Ilan Manouach has been putting out comics-related projects that not only push the boundaries of what comics are as an aesthetical endeavor as well as what comics-making means, not to mention what kinds of critical instruments we can or may use to appreciate them.
After a string of experimental books which explored alternative manners of creating narratives (La Mort du Cycliste, Les lieux et les choses qui entouraient les gens, désormais), poetical relationships between image and text (Variations sur l’ange de l’histoire, the texts of which I should point out I am the author), and ambivalent storyworlds (Frag [Portuguese only]), slowly but adamantly the Greek author started to put out books that dived into a plethora of ready-made images and imaginaries that he could repurpose or revisit to transformative ends. The very archive of comics themselves: as a repository of iconic images, as a structural language, as objects of contactualized and specific materialities, as a historical medium with its own socio-political implications. That strong of works can have a point of departure in the 2012 Katz, in which Spiegelman’s Maus was re-presented with all characters’ heads substituted by cats’ heads, up to the most recent 2019 The Cubicle Island, a micro-workers’ collection of “lonely islands” cartoons with new, strange captions, in a sort of New Yorker caption contest gone terribly wrong in more than one count. This can include, at least, Noirs, Riki Fermier, Tintin Akei Kongo, Abrégé de bande dessinée franco-belge, [Cascão], La ballade de la mar salée, and Blanco.
Some of these works may be described in a simple way, in a sort of Fluxus-like, process art manner. Katz, to start with, is a détournement through which every single character’s head was replaced by a noticeably larger and collaged cat head (the story of this book, now literally reduced to ashes, has been taken up by a following project, MetaKatz [in French only], in which I participate). Noirs, for instance, about which I wrote in du9, picks up one of Peyo’s most famous books, changes every single color CMYK channel to the same cyan and reproduces the stories. Riki Fermier erases every single character from one particular Petzi book, except for the titular pelican. Tintin Akei Kongo [Portuguese only] offers up a non-sanctioned lingala translation of Hergé’s colonial fantasy. La ballade de la mar salée is exactly the same as Hugo Pratt’s inaugural and classic adventure of Corto Maltese but redrawn from cover to cover by an artist from the Pacific Islands where the original story takes place. And Blanco is what I believe in English would be a “blank mockup,” an object a printer will use in order to understand the feasibility, the robustness, the tactibility, etc. of the final printed object: in this case in particular, Manouach provides us with a book whose format is the most classic within the Franco-Belgian market, shortly named “48CC” (for the idea of an hardback album with 48 pages in color). In short, as Benoît Crucifix explains in the video-talk you’ll find attached to this text, is almost useless, given its ubiquitousness.
One can, and should, read the descriptions of each project in Ilan Manouach’s own website, as they are not only quite clear as they also open up the critical dimensions with which they engage.
A first general point that we can make is that Manouach’s point is not to make a “short joke”, in the sense of presenting just an idea, that would be enough to run off with in an Instagram post or a meme-like thingie. He goes the mile, for the purpose is to highlight that a comic is not solely a language, a collection of styles, storylines, or memorable panels, but a material culture, with all that it entails economically and politically.
The researcher Benoît Crucifix is very clear, either in the video we did together, or in the text he prepared for a postponed exhibition on “post-comics,” how Ilan Manouach moved a little away from auteur style to a territory engaging with comics culture as whole. That is why I quote, in the video, Walter Benjamin (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction), when he says “[t]he instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.”
To a certain extent, Manouach’s vision is a negativistic one. Following Jacques Derrida’s notion of hauntology, and more specifically Mark Fisher’s redeployment of that notion within the realm of our contemporary, late capitalist cultural landscape, it’s as if Manouach identifies comics’ supposedly democratic and idealistic visions for society as ultimately failed, stagnant. There is no doubt, within certain circles, there is a current and extremely powerful nostalgia for older or classic forms of comics. This is either reinforced by cinema’s recuperation of many classic characters (either from the U.S., the Franco-Belgian axis and Japan), or by the European incenssant relaunch of classic characters in the hands of new authors, and so on. The global archivist and intégral fever is taking over a little all over the world.
This circumstancial framework, as it were, is something Benoît and I are very interested in, referring to it as “archive comics,” less a genre or a practice with a finite definition, than a field of interest that can encompass or allows for many different approaches or practices. The specific notion of “retconning” in mainstream superhero comics could be understood as a part of this, or the re-historicization of certain characters (Benoît and I wrote a chapter contrasting, on the one hand, Émile Bravo’s, and on the other, Yann’s and Schwartz’ approaches to Spirou in Métamorphoses de Spirou). But also the reappropriation or imitation of a given style – say, Tom Scioli channeling Kirby (or is pastiche?), thor the style-hopping/homage issue of Michael Allred’s Madman Atomic Comics # 3 – and specific textual experiences, such as Chris Ware’s Building Stories and Charles Burns’ use of “swipe files” (both of which Crucifix addressed in two papers), not to mention practices of individual artists such as Olivier Josso and Cole Closser (Benoît wrote about them), Simon Grennan, Jochen Gerner, and Pascal Matthey (about whom I have written non-academically).
But it is considering these highly different practices and by understanding the nuance and variety of approaches that we can start understanding the different powers and roles that working with, or even against, the archive entail. Gerner’s work with the archive creates a sort of encyclopedic, taxonomical and perhaps even passionless view of comics. Manouach’s performance short-circuits the retrievability of the archivable.
Comics have their own codes of practice, and this is what Manouach hijacks. The Smurfs, Corto Maltese, Cascão, the very stylistic materiality of bande dessinée are transformed into pliable material. It would be tempting to say that this negativity means that he turns those archives into desecrated pulp: redrawing Maus and Ballade, re-inking Schtrumpfs, actually “destroying” a copy of Cascão. Benoît speaks of an undrawing or wthdrawing. Perhaps one could conjure Benjamin’s “destructive character.” It makes room, it makes you look again. But “reappreciating” the original texts he draws from does not sound correct.
One could say that rereading the redrawn Corto Maltese/Ballade one could not but re-appreciate Hugo Pratt’s work. But it’s not a simple question of “the great master’s style,” or something like that, that would make me laugh at the poor attempt of the “local” artist attempting to imitate such a monument of the great Italian (an attitude which, in itself, would speak volumes of my own assumptions, Eurocentric ideas, neo-colonialism, and so forth). It’s something else. As I mention in the video, I feel the limitations of the critical discourse about comics when addressing these books. They don’t work. “Enough” or “yet,” I am not sure. New instruments must come about.
Thanks, of course, to Benoît and Ilan on this.
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