A Comic for These Strange Times: JEAN-PAUL SARTRE's Philosophy, as Told by Two Rats

The Labyrinth
Credit: Ben Argon (Abrams ComicArts)
Credit: Ben Argon (Abrams ComicArts)

These days there seems to be more room for existential thought, and Abrams ComicsArts has just released a novel take on existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's work with the OGN The Labyrinth.

Hitting shelves last week, writer/artist Ben Argon takes his long-time fascination with Sartre's work and puts it into the words and actions of two rats in - you guessed it - a labyrinth.

Newsarama spoke with Argon about his anthromorphic examination of Sartre's philosophies, and also gets to the bottom of the cartoonist love for rats.

Newsarama: So Ben... you and Jean-Paul Sartre. How’d the idea of you adapting his work come to be?

Ben Argon
Ben Argon
Credit: Abrams ComicArts

Ben Argon: The idea for The Labyrinth came while reading Sartre’s philosophical masterpiece Being and Nothingness. I was struck by the relevance of Sartre’s thoughts in today’s modern world where life often seems like an absurd rat race with death as the ultimate exit. According to Sartre there is hope for an alternate escape to be found in our absolute freedom. These are ideas I found interesting to explore and promote.

Nrama: So the idea comes along - can you recount how you came to the reality of actually doing it in what would become a graphic novel-length work?

Argon: From the start I had a clear vision of the opening and closing images of the graphic novel and I knew that the story had to be about a pair of rats trapped in the labyrinth of existence. It was then a matter of playing out Sartre’s key ideas through these two rats in the form of short humorous comic strips and to thread these into an entertaining story.

Credit: Ben Argon (Abrams ComicArts)

Nrama: Let’s back up a bit – how did you get introduced to Sartre’s work in the first place, and how has it followed you since then?

Argon: I grew up in France surrounded by artists, authors, and philosophers of all kinds. In that circle Sartre was an intellectual superhero. Being and Nothingness held a mythic status and was the key to the meaning of life, but was feared because of how impossible it was to understand. It was around this time that I started drawing comics. Both Sartre and comics must have haunted my subconscious ever since. Eventually I dared to read Sartre’s work on my own, which inspired me to turn his work into comics.

Nrama: And why did you think adapting it as comics - with rats, which we’ll get to - was ideal?

Argon: Philosophy questions the most fundamental aspects of our lives and this should speak to everyone - not only intellectuals. I was convinced that by combining text and graphics in the way only comics do, it would allow me to convey complex philosophical ideas in an emotionally resonant way, and thereby make them understandable for everyone. And since Sartre’s existentialism is often depicted as a pessimistic philosophy, comics was a great way to make it more fun and entertaining.

Credit: Ben Argon (Abrams ComicArts)

Nrama: Ben, I have to ask about the rats. Why do you love drawing them so much?

Argon: Rats come to mind when I think about humans. Like humans, rats are social animals, and we experiment on rats to know more about ourselves. Humans, at our worst, turn into rats, and our lives feel like a rat race, or perhaps like being trapped in an experimental maze.

Question: Who is running the experiment and what are they trying to prove?

Nrama: When did drawing rats become a thing for you? And why, do you think?

Argon: I don’t see them as rats. Rats don’t talk. Technically, they are just ink on paper, drawings to convey emotions and thoughts. In the form of rats, they are thoughts with personality. Thoughts can be smart, stupid, beautiful, ugly - and in the case of philosophy and rats - hairy.

Credit: Ben Argon (Abrams ComicArts)

Nrama: What do you think Sartre would have to say about comics - and your comics work?

Argon: Sartre lived his philosophy as a man of action, using all sorts of means to get his ideas across. In one of his theatre plays, he wrote, "All means are good when they are effective." So I guess he would have approved of comics that communicate existentialist ideas effectively. But we would have to dig him up from his Parisian grave and ask him to make sure.

Nrama: Big picture - what do you hope people will get out of this?

Argon: Although I think the deathbed is an appropriate location for thinking about all this existentialist stuff, by then it’s a bit late then to do anything about one’s life. The sooner we start thinking about our existence, the more likely we will be able to find out what it means to us, what we want to do, and who we want to be. Unfortunately, people don’t usually reflect about their lives unless they get a serious kick in the behind, like losing somebody close to them or getting seriously ill. Reading comics is far less stressful. And if it makes people smile about our existence, all the better. Life is too short to be too serious!

Credit: Ben Argon (Abrams ComicArts)

Nrama: And for you - how did doing this affect you?

Argon: I discovered that what excites me about comics is that by combining text and art, comics allow me to convey abstract and serious concepts in a powerful yet entertaining way. That is an area of comics I’m eager to continue to explore and promote. And making comics is only the beginning; comics come to life through reading them, which is essentially like giving a meaning, or finding a message.

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