As the immigration debate in the United States reaches a fever pitch, a French graphic novel from a few years ago is about to be released in English to tell a story that’s startlingly, tragically relevant.
Acclaimed French cartoonist Jérôme Ruillier makes his North American debut with The Strange from Drawn & Quarterly, a tale of an immigrant refugee as seen by those around him – inspired by interviews Ruillier did with real people involved in similar circumstances. In an unnamed country, a man (anthropomorphically rendered as a very large dog-person) sacrifices everything to head to the big city with hopes of bringing his family along. From there, his story is seen from the perspective of neighbors, friends, suspicious cops, even a crow flying through the city – a tale that weaves a complex portrait of people who help, hurt, connect and fail to understand each other, all as life goes on around them.
Previsously previewed in the magazine Words Without Borders, Drawn & Quarterly's June 12 OGN release is the first time that readers can experience the full story in English. Newsarama spoke with Ruiller (with translation help from D&Q’s Julia Pohl-Miranda) to get a sense of the inspiration behind the story and its visual style, how an unexpected Disney film played a role in a key element of the book, and much more.
Newsarama: Jérôme, in the back of The Strange, you talk about the events that inspired the book, but could you share some of those details for our readers?
Jérôme Ruillier: It’s important to certain political parties to be able to find a scapegoat, to sustain the fantasy of a common enemy. We were in the throes of the presidential election and certain elements took advantage of that to deviate from the norm, to turn the “problem of immigration” into a problem for the immigrants themselves and the Roma.
I went into the street and I began to collect stories from people…
Nrama: How long did it take you to research the book? What was the most surprising thing you learned doing the interviews?
Ruillier: Between gathering the initial source material, deciding to tell the story in the polyphonic format I chose - with very short anecdotes from many people - and then drawing the story, The Strange took me three years altogether.
Nrama: How did you decide on the look of the book, particularly the different color schemes and the animal designs? I assume those were influenced by Maus...?
Ruillier: To denounce the failings of the system, we often use animals. I’ve been a children’s author for about 20 years, and in children’s books, we often see animals used to tackle real life issues. I also find it very helpful to work with shapes, symbols, or even just colors rather than human figures.
“I believe in abstraction because it allows me to get closer to reality,” wrote the photographer Mario Giacomelli.
I believe that dramatizing reality offers space – that the way I draw people as animals evokes the human experience without specificity, creating a distance that leaves their story open to interpretation while also preventing us from choosing one particular interpretation.
As Dubuffet says, I aim to “draw the impression the object left me rather than the object itself, because if you draw the archetype of the empty path,” it can represent all empty paths.
The animals I’ve drawn here don’t represent any one person, so they can represent all of humanity without specificity.
Regarding the color scheme, the story unravels as a series of testimonials that are all extremely short. Because of that it seemed important to clarify the speaker by giving each testimonial a different color. I decided on the five colors I used more or less arbitrarily. That said, I used the red only on the first and last chapter, because it represents the two departures of the “hero.”
Regarding the influence of Maus, As I said, the trope of using animals as stand-ins for people is very common and popular in contemporary children’s literature as well as in comics. Of course, I am familiar with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but this is not really what guided me on my path to creating The Strange.
However, I was inspired by Maus for my prior graphic novel on immigration – Les Mohamed, published by Sarbacane.
Personally, I don’t see too much influence from Maus on The Strange though I understand your question. [Laughs]i
Nrama: Although the main character is seen throughout the book from the perspective of other characters, the wraparound narrative involves his specific point of view. Why did you make this storytelling choice?
Ruillier: It seemed important to me not to seem to take a side too soon on such a complicated issue. That’s why I tried to use the multiple perspectives to get a close and intimate take of many different sides of the issue, even contradictory ones, and even including the police officers’ voices. I wanted to share the kinds of things we hear all around us when this issue is debated.
At first, I was thinking of the movies Short Cuts by Robert Altman, The Edge of Heaven by Fatih Akin, or even Elephant by Gus Van Sant – stories which shift from one perspective to another. But it was when I was reading the novel Anima by Wajdi Mouawad that I finally found the angle I wanted to use!
Nrama: I was also curious as to how you developed the alphabet for the main character's language.
Ruillier: We don’t know where the protagonist comes from - the country isn’t named or identified - and he speaks a language the reader can’t comprehend. I needed to use a fictional writing that would seem like a language without it being something anyone could identify or read.
The symbols which became that language are from the alphabet of Atlantis: The Lost Empire (the Disney film), which I found thanks to my daughter Mona, who was looking for an imaginary secret language to correspond with her friends!
Nrama: Some of the more unsettling parts of the book, at least for me as a reader, involve the characters reacting to the immigrant who might be considered sympathetic under different circumstances – the anxious neighbor, the maid who resents the opportunities he has. For you, what was the most difficult part of getting into a more complex point of view like that?
Ruillier: The unsympathetic interview subjects (from researching the project) seemed an intrinsic part of the story, so they didn’t pose a particular problem for me.
On the other hand, I found it much more stressful to hear testimony that detailed the troubles of particular people – whether they faced violence, despair, anger, etc.
Nrama: Immigration was and remains a controversial issue, and it's particularly inflamed in the United States as the English edition of the book is published. What do you feel the greatest issue is in terms of breaching the political divide between those who are staunchly anti-immigration, and who are in favor of it?
Ruillier: I don’t know. I think the fundamental mistake would be to try to make a book to convince anyone. I’m just trying to share the things I see around me, to provide a clear account rather than an answer. I am not trying to convince people.
It’s clear that fear is a powerful political lever which populist politicians use and abuse – they build up foreboding for a potential economic collapse, which creates a rubbish nationalism and a fertile breeding ground for violence and rejection.
The attempt to prevent ongoing and future migration is evidence of a widespread and confusing naivete – building new walls isn’t going to solve the problem. If those solutions worked, we’d know that by now, and there wouldn’t be any crisis. All of which means we need to look elsewhere for answers.
Nrama: What is your perspective on many of the issues involving the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy and the deportations in the United States?
Ruillier:To be honest, I don’t know much about DACA, so I’m not very capable of answering your question.
Nrama: Fair enough. And a lighter question: How did you come to include the crow's perspective on the story, and what was the trickiest part of writing the bird's point of view?
Ruillier: As I explained, the story came together from testimony I gathered, which I mixed and knitted into a different form to make it fiction. The choice of very short anecdotes allowed me to follow the path of my protagonist while I still shared very few concrete elements.
Nonetheless, I needed some of these elements to be able to indicate the arrival of my hero at the airport, and the meeting with the trafficker/smuggler. Of course, I had the testimony of a migrant, but it lacked “depth,” and, more importantly, certain details for me to be able to draw it. In fact, I didn’t have the chance to speak with a trafficker/smuggler.
An Elliott Erwitt photo gave me the solution, it was framed very much like the drawing I ended up making – a bird on a lamppost, with an airplane in the sky. The bird became the ideal observer for recounting this scene – the bird had the same physical distance and lack of detail that I did!
Like us, he saw this interaction happen from afar, and without totally understanding it…
I quickly grew attached to the crow, bringing him back several times over the course of the story, and I think he might have even become the most endearing character!
It’s the crow who is closest to the position of the reader in my opinion. He’s an observer.
Nrama: What are some other comics/creators you've enjoyed recently?
Ruillier: I really like Julia Wertz’s work, which I discovered thanks to my French publisher! Katsuhiro Otomo, a few others, and of course Maus by Spiegelman! [Laughs]
Nrama: What's next for you?
Ruillier: This spring I put out La beauté du monde (also from the publisher L’Agrume). It’s a new project with a friend and author named Julia Billet. We told the story of her father’s life. He was a legendary mountaineer who was also a factory worker in the 1950s.
Beyond that, I have a children’s book with L’Agrume scheduled for January 2019, called Où va Mona, and I’m working right now on a second book about migrants, a sort of follow-up to The Strange.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Ruillier: The Strange is my first book to be published in the United States, so it’s terribly exciting! Thank you to Drawn & Quarterly!