A Reprint as well as a Novelty: The Castle 2.0

By Jan Baetens

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Cover of the first edition

Le Château (“The Castle”) is a two hundred pages mute graphic novel by the Belgian artist Olivier Deprez. First published in 2002, this reinterpretation in expressionist black and white woodcuts of Kafka’s famous novel was immediately recognized as a masterpiece of modern graphic storytelling and had rapidly become a cult album. The longtime out of print status of the book dramatically increased its almost mythical standing, while slowly moving the work from the field of literature to that of visual arts (actually, the only way to access the material was to visit the regular exhibits of Deprez’s work, in Belgium as well as abroad).

 

The new edition of the book, superbly printed and including some minor edits and a strongly revised cover and flyleaf design, will finally enable a larger audience to discover and appreciate this milestone of the modern graphic novel, radically different from the prototypical features of this kind of narrative.

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Cover of the new edition

At first sight, one may even have the impression that The Castle rejects most of the elements that distinguish the graphic novel from mainstream comics: no autobiographical voice or plot, no blurring of boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, no attempt to present a narrative that ties in with the daily life and the ordinary concerns of today’s reader. Instead, the book appropriates a very old technique (woodcuts, here directly inspired by the pioneering early 20th Century work by Frans Masereel, the founding father of the wordless graphic novel), and is not afraid of proposing a personal yet faithful adaptation of a literary classic (Kafka’s unfinished novel was only published in 1926, two years after the death of the author).

Yet form and content of Deprez’s work are stunning. The novel’s plot, an endless and open series of waiting and missed encounters, is both cleverly respected and completely reinterpreted in a new way of visual telling. Key in this regard are two elements: first the tension between figuration and abstraction, which appear as two sides of the same coin; second the multiple plays with rhythm, as determined by the fundamental “beat” of the page layout, which generally offers a combination of two large horizontal panels (the notion of “gutter”, the worn-out stereotype of comics analysis which always repeats the importance of the “gap” between panels, is reworked according to the more fundamental logic of montage, the basic unit being the page and the double spread, not the sequentially arranged individual units).

The reading of Deprez’s Kafka book can now finally take a new start. In combination with a series of upcoming exhibits (among them a retrospective at the Wittockiana in Brussels), this new edition will represent a major and lasting contribution to the field of graphic storytelling in print.


Oliver Deprez, Le Château. D’après F. Kafka. Brussels : FRMK

ISBN : 9782390220138

Around the world in 80.000 slides: the Carl Simon collection

By Sofie Taes – PHOTOCONSORTIUM / KU Leuven – CS Digital

Over the past two years, CS Digital has been partnering up with Europeana – Europe’s most trusted source of digital cultural heritage objects – to promote photographic heritage via the ‘Thematic Collection’ on photography. This subset of photographic records only includes high-quality images, often with a license permitting (free) re-use. Also characteristic to the Thematic Collection are the editorial features that allow for a (re)discovery of masterful photographers, outstanding oeuvres, interesting techniques and previously undisclosed collections.

Working mostly on content selection, curation and online publications, we have been only too happy to embark upon the rollercoaster that is the dive into +2 million early photographs. Because our quest for amazing images, baffling stories and must-see collections has brought on our way a veritable treasure trove of photographic gems and unforgettable characters.

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Europeana Photography Thematic Collection – Homepage

Carl Simon definitely ranges among the latter. Simon (1873-1952) first worked as a procurator at the German photo company Liesegang in Düsseldorf and founded his own photography service company in 1907. He constructed cameras, lent slide projectors and began to collect hand-colored glass slides on a wide array of topics (historical, scientific, geographical, literary, etc).

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A visit to the zoo: the bears Carl Simon United Archives/Archiv Carl Simon. In Copyright

Presenting slide shows with narration and live music eventually became the core of his activities. Simon wanted to show the world to as many people as possible – especially those who didn’t have the means to go and explore themselves –  and put on about 300 shows all across Germany.

By 1945, his collection comprised no less than 80.000 images. After Simon’s demise in 1952, this substantial archive was inherited by his son Karl-Heinz Simon (1920-2002). Karl-Heinz continued to use the material in slide shows, but to the public at large, the collection remained unknown and unseen.

In 2011 – about 6 decades later – the life work of Carl Simon was finally rediscovered in an old storage room in Unterbilk, Düsseldorf (Germany). A year later, United Archives – a photo agency based in Cologne – acquired this unique legacy.

The Carl Simon collection is a most intriguing private archive. Next to 2 original glass slide projectors, 15 lenses and scripts used by Simon in his public presentations, United Archives was able to add c. 23.000 glass slides, arranged in 200 wooden boxes, to its collection.

The range of topics covered by Simon is astonishing: from “Earthquakes and volcanic activity”, “Japan” and “Tibet”, “Faces of Sweden”, “Folk songs” and “Fairy tales”, to “Underwater life”, “A Visit to the Zoo”, “The lives and miracles of the Saints” and “The Dangers of Alcohol”.

Visually, the slides range from child-like drawings to intricate illustrations, photographic images, maps and diagrams. In this image, taken from the ‘Alcoholism’ series, Simon compares the composition of cognac and absinthe in an early example of ‘data visualization’. In a more illustrative style, the ‘metamorphosis’ from healthy young gentleman into inebriated pensioner is depicted here. The worst outcome to be expected, is not left out of the picture show: this etching-style slide shows exactly how a life wasted to alcohol might end…

The compact ‘Tunisia’-series is a beautiful example of a travel report in pictures, with the carefully chosen and applied colors emphasizing the exotic features of the chosen sights. One of the absolute highlights is the ‘Titanic’-story, using a wide range of pictorial styles and touching upon the key points in the narrative, as well as on some intriguing details (ship construction, committee hearing of the ship’s company director, …). In the diptych below, a view of the luxurious dining hall (left) is flanked by a drawing of the wreck at the bottom of the sea.

As a whole, this collection testifies to a media-practice that has transformed significantly over the past few decades. Pitches and presentations often still consist of a well-paced succession of spoken text and visuals (powerpoint, Prezi, ….) yet mostly get reduced to short sequences with an aim to inform or to demonstrate only. Simon’s objective could be best summarized as ‘Bildung’: he wanted to share his finds, his experiences and his stories in a thorough yet engaging manner – an early example of “infotainment” – so as to implant new knowledge with spectators, furthering their level of culture and intellectually empowering them. The written scenarios and the slide projectors add a tactility to his efforts that definitely has a ‘vintage’ feel about it, at the same time underlining his dedication and commitment to the cause.

Thanks to the digitization of this archive, Simon’s mission has now taken on a new, global dimension. Still, our relationship with these glass slides has changed as well: Simon’s archive is no Wikipedia, which we might turn to in search for objective information about a certain person, country or phenomenon. Yet it does provide extremely valuable insights in social conventions and traditions, ethical and aesthetical ideals of the time. So make sure to join us in revisiting Simon’s slides in the Europeana Thematic Collection: we promise it’ll be worth your while.

French Cartoon Art in the 1960s and 1970s

By Jan Baetens

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Wendy Michallat

French Cartoon Art in the 1960s and 1970s

Pilote hebdomadaire and the Teenager Bande Dessinée

http://upers.kuleuven.be/en/books/authors/wendy-michallat

 

 

Launched in 1959 by René Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, partially in reaction to the unfair labor conditions offered by the then leading comics magazines, Pilote is considered today the publication that made the bridge between traditional children and adolescent comics magazines such as Tintin or Spirou and adult comic journals such as Fluide Glacial and Métal Hurlant (which will even develop a US sister publication[1]). As the publication that translated and creatively appropriated some material of Kurtzman’s MAD magazine, Pilote also played a vital role in the transatlantic dialogue between US nonmainstream, if not underground production, and the new European comic artists.

Michallat2Although there exist quite some studies on the journal, the study by Wendy Michallat is the very first one to rethink its history in a broader perspective, not just that of comics culture, but that of culture at large. And the result is absolutely breath-taking. First of all because Michallat gives a very detailed yet nuanced and well written overview of the various periods of the magazine, whose history is one of nearly permanent crisis and eternal attempts to relaunch new formats and formulas in a publication niche that was much less profitable than it was often thought. Second, and most importantly, because the author succeeds in doing what other studies fail to do, namely explaining the systematic changes in the magazine’s policy.Michallat3

This explanation is not an a posteriori enumeration of hits and misses, but a scrupulous examination of the various contextual aspects that influence the zigzag transformations of the journal. As such, Michallat’s study is a model for all those who would like to write the history of a mass media form. More particularly, it takes into account issues such as:

  • The need to come up with a concept that is ‘in sync’ with social and political expectations (in this case the obsession with “education” in postwar France, which helped turn away from the pure entertainment of comics and introduce a more text-oriented magazine).
  • The competition with similar titles, which cannot be reduced to a matter of style and content, but has a lot to do with distribution networks and good or bad relationships with backing groups in society.
  • The legal constraints that burden the necessity to always change even a winning formula, in this case, the (in-)famous law of 16 July 1949 on Publications for Youth, censoring all publications depicting crime, violence and moral debauchery (initially a measure of protectionism, for the law helped ban all American import, it rapidly became a dangerous arm in the hands of all those eager to police this type of publications).
  • The necessity to find a place in the existing mediascape, for instance via new forms of collaborations with newspapers and radio stations (at that moment, just after the invention of the transistor, the dominating medium in youth culture).
  • The obligation to adapt to a rapidly changing cultural environment, for instance by taking into account that the comics medium during the sixties gradually became an important vector of the counterculture.
  • The challenges raised by the internal changes of the magazine format itself, torn between different and always unstable logics, as revealed for instance by the emergence of the comics album as the new hegemonic format.[2]
  • The labor conditions within a collective enterprise such as a comics magazine, which has to find a balance between the creative freedom offered to its collaborators and the basic obligation to make money (we shouldn’t forget that May 68 did not start in May 68, but had been prepared by a decade of growing unease with a mainstream culture that was no longer capable of keeping its great promises of the postwar period).

The great achievement of Michallat is that she shows the complex interaction between these (and many other) dimensions, which prove often mutually incompatible. She does so in a way that retells the whole story as if we were in the driver’s seat, facing problems as well as opportunities and having to take decisions whose consequences remain unsure. This approach gives the reader the impression that she is making history herself, including when it comes down to find an answer to failures and dead ends (even if the magazine will last till 1989, its life as a weekly ends in the early seventies, which is also the moment in which its influence in the field is reduced to almost nothing).


[1] Nicolas Labarre, Heavy Metal, l’autre Métal Hurlant. Bordeaux: Bordeaux UP, 2017, see : https://www.noosfere.org/icarus/livres/niourf.asp?numlivre=2146594729).

[2] On this dramatic change, see the exhibition curated by the GREBD research group of the University of Lausanne: https://wp.unil.ch/grebd/evenements/expositions-du-grebd/