By Jan Baetens
Krollebitches. Souvenirs même pas en bande dessinée
Brussels: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2017, 176 p.
Jean-Christophe Menu is one of the major voices of alternative comics in France, both as an author and as the co-founder of L’Association, the leading publisher of French comix in the period of his 20 years editorship (he resigned a couple of years ago). He is above all a living paradox: the angry young man of the French bande dessinée scene, he is also the holder of a PhD on the subject (moreover an excellent one, frequently used and quoted in academic research: La Bande dessinée et son double, 2011); the living example of authentic visual thinking, he is also an author who does not make any real distinction between his drawings and his writings. His new book is the perfect yet open synthesis of all these forces and tendencies.
“Krollebitches” (literally: small curls) is a neologism coined by the Belgian comics artist Franquin that refers to what in English is called “emanata”, the small but highly significant symbols that can surround characters in comics and that represent either a movement (speed lines) or certain states of mind (surprise, interrogation, bewilderment, etc.). These “krollebitches” are one of the most typical features of comics as an art of drawing and as such they are the perfect title for a book that aims at disclosing both the specificity of comics as a visual language and the passionate relationship between maker and work as well as between work and reader.
Krollebitches is a vital contribution to comics culture for many reasons. In the first place, it is an autobiography of one of the decisive figures of alternative comics of the last 25 years, who succeeded almost single-handedly to bridge the gap between underground comix and traditional publishing without ever abandoning the creative vitality of the punk spirit. Autobiography in comics has become a cliché nowadays, due to the autobiographical turn of the graphic novel and the rising market of interview books. Krollebitches, however, offers something else: not a graphical novel, but a real text, complemented –rather than illustrated– by a permanent flow of perfectly appropriated emanate (the author himself has been in charge of the book’s layout, which is a stunning example of clever layout). Moreover, the book is not the work of an interviewer or a ghostwriter, but of the artist himself, who proves to be as efficient and surprising a writer as a visual artist. In addition, Krollebitches does not claim to tell it all: it focuses on the formative years of Menu, and one will notice that these years start early since the author was already reading comics before he could actually read. In that sense, the book is an astonishing but very authentic and convincing tribute to some old masters –I already mentioned Franquin, but Menu’s knowledge of the field is breathtaking and his tastes are much more eclectic than one might suppose.
Yet next to the documentary value of the book, which is an ideal introduction to the world of comics as seen through the eyes and the personal experience of a great artist, Krollebitches is also an exceptionally well written piece of literature. Menu is in perfect command of his very direct as well as sober style, which exemplifies the surprisingly classic ideal of “aptness”, and this applies to everything in this book: vocabulary, syntax, rhythm, word and image interaction, touch and feel of the object.