The Last Mona Lisa. Jonathan Santlofer. Sourcebooks. 2021. $27.99
It was back in 1987 that I made my first visit to Paris, which included viewing the Mona Lisa. My more recent visit was in 2019. I can tell you that the ’87 visit was not like the uber-spectacle it is now. It wasn’t even in the same location. As I recall, it was a huge square of a space and the Mona Lisa was housed in a booth that made me think of a carnival fortune telling machine. The gatherings of people were left to do as they pleased and behaved like instinctively polite starlings. People seemed to know just how to behave! Now, it’s like a cramped and narrow airport terminal with everyone jockeying for position, queued up for a few seconds of viewing, and then directed off by guards. Really, I’m not kidding. Anyway, I had to say that because I figure it will strike a chord with some of you and it’s a perfect opening observation to a book that I believe would satisfy a lot of the curiosity out there for the mega-famous painting. The book is entitled, The Last Mona Lisa, by a truly captivating writer, Jonathan Santlofer. I’ve been intrigued by Santlofer for some time as I’ve observed how well he’s done as both an artist and a writer. I was quite moved by his memoir and that led me to check out some of his crime fiction, which is a lot of fun. His new book takes his skills and passions and distills them into an urbane thriller that will stay with you just like a memory of your favorite dinner overlooking a beautiful sunset. So, yeah, it’s that kind of book. In fact, if it’s not already, it should be stocked in the Louvre gift shop. And, yes, the museum is now open, albeit with health restrictions. Also, I should add here, this is a book that is ideal for any book club as you may imagine.
Mona Lisa Mania!
The Last Mona Lisa is about the greatest museum heist of them all, the theft of the Mona Lisa by a Louvre museum guard in August of 1911. It was a sensation in newspapers all over the world and catapulted the Leonardo Da Vinci painting to world-famous masterpiece status. Santlofer takes that story and weaves a narrative that explores the inner life of the thief, the frustrated artist Vincent Peruggia, and present day attempts by his great-grandson, Luke Perrone, along with a rogue INTERPOL detective among others, to unravel the mystery behind the details of this most unusual museum heist caper. All this investigating leads to the possibility that the real Mona Lisa was never returned to the Louvre and now some people will stop at nothing to get the real thing. Among the various subplots, it’s the story of Luke, the great-grandson of the original thief, that leads the way, neck and neck with following the drama of Vincent, the thief and aspiring celebrated artist.
It’s fun to follow Luke’s progress as an unlikely hero who grows into his role as a sleuth. He stumbled upon the story of his infamous great-grandfather when, as a boy, he’d been tasked with cleaning out the family attic. One look inside a chest reveals the tell-tale mugshot of Vincent Peruggia which triggers a lifelong obsession with finding out the truth about the thief of the Mona Lisa. Fast forward to the present and Luke finagles his way to gaining access to a rare books section in a prominent library in Florence, Italy. It is there that he becomes involved with a mysterious beauty, a striking blonde who just so happens to be pursuing her own scholarly search at the same table that Luke is camped out at. This, of course, sets in motion some of the key elements needed for the romantic thriller that ensues.
Santlofer paints a portrait of Vincent Peruggia as the classic malcontent would-be bad boy artist who just so happens to fall into the company of Pablo Picasso and other notable figures of the Parisian art scene, like Max Jacob. Vincent Peruggia is no Vincent van Gogh! Instead, he’s a somewhat competent artist of the most obvious subject matter like pretty still life paintings. He’s resentful of the avant-garde cubist work by Braque and Picasso which he dimly understands. Vincent is the Lee Harvey Oswald of the art world, destined for infamy.
The Mona Lisa was indeed “stolen” in 1910, a year prior to the famous 1911 heist.
The building blocks to Santlofer’s novel are all true. The Mona Lisa was, in fact, “stolen” a year prior to the celebrated heist by Vincent Peruggia. Santlofer provides a news clipping of the story that sort of just came and went in 1910 but, without a doubt, documented a robbery of some kind. It’s a fine piece of detective work on Santlofer’s part as it doesn’t readily come up on a casual internet search. For whatever reason, that story ended up an odd blip without a follow-up. Nothing was ever officially said again about any theft. Not until the story that would not go away, the celebrated story of 1911. It is this incongruous situation with the ignored “theft” of 1910 that has fed countless rumors and conspiracy theories. It is this stranger-than-fiction phenomena that was just waiting to be plucked and processed into Santlofer’s latest delightful page-turner.
For more information, and how to buy this book, go to Sourcebooks.
I love this still from the upcoming animated feature, Arco. I have to hand it to the French as this looks like something very weird and wonderful–and will live up to its promise. All the little details, so delicate and precise, speak to the dedication of a true graphic novelist, which Ugo surely is as he has a fine and consistent track record of actually creating numerous graphic novels. You really can’t call yourself a graphic novelist without actually being one! So, here is a bona fide bande dessinee artist!
Here is the news on Arco which appeared in Variety last month:
Paris/London: A First Look is an art book by Henry Chamberlain and Jennifer Daydreamer, published by Comics Grinder Productions. It is a tour of Paris and London through the eyes of two cartoonists. There are 24 drawings featured in this full color hardcover. You can buy it here.
Art by Henry Chamberlain
Henry and Jennifer set out to explore Europe together for the first time equipped with sketchbooks and eager to create art. This is their carnet de voyage to share with all those with a similar wanderlust.
Art by Jennifer Daydreamer
The idea for this book is simple: share one’s joie de vivre on a trip abroad. In this collection of drawings you’ll find a nice variety of subjects covered: culture, food, sightseeing, and the personal observations that you find in journal entries.
The Montparnasse neighborhood where we stayed for most of our visit to Paris.
What is it that compels someone to draw what they see? Well, that can be anyone for all sorts of reasons. One ideal scenario is when you’re completely out of your element. Say goodbye to the familiar routine. Set aside your regular obligations. Your only goal, really, is to be good to yourself. Of course, we can all do that right this minute right within our everyday life. But it never hurts to set out and explore something new, right? So, why not Paris? Why not London? Indeed!
Henry Chamberlain: “Sometimes, drawing in the rain is your best medicine.”
Let me give you a perfect example of how being out of the norm gives you that added boost. While Jennifer and I were visiting the Rodin Museum, it began to pour down rain like we hadn’t seen in a long time. It was nonstop and torrential. But we didn’t let that get in our way. In fact, I drew my portrait of Rodin’s Thinker while being pelted by rain. Would I have been so nonchalant about rain if I was trying to draw something in Seattle? Heck no, I would have just packed it up and walked away! But you draw from a special reserve inside you that is saved for moments like this. I told myself that I’d better concentrate and keep drawing since I didn’t know when I’d get this chance again! Sometimes, drawing in the rain is your best medicine. As it turned out, it all worked out rather well. The drawing I did was sealed with raindrops when I closed my sketchbook. The next time I opened it, I discovered that the ink had run onto the opposite page creating a perfect mirror image! Now, that sort of thing would not normally happen to me back in Seattle but I’m eager to be patient and see if it just might all the same. These trips abroad have a way of re-energizing you and giving you the added perspective you need once you’re back home.
Rules drawing by Jennifer Daydreamer
I’ll add a bit more here. I know that our trip did wonders for us. And we can’t wait to go back. This is our first book together. We have drawn mini-comics together but this is our first art book. I look forward to more collaborations and all sorts of other creative projects. And I look forward to visiting that venerable landmark in London, now one of our favorite places for a meal and a drink, Rules! Let me tell you about it. Established in 1798, Rules serves classic British food (especially game) in what we came to appreciate as, “Edwardian surrounds.” The restaurant is decorated primarily with an array of vintage artwork, especially old cartoons, which we really loved. For the more adventurous, after dinner, you can sneak up to the bar up two narrow flights of stairs. This is exactly where King Edward went to rendezvous with entertainer Lillie Langtry during the time of their affair. So, the place is a little dark, intimate, and filled with a sense of intrigue. It was perfect inspiration of Jennifer and she created one of her best drawings there. She gave it to the two bartenders that night. But I was quick to act and took a photo before it was on its way and added essential digital color once back in Seattle. Pretty cool, huh?
Around the Champs-Élysées
Alright, now that we’re quite settled in and I’m in a more chatty mood, I’ll continue along for some more. The photo above is another of many photos I took on the sly as we were briskly walking from one place to another. You wouldn’t know it but there’s a story here. We began our trip in London, then took the train to Paris, and ultimately took the train back to London. We found going through Heathtrow to be rather comforting. I recall Charles De Gaulle airport being very hectic from a trip many years ago. Anyway, the plan had been to have a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower from the table we’d reserved at Chez Francis. But, for some reason, we were having great difficulty finding Chez Francis! We just didn’t have it all together yet. Subsequently, on our way from some other event, we stumbled upon Chez Francis and finally had our dinner with a view. This is a goal of many a tourist and even the Chez Francis menu is dominated by the Eiffel Tower. Later on, the next day I think, Jennifer wanted to know how it was that we missed the Arc de Triomphe if we were already on the Champs-Élysées. Well, it was already getting late and pretty dark and it just wasn’t meant to be! But I managed to get the above photo which I still like very much. I’m looking forward to finding the movie that is advertised on that column. Looks like it’s probably a moody action thriller, doesn’t it? Yeah, leave it to the French to make great moody action thrillers.
Paris/London: A First Look is available at the Comics Grinder store.
Once Upon a Time in France, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Sylvain Vallée
Once Upon a Time in France is such a gorgeous book. One of the best ways that I can demonstrate to you the beauty and artistry that you will find in this graphic novel is to show you a sample page, in black & white, next to the same page in color. Once Upon a Time in France, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Sylvain Vallée, is published by Dead Reckoning and makes for a most riveting and immersive story like you probably have not read in quite some time. This is the story of Joseph Joanovici, a Romanian Jew who immigrated to France in the 1920s and became one of the richest men in Europe as a scrap-metal magnate. For some, he was a Nazi collaborator villain. For others, he was a French resistance hero. He undoubtedly played both ends against the middle! It makes for a fascinating story. The graphic novel series was an international bestseller with over 1 million copies sold. Thankfully, Dead Reckoning has collected the entire French series in this new English translation omnibus edition.
Sample one in b&w
I just completed some traveling in Europe and so I’m still processing all of that. Of course, World War II looms large, bursting at the seams of history, as you make your way through such places as Paris and London. It can be no other way. The past pulls you in and makes itself present. The past is always present. It seeps its way into the culture and the daily lives of the natives. History is more respected and acknowledged in Europe than it is in the United States. And that’s not so much a criticism as a simple observation. There is a special connection to the past in Europe that encourages readers and thinkers in all strata of society. It is a culture that celebrates books and has a unique love for comics and graphic novels. That’s certainly not to say that thoughtful expansive works in comics are not appreciated in the U.S. but it is to say that an even keener appreciation by large numbers of readers will be found in Europe, without a doubt. That said, I highly recommend to my American friends that they check out a book such as Once Upon a Time in France in order to get a better sense of the appeal of serious works in comics outside of the United States.
Sample two in color
This omnibus edition collects six books of comics. As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer the typical European format of a hardcover book of comics spanning less than 1oo pages. So, this collection is a total of 360 pages, comprising six books of about 60 pages each. And that is a perfect setup. Tell a riveting and expansive tale within the covers of six manageable books! The European culture accepts that format and treats a series of books such as this in the way that Americans treat following a television series. Of course, you see similar efforts in the U.S. with much of it taken up by the big two superhero publishers followed by various other publishers and rounded out by an assortment of micro, indie and self-publishing cartoonists. Speaking of history, we’re right in the thick of a significant time in comics history as the comics medium continues to redefine itself and position itself within the book market in general. And, again, I say that everyone would do well to seek out this wartime thriller as a brilliant example of what is possible within comics!
A thrilling story that won’t quit.
You will be utterly pleased by reading this impressive omnibus edition. It satisfies on many levels: as a brilliant example of the comics medium; as a wonderful taste of European culture; and as a rollicking good thriller! In fact, I can easily see this book adapted into an amazing series at such venues as Hulu, Amazon or Netflix.
An elegant wartime thriller.
Once Upon a Time in France is a 360-page trade paperback, published by Dead Reckoning.
Francis Bacon was certainly on my radar during my time in art school. Just as I was completing my formal training at the University of Houston, I was aware of Bacon’s continued presence and activity. And then he died. I earned my BFA the year he passed away, 1992. Yes, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was acknowledged as a heroic figure, a painter in the great tradition of towering romantic and angst-ridden artists. But what were we as art students doing with that information? What were our professors sharing with us about him? I mostly recall the awful jokes that he was Bacon the contemporary artist and not Bacon the great philosopher. So, in a nutshell, we didn’t do much of anything with Bacon looming in the background. Maybe I did more than most. I know a lot of students were lost in their own uneducated and overindulgent worlds or absorbed with the hotshots of the recent era as we understood it, people like Francisco Clemente, David Salle, even Julian Schnabel, especially Schnabel since he’d gone to UH for a short time. And, of course, there was no internet as we know it today and, in hindsight, I damn well could have used it back then!
Second Version of Painting from 1946, Museum of Modern Art, 1971.
After 1992, life’s circumstances gave me a bit of a bum’s rush from school and out the door. I’ve been cartwheeling ever since. Not to digress too much, but I’ve come out on top in a number of ways such as having the opportunity to gaze upon this dazzling show of Francis Bacon paintings at the Pompidou Centre! From the little I could glean from glossy art magazines, art history books and a few lectures, I was aware of Bacon’s raw and tortured energy. He was a rough cut fellow, is how I would casually put it if I was attempting to introduce him to someone unfamiliar with him and his work. Bacon’s career began in the 1940s and blossomed in the next two pivotal decades. Many an art student was familiar with Bacon’s landmark painting of the screaming pope, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. What did it mean? Where did it come from? We mostly chalked it up as subversive. That much we knew for sure and we loved it.
Gathering among Bacon.
That brings us to this current show at the Pompidou Centre. Jennifer and I had managed to arrive just in time to settle into it with little else than an introductory pamphlet. So, there was some adjusting to do as we both gorged upon Bacon. We were certainly not alone. There was a nervy energy running throughout the crowd of people. The show had recently opened for its run of 11 September 2019 to 20 January 2020. They had all come to see Bacon! But what did it mean to them? They knew his name and they knew about the famous work and the raw energy. There was that and there was a theme attached to the show–but gathering up so many Bacons in one space was more than enough, theme or no theme. It wasn’t until I’d made the turn into another room that I sniffed out the curator’s ardor for organizing, labeling, categorizing and zealous need to impose their ownership upon another’s work. After all, Francis Bacon was first and foremost a painter. He was self-taught. He, unlike countless academics and so-called scholars, got dirty and actually did things. This is not to say that a finely-articulated analysis is not welcome from time to time but it is often best to be taken with a grain of salt. Anyway, the idea for the show is to tie Bacon’s choice of reading with his painting. That’s why this show has rooms where all you have is a book on display and an audio of someone reading.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, after Ingres, 1983.
It does make sense to link Bacon to his reading habits given the fact he was such an avid reader. He loved books. They came naturally to him as they did for many a young rebel of his time. There are a number of choices on display in this show that would have been catnip for many a young artist back then and even today. At least, one hopes young artists haven’t changed so much now that they are, on the whole, bypassing gorging upon the works of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Jean Racine, Balzac, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Freud, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Proust and many others. Well, that is the formal tent under which all these Bacons have been arranged. Process that however you like.
Walking towards Bacon.
One thing that struck me about this show is how it feels like it is stretching past its own time, as if it is still pulsating, still preening upon the gallery wall space and not ready to succumb to a timeless role as a museum artifact. I mean, the work still feels “contemporary” to me. While I was an art student, we had to suffer through all the prattle from critics and tastemakers over whether or not figurative painting was dead or not. To think we were getting this kind of talk even as we’d been experiencing a bunch of interesting “new” approaches to figurative work by the likes of Eric Fischl and Jonathan Borofsky. Finally, fast forward to today, the big secret is that figurative painting will never die. It’s just too vital, too primal, too essential. I guess, seeing this show takes me back to sometime before Bacon’s death, a world where there was a Francis Bacon still making new paintings and even making definitive versions of previous work. That is what this show is about: Bacon’s last two decades of his career (from 1971 to 1992). I can feel that artist raging and creating, knowing time was running out. So, ultimately, this show is more than about books and painting. This show is about an artist taking what he’s learned about painting and setting forth with his final explorations.
Bacon was always raging and rebelling, seeking a way to be the next Picasso. He was being himself when it was against the law in England to engage in homosexual acts. It wasn’t until 1967 that sex between two adult men (21 years-old) was decriminalized in the UK. What’s a “British artist” like Bacon to do? Well, that’s easy enough, go where you are welcome: Paris, the city that is open and fluid, revels in bohemian excess, and welcomes sex in all its many flavors. It was at the Grand Palais show at the Pompidou Centre in 1971 that Bacon delivered a landmark show that earned him critical praise, and raised him to the rank of a Picasso. And the show was more about love and sex than books. You can add a variety of erudite references but, at some point, you need to acknowledge the human being writhing upon a toilet! The Grand Palais show revolved around Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, who killed himself the day before the opening. As Jonathan Jones describes in a wonderful piece in The Guardian, it was Bacon’s muse, in the form of Dyer, who made the show what it was and, with his suicide, nearly brought it all tumbling down. The new show at the Pompidou Centre, interestingly enough, covers the time after the celebrated Grand Palais show of 1971. Again, this has nothing to do with the connection of books to paintings, but it’s a nice theme to wrap around a body of work that defies the curator’s nimble touch.
A genius is not always fortunate to be appreciated in his own time. That was the fate of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You would think that he’d get some love in such a sophisticated place as Paris but, back in 1778, he needed to hustle in order to get recognition. And Mozart was not one who easily hustled. He repeatedly had to fight for the right to be acknowledged as an artist on his own terms. Frantz Duchazeau brings that struggle to life in his new graphic novel, Mozart in Paris, published by SelfMadeHero, distributed by Abrams, available starting October 8, 2019.
A genius in Paris.
Mozart is Mozart, who can deny that? Maybe Salieri? You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen 1984’s Amadeus. But even Salieri, the rival and villain in that movie, had the good sense to know he was dealing with a genius composer. In this graphic novel, we get a wonderful look at the reality of indifference and shortsightedness. French tastemakers, threatened or indifferent to Mozart’s original and innovative music, would try to keep him out of the limelight. Mozart’s own father was relentless in dismissing Mozart’s efforts but, to his credit, he was dealing with a highly precocious individual who did not calm more conservative nerves.
MOZART IN PARIS by Frantz Duchazeau
Mozart didn’t think it was really up to him to convince anyone of his skill and talent. That kind of attitude doesn’t come without a price. Frantz Duchazeau does a wonderful job of showing the reader just what price Mozart had to pay for his own brand of naive arrogance. What if he had only held back and allowed someone to receive a false compliment? What if he had held back and not insulted a rival?
Mozart, as instructor.
Duchazeau has quite an engaging way with the page. Of all the comics I’ve been reading lately, he is definitely among those I see with a magical touch. As if evoking the grace and uncanny elegance of Mozart’s music, Duchazeau balances an engaging mix of variety upon the page with nicely modulated recurring elements, like the way he constructs his panels with one center panel speaking to the bigger picture. In the two examples on display in this review, you have Mozart in the center of one page seeking consensus on his genius. On another page, he is at the center again, but this time he must restrain himself for the sake of his beloved pupil.
Mozart, a young man in a hurry.
Sometimes you must fold your wings in order to someday spread them. That is, unless you’re Mozart. But, on the other hand, this is also the story of a young man in the big city. Mozart was only 22 years-old during this early visit to Paris. And Mozart was driven and had no time to waste. Duchazeau guides the reader through Mozart’s bumpy ride as he stumbles and gets that much closer to his destiny.
Run, Mozart, Run!
Mozart in Paris is a 96-page full color trade paperback, published by SelfMadeHero, distributed by Abrams, available starting October 8, 2019.
No one does the dance with death, and life, on the page as well as French cartoonist Blutch. He has influenced a generation of cartoonists, including such big names as Paul Pope and Craig Thompson. You can see it in how they create in ink, how they attack the page. But neither Pope nor Thompson can really match the master. The way Blutch brings his pages to life is more mysterious, even dangerous, truly like a tightrope walker without a net. It’s not only ink, for Blutch. It’s one’s own life’s blood. Blutch is well known in France in sort of similar fashion to, say, Robert Crumb is known in the United States. By that, I mean that Blutch has a reputation for artful and provocative work. When the reissue of Peplum first came out a while ago, I was deep in the process of a lot of things, including a big move and so I do a revisit of this book now, Blutch’s first book translated into English. It began as a serialized comic in the magazine, A Suivre, and established Blutch as a serious artist back in 1996, at the age of 28. And it is the book that New York Review Books chose as part of their entry into publishing reprints of classic work in graphic novels.
Give me a reason to create art!
This is really the sort of work in comics that appeals to me the most: work created by someone who is masterfully pushing the limits of the art form. Peplum is ambitious in scope and highly inventive and original in execution. Having become bored with conventional comics tropes, Blutch needed to pursue comics more as would a painter, filmmaker or novelist. He chose the ancient Roman fable, The Satyricon, as his jumping off point. As this is a satire of Nero’s court, Blutch essentially wished to associate himself with satire on a grand scale. He marries that refined ambition with a low brow reference. Peplum refers to the peplum film genre, the sword-and-sandal Italian B-movie epics of the ’50s and ’60s. With all that in place, Blutch can work as a painter, having created the wash upon which he can structure his canvas.
PEPLUM by Blutch
A good deal of this comic is wordless, so much the better to study Blutch’s work. Often, what you find is a hungry artist feasting upon creating work. He’s set himself up a glorious excuse to paint, as many a painter will tell you. Blutch proves with this early work that he is fully capable of evoking the mystery and energy found in the best work of comics or any other art form. Our story is set shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar and the focus ends up on the sole survivor of an expedition en route back to Rome. He is a slave who takes on the identity of a nobleman, Publius Cimber. During their ill-fated journey, Cimber’s group had discovered a beautiful regal-like woman encased in a block of ice. What this supernatural entity might mean or be is beyond anyone’s wildest guess. Cimber only knows he must return to Rome with her–and he might be in love with her. Ah, this is a story only Blutch could tell!
You always need a really good MacGuffin.
Is the lady in ice that Cimber covets nothing more than a MacGuffin, an elaborate plot device? Sure, the reader senses that this is probably the case early on but no matter. It’s the journey that counts for everything. Poor Cimber is well over his head. He isn’t even really Cimber! He has pledged his heart over to the enigmatic frozen maiden but, aside from that, he’s a bit of a loose cannon and a tortured Hamlet. Cimber is a bit of all of us, climbing and grasping for something, not always sure of what he wants. Cimber makes for a perfectly fine present day hero even if his life and struggles take place in ancient Rome. What we find in Peplum are the first significant signs of what was ahead for Blutch as an artist. That same wry energy is found in other work such as the celebrated Mitchum, also from around 1996, and So Long, Silver Screen, from 2011. In Mitchum, among the players is none other than Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum who is there to stand on a young woman’s hair during a pivotal scene. Yet another perfectly surreal Blutch moment! And speaking of Mitchum, New York Review Books will be releasing an English translation of this most dazzling book, set to be released April 7, 2020. It will have an English translation by none other than cartoonist and comics scholar Matt Madden. Below, I present to you the cover to the original French version, published by Cornélius.
Here is a graphic novel that many of you, especially in the States, will be intrigued by–or it might make you scratch your head: Les bijoux de la Kardashian, (loose translation, Kardashian’s Jewels) published by Glénat. Of course, this is a book focusing on the ordeal that Kim Kardashian went through in Paris back in 2016. This is a French graphic novel that just screams out for an English translation. Given that Glénat and American comics publisher, IDW, work closely together, it would be easy to see this happen. That said, just enjoying the lively artwork alone is well worth it. Would a U.S. audience not be receptive to an English translation version of this?
Talk about how anything can become content for a graphic novel! The Kim Kardashian hotel heist is actually a complicated story and comics, in fact, prove an ideal tool to sort through the details. Written by journalists François Vignolle and Julien Dumond, this graphic novel is decidedly fact-driven. The artwork is by cartoonist Gregory Mardon who does a marvelous job of bringing what amounts to a classic crime story to life. Mardon’s style is very crisp and clean, as if he were drawing wonderfully concise sketchbook drawings. It is a particular look, very French, exemplified by such legendary French cartoonists like Etienne Davodeau, Jacques de Loustal, and Blutch. So, Mardon’s artwork will evoke for the reader a reporter’s notebook come to life.
The Hôtel de Pourtalès, where Kim Kardashian West was robbed. Celebrities seeking privacy often stay there. From Vanity Fair.
It is quite an undertaking to bring this whole story together. You have two dramatically different worlds colliding: all the aspects of the crime, including the criminals and the police; and all the aspects of the glitzy lifestyle of a true American reality TV icon. The story is based upon police records and investigations into the high-profile crime that took place in an apartment in Paris’ upmarket 8th arrondissement on Oct 3, 2016. François Vignolle, one of the French journalists who co-authored the graphic novel, states: “We explored the routes the thieves and Kardashian took, we went to the places where they were, spoke to sources and took photos of the spots so that the story would be as real as possible.” And it was as if all other news took second place at the time of the media circus. “We no longer were talking about the terrorist attacks in France or Donald Trump in the United States. Everyone wanted to know about the Kim Kardashian theft.” So, all in all, a full portrait of the event and its aftermath.
An unlikely high-profile criminal.
Ultimately, a fabulous story emerges involving a most unlikely band of thieves. The time is right to take a closer look, with the initial story processed in our minds, a story that gratefully did not turn more violent than it might have. And that’s not to diminish at all the very real trauma of being robbed at gunpoint. Only after the passage of time, in hindsight, do we get a full story. The thieves were all past the age of 50, some even past 70. They had no idea who Kim Kardashian was. They initially were just after a ring but managed to stumble upon a collection of jewels worth some $10 million. And their getaway was on bicycles which they had a very hard time with. The whole thing, with respectful hindsight, brings to mind some Pink Panther caper. So, it is no surprise to find a bit of humor. There is no malice here, no ridicule. But you do get a lot of scenes of the queen of reality TV posting on social media.
Kim Kardashian back in her element.
That all brings us back to whether or not it makes sense to have an English version to this graphic novel devoted to the Kim Kardashian jewel heist caper. Is it just too much for audiences outside of France to comprehend? Time will tell. The thieves go on trial in 2020 and there’s talk of a sequel graphic novel. Perhaps the biggest barrier is not language to this story. Perhaps something culturally would get lost in translation. And that’s a shame.
Les bijoux de la Kardashian, (loose translation, Kardashian’s Jewels) is published by Glénat.
Much is brewing for novelist Jerome Charyn and I imagine that’s always been the case. Currently, he has a new novel out, “Jerzy,” which tackles the controversial life of writer Jerzy Kosinski. The development of “Hard Apple,” an animated series based on Charyn’s Isaac Sidel crime novels, is on a fast-track. “Winter Warning,” perhaps the last installment of the Sidel novels comes out this October. And “Family Man,” a deluxe re-issue of Charyn’s collaboration with cartoonist Joe Staton will be available later this year, with a Kickstarter campaign in support of the IT’S ALIVE Press print run closing on May 21st.
For a writer steeped in the works of great literature, it is comic books and movies that influence his work as much as anything else. In 1986, “The Magician’s Wife,” a graphic novel written by Jerome Charyn and illustrated by François Boucq, published by Casterman, won for Best Album at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. That is tantamount to winning an Academy Award for the comics industry. Mr. Charyn’s contribution, and subsequent collaborations, have significantly added to the developing art form that is the comics medium, specifically graphic novels.
We begin our conversation talking about character. In this case, the celebrated and controversial writer Jerzy Kosinski. At the end is a link to the podcast:
Jerzy Kosinski with David Letterman, 1984.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s begin with your recent novel, “Jerzy.” My thinking is that the life of Jerzy Kosinski fits in well with your work as you’re drawn to unusual characters seeking salvation.
JEROME CHARYN: When you look back at it historically, it almost seems like he didn’t exist. He seems like a made-up person. He led so many fictional lives. To me, it was very sad because the first two books he wrote, “The Painted Bird,” and his second novel, “Steps,” which is just as unusual, were works of genius. But, when he put on the mask of Jerzy Kosinski, in the other books, they’re no longer anywhere as interesting. They don’t have the same sad, hard touch. They’re made-up, invented. They’re not authentic.
“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn
“Steps” talks about his life after the war and how he lived. We have such a narrow glimpse into what it must have been like to live in a communist country after the war. And this is, you know, almost like Kafka. I mean, the world he describes in “Steps” is extraordinary. I found him to be a strange man. Very hard to deal with. But the early work was incredible.
You share a certain sensibility with Kosinski: a connection to Russia.
Yes, my mother was Russian. And I love the literature. There’s nothing like it. This is not to take anything away from American writers but when you go back to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol, it’s almost like being caught in a landscape of illusions.
Lowes Paradise Theatre in the Bronx. “It was comics and movies. That was my education.”
Would you share with us your special connection to comics. You grew up in the Bronx with comics.
Yes, that’s why it’s not so strange to be involved in the whole aura of comic books. I’m about to embark upon an animated series based on my Isaac Sidel crime novels. People talk about the special role of storyboard artists. Well, I’m a storyboard artist in the sense that I can see the storyboard in my head. I grew up with comics. I learned how to read with comics.
As you wrote in one of your articles, I’m one of the first people to make the crossover from fiction to comics. I started out as an artist but I had no talent at all. So, I needed artists to work with. And I was lucky to find some of the very best artists while I was living in France. Had I not been living in France, it probably would never have happened.
A SUIVRE, a Franco-Belgian comics magazine published from February 1978 to December 1997 by the Casterman.
Your work in comics began with your connection to the comics magazine, A SUIVRE.
Yes, the title means to be continued. It was an extraordinary magazine. It lost its circulation, which can happen as you move from one generation of readers to the next. The magazine reviewed one of my novels. I was sent a copy of the issue with the review and I was exposed to some of the most extraordinary art: Tardi, Bilal, and José Muñoz, a master of black & white. I wrote a letter to the editor, Jean-Paul Mougin, a wonderful editor. I wrote to him about my desire to work with an artist. He found for me François Boucq, and we were able to collaborate on several graphic novels, including “The Magician’s Wife.”
When you were entering into this collaboration, were you at all thinking that you were about to a make your mark on this exciting and emerging comics art form or were you thinking more of it as an interesting experiment?
I would say it was both. To declare that I was making my mark would have been thinking too far ahead. I adored the work Boucq did. I remember working in television for the first time twenty-five years ago. And I recall thinking that I would love hearing the lines that I wrote for the pilot, adapted from one of my novels. And I didn’t love it at all. But when I saw the art that François Boucq did, I almost cried. He took a story that I wrote and interpreted it in his own way. The results felt totally personal. On television, the words each actor and actress spoke had no relation to me whatsoever. I was startled. I’d seen the rushes. I thought I would really enjoy it. It was dead to me.
Do you recall what televsion show that was?
Yes. It was an adaptation of “The Good Policeman.”
I wanted to build a little more on what you’ve said about comics, that it comes in and out of reality. And you’ve talked about how one can linger upon a panel. The framework of comics is unique, is magical.
Yes, it is magical. It has its own framework, like a house. It’s architecture. The panels are pieces of architecture. Also, you can move them around and shift the logic. You can possibly do that in a novel but it’s going to be difficult for the reader. You see how I do that in “Jerzy.” I shift the narrative, in a way. It seems to me, going back to Krazy Kat, you move from panel to panel and you’re in a different landscape. That, to me, was very exciting. In other words, there were no rules. You could tell the story in any way you wanted.
“Once Upon a Droshky” by Jerome Charyn. Cover art by Edward Sorel.
I wanted to chat with you about your first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” published in 1964. It has beautiful cover art by Edward Sorel.
I really love that cover. I’m disappointed that I never worked with him again. I chose one of my friends to do the cover for my next book. That was a mistake since you shouldn’t mix friendship with art.
Is there anything you can share with us about Edward Sorel–did you guys socialize?
I think I did meet him. I do adore the cover. I don’t know why he was chosen. He was a young man at the time. It is simply a wonderful cover as it fits the book perfectly. I was delighted to learn that you had just interviewed him. Not only that, we both have the same publisher, Liveright.
You guys should have coffee some time.
I hope so. I would love to meet him. I always wanted to be a writer and, when you see your first book, it doesn’t seem real. I’m holding it in my hand right now and it still doesn’t seem real!
You seem to have anticipated my next question. I wonder if you could give us a window into that time, at the height of the modern era. Sorel could create the Great American Illustration and you could create the Great American Novel.
“Great American Novel,” no, but it was a time when serious literature thrived. Hemingway was still alive. I believe, Faulkner was still alive. Literature was at the center of the culture. It meant something to the culture. In other words, when I went to Columbia College, we spent four years just reading books. So, one did not talk about the possibility of whether or not you might become a doctor or a lawyer. That was incidental to the idea of learning a way of life. And that has remained with me. The greatest gift I ever had was spending four years studying books. We had a colloquium of ten students and two professors. In the colloquium there was a student who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, another student who became a professor of philosophy at Harvard, etc. These were all very serious guys with a murderous intellect. And literature was a kind of religion. It’s difficult for me to speak about the current generation. But I know that, at that time, literature was at the center of the culture. It meant something.
It’s always been a relatively small group of serious readers. Literature used to mean more to the general public–we’ve lost that.
We’ve lost a lot. There are fewer book reviews and fewer bookshops. It’s the same thing that’s happened to the movies. They’re just remakes of superhero flicks and a few small films. The small has disappeared. It’s the mega-book. It’s the mega-bomb, you know. And that’s not the kind of art that I want to do.
There’s something that Marilyn Monroe said toward the end of her career, and it’s my credo. She said, “I don’t want to be rich. I want to be wonderful.” I feel the same way. I love Marilyn Monroe but she had no idea how to live her life. When she moved back to L.A., she didn’t know how to furnish her house. All she had was a bed and a lamp. It’s kind of sad but also poetic at the same time.
You have an amazing formal education. But, first, you had comic books and the movies. Do those two forces strongly influence your work, the magical realism that keeps popping up?
Yes. Remember, when you grow up with films, you have a visual sophistication that you don’t have in real life. I came from a very poor family. I remember going out with a girlfriend of mine. She came from a very aristocratic background. She was chastising me for not holding my knife the correct way. I seldom get angry. But I really exploded. I said that I lived all my life being told what to do and I didn’t want to be told how to eat. I didn’t have her table manners. I didn’t have her customs. I grew up like a kind of wolf.
But, on the other hand, I had this visual sophistication from a very early age. Joyce Carol Oates explained it to me. I thought that maybe I’d just seen so many movies. She said that maybe my brain was wired in a special way. In other words, I can distinctly remember the back of an actor’s head I had seen in a film thirty years ago. I don’t have to see the front of his face. That crazy visualization was imprinted in my brain.
There were no books in the house. It was comics and movies. That was my education. School didn’t give you much, just little things like how to spell.
“The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” by Jerome Charyn
What can you tell us about your debut novel. What led you to choose the subject behind “Once Upon a Droshky”?
My grandparents came from the Lower East Side. You have to remember, I’d never traveled. I’d never been anywhere. Even as a kid, I very rarely went into Manhattan. Even though I was sophisticated in terms of what I read, I could not, at that point, take what I read and turn it into what I wanted to write. I had to find a theme, or a group of characters that made sense to me. I remember walking around the streets where my grandparent lived on the Lower East Side. And I can still recall the Yiddish theaters—the marquees and the actors. So, in my first novel, I picked a Yiddish actor who is unemployed. And I was able to move into that world and find his voice. Voice is critical. Writing is music. There’s nothing else but the music.
I certainly enjoyed reading your first novel. I would encourage everyone to grab an existing copy while you still can. It would definitely make sense for this book to come back in a new edition.
That’s when you get into issues of commerce. At some point, things will either work out or not. I’m grateful that I was able to do it. Someone will ask me about how I wrote that novel. Well, I found the music for it. And, for a long time, while I was living in Europe, I’d lost the music. I really wasn’t able to write. I was only able to write about New York. I was able to write stories about New York but I wasn’t able to be more adventurous. Language is a gift that can disappear as quickly as it can reappear. It’s almost magical. You write in a dream. It’s really a dream state. I don’t know how artists draw. I can only tell you how I write. You’re writing in a dream.
Your body of work is breathtaking. When someone goes over the many titles and considers the quality of the work, it’s stunning. A recent example is “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.” I had not read that much of Dickinson prior to reading your book. But I have now. And your novel is quite beautiful.
Thank you. I like that book a lot. I was chastised for writing in a woman’s voice. I’d rediscovered Emily Dickinson rather late. I’d never read her letters before and they are just as extraordinary as her poems. I knew I wasn’t finished with her. So, I started “A Loaded Gun.” The wondrous fact is that she never wanted to publish her work. She was like Kafka in a way. She had a secret self that was very tough. People don’t recognize her toughness. And this is what I wanted to write about.
“Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories” by Jerome Charyn
I wanted to ask you about your story collection, “Bitter Bronx.” I would recommend that as a wonderful point of entry. I love the fable-like quality to the stories. They remind me, in a way, of J.D. Salinger.
I’m not a great admirer of “Catcher in the Rye.” But I love “The Nine Stories.” I read them in high school. There are three or four of those stories that can make you cry with sadness and delight. The important thing is a book that you can reread and still feel the same affection: Ernest Hemingway’s early stories, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Isaac Babel. The thing about “Bitter Bronx” is that I had to relearn the craft. My editor in France suggested that I write a collection of stories about the Bronx, and like Yankee Doodle, that became my quest.
I want to call attention to the four recent graphic novel re-issues, translated in English, by Dover Publications. Readers can follow up on my previous reviews for that. I also want to call attention to FAMILY MAN, a crime noir graphic novel that will receive a deluxe reprint from IT’S ALIVE Press led by Drew Ford.
We currently have a Kickstarter campaign for “Family Man.” Drew Ford has not received the recognition that he deserves. He is a shrewd editor and gets exactly what he’s looking for from a project.
Page from FAMILY MAN by Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton
Tell us about “Family Man.”
Andy Helfer was the editor at DC Comics. I was interested in writing a Batman story but they had other ideas.
I’ll bet you could get your Batman story today.
Yes, but I’m no longer interested. Jeanette Kahn, president of DC Comics, was interested in one of my novels for a comics adaptation. At the time, in the very small printed format for “Family Man” in three stingy booklets, I didn’t like the art. However, when I finally saw the original art, I loved it.
The deluxe edition is faithful to all the duotone details of the original work.
My quirkiest question for you: You have these leather masks that all the trainees wear in “Billy Budd, KGB.” Where did you get those masks?
They just came from my head!
Well, they’re very arresting visuals!
Trump cartoon by François Boucq for Le Monde.
The thing is that Boucq is an extraordinary artist. When he focuses in on a subject, he gets extraordinary results. These days, he also does political cartoons for Le Monde. For “Billy Budd, KGB,” Boucq made certain changes in the story. Mine was more of a straightforward spy story. Boucq added in the Native American spiritual quality.
That reminds me of your Isaac Sidel stories. What can you tell us about the “Hard Apple” animated series based on your crime series?
We hope to get eight half hour narratives based on the first book, “Blue Eyes.” Then continue from book to book. I’ve done what they call the bible which is a summary of the characters. And soon I will be working on the pilot. I am excited about it. I didn’t realize how lyrical one could be in that animated format. The original idea, six or seven years ago, was to do a live action series. When we moved from that to animation, that’s really my country.
Then you have “Winter Warning” coming out.
Yes, the twelfth book in the series. It may be the last but at least we’ve completed the series. As you know, the main character ends up becoming president of the United States. He’s a Trump-like character. In his case, he’s a Trump of the left, rather than of the right.
Do you think that Donald Trump would make an interesting character to write about or are the people working for him more interesting?
I really don’t know. He’s a phenomenon we never thought would have happened, coming out of reality television. The country has changed so much that now a television star can become president and there will probably be other television star presidents. Say what you will about him, but he was able to speak to the American people in a way that the other candidate could not, except maybe Bernie Sanders.
I hope we may see a re-issue of “Panna Maria.”
Yes, everything in its time. If you shove to hard, you lose everything. You have to see it within its own sequence. If “Family Man” works, then everything else will work.
Things need time to breathe.
Yes. Right now, I’m working on a sequel to “Little Tulip.” I have a wonderful Belgian editor. And we’re at work on a graphic novel of Charlemagne.
It’s great how you rekindled your relationship with François Boucq.
That was through this editor. François Boucq had moved from Casterman to Le Lombard. And that editor, at Le Lombard, said that he grew up on “Billy Budd, KGB” and wanted us to work together again. Let’s say it was my stupidity that had led to our falling out. It was a pity since we could have done wonderful work all this time.
That was through this editor. François Boucq had moved from Casterman to Le Lombard. And that editor, at Le Lombard, said that he grew up on “Billy Budd, KGB” and wanted us to work together again. Let’s say it was my stupidity that had led to our falling out. It was a pity since we could have done wonderful work all this time.
And I look forward to the “Hard Apple” animated series. That’s being put together by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, who created art for the animated movie “Waltz With Bashir.” They’re twins. One does covers for The New Yorker. It’s going to be a wonderful animated series. It’s a chance to do something that’s never been done before.
It would be great to pick up the thread again sometime, especially leading up to the next, perhaps last, Isaac Sidel book.
As you can see the discussion is endless: the relationship between comics and novels, the whole notion of graphic art, the notion of narrative in every form, we could be talking for days.
Your book, “Movieland,” there’s an hour of conversation right there.
Exactly. You should pick up a copy of “Metropolis,” my book on New York, when you get a chance.
I really appreciate your interest. And we’ll talk again.
Thank you for your time.
“Winter Warning,” Book 12 in the Isaac Sidel crime novel series.
Click the link below to listen to the podcast interview right here.
Be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website here. And be sure to check out the FAMILY MAN graphic novel Kickstarter campaign, running thru May 21st, right here.
Taking a global view, there’s isn’t a hotter book right now than “Ville avoisinant la Terre,” by Jorj A. Mhaya. It was originally published in Arabic in 2011 by Dar Onboz. And it has been recently translated into French by Éditions Denoël. This is a gorgeous book and it is only a matter of time before there is an English translation. In the meantime, I would encourage you to seek it out now and get ahead of the pack. If you enjoy the convenience of Amazon, you can find it right here. Let’s take a closer look.
The setting: Beirut, Lebanon
Over years, I’ve enjoyed a number of comics in languages I don’t know well or at all. For example, you don’t have to know French to enjoy the artwork of Blutch or Tardi. And so it is with the artwork of Mhaya. He has a wonderfully sensitive and expressive line punctuated by his use of China black ink wash.
A map for some context.
You will get much of the gist of the narrative by simply following along our main character, Farid Tawill, a typical office worker from Beirut. It may be evident from what you see but, just in case, this man’s world has been turned upside down. On his way home from the office, he finds that the apartment building where he lives with his family has disappeared. Further along his search, he finds his whole city as become alien to him. Like a character out of Kafka, or from an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” our hero appears to be in an alternate reality.
Front cover of “Ville avoisinant la Terre” by Jorj A. Mhaya
Alienation is a favorite subject in art. Edvard Munch’s “Scream” series, first begun in 1893, is the most famous example. And it comes as no surprise that, over a hundred years later, we find Munch quite relevant–feel compelled to add more to the discourse on disconnection–and see how the world has forged some pretty heavy links. It’s not lost on Mhaya from his vantage point in Beirut.
Back cover of “Ville avoisinant la Terre” by Jorj A. Mhaya
Mhaya wants you to feel the surreal quality to his homeland. He has stated that he gained a lot of insight from the photojournalism he grew up with: the urgent black & white news photos during the Beirut civil war in the ’70s and ’80s help to inform his moody ink wash artwork.
Page excerpt from VLAT
How much more absurd can life seem to be than to live in a perpetual war zone? No wonder Mhaya has an obese Batman character chasing our hero down the streets.
Page excerpt from VLAT
What Mhaya has done with this book is set up a vehicle upon which to comment upon the absurdity of life, weaving back and forth from the specifics (his own experiences, views, and concepts) and the general human condition. This is what any great novelist, filmmaker, painter, etc. does on some level: set the stage and then perform. It is certainly a process well suited for a graphic novelist.
Page excerpt from VLAT
So, you can see that you can do very well from just reading the images. Yes, you do want the text. In fact, you do need the text. But we can live with just the images. We see the little hooks that motivate the artist: everything from a close-up of a mangy dog to a close-up of a woman’s pretty feet. This or that panel do not just appear out of nowhere. The dog is a symbol of isolation. The feet are a symbol of release.
Page excerpt from VLAT
It appears that our hero is forced to confront his life in every which way possible: philosophical, emotional, sexual, intellectual. He is not just in an alternate reality. He is in a place that forces him to experience a heightened sense of reality. His choices, what he learns, what he survives, will determine his fate.
“Ville avoisinant la Terre” by Jorj A. Mhaya
And here I am commenting up a storm and I’m only relying upon the pictures! Well, it makes total sense that this book went first with a French translation in order to make the natural progression to being part of the prestigious Angoulême Comics Festival. And now English readers can’t wait to join in. The loose translation in English to this book is “City Neighboring the Earth.” I look forward to that title in the near future.
“Ville avoisinant la Terre,” by Jorj A. Mhaya, is an 88-page hardcover, black & white with tones, translated into French by Éditions Denoël. Find it at Amazon right here.