Death to Bandes Dessinées! Long Live Hypergraphy

16 Feb

(Geste hypergraphique by Roberto Altmann, 1967)

by Antoine Sausverd

Translated by Annick Pellegrin

Edited by Lise Tannahill

Original publication: Sausverd, Antoine. “« À mort les bandes dessinées ! Vive l’hypergraphie ! » (Geste hypergraphique de Roberto Altmann, 1967)” TONIQUE avril 2017. Print.

For bande dessinée, the year 1967 seemed to favour formal and aesthetic experiments. After Les Aventures de Jodelle (1966), Pravda la survireuse appeared in the pages of the monthly Hara-Kiri from January to December, before being published in album format in 1968. The stylisation of shapes and the uniform solid colours were openly inspired from the pop art aesthetic. Similar to the exquisite corpse,[1] Saga de Xam by Nicolas Devil was an epic work that bore the marks of the counter cultures of its time: from chapter to chapter, the work alternated between various graphic styles, challenging established page layout norms.[2] The texts were written in three alphabets, two of which were invented and undecipherable, unless one consulted a correspondence table at the end of the work. Finally, the same year saw the release of the first situationist comics: posters and tracts reproduced bandes dessinées and replaced the content of the speech bubbles with excerpts of revolutionary political theories advocated by the Situationist International, that would play a significant role in triggering May 1968. It was also in 1967 that Geste hypergraphique, a strange album just as original as the previous ones, was published in Liechtenstein. Completely unnoticed at the time and still largely unknown to date, this “hypergraphique narration en 15 chants” [hypergraphic narration in 15 songs] was the work of a young Cuban aged 25, Roberto Altmann, who was at that point part of the lettrist group.

To A T

Transforming all aesthetic disciplines of the time, before renovating the other areas of culture, philosophy and science: such were the ambitious plans of lettrism, an artistic avant-garde founded by Isidore Isou in the immediate post-war years. Having observed the double collapse, on the one hand of prose through Marcel Proust or James Joyce, and on the other hand of pictorial representation through abstract art or Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Isou proposed a new aesthetic, based on letters, the most fundamental elements of creation. According to his definition, lettrism was an “art qui accepte la matière des lettres réduites et devenues simplement elles-mêmes (…) et qui les dépasse pour mouler dans leur bloc des œuvres cohérentes” [art that accepts the matter of letters reduced and turned simply into themselves […] and that goes beyond them to cast coherent works in their blocks.][4] In its beginnings, lettrism was concerned mostly with poetry and music, but gradually its scope expanded to include all forms of art, from film to dance, through sculpture and painting. Starting in 1950, Isou made hypergraphy (or metagraphics) the new lettrist formal structure. The work of lettrists had to be a synthesis of writing and visual arts. This poly-writing enables one to invent visual communication processes, whilst integrating the thousands of existing world scripts (Latin, Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese, Braille, Morse, etc.), hieroglyphics, pictograms, rebuses, charades, anagrams, crosswords, etc.


Anonymous, Vulgar, but Terrible

No aspect of culture escaped lettrist creation; bande dessinée was no exception. However, for Isou, it was only a bi-script that brought together, on the one hand, Latin or mono alphabetical script, and, on the other hand, drawings, in a most basic combination. In 1950, he wrote: “Dans les comic’s [sic] vulgaires, il s’agit de genres séparés qui s’additionnent sans se fondre, sans s’unifier dans une forme originale ayant des possibilités d’évolution.” [In vulgar comics, we see separate genres that accumulate without combining, without becoming one original form having evolutionary potential].[5] To the lettrist, the creative and expressive possibilities of bande dessinée were by far inferior to those of the poly-writing of hypergraphy. It was not, however, unworthy of being considered as a creative form in its own right. Isou proudly opposed the “critiques artistiques et littéraires très arriérés de l’époque” [very backwards art and literary critics of the times] and asserted that he elevated “pour la première fois, cette forme anonyme, vulgaire, mais terrible, au rang de l’art” [for the first time, this anonymous, vulgar, but terrible form to the rank of art].[6]

The integration of bande dessinée in lettrist works was done, initially, through the addition of simple typical elements (bubbles, captions, grids) or of pasted-in panels (Maurice Lemaître’s Canailles, 1950). Starting in the sixties, some hypergraphic lettrist narratives were akin to real bandes dessinées, and were sometimes labelled as such, such as the scattered adventures of El Momo, Lemaître’s autofictional character, or Jacques Spacagna’s serial strips “Epipopimal épopée”, published in the lettrist magazine Ô starting in 1965.[7]

Martian Chronicles

In 1967 Les Chefs-d’œuvre de la bande dessinée, a bulky anthology of almost 500 pages that, for the first time in France, gave a broad view of the production of this genre (essentially European or from the US), from its origins to the new guard of the time, was published. The chapter dedicated to the “unusual ones” included a reproduction of a page, drawn in an extremely simple and bare style that depicted characters wearing hats and moving around in abstract landscapes, without the reader being able to understand what was going on: the title and the content of the bubbles, written in an invented language, were undecipherable.[8]

Originally, these “Martian stories” (as this anthology labelled them) had been published a year before, in the 12 May 1966 issue of the Belgian magazine Spirou. Announced on the cover and presented on an inside page with no further explanation, the strange bande dessinée made a few waves not only amongst readers, but also in the editorial offices of the magazine. A few weeks later (in the 2 June 1966 issue), the young readers’ magazine touched upon this publication, with two pages of deliberately wacky explanations: the editorial team explained that the unintelligible story had supposedly caused an avalanche of mail from readers, declaring themselves in favour of or against this publication, as attested by the excerpts of this (fake) letter: “J’achète votre journal pour ses qualités éducatives, mais je trouve que vraiment vous exagérez. Ma petite fille qui a 3 ans dessine aussi bien que ça, et si vous continuez je me verrai forcé de lui interdire la lecture de votre hebdomadaire.” [I buy your magazine for its educational value, but I think that you’re really overstepping the limit. My little girl, who is 3, draws just as well, and if you go on I will find myself in a position where I will be forced to forbid her from reading your weekly]. Contributors to the magazine were invited to give their opinion on what the page represented. From Morris to Charlier (and even Goscinny), everyone attempted to give an explanation, all equally far-fetched. In the end, the artist Maurice Rosy admitted that he was the author.

Aside from being the artistic director of the publishing house Dupuis and a scriptwriter for Spirou, Rosy was an artist. His humoristic images were published in Paris-Match, Adam or Pan, but he also did, for his own pleasure, drawings in an abstract vein, influenced by the US illustrator Saul Steinberg.[9] The page published in Spirou was part of his graphic recreations through which he freed himself from the codes of academic representation and those of caricature. The shapes were schematic, stylised to the extreme. Bodies, objects and backgrounds were reduced to a few lines, identifiable through a few distinctive signs. The colours were pure and bright. The languages were invented, writing no longer made sense and joined the domain of the purely graphic. It was the same formal aesthetic sense that characterised the most daring animated cartoons of the time, from Chromophobia to Shadok, through films made for festivals by the studio TVA Dupuis, to which Rosy contributed.[10]

It was Yvan Delporte who had insisted on publishing this “Martian” page, which he had discovered at Rosy’s place one day, hung on a wall, in a frame.[11] He was also the one to imagine the pseudo-explicative complement published later. The goal was to prolong the joke, whilst reducing this graphic offence to a hoax, and to reassure conservative minds. Through this operation Delporte inscribed Rosy’s page in the long tradition of humoristic drawings, which since the 19th century, had united the stylistic experiments of modern artists. The magazine for young readers was not a long-lasting playground open to graphic experiments that might take themselves seriously. That was not what the father of lettrism thought.

When Isou’s eyes fell on Rosy’s page in Spirou, the lettrist influence was obvious. He came up with a text published in the magazine Ô (issue H, April-May 1966) titled “La Situation réelle du comics dans l’art moderne” [The Real State of Comics in Modern Art]. The article once again clearly stated his opinion on the matter, as summarised by the epigraph: “À mort les bandes dessinées hybride marginal, fragmentaire et crétinisant ! [sic] Vive l’hypergraphie, ensemble des moyens de communication !” [Death to bandes dessinées, marginal, fragmented and mind-numbing hybrid! Long live hypergraphy, united collection of communication media!] Isou asserted that lettrism was now spreading everywhere, even in that recent issue of Spirou and its “page d’aventure à écriture indéchiffrable” [adventure with undecipherable script page]. Altmann, who was co-editor of the magazine in which this article was published, would produce, the following year a lettrist bande dessinée, the most ambitious of its kind: Geste hypergraphique. The resemblance with Rosy’s page was uncanny, although no-one knew whether the lettrist had been inspired by Rosy’s work or if his album had been created in reaction to this page.

Hypergraphic Narration in Five Songs

A painter, an engraver and a poet, Roberto Altmann was born on 7 July 1942 in Havana. His father was the collector, publisher and banker Robert Altmann, a German Jew born in Hamburg in 1915, who had found refuge in Cuba in 1941. The young Roberto grew up amongst Cuban painters, writers and artists. His family moved to New York, then to Vaduz, in Liechtenstein. His paintings were being exhibited in Paris when he met Isou in 1962. He then joined the lettrists, collaborating with their magazines, exhibitions and other activities. In 1967 Altmann published in Liechtenstein an album titled Geste hypergraphique “conçu et mis en images entre Paris, Vaduz et Turin” [conceived and illustrated between Paris, Vaduz and Turin].[12] The work was a paperback album with a soft cover, in a format close to A4. Inside, its 87 pages were split into fifteen chapters.

Each page had a rather classic layout, with abundant signs and black and white drawings. These pages were populated with a swarming crowd: characters with fluctuating and round shapes, most often bulging and soft, equipped with a pair of eyes, sometimes a nose and a mouth, standing on small legs, between two and six. Throughout the album, these strange creatures, that expressed themselves through bubbles in almost each panel, had long animated discussions. Their language was incomprehensible: invented alphabets, series of printing house letters in various fonts, various punctuations, etc. Some panels reproduced pre-existing documents: maps, diagrams, solid decorative motifs, cross-section technical charts, sheet music, mathematical formulae… Backgrounds were almost non-existent and the figures were juxtaposed and intermingled in the pure style of lettrist metagraphics.

Throughout these pages, the fifteen songs of this work unravelled a complex and lively gallery of an unknown people, summarised in what one must believe was its exploits and glorifying history (its geste). The atmosphere was sometimes warlike (military parade, presence of spears, missiles or shields), with a few explicitly sexual scenes.

Visually and inventively rich, Geste hypergraphique offered a previously unseen experience. Whilst adopting the codes of traditional bande dessinée, Altmann’s work was a veritable challenge to the conventions of narration, even more so as it went beyond the mere framework of a page and spread out in a whole album with a considerable number of pages. The ability to understand this album remained closed by classic reading standards, the meaning was pushed out in favour of a singular non-narrative structure. The lettrist aesthetics and poetics at work in these pages enabled one to develop another power of sensory evocation.

In 1969, Altmann left the lettrist group to return to his individual path. His album Geste hypergraphique would remain an experiment with no future but it connected him to the artists who created bande dessinée, alongside their main body of work, down untrodden paths, taking part in the blurring of boundaries between genres.


Antoine Sausverd has contributed to the magazines Le Magasin du XIXe siècle, La Crypte ToniqueL’ÉprouvetteLe Collectionneur de bandes dessinées and to the website Neuvième art 2.0. He has also contributed to the books Benjamin Rabier : Gédéon, La Vache qui Rit et cie (2009), 100 cases de maîtres (2010), Gustave Doré ogre et génie (2014), L’Esprit des bêtes (2015), Les Étoiles souterrainesPajakMix & RemixNoyau (2015) and penned the introduction to Panorama du Feu by Jochen Gerner (2009). He created and maintains the website Töpfferiana, dedicated to 19th century comics.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The original text has been very lightly revised for context, style, inaccuracies and spelling mistakes.

[1] The exquisite corpse is a collective writing game that was invented by surrealists.

[2] Peellaert, Guy, and Pierre Bartier. Les Aventures de Jodelle. Paris: Losfeld, 1966. Print.; Peellaert, Guy, and Pascal Thomas. Pravda : la Survireuse : dessins. Paris: Losfeld, 1968. Print.; Devil, Nicolas. Saga de Xam. Paris: Losfeld, 1967. Print.

[3] According to the colophon. This album was published by the Centre International de Création, located in Vaduz, that does not seem to have published other works. It bears the date 1967 on the cover and the copyright 1968 on the inside. According to the Bibliothèque nationale de France catalogue, there is a second edition of Geste hypergraphique published in 1967 by Altmann in Paris (8, rue des Colonels-Renard). It is also worth noting that an excerpt of a dozen pages were taken from the album and published again under the title “Zr + 4HC1 → ZrC14 + 2H2U + 3F2 → UF6” in the third issue of the Cuban magazine Signos.

[4] Isou, Isidore. “Qu’est-ce que le lettrisme ? : Bilan lettriste 1947.” La Dictature lettriste, 1946. Print.

[5] Isou, Isidore, and Maurice Lemaître. Les Journaux des dieux : précédé d’un essai sur la définition, l’évolution et le bouleversement total de la prose et du roman. Lausanne: Aux escaliers de Lausanne, 1950. Print.

[6] Isou, Isidore, and Maurice Lemaître. Les Journaux des dieux : précédé d’un essai sur la définition, l’évolution et le bouleversement total de la prose et du roman. Lausanne: Aux escaliers de Lausanne, 1950. Print.

[7] The pages of “El Momo contre Heinrich Salow, 457e episode” and “El Momo et l’action rapprochée” were published in the lettrist magazine Ur in 1964. The “supertemporal bande dessinée to be coloured and enhanced by the reader” album, Les Aventures d’El Momo, épisode de mai 1968 was published in 1968 by the Centre de créativité.

[8] Lob, Jacques, Michel Caen, and Jacques Sternberg. Les Chefs-d’œuvre de la bande dessinée : rassemblés et présentés par Jacques Sternberg, Michel Caen, Jacques Lob. Paris: Éditions Planète, 1967, p. 424.

[9] Some saw his taste for nonsense, the influence of his passion for modern jazz or for the comics strip Krazy Kat by George Herriman, which was then being rediscovered, in this page.

[10] All these films were strongly influenced by Stephen Bosustov’s animated cartoons and Zagreb’s films. Chromophobia was directed by Raoul Servais in 1966, the same year as when the first tests of Shadok, by René Borg and Jacques Rouxel, were produced.

[11] Almost thirty years after this publication, Delporte revisited the history of Rosy’s page in the column “Nostalgia” in the 23 August 1995 issue of Spirou, the cover of which was a reproduction of the cover of the original 1967 issue, to mark the occasion.

[12] According to the colophon.


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