“BD Reporters”

A rose is a rose is a rose, but a bande dessinée is not a comic strip. In the French-speaking world, the BD (for our purposes, a sequential drawing) is held to be nothing less than the Ninth Art, with a noble genealogy going back to the Bayeux tapestry, plus a contemporary network of theorists, critics, publishers, festivals, websites, and art-school programs. Not to mention, of course, the ever-growing numbers of artist-authors who have seized upon the BD as a hybrid zone of experimentation free from the material and mental constraints of the mainstream culture industry. Indeed, the “BD Reporters” of this show’s title were not comics superheroes but twenty-five of the versatile masters who have made the medium a tool for exploring real-life events and experiences. These chroniclers, investigators, foreign correspondents, and traveling companions, chosen by curator Boris Tissot, offered visitors an image-packed journey not only around the world but also, and above all, through the creative process.

This ambitious itinerary began with what was at first glance the simplest of exercises: a series of original pen-and-ink drawings and commentaries from cult illustrator Edmond Baudoin’s Le Chemin de Saint-Jean (Saint John’s Trail), 2004, which records his walks along a memory-laden path near his native Nice. But on closer inspection (almost inevitable because of the sheer beauty of the draftsmanship) it turned out that the sketches made on the spot had been collaged onto larger sheets, extended, re-commented upon, and interpolated with other drawings and observations from another series of walks, this time in what Baudoin terms the “amnesiac landscapes” of Quebec—a 4,000-mile detour that allowed Baudoin to incorporate both his home terrain and the ghosts of Canada’s First Peoples into a walker’s-eye view of the planet.

Still other such introspective journeys were more clearly marked by the personal quests that bildungsromans are made of, as with Johanna Schipper’s Born Somewhere, 2004. This autobiographical account of the Taiwan-born, French-raised artist’s search for traces of her past (here transformed from published album into wall installation) juxtaposed memories and memorabilia with the vivid observations and emotions of her return to Taiwan in 2002.

On the documentary side of the BD family, meanwhile, Un homme est mort (A Man Has Died), 2006, by illustrator-writer tandem Davodeau & Kris, offered an excursion through space and time alike with the story of a 1950 strike on the Brittany coast, reconstituted in a cinematic style transforming the classic format of frames and strips into a sophisticated storyboard. A journalistic counterpoint to this historical reportage came from Gorazdie Bosnie, 1995, Joe Sacco’s acclaimed coverage of the former Yugoslavia, presented with a remarkable selection of preparatory documents—sketches, notes, photos, scripts—that served to bring out the uncanny combination of reportorial accuracy and artistic invention that mark his inimitable style.

And in a category best described as “all of the above” (and more), there was Le photographe (The Photographer), 2003–2006. This singular “photo-graphic novel” by Didier Lefèvre (“The Photographer”), Emmanuel Guibert (writer-illustrator), and Frédéric Lemercier (coloristdesigner) recounts Lefèvre’s experiences on a 1986 Doctors Without Borders mission in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. With its extraordinary flow of drawings, photos, and words (based on some four thousand archived negatives and more than ten hours of recorded conversations between Lefèvre and Guibert), this story of what “The Photographer” saw and heard—and what he thought and felt about the war and the workings of the medical mission in addition to his own adventures and misadventures as a novice in photography and life alike—achieves the magical combination of intimacy and universality that should be the highest common denominator of art.

Miriam Rosen