Félicitations, Emmanuel Guibert!

« Drawing is of the spirit; colour is of the senses. » — Henri Matisse

I recently heard that the masterful Emmanuel Guibert (1964-) was inducted, early this year, to France’s Académie des Beaux-Arts, official recognition of the highest order, right up there with his 2020 Grand Prix at Angoulème or his knighthood of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Having long followed the man’s career, briefly met him and heard him speak, I’m convinced that he deserves every accolade he receives, and I know all this attention won’t even go to his head for, in addition to his staggering talent, the man just radiates patience and kindness.

In 2006, he was concluding a talk in Montréal by taking some questions from the audience, and an old lady asked an incredibly basic one… that most would have dismissed or shrugged off with a « how can you not know that already? ». But no, he gently responsed to her query in the most illuminating way, elevating the moment to the delight of everyone in the audience, including, of course, the lady with the question.

A 1997 illustration created for an issue of long-running (1971-) bright kids’ magazine Okapi on the theme of The Titanic. This shows the doomed ship’s third class restaurant.
A sequence from the album that first brought Guibert to prominence, La fille du professeur, a collaboration with Joann Sfar, whose script won the 1997 René Goscinny award at the Angoulème festival. Note the remarkable fluidity and animation of the choreography.
A sequence from his wild collaboration with WOT? favourite David B., 1999’s Le capitaine écarlate (The Scarlet Captain), which fancifully thrusts real-life author Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) amidst the lunatic fray.
The pirate ship, travelling through the sky on its own wave, is trapped betwixt an airship and the grappling hooks of the Parisian police posted on the Eiffel tower. Of course.
Here’s a glimpse into Guibert’s working method, two panels from Le capitaine écarlate: « Inking the pencils is always a problem: it’s even nonsensical to have to draw the same thing twice! Generally, the inking stiffens the drawing, since the pencilling stage is allusive and the inking stage is descriptive. So I try to do the opposite: I settle all the drawing problems in pencil and then, I put my page over a light table in order to reinvent the drawing in pen, leaving out a lot of the details. But that’s just a last resort. It’s hard to be quick and spontaneous while trying to convey subtle things. Ideally, I’d love to do without pencilling, but I need it to nuance my drawing. » (from a talk with Hugues Dayez published in La nouvelle bande dessinée, 2000, Éditions Niffle)
A page from his probable magnum opus, La guerre d’Alan, in which he recounts visually the real-life recollections of an American exile he met by chance in 1994 on the Île de Ré. This part of the saga is available in English as Alan’s War. Here, a bunch of malnourished GIs hike for an hour for a steak meal provided by a lumberjack. For Alan, coming from a family of modest means, it was his first time eating steak.
« Observe, improve yourself, fill up your noggin! » is the crux of his advice to young cartoonists. Leading by example, he’s constantly observing and rarely stops drawing. Thankfully, some collections of Guibert’s sketches have seen print, and they’re delightful. Here are some samples from Le pavé de Paris (Oct. 2004, Futuropolis), which is the exact size of a Parisian cobblestone, just like those lobbed at the police by demonstrating students during the tumultuous events of May 1968.
I’m in awe at his ability to discern and render infinitely delicate shifts and nuances of colour and tone, especially in low light.
« Drawing allows you to tear off pieces of reality and to take them home. In my notebooks, I know that the most beautiful drawings, the most vibrant ones, are those I did in places or before people that I want to keep near me. »
« This is why my notebooks are so precious to me: they are riddled with accidents and unrepeatable little things. And while I practically can’t bear to open one of my published books, I often find myself checking out my notebooks. »
A page, drawn in 1999 and intended for L’enfance d’Alan. Guibert initially planned to cover his friend’s life in order, but postponed the childhood part, since he possessed fuller documentation of Alan’s war years. In the end, this page didn’t make the cut, which gives you some idea of the very high standards Guibert sets for himself.
L’enfance d’Alan appeared in 2012, and was followed in 2016 by Martha & Alan; like the rest of the Alan Cope memoirs, they were published by L’Association.
The lion’s share of what’s kept me this long from showcasing one of my very favourite cartoonists: most of it is virtually impossible to scan, unless I’m willing to destroy the spine of some often rare, precious — and treasured! — volumes.


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