Comic book author and illustrator Ludovic Debeurme has produced many books for young people, including the eco-fantasy trilogy Epiphania. Poetic, psychoanalytic and political, he pushes back on the norms dictated by the collective imaginary. At the beginning of December he took part in the “Man and the Machine” discussion series organised in Rome.
How did you come to illustration and then to comics?
I always felt the need to draw, the need to tell stories. As a child, around 5 or 6 years old, I instinctively began to write: both texts without images and illustrated stories. At about 17 I made a radical turn towards painting. But I missed the sounds, the words. It was meeting Jean-Louis Gauthey, creator of Cornélius editions, and hearing his suggestion that we imagine a comic strip free of all constraints – other than those that I might impose on myself – that led me down this new path. The words and images are linked, and in their own way they help me fit into the real world.
What do you get out of this practice, as someone who works “between painting and comic books”?
I’m always going back and forth between comics, painting, drawing, music, installations, shows, etc. I do not see creation as a medium that should be irredeemably linked to the first choice one makes during one’s career as an artist. It gives me the opportunity to make sensations visible, using the best tool I have in hand whenever things happen. These sensations can give birth to ideas. Neither one nor the other is definitively linked to a specific practice. On the contrary, they will have a different outcome and flavour depending on the shape and medium chosen to express them. I would go so far as to say that the sensations and ideas are what dictate the medium.
From Céfalus to the Epiphania trilogy, the themes of parentage, mutation and exodus keep coming back. What inspires this?
The three themes are linked. We are born of someone, of a place that makes us, of a word that shapes us... We construct ourselves with – and against – this heritage, this lineage. You create your own path: that’s the exodus. The necessary path for self-invention. We are all eternal mutants. With a conclusion like the end of a book at the end of the road: the promise of a new book to be written.
In your universe, animals seem to embody very contemporary issues such as the segregation and end of life. How did the animals make their way into your work?
I was lucky enough to grow up between the city - which I have long hated - and the woods at the edge of the sea, which I was allowed to explore all day and sometimes night, and with which I formed a secret bond. I have never felt that nature is a territory to be owned or to dominate. I have always sought to be at one with it. I have naively developed a form of quasi-mystical animism.
It is not only the relationship with animals that is at stake in my work, but also the connection between humans and the living world, the organic world, the mineral world, the plant world, the oceans, etc. I believe that we must now reconsider our position, otherwise we will continue to hold the Other in contempt – whether they be human, animal, or otherwise.
In your works, one gets the feeling that the animals are either taking over our share of humanity or revealing it. The characters are also supported by machines. What does being human today mean to you? What is our place between animals and machines?
In fact, the Epiphanians are merely a version a humanity seeking out their share of animality – or vice versa – with all the inherent contradictions! Here the machines are synonymous with excessive claims to power.
The technical society in which we operate has put in place tools that are beyond our control and on which we are totally dependent. I feel it is imperative that we learn to identify the problems of the ‘all-machine’, to teach the uses and paradoxes of these tools starting in schools. The Internet can allow us to listen to the liberating voices of Cornélius Castoriadis, Jacques Ellul and André Gorz, and also makes us contributors to the mass collection of data via social networks. Such networks could emerge from a responsible collective consciousness – or from its dismemberment. We must become experts on the machine if we ever hope to master it.
With Epiphania, you have also experimented with a new writing process…
I resorted to a more "conventional" use of colour and layout, the way the panels share the page: it was a way for me to play with the codes of the genre, to put one foot in the book industry through the imagery itself. And to put a thorn in my foot - or rather in my hand! – and see if I could still make progress despite all that. Talking about economic and social malaise while playing with its iconography felt like idea worth digging into.
How does this trilogy fit in with your other work?
I spent a long time learning about psychoanalysis – from Sigmund Freud to Jacques Lacan – and philosophy – from Henri Bergson to Gilles Deleuze – and reading unclassifiable thinkers like Fernand Deligny. This shaped my work. Then I realized that these geniuses did not shape our world as much as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, or Milton Friedman. These philosophers expressed the rules of an economy which already existed, sanctifying it, making it increasingly independent and mystifying humanity’s "well-being". The way in which we have colonised the world's thoughts with our Western vision, based on this opposition between nature and culture, where the economy becomes an unacknowledged religion, is so explosive that it no longer seems possible to me not to work with and around it. To tell the truth I would have liked the option not to get involved in that way of thinking, but it’s already so connected to mine, to ours, that to ignore it is to fall along with it, in denial.
Ludovic Debeurme was in Italy in December 2019 as part of a cycle of debates entitled « Mankind and machines » supported by the Institut français.
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