He’s a French comics creator working in a decidedly American milieu. Perhaps that is why Chris Blain’s Gus and His Gang seems to only superficially resemble outlaw western adventures. Mixing slapstick comedy, romance, and some frank family-rearing, Gus and His Gang isn’t quite like anything else you’ve read, and it continues a string of genre-bending, intelligent and engaging narratives from First Second Books.
Though he is perhaps best known on this side of the Atlantic for collaborations with his French colleagues, notably illustrating installments of Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar’s Dungeon series, Blain’s solo output in his native land is prodigious. With the recently released English-language edition of Gus and His Gang, Blain is hoping now to establish his name as a solo cartoonist of note on American shores.
After needlessly apologizing for his English, Blain took time to answer questions about Gus and His Gang, including just why Gus plays so small a role in the book titled after him and what draws a French creator to the American Western.
Newsarama: Chris, when did Gus and his Gang first come out in Europe? Was it a single volume as published here in the States?
Chris Blaine: The American issue represents two French volumes. The first one is called Nathalie, the second one, Beau bandit ( handsome outlaw). Nathalie was published in January 2007 and Beau bandit in January 2008.
NRAMA: What inspired your tack for this book? It manages to balance the Western and screwball comedy genres very effectively.
page 3CB: The pleasure has led me. I’ve had a great fascination for western movies since I was a kid. I love sentimental stories and comedy. I used all the things I love most to tell my stories. I am a fan of Steve McQueen and Woody Allen., Clint Eastwood and François Truffaut.
NRAMA: I have to wonder, Chris, why is the book called Gus and his Gang when Gus’s fellow bandit Clem dominates the last 60-some pages of the story?
CB: In fact, the idea came from the American publisher (Mark Siegel at First Second Books). The original title is simply “Gus.”
I’ve written many, many stories about Gus and his two mates. Just a few are published. The next French volume will be published in few weeks in France. Gus is alone in this volume. In the fourth opus, Gratt is the main character of the first long story. In the beginning, I didn’t imagine that Clem could take on such an importance. But I like to surprise myself. I realized that this guy was interesting and his personality was rich and different from Gus. My characters discover themselves in their love stories. It’s how the world works. You learn more about yourself each time you love and peculiarly when you suffer – when the story is strange or when it’s complicated. In each case, you are always surprised. You could not have imagined the things that happened and the things you learned.
NRAMA: The visual of Clem’s guilt over his affair with Isabella is great. Where did that come from?
CB: I don’t remember exactly. It came very naturally. I think it’s the way I feel my own guilt. Guilt is a horrible feeling but if you think about it with a distance, it can be a very funny thing in a story. It’s a horrible and ridiculous feeling most of the time.
page 8NRAMA: How did you evolve the idea of Clem as the “handsome outlaw?”
CB: Clem looks like a strong and rough man. It was a pleasure for me to make the reader discover him as an intelligent and delicate man. He’s an outlaw, he can kill people and he’s a real son of a bitch but he can be sensitive and generous. He’s ambiguous. He can be extremely violent but he likes to read sentimental stories. He’s educated. He’s a loving dad with his daughter, he’s gentle with women. He can be determined and tortured. He dreams. He’s awful, but beautiful women love him. I like the contradictions of this character. I like him.
NRAMA: You’ve worked with some of Europe’s most famous and acclaimed creators. What are some of the pros and cons of working alone on something like Gus?
CB: Now, I work alone most of the time. I prefer write my own bad stories than draw good stories of the others. I’m kidding. I have only worked with closest friends (Joann Sfar, David B, Lewis Trondheim). But the challenge is much more interesting when I write by myself. It’s more difficult, so the pain and the joy are bigger. I am probably a little bit masochistic because I love that.
page 10NRAMA: What are you working on now, and do you have any other projects soon immigrating to American shores?
CB: I’m working on many books: Gus, Isaac the Pirate, Socrates, and a new project with a French diplomat who worked for important French politicians. He has many funny stories to tell. I listen to him, I laugh and I draw. I have a lot of other scenarios in my bag. I never have enough time. I run, I run.
I don’t know what my next American project will be. I hope there will be many. It depends on the success of Gus and his Gang in the U.S. You know, it’s very funny for me to write western stories in French first and read them in English after. Gus is American, and the thing that American readers don’t know is that in French, he talks like a typical French bad guy in sixties movies. But I love to see him talking in his “real” language. It’s so funny for me.
Gus and His Gang is currently available from First Second.