For well over a decade, France’s dynamic duo Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim have labored productively on cultured comics while the American mainstream has dealt with its addiction to superheroes. But with their Muppets-meets-Conan series Dungeon and Sfar’s engagingly surreal debut film about French musician Serge Gainsbourg they may at last get a break in the States.
“French comic books aren’t specifically about Lycra-suited guys with daddy issues,” Sfar told Wired.com via email after his film Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opened last week in New York and Los Angeles. “Our comic book industry became totally mainstream and started to address general literature readers, so the phenomenon you experienced with Art Spiegelman’s Maus occurs in France five times a year. And what occurs in France can happen in America.”
That’s getting progressively harder to imagine as comics from major publishers like DC Comics and Marvel are transformed into popcorn film blockbusters light-years away from more soulful and cerebral literary concerns. But getting US audiences to appreciate super anti-heroes isn’t impossible.
America has, after all, produced works like Spiegelman’s post-9/11 acid satire In the Shadow of No Towers and Daniel Clowes‘ Eisner-winning Wilson and has even gone so far to embrace films based on Clowes’ Ghost World and Art School Confidential.
On Tuesday a commemorative multimedia DVD featuring actor John Turturro and electro-jazzers Syntax Error Trio was released for Spiegelman’s No Towers, and Wilson is now bound for Hollywood along with Clowes’ moving superhero satire The Death-Ray, proving there is a market for works based on brainy comics like those produced by Trondheim and Sfar. America can get literary when it wants to. It just doesn’t seem to want to that often, which sucks.
“We have more authors, graphic and narrative styles, but less planetary success,” Trondheim told Wired.com via e-mail from France. “Maybe we’re too bibliophilic in our format of workmanship.”
That bibliophilic energy brought Sfar’s acclaimed anti-biopicGainsbourg, which is showing in various American cities through November, to fascinating life. Instead of a fawning hagiography, Sfar tapped his fantasy comics’ vein to create a fantastic caricature called The Mug, played by shape-shifter Doug Jones (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth), who haunts the sonic iconoclast’s every fabled step. It’s a striking touch that, along with the director’s acknowledged obsession with Gainsbourg, transforms what could be a boring biopic into something else entirely.
“I am heavily involved in mystic nonsense, and I am an egotist by nature,” Sfar explained. “So I used Gainsbourg to deal with my obsessions, like how can a Russian Jew be loved by France and what is it like to get laid by Brigitte Bardot? But I wish to be clear about the fact that my whole script was written out of Serge Gainsbourg’s very words. So it is obviously filled with lies, but those are his lies.”
Sfar’s fanboy phantasms haven’t yet caught fire with his Dungeon cellmate, however.
“I haven’t seen it,” Trondheim said. “I only go to the movies to see extraterrestrials, robots or animation.”
Unlike Sfar, Trondheim is chained to an unending procession of comics, from the subversive sword-and-sorcery satire Dungeon to his more whimsical personal work like the Eisner-nominated Little Nothings. The fourth volume of that series, My Shadow in the Distance, was released this month. And although Dungeon’s universe seems to grow each year, both French comics virtuosos have yet to find the time they need to chart its outer reaches.
“Sfar flutters around so much that Dungeon will be limited by his cycles of disaffection,” Trondheim said.
“We’ve written two more albums, but we find no time to draw them,” Sfar added.
Like other excellent French comics, Dungeon is nearly impossible to classify in the general sense. It’s filled equally with childlike innocence and destabilizing horror, especially in Dungeon Monstres‘ third volume Heartbreaker. Released last November, that volume’s underwater pirate tale “The Depths” included the shattering rape and abuse of Princess Drowny. Dungeon’s equal-opportunity accessibility is ensured by its anthropomorphic animal kingdom, right up to the point that said animals start to exhibit seriously worrisome human habits.
It would make an incredible animation series, if it could somehow find a home between Cartoon Network’s all-ages programming and Adult Swim’s mature ultraviolence. But that’s just demographics. Dungeon’s creators feel a cartoon crossover is rife with further complications.
“Dungeon is a series on a triple, even quadruple time-frame,” Trondheim explained. “If there were to be animation, three TV series would need to be made simultaneously.”
“Lewis insists on the fact that we should have three movies, one for each era of Dungeon,” Sfar added. “But we have never thought about that universe as either for kids or mature audiences. It’s just for us: Huge fans of Conan the Barbarian and The Muppet Show.”
For now, Dungeon remains resolutely fixed in the comics medium, while Sfar ventures into film with Gainsbourg and the animated adaptation of his comics series The Rabbi’s Cat, released in France this June. But the entire world is reaping the rewards of their various crossovers, and will even more once their Dungeon makes the (hopefully) inevitable widescreen jump.
“At first, we had no other intent but just to have a good time,” Trondheim said. “But with Joann and I, 1+1 does not equal two but nine. Our objectives at the very start are not the same, years later.”
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is playing in various US cities through November.
My deepest thanks to NBM Publishing’s Terry Nantier for translating Trondheim’s French.