Written by Tom | 11th March 2021
In the next installment of our dedicated seller series, where we profile the exceptional creatives in our community, we spoke to celebrated French comic artist Didier Tronchet, to talk about his comics career so far, how he writes and why humour and surprise are the essence of his work.
“You have extremely sombre decor compared to Bertrand’s. At Bertrand’s, there are knives everywhere”, Didier observes dryly. In the intimate environs of 2021, this conversation is happening where else but Zoom. Bertrand, Didier’s account manager at Catawiki is—perhaps fortunately considering the aforementioned decor—sitting in his kitchen, having just introduced us and the premise of the interview.
Prompted whether he has any questions before we begin, he’s ready with a quip. “I thought you were going to read me my rights”, he laughs. “But just about the knives. That was the only question I had”.
Didier is no stranger to interviews as his warmth, candidness and humour show. In fact, he’s a seasoned pro. A trained journalist turned comic artist who has dabbled in scriptwriting and film-directing, he’s well-acquainted with the spotlight, courtesy of his broad success both commercially and critically with his signature brand of black humour and universal feeling. You might even call him a celebrity, but he’s loath to entertain that kind of label. In actuality, the comics world’s sober attitude towards stardom and egalitarian nature is partially what drew him to it in the first place.
“It’s not an extremely pretentious milieu, we’re very simple people”, he reveals. “Because we are not stars and people do not recognise us in the streets. We don’t have a spectacular audience compared to actors and musicians, so it forces us to be modest. We’re children being forced to grow up. But inside, we’ve kept our inner-child. There is a kind of freedom of tone, a joy that generally prevails in comic drawing.
“Drawing allows me to express things differently from what I was allowed with writing. I like the necessity that drawing has of making things extremely clear, simple, and concise. You cannot be bothered with nuances, so it obliges us to get to the essential. You’re not allowed to get lost. You have to say what is really going on”.
Didier’s love for comics is, in many ways, a direct result of his background in journalism. The accuracy and factuality journalistic writing obliged him to, ended up being the very thing that encouraged him to look elsewhere to express the truth. “I quickly realised that fiction did me more favours than reality. As I was practicing journalism, I came to realise that I had to respect the facts. I couldn’t just say anything about people”.
Comic-writing, he says, was an antidote to this factual dilemma – a medium that with all of its caricatures and colour served as a more lucid retelling of reality. “After seven years as a journalist, I abandoned the media to move onto the humorous side of things. I was working in the region of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, which is a really special territory [of France]. It has a population that I love, but that is very distinct. I had in front of me, really, some true characters. I said to myself that it was a shame to be so cautious with my stories because the rules of journalism mean that you can’t have complete freedom with reality and you have to be careful”.
He pauses. “I didn’t want to make fun of these people; I was on their side”, he says dutifully. “I thought I could make better use of my encounters with them through drawing because it allows me to give a precise feeling about a situation. It’s more involved and subjective, but in the end it’s freer and most of all, it can be more fun”.
If his commercial success and awards are anything to go by, the decision to change careers was a good one. A highly respected artist best known for his series Jean-Claude Tergal (based on a central character who, in Didier’s own words, is “a sentimental loser”) and the almost quixotic adventures of Raymond Calbuth, Didier has carved out a unique lane for himself with his trademark black humour and knack for capturing universal human experiences.
“The turning point for me in comics was when I realised people understood what I was saying and that it could even make them laugh. We shared this sense of humour, so it was extremely reassuring for me to be able to tell myself, ‘Well, I’m no longer alone in the universe. All of a sudden, I have friends, brothers, laughing with me as well at the same thing’”.
Jean-Claude Tergal was a major breakthrough for Didier and symbolises the reason so many readers adore Tronchet’s work. “I was lucky with the characters I started drawing and especially Jean-Claude Tergal, a sentimental loser whom people identified with, because everyone has experienced these tragic moments with this mortal enemy we encounter as teenagers; this fear that is the discovery of the other”.
In the case of Jean-Claude’s character, the adversary was girls, but Didier hit on the universal experience of adolescence and what it meant to feel all the confusion, woe and disappointment that comes with the emergence of attraction. “In fact everyone has experienced these sentimental and sexual misadventures and it’s nice to share them because it makes things lighter”.
Being funny can be tough, especially on paper. But while Didier has long made it seem second nature, he says it’s never been his intention to be funny outright. Rather, it’s to provide a little lightness in the world’s seriousness and get to the root of what needs to be said.
“Humour breaks everything down and shakes things up. It's very functional. Humour is what I’d call a necessary pain. It must be disturbing, otherwise it's consensual humour which is...a little smile. It doesn’t bother anyone and is pretty useless. Maybe it’s pretentious to define humour like that, but I don’t see it as anything other than something that creates discomfort, albeit the kind that’s amusing”.
As Didier points out, we often rely on political humorists and comedians to call-out something that is off, or tap into what we’re all thinking. Comics are no different.
“In general the humour I am most sensitive to is derision. I try to find the little offbeat element that will make a seemingly tragic situation turn out to be extremely funny. The most interesting thing is to be funny in instances when you’re not supposed to be. For me, that’s what humour is about. It’s a surprise, and it shouldn’t be conventional.
“The humourist shows where things aren’t going well, but in a humourous way. That’s what makes things bearable, because you can always be critical while moving things forward. And that’s where we’ll have the best chance of changing things”.
It’s an admirable approach and a reminder of the depth of thoughts comics can access. However, Didier is quick to note that he’s no superhero himself. “I have no intention of changing the world”, he laughs. “But my very nature means that when I express myself, it’s going to come out like that and sometimes it hits the nail on the head.
“I had a series called Les damnés de la terre associés. It was about the Poissart, a family of poor people. It talks about misery, sickness in hospitals, things like that. It was tough, but I hope I told the story in a way that made us take the side of the struggling people, because there is also a great danger in being on the side of the strong against the weak, while being weak with the strong. It’s the worst thing that can happen. I try to express myself as naturally as I can, but I try to be careful not to knock someone down who is already buried deep, or become too respectful of powerful people. But intentions to change the world are sometimes unproductive, it’s something that happens without our will”.
Beyond Didier’s humourist bent, another one of the most impressive and distinctive parts of his works are his drawings.
“My drawing was a bit stiff at first, because I had no training. I started drawing the best I could with my own means, because I wanted to tell a certain kind of story. My drawing was a little limited, but it doesn’t matter now because it has become a style. That’s what’s great about comics; it’s a distinct kind of drawing. In drawing, there is a certain expectation of success. In comics, we accept the fact that the cartoonist is not very good as long as he tells something that touches us. This is where little miracles happen.”
Experience has naturally informed his illustrations, and is what gives his comics their appeal. “Once I let go of my imposter complex with drawing, I was able to tell a true story–about where I traveled, things I saw and the people I met”.
While the story is the beating heart of his work, Didier explains that it is the images, not the words, that lead the way for him when creating a comic. “Comics are an expression that does not tolerate the excess of written words. The visual should always come first. The text and the drawing are so connected, drawing becomes writing in itself. I can't separate one from the other”.
That’s not to say words aren’t important. But Didier explains it is the visceral that gives the characters in his stories—who are in many ways a mouthpiece for his own feelings—their vitality.
“The way I work is very peculiar. I don’t write the stories beforehand. I have an idea of what is going to happen but it’s when I start drawing that I feel the characters coming alive under my pencil; that I will know what they are saying. You have to stay as close as possible to what happens. At that point the dialogue comes naturally”.
His approach is something of a method-acting one – a complete submergence in a character and world. “I have to be in this state of mind when I work. When I draw, I mimic the character. When the character is angry, I will take an angry expression on my face. I put myself in the shoes of a character and I wait for him to tell me what will happen. It sounds a little crazy, but it is the character who will tell me what is going on and the situation will follow its own track. I’m not saying I always succeed in doing that” he notes, “but in any case, I don’t know how else to work”.
Writers and artists are no strangers to the concepts of space and allowing things room to breathe. And in Didier’s world, space is cavernous and time is a bystander.
“Over the last few years, I’ve let subjects slowly mature until I feel like I really want to work on them. I often take small, scattered notes that I keep in my pockets. The ones I manage to save, I stick in a notebook. Then I let the whole thing rest for two, five, sometimes ten years. Then I go back over my notes and I say to myself, ‘ah that’s a great idea’, or ‘I don’t want to do that anymore.’ The hindsight I have at that moment with my ideas is radical. I can’t be wrong. So when the idea holds out, it means that, there was something there”.
Didier has a singular and unorthodox style. Inhabiting one’s imagination is one thing, but recasting that on paper is another. It’s a method but not one that everyone can replicate. And this notion of chance, and trial and error, is the cornerstone of Didier’s artistic approach.
“It’s a belief that I have; my deep mystical side, that ideas don't belong to us” he says affably. “They travel in a big cloud around us and our only quality is our ability, at any given moment, to be in phase with this idea”.
In a paradoxical moment, as the conversation draws to a close, we’re speaking of endings – both fictional and real. It’s unexpected, but that feels appropriately characteristic of Didier.
“I only know my story on the last page. Until then, I don’t know what it is worth or if the story will be good. Above it all, I try to keep up the freshness until the end. I have to surprise myself along the way with a vague idea of what will happen in the end. But in the final moments, as I get closer to that end, I realise that there were other things hidden in the story which I hadn't seen before. These things make the end much more interesting, especially if it goes another way”.
It’s a beautiful sentiment and one that’s paid off for Didier. In one popular story he produced on a singer that disappeared in the 70s, he mentions that it wasn’t until the very last panel that he knew what was going to happen.
“[In the aforementioned comic] I knew there was something there, but at the time I told myself that no one would be interested. Up to the very end, I wondered how I could end this story. I knew that it was finished when I drew the last panel, where the singer finds the author of the book, gives him his songs and says to him ‘Here, I've made some new songs, look’, and that was it. And he disappears into the night. It takes place in Paris and it is raining.
My last image was of the main character, in the rain, with the car headlights illuminating him from behind, and we don't know what he's thinking. But that's the strength of the comic strip. We manage to show that he's extremely moved, as he has just received songs from his favourite singer–songs that will exist only for him. And we don't know whether he's crying or if it's the rain”.
Having such trust in your characters is one thing, but it’s an illuminating example of a master at the top of his game; to be able to create something that resonates with the wider world, knowing that what’s instinctively etched onto paper might find its way unconsciously etched into the minds of many.
“I am the interpreter of their emotions. I am very grateful, as a reader, to writers of whom I can say ‘Ah but yes, the author says everything I didn’t know how to say, they say everything I couldn't say. They do that and it’s a relief for me’. This is also the great virtue of fiction: to provide catharsis for the reader, to make them experience situations that would not happen in their normal life; that a character lives on their behalf. And at the same time, it takes the reader much further emotionally, since they are going to experience unbelievable things. When we manage to do this, it’s a success, to have managed to take the reader to the story – and to have taken them along with us.”
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