Pénélope Bagieu at the Gaithersburg Book Festival

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You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu is a knight.

Bagieu laughed off being a Chevalier des arts et des lettres, saying it mostly consisted of getting a hug and a heavy pin, it did set the tone for her conversation with George O’Connor at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 16.

Bagieu, who is a recent transplant to the U.S. (Brooklyn, specifically — she joked the next thing she’s working on is finding a couch), discussed with O’Connor the recent translation of her first graphic novel, Exquisite Corpse (First Second, 2015) into English as well as her life, her work and being a rock star (she’s a drummer! Despite the fact she said her former band sucks, she was still a drummer in a rock band and that’s amazingly cool).

Bagieu got her start drawing a comic called Josephine for Swiss magazine Femina. While she had a background in animation, she had never drawn a comic before, so she said she learned as she went. After she completed a year, she realized she had a book. After three years, she had enough and liked the idea of writing a complete story. That became Exquisite Corpse.

O’Connor asked about why it took so long for the book, originally published in France in 2010, to appear in English. Bagieu talked about meeting First Second editor Mark Siegel in France and how he expressed interest in her work, but because of translation and rights issues, it just took a long time. She also discussed the differences between French and American markets. In France, books are just released; in the U.S. there are worries about if it’s for adults or if it’s for kids. She also laughed that books can’t be “too French” for American audiences.

Bageiu said she’s enjoying her time in America and loves that people are connecting with her work. She finds it amazing and delightful her book was translated. She joked that she doesn’t even care if people come up to her and say Exquisite Corpse is “crap” because they “said it in English.”

O’Connor asked about the main character of Exquisite Corpse, Zoe. Zoe wasn’t a reader and O’Connor found that intriguing. Bagieu said that was actually something she could relate to, mentioning that famous people were the people on TV in her world. She also mentioned that despite making comics, she didn’t really read them until some bookstore clerks helped her out. She mentioned My Mommy: Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill by Jean Regnaud and Mile Bravo as the breakthough comic for her. It left her “crying like a fountain” and made her realize that comics aren’t just adventures or “boyish.” She said she now gives all her friends comics as gifts, and she pointed out, she’s “never wrong.”

Bageiu and O’Connor then discussed her process. She writes a lot before she ever starts drawing, and said no one else can really understand her scripts but her. She plans things out because the moment she starts to draw, it’s “scary.” She said the one thing she’s really careful about and clear about is the dialogue.

When asked about her influences, Bageiu said her mom had a lot of picture books, and she spent a lot of time with those. She mentioned ’50s and ’60s illustrators, especially, and cartoons. She used to tell people she wanted to grow up to be Tex Avary.

As far as upcoming projects go (other than a couch), she just completed a book about the ’60s folk scene, focusing on Mamma Cass, called California Dreaming. While there’s no promising it will be out in English, she’s hopeful.

In conclusion, O’Connor asked if Bageiu had any dream projects. She said she doesn’t really think that way, but at a panel at Toronto Comic Arts Festival, she and other panelists were asked what all illustrators dreamed of doing. Everyone one of them said “the cover of The New Yorker.” While she didn’t say she hopes for that, it doesn’t seem out the realm of possibilities for her.

After all, there are so many things she wants to do. She wants to live “one hundred years” because she has so many stories to tell.

But since Bageiu has already been knighted, I don’t think any of us should worry about what the future holds for her.

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