Olivier Schrauwen was born in Bruges in 1977, and after studying animation the Academy of Art in Ghent, and comic at the Institute St. Luc in Brussels, he published his first works in anthologies and magazines such as “Hic sunt leones “,” Demo “,” Spirou “,” Electric Comics “. With a style inspired by the great cartoonists of the past and especially by Winsor McCay, he came to the attention of the most important comics’ critics of the world. In 2006 he published My Boy, his first large-scale graphic novel, which earned him the prestigious nomination at the Festival of Angoulême in 2007 for the best book of the year. In 2014 he released his latest work, “Arsene Schrauwen” for Fantagraphics Books.
Hi Oliver, welcome to Italy and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. In our country your name is not very well known, yet you worked a lot both in Europe and the USA. Can you briefly tell us something about yourself and the beginning of your career as illustrator and animator?
I studied animation in Ghent and comics in Brussels. I initially worked mostly as an animator but for the last eight years I’ve been focusing more and more on comics. I make books, zines and anthology contributions.
The last work you published for Fantagraphics Books is “Arsène Schrauwen”. As the title suggests, the book is about a member of your family, namely your grandfather. Why did you choose to use him as the protagonist of such a surreal and cryptic story? Is there some specific reason that ties you to him?
The story is narrated by O.Schrauwen, a character that resembles me but isn’t me, and he’s talking about his grandfather who resembles mine but isn’t mine. Due to this construction I can interweave the fictional and nonfictional.
In any case I wasn’t trying to mislead the reader, the narrative of the story Is so absurd and farfetched that no one will believe it’s factually true. I did however try to make it feel ‘real’. I named the main character after my grandfather in order to feel some empathy for him, to prevent that it’s just a pisstake on the colonial genre with a moronic protagonist.
Speaking of the story, one could wonder about the real weight of the biographic element in it. I believe it is something anyone who reads the book thinks about, right?
That’s right and it’s intentional. When an author is emotionally invested in his work he will always reveal something about himself in the work. Regardless if it’s someone doing macho-Viking stories or someone doing straightforward autobio like Chester Brown. Sometimes the macho Viking story reveals more about the author then the opposite approach. I’m intrigued by these opposite approaches and that’s apparent in ‘Arséne’.
Your stories are characterized by dreamlike atmospheres that filter reality through a deforming lens, making every situation grotesque and surrealistic. Graphical metaphors also contribute to this, from transformations of characters into animals to stylized figures that seem to have sprouted from an instruction manual. Where does this narrative approach – to events that are still rooted in reality – come from?
I’m greatly influenced by the Flemish absurdist comic tradition, most notably by Kamagurka. I have a similar approach and use similar strategies although my aim isn’t always humoristic; I’m trying to make my dramatic range as broad as possible. So some scenes in my comics my have the form of an absurdist joke while the intent is totally serious.
Another element that is often present is Colonialism, which also materializes in Arsène Schrauwen as a journey to a wild and foreign land, a “Colony” from which an expedition is launched to build a utopian city in the middle of an uncontaminated nature. Is it possible to read these elements as a reflection on the past (and probably the present as well) of many European countries?
Well it’s even more general, I want to show an individual relating to the world and the history of the world. Arsène seem insignificant and ineffective but he is also part of the world and his actions can have consequences.
Your style is very peculiar, it is characterized by a lot of contaminations from the world of design and illustration. What are the main influences that shaped your technique?
I’m pretty unfamiliar with both the world of design and illustration. To the extent that I wouldn’t even know which are my main influences. Of course I pick up tons of visual information just by looking at books and scrolling down endless tumblr sites.I’m still developing those aspects, by trial and error, by trying different things , because I want everything in my books to look right.
How do you think your experience in animation influenced your work in comics?
An animator will often develop a style and an esthetic specifically for a project. Drawing style is not a given.
Also drawing a page for me is not a gradual steady procedure; thumb nail, rough sketch, clean sketch, then ink, etc. I draw fast, only in pencil and try different poses, expressions, angles until I think it reads right.
A lot of details of the story struck me, for example the layout of the panels changing from page to page, with design taking the upper hand in the structure. Which role did you give these elements in the development of the narration?
When I initially envision the stories they don’t look like comics, I imagine the stories more like films. When I start drawing I try to approximate that initial vision (which is often very blurry) with the tools and language I have as a comic maker. The visual language of develops from that attempt.
‘Arsene’ doesn’t look cinematic at all, quite the opposite, still I’m hoping that, when you start reading, it has some of the immersive qualities that a good film can have.
Arsène has a very regular, almost boring 6 panel grid and I only changed the layout for dramatic emphasis.
Colour also plays a fundamental role within the story: why did you decide to use two colours with an open contrast (red-blue) for most of the book, and then switch to a broader palette towards the end?
I’ve been working with a limited color palette for a lot of my books, here I took it to an extreme. It’s a way to emphasize the narrative purposes of color.
In the end of the book I wanted a section that seemed like a return to reality. By overlapping the colors the pages look more conventional. I did it mostly for satirical purposes.
Here in Bologna you are going to put on display some pages from Arsène Schrauwen. What did your base your choices for the exhibition upon? Did you follow a specific theme?
Apart from Arsene there are pages from comics I did more or less in the same period, mostly in 2014. So the expo is more or less a snapshot of whatever was laying around in my atelier at that time.And the good people of Squadro also screenprinted a newspaper with a recent comic story.
Thanks Olivier, we’re looking forward to meet you in Italy again.
Interview realized by mail between the 13th and 14th of November 2015