The Mary Sue Exclusive Announcement & Interview: Pénélope Bagieu’s English Graphic Novel Debut, Exquisite Corpse
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The Mary Sue is incredibly excited to be able to exclusively announce French superstar Pénélope Bagieu’s debut English-language graphic novel, Exquisite Corpse, from First Second Books! Here’s a first look at the cover, and an interview with the writer and artist!
Bagieu is a French best-selling graphic novel author, blogger, and webcomic artist, and her editorial illustrations have appeared all over the French media—she’s even been knighted in France for her awesomeness in the arts. Cadavre exquis was released in French back in 2010, but First Second is bringing it to English audiences, because graphic novels aimed at women in their 20s and 30s are such a rare and excellent thing. Here’s some deets on the book:
Zoe isn’t exactly the intellectual type, which is why she doesn’t recognize world-famous author Thomas Rocher when she stumbles into his apartment… and into his life. It’s also why she doesn’t know that Rocher is supposed to be dead.
Turns out, Rocher faked his death years ago to escape his critics, and has been making a killing releasing his new work as “lost manuscripts,” in cahoots with his editor/ex-wife Agathe. Neither of them would have invited a crass party girl like Zoe into their literary conspiracy of two, but now that she’s there anyway…
Zoe doesn’t know Balzac from Batman, but she’s going to have to wise up fast… because she’s sitting on the literary scandal of the century!
I was able to ask the lovely Ms. Bagieu some questions about her experience in the comic industry, her inspirations, and her new book. Here’s what she had to say!
Sam Maggs (TMS): You are a superstar in France—you’ve even been knighted! But for English audiences who might not know you quite as well, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Pénélope Bagieu (PB): I’m 32, born and raised in Paris, I’ve been drawing since I was 3, like everybody, except people tend to stop around age 10, and I never did. Then I attended an art school in Paris called Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, and I started to work as a illustrator. One thing led to another and I accidentally started creating a blog, then comics and that ended up being my whole-time job. And when I don’t do that, I love reading comics, eating, dancing, playing drums and running. Oh, and I can wiggle my ears, but that tends to freak people out.
TMS: What can you tell us about Exquisite Corpse and who Zoe is as a character?
PB: It’s about two worlds that were never meant to meet: The Parisian literary scene, and the hard-working twenty-something who’s never entered a bookstore. They’re two worlds that I’m sort of made of, and that I have a lot of tenderness for. What happens when these two planets collide, let alone fall in love? I really liked the idea.
To me, Zoe is like Voltaire’s Candide, a witness of that exploration; her everyday life is a million miles from the world she’s about to discover. And yet, she has a strong ability to self-critique; although she’s drawn to the light like a mosquito, she doesn’t get lost, and sees the cruel irony of all that. I like characters that everybody takes for a sweet idiot, for bad reasons (a poor vocabulary or a low-class origin), and who eventually shut them up and prove them wrong.
TMS: You first released Exquisite Corpse in French (Cadavre exquis) back in 2010— are you excited to be bringing the graphic novel to a whole new audience?
PB: I am so excited, I can hardly find words! Everything about this is exciting. I jumped all over the place when I heard that this was happening. Being a huge fan of American graphic novels, it’s obviously an incredible honor as well as a very strange adventure. We’ll see!
TMS: In the book, Zoe’s author boyfriend fakes his own death to avoid criticism. We all know that creating art (especially on the internet!) comes with its fair share of critiques — what to you do to handle that?
PB: Well, first of all, thanks for the spoiler! [Ed. Note: it’s in the book jacket description, we promise!]
My first book (which is probably the one that sold the fastest, and maybe even the most) had a very curious effect on my life. I was 25; I lived in a 14 square meter room under the rooftops in Paris; I was constantly broke and had graduated one year ago. And suddenly, I had tons of press and interviews and was even on television; people [asked me to] create stationary with my face on it; to write movies; and I was asked to answer questions about my vision of life, and arts, and fashion, and pretty much everything. It was quite violent, and never really made me happy.
I’m very lucky and have a very strong family, and very good friends (most of them I’ve known since high school), so I wasn’t allowed to change anything or they would shrug and make fun of me. Things had to remain the same, and honestly they did. So I was never that much into either bragging or being devastated by critics and things like that. Plus, one day, my publisher told me to only take [to heart] for criticisms that I was told right to my face, and no others. That is the best advice in the world to give a young author: don’t read the reviews. But if one of your readers shows up at your book signing to tell you your latest book is crap, now that means something.
TMS: What are some of your favorite comics and graphic novels, or ones you find most inspirational to your work?
PB: Since I started to read comics quite late, I can’t really tell which inspired me in my work. I think I was inspired by illustration and cartoons a lot more than by comics. (When I was a child, I told everybody that I would grow up to become Tex Avery.)
But as a reader, with all the catch-up I have to do, knowing that I’ve read so little compared to all [the] marvelous things existing, I love very different things, [including] French graphic novel[ist]s such as David B., Joann Sfar, Riad Sattouf, [and] Marjane Satrapi. And Americans too, like Adrian Tomine, Daniel Clowes, Craig Thompson, Alex Robinson (I should have started my list with him, definitely!), and I’m a very big fan of Jeff Smith. And more recently, I’ve discovered the work of Julia Wertz, who’s incredibly talented, and of Raina Telgemeier. And I love with all my heart a French Canadian artist named Michel Rabagliati, that you have to read if you have never.
TMS: An “Exquisite Corpse” is “a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled.” Was there an element of collaboration in creating this—or is collaboration a major theme in the work?
PB: It surely was simpler than for the Surrealists, I’m sure. I met Joann Sfar in a train on the way back from my first Angouleme festival, and he asked me if I ever thought of writing a “real” story. Meaning, a long story, with a beginning, an end, and characters that I would love as if they were my children. So I sent him a few lines about this interest I had in the obsession for fame that I had observed with the authors I knew: that strange relationship they had with their fans, the desperate need for their love, and how they were willing to do anything to maintain that bond. And also, I had wanted to tell about my vision of shitty jobs, and the lack of perspectives, and this world that lingers side-by-side with the pretty world of authors, the one that I came from.
He told me this would work, and the he spent the next ten months being oversupportive to me, and helping me giving birth to this. And at the same time, he had introduced me to Thierry Laroche, my publisher at Gallimard, who helped me so much, page after page, getting through this. It was the first time I was doing something with so much heart, and fear of failing, and this overwhelming feeling of being an impostor. Somebody to tell you, once in a while, when you really feel like you’re going straight into a dead end: “You’re gonna make it, and it’s going to be great, I promise.” So I owe so much to these two incredible people.
TMS: You run a blog, “Ma vie est tout à fait fascinante,” [“My life is quite fascinating”] where you write and create comics about some of the crazy things that happen to you in your own life. How much of Zoe’s story is inspired by your own experiences?
PB: I did work as a hostess, I had to wear the painful shoes and smile at jerks. I also had mean and insecure boyfriends, and dark and tiny apartments, in which I had to unfold my sofa bed every night. But most of all, I also felt like I was entering a nice, warm and soft sweater the first time I found out books and good stories were such a comfy cocoon, like Zoe does at some point.
TMS: If you were to fake your own death in the most elaborate way possible, how would you do it? And afterwards, where would you go?
PB: That’s an interesting [question]! I would love to have a very rock n’roll death, something really badass, but also exotic at the same time. Maybe I’d fake an alligator accident in a bayou or a sting from an extremely rare scorpion in the desert. And I would leave to a cabin in the middle of the forest with a million books and amazing wine. And well, maybe my boyfriend too. But not every day.
Penelope Bagieu was born in Paris in 1982, to Corsican and Basque parents. She is a bestselling graphic novel author and her editorial illustrations have appeared all over the French media. She blogs, drums in a rock band, and watches lots of nature shows. Exquisite Corpse is her first graphic novel to be published in the United States. Exquisite Corpse is being released by First Second Books on May 5, 2015.