At their site, The Paris Review ran Matt Madden’s introduction to the debut English edition of Piero, a graphic memoir by celebrated French comics artist and illustrator Edmond Baudoin. Published by New York Review Comics, the new edition was translated by Madden and hand-lettered by cartoonist Dean Sudarsky. From Piero‘s introduction:
To readers familiar with Baudoin’s work, what’s most unusual about Piero is that it does not feature his trademark virtuosic brush art. Instead, he opts for the busy, scratching, and scribbling lines of a Rotring ArtPen, presumably in order to emulate the ballpoint pens and pencils with which the young protagonists are constantly drawing. Perhaps he also aims to create a sense of intimacy in this smaller-than-usual format (a typical French album is about eight by twelve inches), much the way Art Spiegelman chose to draw the art for his book Maus at the actual size it would be printed, instead of drawing the original art half again or twice as large—a common technique cartoonists use to make their art look better when printed. Personally, I love the pen drawing in Piero, and if it’s not as flashy as Baudoin’s brushwork, it just goes to show that he doesn’t need flashy virtuosity to create an indelible image. Just look at the forlorn Martian above, or admire the graceful simplicity below of the two boys floating in the outer space of their dream world. Furthermore, the choice of pen underscores an important quality of Baudoin as an artist: that above all, he is interested in using drawing to tell stories and to examine life and the nature of art.
Baudoin has been publishing for decades, but his comics aren’t much known to Americans. He’s garnered awards in Europe for his work and is revered for having been one of the first French cartoonists to work in autobiography. First published for a young adult audience in 1998, Piero drops readers immediately into the whimsical universe that Baudoin shared as a child with his brother, for whom this book is named.
Narrative text and dialogue are used sparsely on the black and white pages of Piero, so each word feels as if chosen very carefully, such as Baudoin’s language at the onset. It’s immediately suffused with nostalgia, as the fall season for the grown artist conjures memories of days spent at play. The first page is a wordless single-panel rendering of a modern scene in a southeastern French village called Villars-sur-Var, where Baudoin spent some of his childhood (as well as some of his time today, per Madden’s essay).
The text that follows reads like a poem, with single verses cast out over six panels. It’s a familiar sentiment:
“Today the leaves falling from the Plane Trees are the gray of a sad sky.”
“It seems to me that they used to be much more colorful.”
“Back when my brother Piero and I”
“used to kick the dead leaves”
“and pile them up as high as we could.”
Clusters of leaves in the foreground are splayed across the horizontal gutter on the first of these two pages. They get wiry veins and coarse textures in Baudoin’s hectic line, while the artist’s primary two characters—his brother and himself, who was called “Momo” in those days—come into view. When the backdrops aren’t given over to reproductions of the marvels produced in his childhood sketchbook (scenes of sharp-fanged wolves in darkened forests, a many-tentacled creature emerging from a toilet), representational depictions of nature feature prominently in Piero—it’s a book about children, set partly in rural France, after all.
Tree branches grow long and lanky on these pages. Their knotty ends contort and curl into fanciful forms in Baudoin’s inked linework, and he can think only of the outdoors while drawing at his school desk (“What interested me most in the classroom was the window…and most of all what was happening on the other side”). The young Baudoin carries his sketchbook everywhere (the brothers discuss drawing, they both draw; there’s a lot to do with art here), and he and Piero run freely in the wooded area surrounding the village where they vacationed as a family. They kneel by a stream to admire a snake fighting the current’s stringy diagonal dashes for air. Later, Piero and Momo lounge in the long grass by a pool with bikini-clad girls in the summer heat, and dart on mopeds down mountain roads, where “circadas were chirping like mad.”
There’s a balance to sharing all of this past that Baudoin executes masterfully in Piero. Spacious panels allow the visuals to breathe, such as the minimally adorned gull he sees from his classroom or the spare renderings of he and his pajama-clad brother orbiting planet Earth, but they split real estate on pages with rural exterior settings that are alternatively dense. Hilltops on the horizon get merely a single contour line, but bushy foregrounds, where thick tree trunks are darkened with a sea of inky pen strokes, are busy and rife with detail. And if the presentation in Piero feels more considered than most books you’ve looked at this year, it’s because Baudoin has been obsessed with how these panels were meant to look since he was a kid. He practically admits as much, right here in his exquisite comic.
“Looking out our window, Piero still saw outlines of cars, while I saw only marks and highlights,” writes Baudoin. The boys look closely at the microdots visible in newspaper photography and compare it to the art in their illustrated storybooks or their parents’ medical dictionary. “At that point we were between eleven and thirteen years old and I had a vague intuition that I was going to devote much of my time to the study of marks and lines…without ever managing to understand them…”
Images © Gallimard 2011. Piero was first published by Éditions du Seuil, 1998. The new English edition of Piero is available from New York Review Comics.