence on a generation of European cartoonists who have, in turn, influenced younger American cartoonists (e.g., Blutch and Craig Thompson). When Le Voyage was retranslated back into a French edition, it won the best story award at the Angoulême Festival in 1997.
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Peplum by Blutch
b&w. France: Cornélius, 2000

The lush, deft, inky drawings of French cartoonist Blutch have been a significant influence on the current generation of serious American cartoonists, primarily thanks to the mostly wordless series Mitchum. Blutch himself has been a bit of a schizophrenic artist, working in the "mainstream" for humor magazines like Fluide Glacial while also creating a body of complex and challenging "high art" comics, as well as paintings that have been exhibited in galleries internationally. Péplum is, to date, his long-form comics masterpiece: inspired by the Roman satirist Petronius's Satyricon, this tale is a strange quest narrative that also explores the nature of obsession and the traps and snares of politics. Péplum is a minor epic, told in a virtuoso fashion by a master draughtsman who has a near-perfect intuition for comics flow and timing. Rarely have such perfectly-constructed comic pages seemed so effortless, matching the perfect line with the serendipitous smudge.
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Léon la came by Sylvain Chomet and Nicolas de Crécy
("Leon, the Junkie"), color. France: Casterman, 1995

If the world depicted in the three-volume Léon la came series looks somewhat akin to that of the Academy Award-nominated animated film Les triplettes de Belleville, it would be because the books were written by that film's director and drawn by his influential one-time collaborator. This series, which won multiple awards at the Angoulême Festival, narrates the life of perhaps the most pathetic "hero" in the history of French comics, a put-upon loser whose life spirals inexorably down into the gutter. But, oh, what a beautiful gutter it is! De Crécy's artwork is a revelation, a lush series of watercolors applied over intricate, delicate linework. Each page is so sumptuous that it easy to forget that we the readers, like Léon, are being put through the wringer. The books move from the mundane to the fantastic in looping flights of whimsy, rarely settling in one space long enough for us to get comfortable. Léon la came asks us to draw the line between beauty and the abject, and that line proves remarkably difficult to pin down.
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Szenzhen by Guy Delisle
b&w. France: L'Association, 2000.

Named for the economic region of China in which the action unfolds, Delisle's autobiographical tale is one of the most gripping stories of cultural alienation yet produced in the comics form. In 1997, Delisle worked in mainland China as a supervisor at an animation firm. This comic is a lengthy diary recounting his experiences from that period, as a solitary Canadian lost and alone in a world that is largely alien to him. Delisle's careful manipulation of the comics medium allows him to switch modes neatly from the distanced and observational to the subjective and neurotic. His images, awash in grey tones that tend to downplay the "exotic" aspect of his life but underscore some of its dreariness, are a wonderful balance of cartoony and realist styles. In 2003 Delisle released a sequel of sorts to this book, Pyongyang, this time detailing his work in the even more closed society of North Korea. Can a book set in Vietnam be far behind?
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Der unschuldige passagier by Martin tom Dieck
("The Innocent Passenger"), b&w. Germany: Arbeitskreis Stadzeichner Verlag, 1993. Revised version, L'innocent passager, France: Le Seuil, 1996.

Dieck's first major comic is a haunting tale of existential searching about a man who finds himself an unwilling passenger on a strange and mysterious ship. Der unschuldige Passagier is a work of astonishing sophistication and complexity; on narrative terms it sits comfortably on a shelf with writings of Samuel Beckett and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and the deftness of the drawings at times calls to mind Picasso, Grosz, and de Koonig. Dieck claims that his style is "improvisational," but the work is rigorously informed by modern philosophical ideas concerned with the meanings of language and perception. Always challenging but never ponderous, Dieck's comics marry serious philosophical inquiry with drawings that dance between inky gravity and a lightness that almost floats off the page. The original German version, long out of print and extremely rare, was in the "piccolo" (short, wide) format; the French Seuil edition has been reformatted to traditional book format (with changes to panel sizes), and as a result reads very differently from the original.
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Vies blanches by Gabriella Giandelli
("White Lives"), Italy: Mano and France: Le Seuil, 1997

Giandelli emerged as a cartoonist under the influence of Italy's famous "Valvoline" fumetti collective, which was anchored by Lorenzo Mattotti and Igort. In Vies blanches she crafts a beautifully sad meditation on the life of a lost soul, Perry, who is in his thirties, divorced, lonely, and responsible for looking after his terminally ill sister. The tale is narrated by an earthbound guardian angel, who, as in the film Der Himmel Über Berlin (Wings of Desire), observes the characters' blank, monotonous, suspended days. Like children sick from their memories, these characters are forever postponing their lives from blossoming into color. In the 76 black-and-white pages of this slim and heartbreaking novel, Giandelli's reserved pacing and woodcut-like elegance enhance the mood of fragile humanity.
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Souvenir d'une Journée Parfaite by Dominique Goblet
("Remembrance of a Perfect Day"), color. Belgium: Fréon, 2002.

The comics work of Belgian artist Dominique Goblet is immediately striking in that it not only ignores, but in many ways seems utterly uninfluenced by the usual conventions of comics. Goblet is a multi-talented artist who works in comics, painting, and photography, as well as installation art that combines all of those forms. Her visual style, often mixed-media, can leap, page by page, from agitated and scratchy drawings that seem to mar the paper they were created on, to gentle and lyrical images with the placidity of watercolors. Like her graphic style, her comics themselves are multi-faceted and intensely personal. Souvenir is a complex story that combines both fiction and autobiography and, more urgently than telling a specific story, reveals to the reader an intimacy and personal voice rarely found in comics.
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La guerre d'Alan by Emmanuel Guibert
("Alan's War"), b&w. France: L'Association, 2000 and 2001.

No cartoonist deals with the issue of memory better than Emmanuel Guibert. His soft, rounded lines rise off the page like a morning mist. Backgrounds and extraneous details fade away into nothingness, leaving only a kernel of truth, a fleeting notion, a barely recalled memory. La Guerre d'Alan, two volumes of which have been published to date, breaks from the traditions of French autobiographical comics as Guibert recounts not his own life's story, but that of his friend, Alan Ingram Cope. Cope's recollections of the Second World War, shared with Guibert over a long period of time, form the basis for this fascinating biography. Eschewing Saving Private Ryan-style theatrics, Guibert focuses on the way the war expanded his friend's cultural horizons, instilling in him a deep love for France, and a greater understanding of what it means to be an American.
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Stigmata by Lorenzo Mattotti
b&w. France: Le Seuil, 1998.

Stigmata is a wondrous expanded treatment of a brilliant short story Mattoti created half a decade earlier. An impoverished drunkard who has lost his parents, his faith, and his self-respect is the last person you'd expect to receive the signs of sainthood: the bleeding palms of stigmata. At first the hero of this tale rejects this "gift" and the public's expectations, but later, married and working for a traveling circus, he makes money from the stigmata by offering to "heal" the sick. But his profiteering only brings tragedy, as his wife is raped and then washed away in a flood. Shattered by this new low, he eventually undergoes a spiritual re-awakening and finds a purpose. The reader can feel the main character's pain and redemption through Mattotti's raging fury of intense linework, which scarifies these 176 black and white pages. Working with writer Claudio Piersanti, Mattotti has composed a moving and thoroughly modern morality play.
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Bardin el Superrealista by Max
b&w and color. Spain: MedioMuerto, 1999 and 2000 (two issues of the Bardin comic, as well as several short strips and illustrations in various publications).

Thanks to his anarchic fairy-tale Peter Pank as well as the more recent El prolongado sueño del Señor T. (The Extended Dream of Mr. D.), Max is reasonably well-known to English-speaking readers. As his career has progressed, and as Max has come to produce comics far less frequently, his work has grown increasingly more personal and recondite. In some ways the Bardin strips are the next logical step in this evolution, with Max moving from a story about a dreamer (Mr. T.) to an obsession with the content and logic of dreams themselves. The Bardin strips are wild, illogical, surreal (or, rather, "super-real"), and utterly charming, and the wizened shape-shifting character of Bardin himself seems a wry stand-in for the author. These strips owe less a debt to Dadaism than to a personal mythology that Max is slowly revealing to us (or perhaps discovering himself), and the strips sometimes read like a mad cross between Peanuts, Jimmy Corrigan, Salvador Dali, and the Rarebit Fiend, but beautifully executed in Max's underground/ligne clair style. While as-yet-uncollected, the Bardin strips are slowly building into an important new body of work from a major cartoonist.
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Livret de Phamille by Jean-Christophe Menu
("Phamily Album"), b&w. France: L'Association, 1995

As the president of L'Association, Jean-Christophe Menu has been so thoroughly immersed in the business of publishing comics for so long that it is sometimes easy to forget that as a cartoonist he ranks amongst the best. Livret de Phamille, a collection of his autobiographical stories, is a perfect example of his prodigious skills. Balancing keen observational insights with a warm cartooning style, Menu helped redefine what could be done in the field of French comics. More importantly, he has helped redefine what should be done: namely, beautifully crafted, heart-felt expressions of the human drama. In these tales Menu parades his personal idiosyncrasies for the world to see, yet what is revealed through these energetic drawings and inimitable lettering is an endearing individual struggling to find his path in life. In the best of all worlds, that path will lead him to increased comics production in the future.
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Journal by Fabrice Neaud
b&w. France: Ego Comme X, four volumes (1996, 1998, 1999, 2002) and ongoing

Few, if any, comics creators have been as totally candid in autobiographical work as Neaud, and even fewer have confronted the consequences of blurring the boundaries between living and recording your inner life with such a Proustian perception and intelligence. In his comics diary Neaud slips effortlessly from a realistic record of events into confessional, love letter, symbolism, dream language, political and social commentary, celebration of a glorious landscape, or the beauty of a shaved nape. His ongoing series of Journals, four to date, have thus chronicled his life from February 1992 to July 1996, coming full circle to the point where his first book was been published. Through these sensitive and beautiful comics Neaud lays bare his life as an artist, as a gay man, and as a human being.
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Pilules Bleues by Frederick Peeters
("Blue Pills"), b&w. Switzerland: Atrabile, 2001

A landmark in autobiographical comics publishing, Peeters' Pilules Bleues is one of the most painfully honest and genuinely affecting comics ever created. Executed in a lush, loose drawing style, this book masquerades for some time as a simple love story before, just at its midpoint, not-so-subtly kicking the reader in the teeth. Yet the beauty of Peeters' tale resides not in its shock value — which is, after all, minimized by the second half of the book — but by the skilful manner in which visual metaphors are mobilized. We are drawn deeply into Peeters' reality through his magnificent use of unreality, through his incorporation of an extraordinary wit into the mundanity of everyday life. Pilules Bleues is a tour-de-force through the cartoonist's subconscious, a visual representation of the process of coping and adjusting that ranks among the best comics published anywhere in the world in the past few years.
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Berlin 1931 by Raúl Fernández Calleja and Felipe H. Cava
color. Spain: serial publication in El Pais, 1991-92; France: Amok, 1998 and revised edition 2000; Germany: Avant-Verlag, 2001.

By means of this glorious oversized book, which has some of most luxurious production values ever granted a comic, a pair of Spaniards, Cava and Raul, travel in time and space to explore the world of Weimar-period Berlin. The artwork, mostly acrylic painting, is absolutely stunning, and wonderfully evokes the visual culture of the day: from high art to posters, from Die Brücke and Max Beckmann to George Grosz and early advertising art. Ostensibly a Graham Greene-like thriller, Berlin 1931 tells the story of a disillusioned Englishman scheming between the Communists and the Nazis. But the book's real subjects of inquiry are the struggles of the time (poverty, unemployment, fear, social crisis), the nature of rebellion and conviction, and the major cultural and political shifts that defined an era and led up to the Second World War.
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Pascin by Joann Sfar
b&w. France: L'Association, six volumes (four in 2000, one each in 2001 and 2002) and ongoing.

With a truly prodigious output via multiple publishing ventures, Joann Sfar has emerged recently as the one of the most celebrated cartoonists of the French small-press renaissance. (Marjane Satrapi would be his nearest rival for the crown). Sadly, however, Sfar's most personal and important work, Pascin, has received far less attention than best-sellers like Le petit vampire and Le chat du rabin. Pascin is a (to date) six-volume biography of the noted Jewish modernist painter. These books (produced in a direct and immediate drawing style, the looseness of which comes across at times slap-dash) focus more on the artist's personal and sexual life than on his art, and bring Pascin to life as the ultimate bohemian. The story is drenched in sex, yet never eroticized; whether Sfar sees in Pascin a kindred spirit or an aesthetic revolutionary struggling to redefine an art form is perhaps for his psychiatrist to say. As readers, we can simply revel in the artist's celebration of all things corporeal in the world of art.
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M. Ferraille by Winschluss and Cizo
("Mister Scrap-Iron"), color. France: Les Requins Marteaux, 2001.

More than just a comic book, M. Feraille is a film, an elaborate installation exhibit, and more — all coming together in an exquisitely grotesque parody of the idiocies of fame and the constant rebranding of a property way beyond its sell-by date. Despite his appetite for booze and sex, the egomaniacal Monsieur Ferraille has come to be adored by millions as a multi-faceted and ubiquitous metallic superstar. The crazy duo Winschluss and Cizo construct a convincing parallel "history" for their hideous celebrity through fake editorials that mercilessly satirize the sugary moralizing of children's publications, as well as fake advertisements for suspect miracle products and tacky merchandise. Throughout these full-color episodes, first serialized in Ferraille magazine, the cartoonists ape a variety of period styles and references with uncanny accuracy, and the reader can't help but be won over by their black humor and demented dedication.
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Sambre by Yslaire
France: Editions Glénat, 5 volumes, (1986, 1990, 1993, 1996, 2003); Germany: Carlsen Verlag, 4 volumes (as yet incomplete), (1987, 1992, 1994, 1997).

A well-established "mainstream" Franco-Belgian cartoonist, Bernard Hislaire collaborated on several fairly typical historical romance comics series in the '70's and '80's. Had his career continued on that trajectory he would not be included in this list, but in 1985 he radically changed his style, took on the pen-name "Yslaire," and began (working initially with Balac, a pseudonym of the writer Yann) a multi-volume historical romance called Sambre. The protagonist is a young nobleman at the time of the French revolution, and the story concerns dangerous love, insanity, and the personal price of politics. While an engaging and fairly literary tale – think Les Misérables – what truly sets Sambre apart from its many European antecedents in this genre is the stunningly lush artwork, richly soaked with the deep hues of blood and passion that drive this darkly romantic story.
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this was all stolen quite liberally from http://www.indyworld.com/indy/summer_2004/european_gns/index.html


the only people here who i'm possitive i've got stuff by are Baru, Edmond Baudoin, Martin tom Dieck, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Joann Sfar
which isn't a whole lot :sad:

i'm going to undertake an epic quest to find something, anything, by Dominique Goblet