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Rabbit Stew by Ann Miller

12 Sep

Accounts of in-fighting at the French small comics press L’Association, prime mover in revolutionising the face of French comic art as from 1990, have circulated in the press and on the web for some time now, extending and amplifying the often inventively vituperative clashes amongst the immediate participants. There follows an attempt to track through some of the issues.

Attrition set in some time ago amongst the original members of the collective: David B., Killoffer, Mattt Konture, Jean-Christophe Menu, Stanislas and Lewis Trondheim.[1] David B. left in 2005, and Trondheim a year later, alleging, according to the weekly news magazine L’Express, ‘editorial disagreements’, in particular the desire of Menu to take the press in a more experimental and radical direction.[2] Star artist Joann Sfar announced at the same time that he would no longer publish with the Association. Bande dessinée websites abounded with rumours of conflict and acrimony.[3] By 2007, Menu was effectively in sole charge of the organisation. He is a complex character. Fellow artist Fabrice Neaud’s reference to Menu’s ‘sérieux et noblesse’ [serious-mindedness and nobility] [4] and theoretician and publisher Thierry Groensteen’s description of him as ‘la personnalité la plus emblématique de tout le renouveau créatif des années quatre-vingt-dix’ [the most emblematic figure of the whole creative renewal of the nineties] [5], as well as his declaration that ‘Menu EST la bande dessinée faite homme’ [Menu IS comic art made flesh] [6] can be set alongside a few less complimentary characterisations of Menu’s behaviour towards fellow members of the collective and towards employees. David B., who, in the final volume of L’Ascension du haut mal [Epileptic] [7], had portrayed Menu as the supportive figure who had first encouraged him to publish his work in the early 1990s, issued a communiqué earlier this year accusing his former colleague of ‘arrogance’.[8] More hyperbolically, Sfar has compared Menu to the dictators Ben Ali and Laurent Gbagbo.[9] At all events, even Menu’s most ardent admirers would probably hesitate to put him forward as a candidate for ‘employer of the year’. If Menu himself has proclaimed ‘Patron, je ne l’ai jamais été, et je ne le serai jamais’ [I have never been a boss, and never will be] [10], his detractors cast his managerial shortcomings in a less romantic light.[11]

The crisis came to a head at the beginning of this year. The few fat years in mid-decade financed by the phenomenal success of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000-2003) had given way to leaner times, and staff cuts were announced in 2010. On 10 January 2011, salaried employees of L’Association went on strike, and set up an on-line campaign via a website called ‘Longue vie à L’Association’ [Long life to the Association].[12] Much skirmishing ensued. Menu’s claim that the strikers and their supporters, most notably David B., Killoffer and Trondheim, had tried to organise a ‘putsch’ to oust him [13], was followed by a counter-claim of a ‘putsch’ attempted by Menu himself.[14] The end of January saw the sad symbolism of the unmanned Association stand at the Angoulême festival. Meanwhile, the strikers had attracted over 1400 signatures to their petition [15], including those of numerous artists who had at some stage published with the press (Trondheim, Killoffer and David B., as well as Nine Antico, Charles Beberian, Guy Delisle, Philippe Dupuy, Aude Picault, Riad Sattouf, Sfar, Vincent Vanoli and many others, but not Dominique Goblet, Konture, Satrapi, or Stanislas).[16] The strike was suspended on 17 February, and a stormy Annual General Meeting, the first for several years, took place on 11 April. Reports reverberated through the press: Libération’s headline was ‘Guerre civile à L’Association’ [Civil War at the Association].[17] There were some sharp exchanges, including Trondheim’s allusion to Menu’s ‘madness’, once creative, now destructive: ‘Sa folie a permis de créer l’Association, sa folie est en train de la détruire’ [His madness made it possible to set up the Association, and now his madness is destroying it]. The meeting culminated in the voting of a new board of directors (the original seven founders, minus Stanislas, who declined to participate), and the election of David B. as President; finally, and to no-one’s surprise, Menu announced his resignation in a flamboyant and combative communiqué on 24 May.[18]

One of the most remarkable aspects of this whole affair for those who simply look on from afar (although almost no-one who loves the Associations’s publications can claim to be a disinterested observer) [19], is the struggle for control of the narrative, not just of events as they happened but of the history of the press since its foundation, that has accompanied the struggle for control of the Association. This has been fought out partly in words: Menu’s talents as a polemicist [20] have been unleashed at some length in his communiqués. In ‘Bandelettes’ he affirms his central role in the creation of the Association: ‘S’il faut le rappeler, je suis à l’origine du projet de L’Association, en ai défini les axes, la position politique, la direction graphique et tout le discours. Même si l’apport des co-fondateurs a été fondamental puisque leurs créations ont fait vivre L’Association, j’ai toujours coordonné cette structure, et ai parallèlement continué après l’explosion du groupe’ [Must I reaffirm that I was the originator of the Association project, I defined its policy, its political stance, its graphic orientation and its public position statements . Even if the contribution of the co-founders was essential because their creative work brought the Association to life, I always coordinated the organisation, and I continued to do so after the group fell apart].[21] David B. offers an alternative take on events in his own communiqué: while acknowledging Menu’s founding role, he insists that the artists were autonomous in relation to their graphic choices, and that any ‘political stance’ was superimposed by Menu onto their work.[22]

More interesting, however, is the way that the struggle has also been waged in the form of comic art. Menu and Trondheim both produced autobiographies in the mid 1990s, offering insights into the early days of the Association in accounts that were at that stage interlocking rather than competing: the volatile, stripy-jumpered graphic version of Menu appears not only in his own Livret de Phamille [23], but also in Trondheim’s Approximativement [24], just as Trondheim’s grumpy textual persona turns up in Menu’s autobiography, minus his usual cockatoo plumes but with permanent frown in place. These works have some of the characteristics of collective autobiography: whilst the authors present their textual selves as individuals grappling with personal anxieties and artistic insecurity, they nonetheless convey the sense of belonging to a generation that breaks with its predecessors.[25] Approximativement includes a number of panels where Trondheim can be seen working alongside Menu, Stanislas and David B, as well as the famous scene of the Association party in 1993, where almost every French comics artist from the then fledgling ‘independent’ sector is represented, albeit with the heads of animals or birds, Trondheim’s trademark (semi-)disguising trick. Even more significant is the foundational narrative for the Association constituted by the flashback in Livret de Phamille. This depicts Menu’s first ever meeting with a long-haired flowery-shirted Trondheim, at the Colloque de Cerisy, a comics conference convened by Groensteen in 1987. However, three pages later, Menu draws himself reading in bed. The book is about Antonin Artaud, the subject of a previous Cerisy conference. The prominence accorded to the author of Le Théâtre et son double (1938) from which Menu would adapt the title of his thesis, La Bande dessinée et son double (successfully defended at his Sorbonne viva in the midst of the tumult on 8 January 2011), indicates that if he aimed to mark the genesis of a new artistic generation, he was at the same time concerned to inscribe the Association project into a pre-existing avant-garde tradition.

It is clear in any case that tensions were involved from the outset: in Trondheim’s version of an Association editorial meeting, a disruptive Menu, who has overindulged in cocktails at an exhibition opening, has to be subdued by the others. For his part, Menu portrays his fellow editors as having little faith in his own ability to finish an album: the corner of a panel substitutes the heads of Trondheim, David B and two others [26] laughing derisively, onto four of the six heads of the hydra design used on many Association publications.

Many years later, the hydra would be enlisted by both sides. In 2010, the twentieth anniversary of the Association was celebrated by the issue of XX MMX.[27] Eighty-five artists whose work the press had published were asked to select one of their own pages, and to complete it with a second page, which had to bear some relationship (remake in a different graphic style, autocritique, mise en abyme, etc) to its forerunner. A preface by Menu presented this anniversary collection as an ‘Histoire Imaginaire’ [Imaginary History] of the Association, one which embodied its founding principle of exploration of the language of the medium, as set out in Menu’s epoch-making 1990 preface to Labo [28], reprinted in on the facing page in XX MMX. Artists represented included Konture, Menu, Mokeït and Stanilas. Missing were David B., Killoffer and Trondheim, as well as Sfar. The front cover featured a hydra with not six but twenty heads, corresponding to the twenty years of the press’s existence but at the same time minimising the importance of the collective of six, and suggesting a wider community of artists that had flourished under the editorship of the Association, and specifically that of Menu.

In April 2011, the ‘Longue vie à L’Association’ website displayed a poster by Killoffer urging supporters to take out a subscription that would enable them to vote at the Annual General Meeting.[29] Killoffer’s drawing represented a hydra with one remaining head, that of Menu, having devoured the five other heads, leaving bloody stumps. As we know from the above, the outcome of the meeting would be a revival of the Association as a multi-headed entity, but one from which Menu would ultimately sever himself.

The Association continues, and its story continues to be rewritten. Where XX MMX celebrated the achievements of the press by anthologising selected pages and by emphasising an ongoing process of artistic experimentation, a number of artists who chose not to participate in this official commemorative volume have produced an alternative history, one which focuses on the behind-the-scenes details of editorial disagreements. In September 2011, L’Association, originally to be published by the mainstream Delcourt, is now scheduled be published by the reconstituted Association in November. It is jointly written by David B., Killoffer, Trondheim, Anne Baraou, Jean-Louis Capron, Jean Yves Duhoo, and Joann Sfar. Extracts appearing on Trondheim’s website [30] and on advance publicity material confirm that Manu’s familiar cartoon avatar is cast as the villain. The battle for collective memories is far from over.

Dr Ann Miller was until last year a senior lecturer at the University of Leicester, and is now a University Fellow. Her book, Reading bande dessinée: critical approaches to French-language comic strip, was published by Intellect in 2007. She is joint editor of the bi-annual journal European Comic Art. She is currently working, with Murray Pratt, on a book on autobiography in bande dessinée. She has contributed a section on politics and bande dessinée to this website.

[1] – A seventh, Mokeït had left almost immediately.

[2] – http://www.lexpress.fr/informations/les-indiscrets_675811.html

[3] – See, for example, http://www.actuabd.com/Trondheim-et-Sfar-quittent-L-Association

[4] – Fabrice Neaud, ‘Cerisy : le temps retrouvé’ [Cerisy: Time Regained] in J.C.Menu Munographie (Angoulême:, Éditions de l’an 2, 2004), 73-82, 77.

[5] – Thierry Groensteen, ‘Quelques traits de Jean-Christophe Menu’ [A few graphic and/or character traits of Jean-Christophe Menu], in J.C.Menu Munographie (Angoulême:Éditions de l’an 2, 2004), 5-10, 5.

[6] – Ibid, 7.

[7] – David B., L’Ascension du haut mal Vol. 6 (Paris: L’Association, 2003), 52-53.

[8] – See David B’s Communiqué on: http://longue-vie-a-lassociation.mopi.fr/post/2011/04/04/Communiqu%C3%A9-de-David-B.

[9] – See Sfar’s blog for 14 January 2011: http://www.joann-sfar.com/?p=298

[10] – See ‘Bandelettes’, a text sent out by Jean-Christophe Menu on 13 February, 2011. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1t3LDYjaJuAAAL8uIhYmOy88C2l64_LfkLknM1O2IzcU/edit?hl=fr&pli=1

[11] – It should be noted, however, that Stanislas has defended Menu in an interview, arguing that his resolutely non-commercial stance is coherent, even if it inevitably brings about staffing cuts and therefore provokes resentment . See http://www.dbdmag.fr/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=19&Itemid=81.

[12] – http://longue-vie-a-lassociation.mopi.fr/

[13] – See ‘Bandelettes’, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1t3LDYjaJuAAAL8uIhYmOy88C2l64_LfkLknM1O2IzcU/edit?hl=fr&pli=1

[14] – See David B’s communiqué: http://longue-vie-a-lassociation.mopi.fr/post/2011/04/04/Communiqu%C3%A9-de-David-B., a contribution by Jean-Louis Gauthey, founder of the small comics press Cornélius, to the discussion forum at this link: http://www.du9.org/syn-these, and the account by Pascal Pierrey of the meeting convened by Menu and other members of the Association board in a lawyer’s office on 22 January 2011, but also intended by the (uninvited) strikers and their supporters: http://longue-vie-a-lassociation.mopi.fr/post/2011/01/27/Compte-rendu.

[15] – See http://longue-vie-a-lassociation.mopi.fr/post/2011/01/24/Liste-des-signataires

[16] – Neither Goblet nor Satrapi, both female authors, has commented publically on the events at the Association, but both have, at different times, paid tribute to Menu’s qualities as an editor. Satrapi has described him as ‘le meilleur éditeur de la terre’ [the best editor in the world]. See transcript of a radio programme ‘Le best seller de la bande dessinée underground’ broadcast on Arte in August 2003. http://mapage.noos.fr/marjane.persepolis/paroles/arte.html). Goblet says this in her acknowledgements at the end of her extraordinary book Faire semblant c’est mentir [Pretending is Lying]: ‘Jean-Christophe Menu, sans qui ce livre n’existerait pas et qui a joué un rôle dépassant largement celui d’un éditeur et d’un ami exceptionnel et qui, par ses reflexions et ses sensible questions m’a poussée, quand il le fallait, à remettre mon travail en question et m’a permis d’aller au bout de ce que j’avais à faire, vraiment tout au bout’ [Jean-Christophe Menu, without whom this book would not exist, and who played a role that went way beyond that of an editor and an exceptional friend, and who, through his reflections and sensitive questions pushed me, when necessary, to question my own work and to go as far as I had it in me to go, really right to the end’. Dominique Goblet, Faire semblant c’est mentir (Paris: L’Association, 2008).

[17] – http://www.liberation.fr/culture/01012331194-guerre-civile-a-l-association

[18] – http://longue-vie-a-lassociation.mopi.fr/post/2011/05/16/Communiqu%C3%A9-de-L-Association. See also Bart Beaty’s reflections on Menu’s decision: Beaty, Bart,’ Conversational Euro-Comics: Bart Beaty On Jean-Christophe Menu Leaving L’Association’, May 23, 2011, http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/briefings/eurocomics/32887/. See also http://www.du9.org/JC-Menu for a lengthy interview (from 2009) that gives a sense of the breadth of Menu’s activities in the field of comic art.

[19] – The present writer has to declare a particular interest: I have had many dealings with Menu and have found him unfailingly courteous and supportive. Honesty rather than loyalty compels me to record this, given that much has been made of Menu’s personal attributes in the course of this conflict. I have nonetheless tried to give a fair (if highly abbreviated) account of the arguments put forward by both parties in the dispute.

[20] – Deployed elsewhere to lambast the mainstream publishers who replicate the format of small presses in order to muscle in on their terrain. See, for example, Jean-Christophe Menu, Plates-bandes [Flower Beds/Flat Strips] (Paris: L’Association, 2005), 36-37.

[21] – https://docs.google.com/document/d/1t3LDYjaJuAAAL8uIhYmOy88C2l64_LfkLknM1O2IzcU/edit?hl=fr&pli=1

[22] – http://longue-vie-a-lassociation.mopi.fr/post/2011/04/04/Communiqu%C3%A9-de-David-B.

[23] – Jean-Christophe Menu, Livret de phamille [Phamily record book] (Paris: L’Association, 1995).

[24] – Lewis Trondheim, Approximativement [Approximately] (Paris : Cornélius, 1995).

[25] – See John Downton Hazlett, My Generation: Collective Autobiography and Identity Politics (Madison : Wisconsin UP, 1998) for an account of the characteristics of ‘generational’ autobiography. See also Dupuy and Berberian’s Journal d’un album (Paris: L’Association, 1993) for a parody of the trope of the new artistic generation burning to overturn everything that has gone before. In a flashback, Berberian shows his younger, shaggier self with others planning a fanzine: ‘Tout c’qui s’fait en c’moment c’est de la merde!’ [Everything people are doing at the moment’s shit]: they will be different, and work collectively, with no bosses …

[26] – Less immediately recognisable but probably Killoffer and Stanislas.

[27] – XX MMX, L’Association (Paris: L’Association, 2010).

[28] – The forerunner of Lapin, the journal of the Association.

[29] – http://longue-vie-a-lassociation.mopi.fr/post/2011/04/04/Communication-de-Killoffer

[30] – http://www.lewistrondheim.com/blog/

 
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Posted by on 2011/09/12 in Guest Writers

 

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