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25 October 2005 | interviews

On the occasion of the Pictures & Words exhibition at Magma Clekenwell, Steven Preston talks to fellow illustrator and experimental comic book artist Jochen Gerner

Jochen Gerner’s “TNT en Amerique” (L’Ampoule 2002) Gerner takes Herge’s “Tintin in America” and proceeds to black-out each page of the original book, leaving only isolated words and floating objects; guns, shoes, cars etc. (which he then re-drew) all suspended in space. What Gerner has created here is a minimalist graphic novel with no characters and no story. All neon, nighttime and noise; “TNT…” is a book about violence and money and speed and religion. And cities. And America. And Tintin.

Steven Preston: You do so much work. You’re a cartoonist, designer, an
illustrator, you’ve written and illustrated children’s books. How would you describe yourself and what you do?

Jochen Gerner:
I was not really a fan of comic art when I was younger. I was just reading comic strips from time to time. But I was very interesting in drawing in all its forms. I used to draw a lot, but I didn’t have in mind the idea of sequential narration. I rather used to multiply the details in my drawings to develop different degrees of readings. I was attracted by images and literature.

I experimented different kinds of narrations and graphic constructions in the laboratory review of l’Association named “Lapin”. When I joined the OuBaPo (Ouvroir de Bande dessinée Potentielle) in 1998, I really discovered all the unlimited investigation field that could represent comic art. I have always done comics at the same time as other works.

I always try to make different things, experiment narrative systems and use new graphic techniques. I collaborate with artists or graphic designers on specific books. I’m on the borders of several domains, what can be very pleasant but quite confusing too. In this way, I don’t feel really integrate in the world of classical comic art that tries to produce commercial collections and fiction series with a recurrent hero. My aim is not to flatter the readers.

My books are generally well received by cultural or artistic magazines but I’ve got the impression that some critics specialized in comics are sometimes disconcerted by the most experimental of my books (misappropriation of comics, deconstruction of narrative processes). I disturb the narrative codes and the usual systems of representation (square and balloons) that are sacred and irremovable elements for many specialists of comics.

Steven Preston: How do you define OuBaPo?
Jochen Gerner: I can define OuBaPo as the most exciting laboratory of experimentations for comic art and for the relations between texts and images.

Stephen: Can you explain how you came to do “TNT en Amerique”?
Jochen Gerner: The project "TNT en Amérique" is born in the context of "oubapian" (OuBaPo) reflexions, exercises and experiences. I try to find new levels of reading. I try to decode what still exists and to discover what doesn't exist. I "de-structure" the raw material to reconstruct it differently, in another way. I was still working for some time about the analysis of the comic book "Tintin en Amérique" of Hergé and particularly on the phenomenon of fall (of bodies) that is recurrent in this album. I wanted to do something with it. I began to focus my attention more particularly on the theme of violence - the style of the "ligne claire" ( ‘Clear Line’ ) always tends to soften the violence and to make it banal : a punch in reality is far more violent than what we can see in this kind of album - and I decided  that it could be a good occasion to realize an "oubapian" exercise on a whole album.

I began to analyse and dissect the text that was present in the balloons written by Hergé in "Tintin en Amérique". Then I choose some words for their signification (link with violence and recurrent themes of the American society) and for their musicality. I made out several lists. I was trying to create set of themes. At that time, I began to cover the pages of Hergé with black colour and I just let appear words that were important to me. I found the graphic solution that consisted in enriching the black colour thanks to "openings" in the colour. In that way, I could complete the text by visual elements. Then the black colour became a kind of night because all the little spots of colours (signs, pictograms, simple symbols) could appear like little urban lights, like flashing pop neon lighting in the violent obscurity of the american city. That was a kind of sprawling town observed in the night from the sky or a promontory.

The black colour was a reference to the censure, to the night, the obscurity (the evil), the mystery of things not entirely revealed. I worked directly on printed editions by cutting the pages one by one and by covering them with a deep coat of black ink. It had to be impossible to see elements of the original work through the pages.

My publisher also wanted me to rewrite myself the selected words, because the handwritten text of Hergé can't be reproduced without authorization.

My work of misappropriation of Hergé in "Tnt en Amérique" has really disconcerted some critics of comics magazines because they tried to read it like if it was a comic book, that is to say with a traditional reading schedule whereas it was not a comic book anymore.
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