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Existentialist Comics

«Bande Dessinée» and the Art of Ethics

by Elizabeth Benjamin (Author)
Monographs XVI, 216 Pages
Series: European Connections, Volume 44

Summary

Comics have great potential to depict an almost infinite range of themes, questions and lives. But what about their ability to express and interpret philosophical concepts? How can we differentiate between the representation of theoretical concepts in and of themselves, and the impact of comics techniques on the legacy of philosophers, their lives and their thought?
This book explores the historical and artistic value of representing lives through the medium of bande dessinée (BD), French-language comics. The text analyses three biographical BDs dedicated to the lives of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus as well as a selection of print and online comics that extend the legacy of these philosophers and their historical movement. The work is the first to analyse biographical BD through the lens of Existentialism, offering a new theory of reading biographical comics. The research not only contributes a novel approach to comics but also an enhanced understanding of Existentialism and the Existentialists, including their enduring contemporary relevance.

Table Of Content


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Figures

Figure 1.The borderless tier (S: 109) Sartre – une existence, des libertés © DARGAUD 2015, by Depommier & Ramadier, <www.dargaud.com>. All rights reserved.

Figure 2.Ambiguous identities (B: 30) Sophie Carquain and Olivier Grojnowski: Simone de Beauvoir: une jeune fille qui dérange, © Hachette Livre (Marabout) 2016.

Figure 3.Image of philosophy, or philosophy of image? (C: 96) Originally published in French under the following title: Camus: entre justice et mère, by J. Lenzini & L. Cogni © Éditions SOLEIL, 2013.

Figure 4.The ‘Film Strips’ (S: 119) Sartre – une existence, des libertés © DARGAUD 2015, by Depommier & Ramadier, <www.dargaud.com>. All rights reserved.

Figure 5.‘What does Paris look like now?’ (S: 64) Sartre – une existence, des libertés © DARGAUD 2015, by Depommier & Ramadier, <www.dargaud.com>. All rights reserved.

Figure 6.Changing perspectives (S: 63) Sartre – une existence, des libertés © DARGAUD 2015, by Depommier & Ramadier, <www.dargaud.com>. All rights reserved.

Figure 7.Suffocating in the shadows (B: 7) Sophie Carquain and Olivier Grojnowski: Simone de Beauvoir: une jeune fille qui dérange © Hachette Livre (Marabout) 2016.

Figure 8.Someone would save her (B: 27) Sophie Carquain and Olivier Grojnowski: Simone de Beauvoir: une jeune fille qui dérange © Hachette Livre (Marabout) 2016.

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Figure 9.Madame Zanta (B: 86) Sophie Carquain and Olivier Grojnowski: Simone de Beauvoir: une jeune fille qui dérange © Hachette Livre (Marabout) 2016.

Figure 10.Sunset over Algiers (C: 116) Originally published in French under the following title: Camus: entre justice et mère, by J. Lenzini & L. Cogni © Éditions SOLEIL, 2013.

Figure 11.Catherine and the rule of thirds (C: 23) Originally published in French under the following title: Camus: entre justice et mère, by J. Lenzini & L. Cogni © Éditions SOLEIL, 2013.

Figure 12.Politics and aesthetics (C: 90–91) Originally published in French under the following title: Camus: entre justice et mère, by J. Lenzini & L. Cogni © Éditions SOLEIL, 2013.

Figure 13.‘Nietzsche Says / Sartre Responds’ Dead Philosophers in Heaven, <http://www.dead-philosophers.com/?p=457> © Nick Gibb, 2010. Reproduced with kind permission from the artist.

Figure 14.‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, <https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/the-consolation-of-philosophy> © Zach Weinersmith, 2017. Reproduced with kind permission from the artist.

Figure 15.‘Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers’ Existential Comics, <https://existentialcomics.com/comic/23> © Corey Mohler, n.d. Reproduced with kind permission from the artist.

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Acknowledgements

This monograph owes much of its inspiration to Studies in Comics, for their interest in my ideas, support and publication of my work on Sartre in the article ‘Sartre, Sartre and the biographical bande dessinée’ (9.1, July 2018). My thanks go particularly to Madeline Gangnes for her unwavering belief in the value of the contribution. Passages in the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Conclusion have been reproduced with the kind permission of Studies in Comics. Permission to reproduce panels from each of the BD discussed in this work was generously granted from the respective publishers and artists, for which I am very grateful.

Thank you for the support of the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities at Coventry University, who generously covered the subvention costs for this book.

The publication has been made possible by a grant from the Scouloudi Foundation in association with the Institute of Historical Research, which funded the inclusion of images that is so vital to work on visual art.

I would like to thank the usual suspects, who know who they are, and are infinitely appreciated.

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A Note on the Text

For consistency and reader convenience, I uphold a number of conventions throughout this book. Firstly, as ‘Existentialism’ can be spelled with or without its initial capital, I commit to using it with an upper case ‘E’. This is because I refer to the specific philosophy of that name, and do not wish to conflate it with more general definitions, including the significantly vaguer ‘existential’. Secondly, all major works and core texts are abbreviated for the sake of convenience, but also to highlight them as such beyond other more general references. Thirdly, in the interest of accuracy, I refer to Sartre and works of its type as bande dessinée (or BD); in the interest of clarity, as well as my general aim to contribute to the nascent field of comics theory, I refer to comics, graphic novels, and bande dessinée on a broader basis as comics, as well as their academic field as comics studies. This is not to conflate the various verbo-visual works into the same category, rather, to allow for a common framework for a theoretical, or philosophical, approach. I use the term ‘comics’ where wanting to draw upon the field as a whole, or where a quotation imposes it; I use ‘bande dessinée’ when referring specifically to either my core texts, or the Francophone market. Finally, wherever possible I have quoted from original texts, giving a translation in brackets. This is to preserve the original values of the text as far as possible. Translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

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Introduction

Biography, Philosophy and the Bande Dessinée

If comics studies, graphic novel studies, and bande dessinée studies come together to make up a relatively young academic field, and one very much coming into its own with the new century, the medium itself is much more established. Francophone bande dessinée (henceforth BD) makes up only part of this field, but is one that seems to be constantly thriving; indeed, the commune of Angoulême in south-western France has held a yearly festival since 1974 dedicated to the art form. Despite comics’ potential to depict an almost infinite range of themes, questions, and lives, the study thereof has taken much greater interest in autobiographical works than biographical. Nevertheless, over 300 BD titles (at the time of writing; see bedetheque n.d.a: n.pag.), ranging over the last seventy years, have chosen a human personality for their subject. Recent contributions have shown a marked interest in the lives of philosophical and literary figures, and the last five years have seen the arrival of biographical BDs of all three French Existentialist philosophers central to this book: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Marc Crépon notes:

Raconter la vie d’un philosophe est toujours une gageure, tant le risque est grand de passer à côté de l’essentiel qui est le rayonnement de ses livres, la puissance d’interpellation de sa pensée, aussi aride et difficile soit-elle. À plus forte raison d’en dessiner le chemin, de bulle en bulle.

[Telling the life story of a philosopher is always a challenge, so great is the risk of missing out on the essential which is the prestige of their books, the power of interrogation of their thought, as dry and difficult as it may be. All the more reason to draw the way, from speech bubble to speech bubble.] (S: n.pag.)

BD is clearly a medium that is well suited to the representation of lives, whether through biography or autobiography. That this quotation should ←1 | 2→be used to begin the first of the BD analysed in the present text gives the creative springboard for my analysis.

This monograph will analyse biographical comics of my three Existentialist thinkers – Sartre – Une existence, des libertés [Sartre: One life, many liberties] (Ramadier and Depommier 2015); Simone de Beauvoir: Une jeune fille qui dérange [Simone de Beauvoir: A young girl who disrupts] (Carquain and Grojnowski 2016); and Camus: Entre justice et mère [Camus: Between justice and mother] (Lenzini and Gnoni 2013) – against the theory of their subjects, to posit a fertile connection between Existentialist philosophy and biographical bande dessinée, as well as to reassert the value of the medium beyond its use as a stepping stone into more complex ideas. Through close analysis of the BDs alongside a discussion of their philosophical potential, the book intends to contribute to one of the central priorities of Studies in Comics (as a journal and as a field), namely the notion of a ‘theory of comics’, through proposing a sketch for a theory of biography in comics.

Biographical notes

Elizabeth Benjamin (Author)

Elizabeth Benjamin is Lecturer in French and Associate of the Centre for Arts, Memory and Culture, at Coventry University, UK. She previously worked at the University of Birmingham, UK, and the Université de Lorraine, France. Her research is in French and Francophone memory studies, with particular interest in the ways in which memoryscapes are constructed and mediated through cultural artefacts such as monuments and literature, as well as education. Her work on bande dessinée focuses on the ways in which lives are transposed and interpreted, and how legacies are influenced, by artistic and philosophical interactions. Her other interests include Francophone postcolonial theory, French politics and neuroscience.

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