What’s interesting? All sorts of things, and people tend to agree on what they are. War, for instance, is more or less universally believed to be interesting. And yet back in the early 2000s, when French artist Emmanuel Guibert decided to craft a graphic novel about his friend Alan Cope’s experiences in World War II, the source material wasn’t particularly “interesting” at all.
Here are some of Alan’s recollections from Alan’s War: The Memories of GI Alan Cope: Being drafted at the end of the war, so that he never saw combat; driving a tank along empty roads and through abandoned villages in Europe; hearing another soldier talk about the liberation of a concentration camp; going home to California and taking trips with friends; seeing a circle of rabbits in a meadow.
It’s all pretty darn quotidian, especially for any reader led by the title to expect, well, war stuff. And yet when illustrated by Guibert it becomes … not world-shaking, but interesting. Helmeted soldiers, shown from a distance, clump together like molecules. Up close, each face is an exercise in mindful abstraction. A few assertive scuffs of white on black indicate choppy seas on the Atlantic, and forests at night are dappled with texture. Even if Alan’s memories are on the dull side, Guibert’s drawings are anything but.
Guibert doesn’t explain exactly why he chose to create a book around his friend’s anecdotes, simply writing that they contained “accents of truth … I could literally see what he was describing.” But Alan (who died in 1999) must have been captivating in person, because Guibert is devoting yet another book to his stories. This time Guibert turns to an even less conventionally “interesting” period: Alan’s early life.
How the World Was: A California Childhood recalls all sorts of youthful dramas, many of them perfectly familiar even though they occurred three-quarters of a century ago. Alan rolls around the neighborhood on metal skates; catches spiders in a jar; plays with the local kids in a vacant lot; falls asleep in the back seat on the way home from the beach. Once again, Guibert’s silky ink lines and delicately juxtaposed grays make each moment feel special.
A particularly rich early sequence begins with the four-year-old Alan sitting on a chair, sucking his thumb and waiting for his mother to dress him in a sailor suit. Over the next 14 panels she does so, step by step. In one, Alan puts his arms around his mother’s shoulders as she holds his underwear for him to step into; a few panels later they sit together on the chair, he on her lap while she puts on his socks and shoes. The panels have no backgrounds, so the little figures float archetypally as they perform each phase of the ritual. Then, on the next page: A photo. It’s Alan and his mother — she’s dressed as she was in the preceding panels, he’s in his sailor suit. By extrapolating the moments leading up to the photo being snapped, Guibert has captured the inexpressible value of all the things we don’t remember.
Similarly eloquent artistic choices define the whole book. Alan’s feelings for his father are clear from how the older man is drawn: From below and to the side, his face shaded by an omnipresent hat brim. Even at the beach Alan’s father stays shadowed under an umbrella, leaving Alan and his mother to enter the water together.
Guibert created the art for both this book and Alan’s War using an unusual technique. He outlined shapes on the paper in water, then dripped ink into the water lines. The ink flowed through the water and filled up the lines somewhat irregularly, seeming to bloom. (You can see him do it in a YouTube video if you’re interested; it’s called Drawing With Water.) The resulting lines that are thick yet soft, slightly wavering, and perfect for an artist dealing with the topic of memory.
Guibert is publishing this book only after devoting a long period to war: 2009’s The Photographer won numerous awards for its accounts of travels in contemporary Afghanistan. It says something that Guibert can emerge from a brutal, undeniably “interesting” saga like that and still muster attention and respect for the small profundities of childhood. That’s a huge challenge, something not many people can do.
The fact that Guibert not only embraced such a tiny stage, but made so much of it — that’s very interesting.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.