Showing posts with label Alex Alice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alex Alice. Show all posts

Thursday, September 21, 2017

An SPX Interview with French Cartoonist Alex Alice

Alex Alice at Takoma Public Library, photo by Bruce Guthrie

by Mike Rhode

I was walking around at SPX when ace photographer Bruce Guthrie introduced me to a French cartoonist he had met previously at the Takoma Park Library. I wasn’t familiar with Alex Alice’s work, but I was quickly impressed by his new book and asked if we could do an interview.

Amazon says, “Alex Alice is a French graphic novelist, working in France and sometimes the U.S. His works have been translated into more than fifteen languages. Born in 1974, he grew up in the south of France and had the chance to travel around Europe, where he developed a lifelong passion for the ruins and castles of the medieval and romantic ages. This experience influenced his art, from the grim setting of his esoteric thriller The Third Testament (co-written with Xavier Dorison and published by Titan Comics) to the primeval, mythic world found in Siegfried, an operatic re-telling of the northern saga of the great dragon slayer (published by Boom Entertainment). In Castle in the Stars, he draws on Jules Verne and nineteenth-century romanticism to create a watercolor world of adventure and wonder to enchant adults and younger readers alike.

Alice’s new series is described as “In search of the mysterious element known as aether, Claire Dulac flew her hot air balloon toward the edge of our stratosphere—and never returned. Her husband, genius engineer Archibald Dulac, is certain that she is forever lost. Her son, Seraphin, still holds out hope. One year after her disappearance, Seraphin and his father are delivered a tantalizing clue: a letter from an unknown sender who claims to have Claire’s lost logbook. The letter summons them to a Bavarian castle, where an ambitious young king dreams of flying the skies in a ship powered by aether. But within the castle walls, danger lurks—there are those who would stop at nothing to conquer the stars.”

Mike Rhode: [After two other series, now] you are the author of Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869. How many books are there in the series? Four?

Alex Alice: Probably more than that. This first story concludes in book 2. The universe of the story is so interesting to me that I keep having new ideas. The idea is that there is space travel in the nineteenth century, so I ask, ‘What if we had come up with a way to travel through space in 1869 instead of 1969?” and this opens up a whole world of adventure and possibilities. Space isn’t the way we know it today; it’s the way scientists imagined it at the time.

MR: Are you more influenced by 19th century authors such as Jules Verne or by 21st century steam punk? Or both?

AA: I would say I’m a fundamentalist steam punk writer so I go back to the roots. It’s Jules Verne and actual scientific hypotheses of this particular time period. It’s hard core steam punk, or hard steam punk, or… I’m trying to be as science-based as I can, perfectly realizing that this is a fantasy. I’m trying to be as close as I can to what people of the 19th century would have found believable.

MR: It’s Newtonian physics, instead of Einsteinian physics, and you can propel yourself through the space because there’s something to push against?

AA: Yes, and use as fuel.

MR: How many books in the series are out already?

AA: Book three just came out. My publisher in France is a fairly new publishing house Rue de Sèvres, which is an imprint of L'École des loisirs. They are a very respectable children’s book publisher that started a graphic novel imprint. This is very exciting for me because this is not a book for kids, it is a book that is also for kids, and I’m very glad to work with this publisher who has an ability to reach a younger audience.

MR: The same is true for your American publisher First Second…

AA: Is it? I was hopeful for that, because that’s what they told me [laughing].

MR: Let’s talk about technique… you occasionally build models for some of the spaceships?

AA: Yes, again, in the idea to have something as believable as I can. I was fascinated by this idea setting the story in a world where it’s not just alternate history, it’s an alternate cosmos. It’s not consistent with what we know about space and science now. My challenge was to say, “This is not believable for modern audiences so how am I going to pull the reader into my story?” My idea was that I didn’t care if it wasn’t true, [rather] it was something people could have believed at some point. 

The important thing for me is as I’m writing it, I believe it. I am not a scientist, and I’m perfectly aware that aether doesn’t exist. I believe in my story as I’m writing it, and it’s easy for me; to be perfectly honest, the vision of Venus that people had at the time … we could see from the telescope that it was covered in clouds, which is true; we could see it was closer to the sun so it must have been very hot ,which is true; so they thought, it’s hot, it’s cloudy, there must be a lot of water so there must be huge jungles down there. Because they thought that planets had appeared in the order of their distance from the sun, they thought Venus was younger than earth so life must not have reached the same development and be stuck in an earlier era. So they genuinely thought Venus was a jungle world filled with dinosaurs, and this sounds like a pulpy sci-fi world of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but it is the actual science hypothesis of the time. This is fascinating to me, and very poetic. I find this hypothesis easier to envision, and too imagine, and frankly easier to believe in than the actual reality of Venus which is a hell world with incredible pressure and acid rains [laughs]. 

I found it was quite easy to believe in this world as I was writing it. To help me believe in it, I had a model made of the main machine that will allow the characters to travel to the stars. I even had an aether suits made life-sized of leather and wood. I had to talk with model makers and costume makers, and having their input of how they would do it and what would work. This world is 100% believable for me and I’m comfortable writing this story.

MR: How has the reception been for it in France?

AA: I was very happy with it. I was hoping to make a book that would appeal to adults and children alike, in the tradition of Tintin, that was marketed as for ‘children between 7 and 77.’ That was a  catchline for Tintin in France. That was my goal and I was very happy to see families to come signings, and say, “This is the only bandes dessinee that I read, that my children read as well.” And vice-versa.
MR: So what brings you to the Washington area?

AA: My American publisher, First Second, thought it would be great for me to come to SPX which I’ve never been to before. I’m much more comfortable here than I was when I visited Comic-Con in New York a number of years ago. First of all, I’m not a huge superhero fan, and secondly, it was strange for me to talk to artists who work on someone else’s character which is not at all in the French tradition. Whereas here, I feel like everyone is doing their own story, and I find much more common ground, even if their stories or their visual styles are completely different from mine. I feel I have maybe something in common with a lot of the artists here.

MR: So how do you do your art? Is it drawn in pencil, and then inked, and then water-colored? Or digitally colored?

AA: It’s all done in the real world. I try to do everything on the same page – the pencilling, the letters, the color… because I really like to have the original artwork in front of me, looking as it will in the final page.

MR: Ah, a classicist.

AA: Yes, part of it is the pleasure of having the actual page in front of me; part of it is laziness [laughs] because I like to be able to judge the exact amount of details I will have to put in.

MR: That makes perfect sense to me. There’s a political cartoonist here at SPX named Matt Wuerker who still watercolors his cartoons every day by hand because it’s faster. And he knows what he’s getting.

AA: And it’s faster. People don’t realize that. The computer will not save you time. For most things…

MR: So it was watercolors that you use, and not colored pencil?

AA: It is actually at little watercolor and a lot of calligraphy’s colored inks that are permanent.

MR: You water those down a little bit to get the wash effect?

AA: Yes.

MR: Did you pitch the book to your publisher, and then get an advance to do it?

AA: Yes.

MR: Because traditionally in France in the golden days, and I think this is mostly gone now, but Tintin would be one page per week in the newspaper, and then be collected in an album.

AA: Right, and the artist would have a salary. The salary is entirely gone, but we do get an advance in France, when you sign with a major publisher.

MR: You have the complete original art at the end of a book. Do you sell it? Is that another revenue stream for you?

AA: Potentially yes. [laughs] But I haven’t sold pages in a while especially because I wanted to set up an exhibition, which we did at Angouleme which is the biggest festival in the south of France. This year at Angouleme we had the means to do a big show, with even more props and models and sounds and a moon and a lot of costumes of the time period… we made the world pop out of the page. I wanted to keep my art for that. I will be doing a commercial show in New York next year.

MR: You mentioned ‘the world’… I just bought your book and I haven’t read it yet. Is this book about going to Venus?

AA: In book one, Seraphin is talking about Venus in the beginning, but the story is actually him and his father trying to follow the footsteps of his mother who disappears in the first scene in a balloon flight. Her logbook is found by someone who sends a letter to Seraphin and his father and gives them a rendezvous in Bavaria. We don’t know who this character is, or what he wants, but when they get there, we find out that it is the King of Bavaria, King Ludwig II, and he is planning on space exploration.

MR: Is he still building a big castle?

AA: Actually, it is only the historical approximation that I made consciously. I might have made several mistakes, but he has already built his Neuschwanstein castle at this point, because I really wanted to draw this castle and I wanted to set the story just before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

MR: So you are using real historical characters and following real historical events?

AA: I am. I made a point of having the story begin the real world as much as I could.

MR: Where are you finding your background information from? In America we had Popular Science, and Popular Mechanix and even Scientific American. Are you using the French equivalent of those?

AA: Yes, I guess. I’m especially using Camille Flammarion who wrote a popular astronomy in the latter half of the 18th century. It was very popular at the time, and these sort of popular science texts were quite an influence.

MR: In America they have a lot of magazine covers of the giant airplanes, and the future was going to be great…

AA: Or terrifying, depending on the cover.

MR: Looking at the cover of your book, are you influenced by Miyazaki?

AA: The answer is definitely yes, but my primary influences are the reading of Jules Verne and the travels I did through Europe as a kid. There’s a lot of things here that I’m using that Miyazaki was also using. That being said, I adore Miyazaki’s work, and his influence with this type of story is impossible to escape so I embraced it. The title of the book, and one of my characters, are influenced by a Miyazaki character from Future Boy Conan. There’s also a wonderful film that’s maybe lesser-known called The Castle of Cagliostro. It’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the best adventure films ever made. It’s incredibly fun, and touching, and full of wonder... one of the greatest. One of the scenes from Castle in the Stars that I was really happy with, where I had a wonderful idea and did the scene and did the book, and the book was printed, and I showed Castle of Cagliostro to my son and realized I had stolen the whole scene! [laughs] As it happens.

MR: Are you going anywhere else in the States?

AA: Yes, it’s a short but intense tour with the Brooklyn Book Festival tomorrow and then the Boston area for libraries and schools.