Nicolas Presl (France) – interview, Stripburger 66, December 2015
Strictly speaking, reading Nicolas Presl’s comics is always finished once you have read the title. The letter sequences are replaced by image sequences that silently narrate the stories. However, his deliberate decision to focus on wordless comics never represents a compromise in the story complexity. On the contrary, his multilayered and unique stories represent one of the peaks of contemporary comics scriptwriting. His language is universal, and yet it is almost impossible to find his books in bookstores. The circle of his admirers, who are usually left speechless over his creations, is growing slowly, although he is drawing very quickly: he has created over one thousand comic pages in less than a decade and he shows no signs of slowing down.
Domen and David had a hard time catching up with him during his constant travels from one country to another.
Nicolas, your comic career is somewhat extraordinary. After working as a stonemason for 2 years, you rediscovered comics and created 7 books in less than 10 years. This adds up to over 1300 pages, and this is not counting the short stories you created for magazines. I believe you are also a teacher in a French school in Sofia. How and when did you manage to create such an extensive opus?
I wasn’t counting, really … are you sure about the number? I demand a certain discipline from myself, because like many other artists, I have a regular job and I have to force myself to sit behind the drawing desk every evening. Of course, this is not always possible. What matters to me is that I still find it pleasurable. By the way, I don’t live in Bulgaria anymore, now I live in the sultanate of Oman.
What are you doing in Oman?
I like being somewhere else, I like the feeling of being far away from my roots, but most of all I like to grow roots elsewhere. Whatever might be the case, this is what I liked during the five years I lived in the Balkans. I’ve only recently moved to Oman and I hope I’m going to feel just as welcome there.
There is something intoxicating about living abroad, for we find ourselves in an intermediate phase, in some sort of a bubble, we grow in a world we don’t really belong to. Sometimes this can be comfortable. At the same time this can also be a destabilizing experience and the lack of orienting points can complicate things when you’re having a bad time …
Finally, you can also imagine how my travels inspire my work and it is very exciting to live in the land of the Thousand and One Nights and Sinbad the Sailor.
Did you ever manage to make a living solely from drawing comics?
No, I don’t dedicate my entire life to comics, only a sizable part of my evenings …
After reading all of your books and gathering information on the internet, we are slightly confused as regards the chronology of your bibliography. Your book Priape (2006) is your first published book, even though it was actually drawn later than several others. Can you help us understand this chronology?
All of my books, with the exception of Le fils de l’ours père, were published in the chronological order in which they were completed. Starting with Priape in 2006 and arriving to Orientalisme in 2014, they were all published by Atrabile (Swiss comics publisher, editor’s note) – we get along well, things are kept simple and they are true activists in a challenging situation for publishers.
Le fils de l’ours père was finished in 2004, I think, but I couldn’t find a publisher at the time. It wasn’t until a few years later when I met Gautier Ducatez from the publisher Hoochie Coochie (FR) that we decided to publish it. This is an important book for me, a book that found its place alongside others. It is important because it is very intimate.
Adding to the confusion, you also created a comic book that has not been published: in one of your previous interviews you stated that the story was “not that good anyway”. Could you describe what was the book all about? Are you going to publish it anyway?
Uh, that was a long time ago … The story was about domination: about a shepherd that fell under the spell of a malevolent creature who made him follow his lowest instincts … In this work I established my own graphic style, although the form wasn’t completed, it wasn’t homogeneous enough … Of course, I’m just blabbering now, but the truth is that after a few moves I have no idea where those drawings are.
Your drawing style is one of the most unique ones in the comics scene and has not changed much over time. We are not referring merely to wordless comics, but also to the specific flat figures in profile view, to the influence of Picasso, to the constant use of the same graphic symbols (like the big round eyes of knowledge), to the changing of the rules of human anatomy …
However, in the last two books, your style has shifted from black and white to the use of a limited colour palette and somewhat simplified page compositions (only 2×2 panels per page). Would you describe this as a spontaneous evolution of your expression or do you have any other reasons behind these decisions?
Changes to the creative process are never spontaneous … at least that’s how I feel. I started using colours and a new way of composing images because I felt the need to change. I also had a strong desire to experiment with the use of colours, but not in a mimetic way, so I started using them as a denotation system. The new frame layout is an answer to the need for moderation and simplicity. I wanted to discontinue the layouts I was used to. I was a little bored and I had the feeling my strategies were repetitive. A layout with four frames per page is challenging and I like it.
The stories are mainly set in a specific place and time, with lots of cultural and historical references (like the Greek mythology, the conquistadors, totalitarian regimes …). How do you gather your knowledge on these topics?
I read … more or less, depending on my free time. I read before I start working on a book, but also during the process of working on it. Sometimes I pick up a reference or an idea during the work process and expand the story. But not all of my books are a result of a citation. I manly read in order to “immerse” myself in a certain era or location.
When I was working on Priape or L’Hydrie, I devoured a whole pile of ancient Greek and Roman literature. It was truly inspiring, however I hardly ever read it today. I read numerous books for my book on conquistadors (Divine Colonie), but it was the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas that truly educated and enriched me.
We are also interested in your creative process in general. How do ideas for a book transform into finished comic pages?
It is hard to explain, for not all of the books follow the same process. Priape, for example, has a very rigid script because it follows the myth of Oedipus. I usually start by designing the main storylines, then I explore the drawing and writing, and only after this do I start working on the first pages. At this point I always leave myself plenty of space which enables me to enrich the characters and the story. I will usually work on a single project for a year or two; luckily not everything is written in advance and this enables me to make changes during the work process, and not blindly follow a meticulously elaborate version. In short, it’s an artist’s mess, there are no rules …
How long does it take for you to finish a page?
It is hard to say, it depends on the amount of work a single page demands. I usually try to finish one or two pages per week, with more productive periods whenever I have the time. I start with small pages that prepare the framing, then, like everyone else, I create the sketches. These are not very sophisticated and I add the details only when inking. I say “like everyone else”, but a lot of contemporary artists work with the computer. I’m very traditional and I like to work with ink and my old school pens.
You stubbornly draw only wordless comics. I believe that drawing complex stories without any words started off as a challenge. Has this challenge, after so many silent pages, become an integrated part of your expression?
Yes, I think it even made things easier for me. In the beginning this was some sort of a coercion that forced me to develop my own narrative style: to create scenarios with complex protagonists who have their own moods and an intensive psychological life, all without uttering a single word.
True, this silent language is now an integral part of myself, I don’t have to think a lot about my narrative strategies. I don’t have any plans of reintroducing words into my comics. Silent comics are the only thing I’m good at and I don’t feel I have the talent to write a text worthy of being placed in the mouths of my characters.
Some might think that wordless comics are easy to read and understand, but this could definitely not be said for your work. Your comics demand complete concentration from the readers. It is also nearly impossible to comprehend it all in the first reading. The comics offer numerous interpretations and are worth revisiting. How demanding do you think your comics are for the reader? Could they be read by a novice reader, not yet familiar with the comic narrative?
I can imagine that my work presents difficult reading for certain people. Sometimes I’m faced with incomprehension and rejection. But I don’t think this is connected to the lack of experience, I think it’s about the ability to concentrate and a general wish to understand. I think that those who cannot read my works have not settled into my stories and my graphic world. Therefore it is completely normal for them not to have the wish to search for the treasure and the interpretation that I expect from the reader.
In fact, I even think that my readers should be willing to cooperate in the construction of the story, to re-read something again and accept the blind spots. This is what I’m interested in, what I demand, but I completely understand that some people simply don’t like this.
Wordless comics are probably also demanding on you. After all, you have to be extra clear in your expression if you wish to avoid the reader from being confused and still tell a complex story.
Yes, I always fear that I wasn’t clear enough, that I won’t be understood. Sometimes people close to me review my comics and this helps me find the unclear or unintelligible parts.
As silent comics have a universal language, your comics can be read by anyone in the world. Do you get any feedback from readers abroad? Are your books distributed in non-francophone countrie
I haven’t received much feedback from abroad, but I have very good experience with the Polish publisher Lokator who published Priape, Divine Colonie, Fabrica and Le Fils de l’ours père; and indeed, there was no need for translation! My books received favourable reviews by the critics and readers in Poland, both of which are very different from the French. I think Polish readers don’t read comics exclusively. Maybe this impression stems from the fact that French critics are specialized in comics, while I’ve met many literary critics in Poland who approached my work from another direction. They often focus on the story’s background.
Your book Heureux Qui Comme can be read as a critique of the modern world. We are talking about corrupt companies, lack of pristine human interaction, individualism, poverty … Are you making an activist statement or merely portraying reality?
I’d rather say I fit in the second group. But when we picture society, we always choose our point of view; I’m not an activist like that, but I am “engaged”. I’m not an activist, I’m not going to read my books to the aggressive leaders of multinational corporations who are ruining the planet and our social models and I do not attend alternative world forums. People who read my work most likely share my opinions, therefore I have no need to convince them. I prefer to share my vision, hopefully enriching the world of my readers or drawing attention to a certain aspect of our world from a particular point of view. The intent of the Orientalisme book is to portray society from a point of view that is not very common in France.
There is another common thing your comics share: they seem to be serious, almost all of them are tragic, without much humour. Why are they so serious?
I don’t know … I’d love to keep the illusion that I create beautiful, light and funny stories. Humour and lightness are nice characteristics, I admire those who are able to create such stories. Apparently I’m only successful with serious things. This appears to be something I want to tell people about, something that dictates my selection; everything turns out morbid and sad in the end, there is nothing we can do about it …
I think it is much easier to produce a tragic than a comic effect, and creating good and humorous work is much harder. This is a truly terrifying challenge.
Priape, Atrabile, Switzerland, 2006
Divine Colonie, Atrabile, Switzerland, 2008
Fabrica, Atrabile, Switzerland, 2009
Le Fils de l’ours père, The Hoochie Coochie, France, 2010
L’Hydrie, Atrabile, Switzerland, 2011
Heureux qui comme, Atrabile, Switzerland, 2012
Orientalisme, Atrabile, Switzerland, 2014