‘Lucille’: Ludovic Debeurme readies sequel for U.S. debut

Sept. 19, 2011 | 3:05 p.m.

French graphic novelist Ludovic Debeurme may be well known in Europe, but he’s only just breaking out in the U.S.  This July, Top Shelf published his English-language debut, a translation of “Lucille,” which earned him much critical acclaim when it was originally released in French in 2006. “Lucille” is the moving, emotionally raw and dark story about two alienated teenagers who, amid a torrent of personal and familial conflicts, find an instant connection and first love. Top Shelf has just announced that it will publish the sequel to “Lucille” — “Renée,” which follows some of the same characters and introduces a handful of new ones, and is set to come out in late 2012.  Hero Complex contributor Deborah Vankin recently chatted with Debeurme about his work through his translator, Leigh Walton.

DV: This is a pretty dark book – suicide, alcoholism, anorexia, obsessive compulsive disorder – where did the story come from?  Is it autobiographical at all?

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"Lucille" (Ludovic Debeurme / Top Shelf)

LD: Most of my stories begin writing themselves by improvisation — a desire for image, even before a desire for story. The first few pages allow me to discover the characters, almost at the same time as the reader. I’m waiting to really hear their voices in my head, until their personalities are distinct and what they tell me makes sense. It’s the characters themselves, somehow, that tell me their own stories. I don’t consider myself a demiurge or creator, but rather a director and an observer of these multiple personalities, which certainly come from my own assortment of personalities.

The main themes are both things I have experienced and things I’ve witnessed in others: family members, women I’ve lived with, friends, or people I’ve encountered whose situations upset me to the point of feeling the need to do something. Everything in the book feels intimate because even if they’re not always things that happened to me personally, they are things that I’ve felt. This is not a compilation of events recorded in a journal, it’s a story that came from my imagination, which sometimes reflects pieces of my own reality. But imagination, and a kind of access to the unconscious, is my absolute guide.

DV: And yet, the story is also optimistic. Amid all this tragedy is an intimate love story of adolescent connection. Did you intentionally set up this paradox?

LD: It is sometimes said that a successful painting is a painting which includes colors ranging from solid black to pure white. I don’t know if this is true, but I like to have these kind of paradoxes in my stories as in my drawings. Life contains a multitude of mixed emotions. How we handle these reversals of fate — or not — is what interests me.

DV: As a thirtysomething male, was it difficult to get inside the head of a teenage girl to portray her story?  Why did you choose to speak from her perspective?

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"Lucille" (Ludovic Debeurme / Top Shelf)

LD: At first I wondered if I had the right to speak for someone like this, especially a girl. But actually, I didn’t experience that difficulty. On the contrary, it’s like there was a part of myself that could now finally speak. I think one of the traits of my personality is an extreme form of empathy. Because of that, building relationships to others in my childhood was often difficult and frustrating. I wasn’t always able to filter my emotions. As an adult, I understand that I can use this hyper-sensitivity in my work.

DV: Why did you choose to tell a story about anorexia, suicide and OCD?

LD: Lucille is inspired by a girl I lived with, who suffered from anorexia. I myself have had major eating disorders throughout childhood and adolescence. The OCD is a part of my life. For 15 years I’ve had psychoanalytic treatment, and there are still traces of OCD, although much more livable than they were. As for the suicide, for me it’s more of a symbolic suicide. There is certainly a very Oedipal element to eliminating the father of one of the main characters.

DV: You use space on the page, in your drawings, in a very interesting and nontraditional way. There are no boxes or panels. It’s non-linear. Can you speak to this artistic choice?

LD: It’s a liberation from the preconceived style which I had come to in my earlier books. It’s also a tribute to the late 19th century vignette, for which I have a real affection. It also floats on the page, creating a sense of suspension. It’s a way to come inside the image, the white of the page, which is the white of the gap (between two panels) that is so distinctive to comics. Also, in my view, the continuity between the artwork and the text (without balloons) is more tenuous. That is, for me, one of the dynamic and conceptual issues of comics: the famous text/image rapport. For me, the line drawing has to be one with the text. I also just need that breathing room on the page. The box has a tendency to suffocate me!

DV: Is this also a story about identity – both lost and found?

LD:  This is a story about whether or not it’s possible to take control of one’s destiny. The search for identity is combined with the question of free will. Part of the journey of this search for identity includes the role of the body as an avenue for violence that can’t be expressed through words and manifests in disorders such as anorexia. The sequel to “Lucille,” “Renée,” talks more about that pain and anger experienced through the body.

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"Lucille" (Ludovic Debeurme / Top Shelf)

DV: Tell us about “Renée” – does it follow the same characters, Lucille and Arthur? Is it just as dark?

LD: I think it’s darker! More extreme, in any case. The drawing is a continuation of “Lucille” for certain scenes, but I also incorporate graphic elements that come from my work on other books, which are more visually labored. I’ve moved from a minimalist image to a more busy style, similar to engraving, to capture the reader in frozen moments that can be felt as single images, like paintings. That allows me to cover more emotions, more faces. Another search for contrasts and paradoxes.

We find the main characters, as well as new ones, including Renée. This allowed me to update my story to make it closer to the questions on my mind at the time of writing this new book. The relationship between the body and the pain and anger of all these protagonists should, I hope, invite the reader to consider these concepts in a more universal way.

DV: You’re a painter as well. Tell us about your exhibition, at which you’ll be showing with 65 artists from around the world.

LD: The exhibition “Hey!” presents artists published in the review of the same name, in both French and English, founded two years ago. (It) includes some comics people like Blanquet or David B, but also sculptors like Kris Kuksi or Silvia B, designers like Chris Hipkiss, the unclassifiables like Dave Cooper.  The exhibition takes place in the Halle St-Pierre museum of art brut in Paris, near Sacré Coeur. It’s highly recognized and is a first in France to see these 65 artists together for six months, transcending the divisions of genres and styles. I’m exhibiting drawings from a book, “Terra Maxima” (published by Cornelius), and a mixed media sculpture created especially for the occasion. [The expo runs  through March 4, 2012.]

— Deborah Vankin

Twitter.com/debvankin

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