Serge Clerc : Portrait of the artist as a modern young man… ( English version ).

( L’album Nightclubbing Desperados s’adressant à un public international, la traduction de l’introduction a été confiée à Paul Gravett. Un gage de qualité; Paul Gravett est le plus eminent des critiques et historiens de bandes dessinées britanniques. Grand connaisseur aussi bien de l’école franco-belge que du manga ou du comics, il vient de publier 1001 comics You Must Read Befour You Die, une somme 960 pages qui profile la bédéthèque idéale. La traduction proposée ici du Portrait de l’artiste en jeune homme moderne… est reproduite avec son aimable autorisation. )

That night, C. had brought Radio-Clash with her. As usual, she listened to it over and over on Serge’s system. Her blonde hair looked like she had just got out of bed, she wore black skirts and silk stockings, shoes with stiletto heels. She was a student, but devoted herself to managing a Paris rock band. Serge was in love, and she regularly appeared in his drawings. Together, they had compiled Serge’s playlist. So there was The   Clash, but also Blondie, Simple Minds, Flamin’ Groovies and The Stranglers.

The Oblique FM studio was hidden in the back rooms of a broken-down frozen food store. Dazibao was the name of the show I was in charge of. You could say or play anything you wanted on it. That was not just the concept, it really was « anything goes ». Everyone  hustled to take advantage of it. Because for the first   time in French history, anybody whatsoever could open a microphone and bawl into it. The pirate radio stations were speaking out without permission. The controlled liberation of the airwaves and the deregulation of frequencies would come later.

‘Colours over Paris’ was the call from the Oberkampf group.  Dazibao saw itself taking this same stance. The colours of Paris were its punk-rockers, its graffiti artists and its comics draughtsmen. Dazibao hosted Wunderbach, Alan Vega, François Rivière, the Souris Déglinguée, Norman Spinrad, Pierre Rosenthal, Taxi Girl, Richard Pinhas, Les Avions, Frank Margerin or Marc Caro.

This was early in 1981 and France was still ‘giscardienne’. A few months later, it would be rocked by a short-lived euphoria. Serge Clerc was twenty-four, I was five years younger.  Around this microphone, we had our first meeting.

Except for a Swiss grandfather, Serge Clerc’s ancestry is of Italian origin. A Catholic mother,  a Communist father. She works in hosiery, he is employed in the paper mill. « Comfortably working-class » is how their son defines them. Of the events of 1968, he remembers his uncles joining the demonstrations which shook Roanne like the rest of the nation. It is around this time. at the age of eleven, that he experienes two graphic shocks: Valérian by Mézières and Blueberry by Giraud. He learns to draw by copying them. Not by recopying, but by taking their graphics as the inspiration and starting point for his own compositions. Already, his one ambition is to become a comic strip artist. Nowhere else but in Pilote magazine. His parents let him dream; to them it’s just a phase. In fact, in his province, the young Clerc seems pretty isolated. For someone who loves comics, science fiction or rock’n'roll, his town offers few discoveries; « Not a damn thing », he’ll point out in many later interviews.

But at college, the young Serge meets two other « crazies », as he calls them. Out of a population of seven hundred pupils, they are the only ‘three zombies’ who know the names of Philip K. Dick or Moebius.  Together, they organise trips to Lyon and discover the albums of Vaughn Bodé and Moebius, the first two issues of Métal Hurlant. Revelations. Serge will be a Métal Hurlant artist or nothing. To that end, the three teenagers publish a fanzine, Absolutely Live. Two numbers are published, springboards to glory. They have total confidence, especially Serge who sends an envelope full of drawings to Moebius, care of Métal Hurlant. A little later, on the magazine’s headed paper, an unknown person answers him, Jean-Pierre Dionnet. As a good monomaniac strictly focussed on the artists, young Serge has not noticed Dionnet’s signature. It doesn’t matter, the writer announces to him that his work has been taken on by the editors. His first two pages are published in number 4 of the quarterly. It’s 1975, Serge Clerc is seventeen years old. A legend is born.

After Lyon, Paris represents the Mecca from now on. Serge uses the school holidays and his pocket money to go up to the capital. Without telling anyone. In these years of the Seventies, the telephone is a mystery to him. There’s no phone at home and what is more, French telecommunications are still in their prehistory. He remembers this joke which summarises the situation: « Half of France was waiting for a telephone and the other half for a dial tone ». On the other hand, in Paris, in rue Yves Toudic, in the concierge’s lodging that serves as the office of the Humanoïdes Associés,  nobody is waiting for Serge Clerc.  The door is closed. He takes the train back. At home, a letter from Dionnet has just arrived: « Come up to Paris ». Serge sets out again right away, but he’s used up all his funds to buy the first return ticket. So he gets there by hitch-hiking. Dionnet’s message suggests that he telephone him before coming over to the magazine. For the first time in his life, Serge enters a phone box. « Hello! » a voice cries out to him.   « Hello!”, Serge answers. This exchange is repeated several times without any contact being made. Confronted with unknown technology, the young man does not know that he has to press a button to be heard by the other party.

In spite of these hassles, Serge manages to get in physical contact with Humano-in-chief, Jean-Pierre Dionnet. Of this first conversation, he remembers only one incredible piece of information: Vaughn Bodé has died. Serge does not believe a word of it, convinced that all Parisians are just cheap inveterate liars. The following night sees the teenager wandering on the banks of the Seine, near Notre Dame, a beaming smile on his lips, his head already in stars.

Henceforth dubbed a permanent member of the brotherhood of the Humanoïdes Associés, the young Clerc finds college life cruelly dull. He takes advantage of his English courses to draw some new pages intended for a swift publication which earn him some severe reprimands from his teachers and a summons from his dismayed parents. As soon as the opportunity arises, he makes his getaway to Paris. He lodges here or there. He remembers one hotel in the Cité de Saint-Michel, and the studio where a young artist from Toulouse, Jean-Louis Tripp, was also staying. He combs the bookshops, in particular Futuropolis, at the time run by Etienne Robial and Florence Cestac – and buys on the quays old numbers of Rock&Folk magazine and science-fiction novels. He also meets all-time idol Jean Giraud, alias  Moebius, whose work then influences his ‘Marvels of the Universe’ and other ´ science fiction pieces. Thirty years later, Giraud will declare to Metal‘s historians that « Serge Clerc was really a phenomenon, an exceptionally gifted child. »

But first pass your degree, his parents repeat to him.   Until that point, Serge was pursuing his school courses without taking too much trouble. His goal was basically to get the degree so that he could then work at a printer’s, a condition that he had thought was essential to become an artist; the name of his career adviser has not been kept as part of history. But once those doors to the Metallic paradise opened up to him, why should he continue to waste precious time in school-hell?

On February 16, 1976, Mrs Clerc sends a desperate letter to Jean-Pierre Dionnet. Serge has not come back to class since February 9. She hopes that the editor will convince her son to pass his degree. He’s so close to getting it.  She has not understood yet that Serge has already attained what he has been fixated on. Dionnet answers immediately. Very nicely, he explains to her that he cannot intercede on her behalf and tries to reassure her. « I can assure you that your son has an enormous amount of talent and will easily make a career in comics and illustration. » Serge Clerc never graduates.

In Paris, the unworthy son has chosen a new family,  with Moebius in the role of his graphic father and Dionnet in that of his spiritual father. He’s missing a big brother. This will be Philippe Manoeuvre. Older by a few years, this little black prince of rock’n'roll criticism also comes from the provinces, but his conquest of the capital has already started. Springing from Rock&Folk, Manoeuvre makes his first appearance in Metal number 7. The first meeting between the two future accomplices takes place in the rue de Lancry, in the new offices of the Humanoïdes   Associés. These two have hair as long as each other. Tell me what you’re listening to and I’ll tell you if I’ll continue speaking to you. That’s how young people of   every time period recognise they are in the same tribe. Serge remembers that Philippe immediately asked him this confidential question:  « What are you listening to? »  The Doors, he replies. Manoeuvre turns pale, and keeps a grimace of disgust.  Is it Serge’s pronunciation that leaves something to be desired? He thought he heard the name of a psychedelic French band:  « Do you listen to Ange? » Serge answers back straight away: « No! The Doors! » Once this misunderstanding is out of the way, these two will stick together forever. People have gone on a lot about Philippe Manoeuvre’s authoritarianism, but in so doing, they reduce the major role he played in the history of comics between 1977 and 1984. Manoeuvre is someone who opened the doors of comics to a certain urban subculture, from truck-drivers’ pin-ups to garage bands through sugar cubes and dope. Margerin, Denis Sire, Tramber and Jano, Dodo and Ben Radis, Pierre Ouin or Max owe this freedom to him. Serge Clerc owes to him his initiation into the world.

Knowing the difficulties Serge faced mastering telecommunications technology, you can imagine the difficulties he met trying to make a living on his own. He recognises that without Maoeuvre’s help, the small classified ads for apartments would have remained indecipherable to him. So Serge finds his first Paris address, in rue Clignancourt, a small studio for 845 francs per month. Mister and Mrs Clerc have   given up any hope of getting their kid on the right track to a salaried lifestyle. They go up to Paris and help him move in.  It’s tiring being at war.

It’s also during this year of 1976 that the signature of  Serge Clerc appears in Rock&Folk. Always by post, Serge Clerc sent a series of « crobs », as he likes to call his sketches, which seem like extracts from a comic whose beginning and end you will never know. Once again, the drawings are retained and published. Five months later, the person who had come to be known as « the artist spy » – the genesis of this nickname seems to have disappeared from memory -  pays a visit without warning to the magazine in the rue Chaptal.  His portfolio under his arm, he asks if he can show his drawings. The editor in chief takes this with a haughty air -  pushy illustrators are a dime a dozen, and dealing with them is often a waste of time and energy.   Philippe Paringaux opens the portfolio with a sigh.  Suddenly, his face lights up. « Serge Clerc? Is that you? » He couldn’t help saying that right away! Later, Paringaux will write some scenarios for the shy draughtsman.

The scene shifts to the Rose-Bonbon, the rock’n'roll night club in the rue Caumartin situated under the salle de l’Olympia. The special attraction of this place is that it offers a concert every evening.  Over the years, all the French scene will perform there. From Marquis de Sade and Rita Mitsouko through Taxi Girl, Indochine, les Avions, Oberkampf, La Souris Déglinguée,  Panoramas, the Dogs and thousands of others fallen into oblivion.   On this evening of 1978, it’s Starshooter who play fast and loud.   The group’s singer, Kent from Lyon, is an artist too and draws in Métal Hurlant. Sometimes Serge will welcome him when he’s worse for wear at rue Clignancourt.   So Serge’s presence at this concert is quite justified.   Backstage, he becomes acquainted with Miss B., rock columnist. Serge is knocked out by her. She is blonde, squeezed into a leopard-printed dress, perched on high heels. She wears fishnet stockings and can drink like fifteen Czech sailors without ever weakening.  She’s a few years older than Serge -  he will never know exactly, as a good rock gentleman, he always avoids asking her that question. That night, they go home together for a night cap. But without knowing it, Serge has just stolen his best friend’s girlfriend. This love affair will last two years, with its ups and downs.   It’s the downs that prove formative. Serge discovers the pangs and vertigo of the loneliness of the heart.

These intimate details of his love life could have remained private matters, had they not had such a deep effect on his work. Like any sensitive creator, Clerc functions like a sponge. Miss B., rock muse, appears in a good many of his drawings under the name Stella Star. But at the premiere of the first Sex Pistols film, The Great Rock’n'Roll Swindle, when Serge finds her again but in the arms of his best friend, it rocks his whole artist’s life. He flees Paris to drown his sorrows in the waves of a seaside resort in Déshérence. He will return from there with a masterpiece in 13 pages, Nid d’Espion à Alpha-Beach. Here you see his signature character, Phil Perfect, racked with love’s sorrows, sinking into paranoia. Consequently, Phil Perfect’s personality takes on all its breadth and depth. Behind the figure of a night reporter with a cynical front is revealed a melancholy being with a ravaged heart and crushed feelings. In contrast, he creates Vanina Vanille, a blonde, curvaceous femme fatale, whose obvious indifference or worse dispassionate compassion simply trample any hopes our detective hero might have. This is a constant in Clerc’s work, the man who makes his proposal, the woman who seems disposed, but prefers to go her own way. However, for one glance, one smile, the man is ready to accept damnation. All in vain. At least there’s still some vodka.

At the invitation of Philippe Manoeuvre, Serge Clerc and Yves Chaland meet for the first time at the Bataclan for the Stranglers concert. Philippe Manoeuvre wants to get his followers out of the Angoulême ghetto – at this point, the Charente comics festival is the only occasion for artists to see other human beings -  but when one artist meets another, what else can they talk about but tales of comics?

It’s at the start of the Eighties, thanks to his companion Chaland, that Serge Clerc discovers Jijé.   Historically, the Belgian Joseph Gillain, alias Jijé, is the great drawing master of Giraud, as he was of Franquin, Will, Morris and Mézières. Fittingly in his turn, Clerc goes back to the source of his first graphic emotions. He has already absolutely given up cross-hatching to concentrate on finding the right line. From now on, the art of the simple stroke becomes his graphic mission. At the same time, Ted Benoit and Floc’h in Paris, Ever Meulen in Brussels and Joost Swarte in Amsterdam seem to share the same concerns. Swarte coins the term De Klare Lijn (« The Clear Line ») that Benoît will transform into a manifesto when the Humanoïdes Associés publish his work Vers la  Ligne Claire.  In this return to the clarity emphasised by the Old Masters headed by Hergé, interpreters of the genre see a historic movement which will deeply affect the comics of this decade. Ever Meulen will summarise the spirit of those years in a prophetic phrase: ´ »Use the past to kick-start the future. »

It’s really at the counter of the Rose Bonbon that our relationship takes a friendly and a professional form.  My memory, and Serge’s too, can be like a sieve. Doubtless it is no accident that the title chosen for our single collaborative work will be Mémoires de l’Espion. Unearthed in Serge’s files, an interview that he gave in my company at the time when this book came out, offers some basic replies. On 19  December 1982, I declare, with the self-importance of youth: « We were at the Rose Bonbon, it was 3 in the morning.  We were both leaning at the bar and I asked Serge: « What if a book was made from your drawings? » Serge who must have been more drunk than me thought that this was a good idea and accepted. Serge adds: « Oui.” There is truly a deep truth in these remarks.

To understand the story better, I should point out that I was then running, as an amateur, a small publishing house, which had already on its tiny catalogue books by Franquin, Goossens, Binet, Andréas and Rivière. I was hoping that this book by Serge Clerc would follow in the same editorial line. But meanwhile, Editions Magic Strip published in their remarkable Atomium collection  a  graphic novella by Serge Clerc, Sam Bronx and the Robots. For Dionnet, it was as if the Pasamonik brothers   had sliced off a toe, with the risk to making the Humanos walk with a limp. No question of any further amputation. Within the Metal galaxy, Jean-Luc Fromental had just created Autodafé, the first collection of comics in the format of a novel, in which it was proposed to publish Memoires de l’Espion. To transform a graphic jumble into a coherent book, we had to find some fictional structure. In Confidential Report by Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin in the French version provides us with the thread. So, Phil Perfect and Sam Bronx, casual detectives, inquire into the career of the mysterious Artist Spy, discovering in each chapter a new side of his work. While those thirty leaves which form the body of the prose serve as a pretext, we applied our most attentive care to them. No less than three months of strenuous work, which to the eyes of an  experienced writer might seem a record for slowness.  Since then, I’ve often said that after having worked with Serge Clerc, I was capable of working with anyone. Because if Serge is mad about the creases in his trousers and how they fall on his shoes, the placement of one comma at the turn of a sentence requires on his part just as much interest, passion and stubbornness. I remember long smoke-filled nights in his studio on the rue Max Dormoy, reading over and over again the hundred variations of the same sentence, always in search of the ultimate turn of phrase, something which Nabokov or Manchette would not disavow. It’s on the occasion of one of these writing seances that Serge will experience that powdery substance of Colombian origin which nobody in the Eighties thought of anymore as the universal panacea. I  remember that after absorbing it up his nose, Serge will launch into a long uninterrupted speech during which art and how the sequence of tenses worked were dissected with brio. Two hours later, throat dry, nostrils pinched, eyes out of their sockets, he will conclude his illuminated flight with a final:  “your schtick does nothing for me! » Serge Clerc will never sink into fake paradises, he is always a dreamer who has stayed wide awake.

Above all, the value of Memoires de l’Espion is as an overview of an oeuvre in perpetual motion. The choice of drawings is concentrated on the period 1978-1982, that is to say close to around three hundred images. The majority of his illustrations are inspired by rock music. Ever since his first album, Le Dessinateur Espion, published in 1978 by Humanoïdes Associés, Serge Clerc had proved that he was as comfortable walking through the universes of the future as the moody streets of Rock’n'Roll.  With Paringaux, he catches the spirit of the times in some strips of the non-adventures of Roger Bismuth, Punk. With Manoeuvre, he establishes the topography of Rock-City, adapting some classics, from The Doors to The Velvet Underground. If the next album, Captain Future, from a story by Manoeuvre, clearly went for science fiction parody, the third title in his bibliography is also completely explicit: Rocker.

In this work which launches the ‘BD-rock » era, Serge, who is still being called the artist spy, doesn’t hesitate to include The Clash and The Cramps, mixing fiction and reality. To set up his stories, he remembers having photographed the Americans for a long time in their hotel and dined with the English band after their Parisian concert. Good schemens like these always come from his friend Manoeuvre. However, Clerc’s status as a graphic rocker goes back further in time. If the readers of Rock&Folk enjoyed his early drawing output since 1976, his notoriety quickly spread beyond France’s borders. It’s at the Rose Bonbon once more that his international reputation comes into play when the unstoppable Manoeuvre introduces him to the editor in chief of New Musical Express. It’s worth remembering that this British rock magazine was then the foremost of its kind, all around the world. Serge publishes his first illustration in NME, devoted to The Stranglers, at the end of 1978. A little later, it’s the turn of the magazines Player in Japan, then Oor in the Netherlands, to acquire the Frenchman’s services. A smooth-running circuit. So in the Eighties, Serge provides the same drawing to four different countries. This graphic passport will take him across the Atlantic to the Danceteria, the famous New York club, which will present an exhibition of his drawings. Like other acts before him such as Bijou, Comateens, Fleshtones and Carmel, it’s no big surprise when one beautiful day in 1986, Joe Jackson calls him in person to propose that he illustrates his LP, Big World.

At this same time, Dionnet and Manoeuvre have hired me as press attaché for the Humanoïdes Associés. In this capacity, I remain a privileged witness to the activities of Serge Clerc, as I treat the Rose Bonbon as a natural annex to the offices in rue Monsigny. Already, C.  is no more than a painful memory in Serge’s heart and a banker’s son has stolen away the woman in my life. We have good reasons to ask ourselves about human nature. Sometimes, we benefit from the happy hour established in Harry’s Bar to knock back plenty of terrifying, strangely named cocktails which were served up in a beer glass. To get around, we use my Karmann-Ghia 1961 coupé which quickly becomes the official car of Phil Perfect. Serge will enhance his character with some of my qualities as a driver, making him park his vehicle with the same elegance in dustbins or shop windows. Sometimes, Serge entertains in his studio on the rue Max Dormoy, mixing musicians – I remember Les Avions, noisier than a squadron of Spitfires  – artists -  I remember Loustal back from Morocco and dreamy creatures with vertiginously low necklines.  I remember their haughty glance in my direction. On the TV screen play video clips that Serge has patiently recorded along with big chunks on his tape-recorder of Bananarama, Siouxsie, Squeeze, U2, The Nerve, Culture Club, Police, Human League, Silicon Teens, Flying Lizards, B52s. In their respective ways, music and technology -  the clip and the tape recorder -  are the period’s symbols of insolent modernity. When the turntable takes over the sound supply, the television stays on, transmitting without sound images in black and white from those films by Lautner, whose posterity at the time is not yet assured, Les Barbouzes and Les Tontons Flingueurs.

I no longer remember in what circumstances Serge invented Mourir à Stalingrad. Its composition emerged from a detour in a Phil Perfect story. The dialogue deserves to be quoted.  « You take a large glass which you fill to the brim with vodka » explains Phil’s Hungarian caretaker to Vanina Vanille. « And then ?! » asks the platinum blonde. « In extreme cases you can add one olive! » I will later pass on this cocktail recipe to Serge Gainsbourg who will understand that you must have a lot to forget to drink that; he will always stick to his famous 102.

People have wanted to define  the Eighties as all about money, but we remember them as being all about fun. Somewhere between the « Make love, not war » of the preceding generation and the « Sex&Drugs&RocknRoll » of our own.   Thus, the dilution of political conscience which galvanised the Seventies gave way to the cynicism and superficiality of the Eighties. There’s nothing more political though than the « No future » punk attitude. But it was the cry of just one moment.  Because a whole generation could not disappear in an overdose of violence and drugs, the New Wave tinged that declared nihilism with irony; on the turntables spun Joy Division, Spandau Ballet, Cabaret Voltaire or Durutti Column and from now on you could make a global hit record called Enola Gay.

Young modern people of the Eighties rehabilitated the black tie and the haircut swept behind the ears. On the subject of this pose, which was a reaction to the sloppiness of the « baba-cool » and the « destroy » look of the punks, people tend to forget how it saw the resurgence of neo-bourgeois values. To sneak inside the sheep-pen, the wolf had simply dressed up in sheep’s clothing. But perhaps it’s true that he ended up bleating like all the others.

Of all the draughtsmen who emerged during this  decade, Serge Clerc is certainly the one who was the most in tune with his times. His formal research -  the manifesto Towards the Clear Line launched by Ted Benoît remains his graphic mantra, while his narrative inspiration  is the search for « the great nothing anymore » – coincide with the desire  – purified, transparent, some might say vacuous – of a society going through a process of total transformation. The coming to power of the Left might make you think that the Eighties will be ‘clean’ and the President of the French Republic ‘cool’. People who highly regarded Serge Clerc’s drawings, much more so than his comics, will make him into the graphic herald of this new world. The aesthete for the « happy few » goes on to double as a graphic designer whose easily identifiable look will be plastered across every wall in the country. It’s advertising, he claims, that makes him popular. And that makes him tumble, at the same time, in the public eye. Very quickly, the deceptive simplicity of his style,  the precise geometry of his compositions, will inspire a whole generation of artists. Not only in European comics. From a pizzeria menu  to a local advert for a furniture business or a flyer for a garage band, it’s not hard to find his drawings shamelessly copied or awkwardly adapted by unknown clones. This vulgarisation of a very specific style will prove finally beneficial to its true precursor. Picasso says that an artist must copy others but he has no right to copy himself. Serge Clerc knows this phrase by heart. So, these last two decades will see him exploring new graphic and narrative avenues, some of which he has doubts about, others he follows, but, far removed from the booming chorus of the major publishing cavalry, Serge Clerc is always improvising his own particular little music, supple and precise as a Jimmy Hendrix solo.

José-Louis Bocquet

Cette entrée a été publiée dans Récits and taguée . Placez un signet sur le permalien.

Comments Closed

Les commentaires sont fermés.