Frit Flagey is regularly considered one of the best fry joints (friterie, or fritkot) in Brussels. It’s also one of the slowest, and so can always be spotted by its line, in which smatterings of many languages and diversely accented French are often heard. Over the last year it has moved three times around the Place Flagey, but last fall settled into its current incarnation, a white prefab shack no larger but noticeably newer than its predecessors, across the street from the comics shop Brüsel. It was raining last Saturday afternoon when I walked there to catch comics creator Ludovic Debeurme. Motorized street sweepers with their whirring brushes were busy hoovering up bits of vegetable debris from the Place Flagey, until an hour ago host to its weekly market.
Debeurme sat at a table with Charles Berberian and Jean-C. Denis. Heads bent studiously over books their fans had brought, they were half an hour into a three-hour signing session. All three were not only writers and artists, but guitarists, and had performed the night before at the Café Belga across the Place. Berberian and Denis, of the folk-rock band Nightbuzz (with Debeurme as a guest), had opened for The Postman Yelpers, a group headed by Thierry Tinlot, editor-in-chief of Fluide Glacial (think a French version of Mad magazine), with noted Belgian author Pierre Mertens.
To kill some time, I had coffee at the Belga with the owner of Brüsel. He told a story about a man who used to show up regularly at signings with his first editions in a padded briefcase. The books, once signed, were then encased in plastic and stored in a lightless vault. This man had been so fussy that Lewis Trondheim deliberately tore the title page of a book he’d been asked to sign, then worked the tear into a singularly funny, faux-apologetic doodle featuring his signature hapless rabbit character, Lapinot. The man had left in a huff.
“He came back a few days later. I asked him what happened to the book. He said he’d thrown it away, and he wanted to buy a blank first edition to replace it.” The owner shook his head. “A one-of-a-kind autograph like that! The book was worth a hundred euros easy, even blank!”
The spacious, noisy, all-night Belga, with its encyclopedic menu of beers, is something of a Brussels institution. It anchors one corner of the Art Deco Flagey building, a former broadcast center known as the “cruise liner” whose 2002 renovation provided it with a cinema, concert hall, gallery space, recording studios, and a swank restaurant. The radio antenna, still its most prominent feature, is colorfully lit at night like a summons to cultural activity. The Flagey building is a civic success, unlike the addition of the subterranean parking lot beneath the Place outside, which flooding has mostly kept closed. Urban renewal is a topic that impassions all manner of Brussels citizens, including comics artists. The comics shop Brüsel, in fact, is named after the fifth volume in Les Cités Obscures, a series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters that is legendary for its profound examination of the urban experience.
The tradition at European comic signings, called dedicaces, is to tailor a drawing to each proffered title page. Of the three artists still hard at work, Berberian was the only one using watercolors, on Jukebox (Fluide Glacial, 2011), a solo project he mentioned in a 2008 stateside interview. Charles Berberian will be familiar to readers of this magazine, and in North America as the co-author of the witty series Monsieur Jean, a sort of “Parisian Woody Allen.” In 2008 he shared the Grand Prix at Angoulême with his co-author, Philippe Dupuy. His sport coat, shirt, vest, and tie were three different shades of complementary lavender, though his fedora was a hunter green. He looked, I thought, a little like a hangdog Al Pacino—he was the right height—though Debeurme assured me that Berberian was actually, in looks and comportment, Jason Schwartzman’s character in Bored to Death.
All in black, Jean-C. Denis made a somber elder statesman. He was signing the first volume of his new series Tous à Matha (Futuropolis, 2010). Perhaps best known for his breakthrough detective series starring antihero Luc Leroi, Denis has also collaborated with Dupuy and Berberian on Un peu avant la fortune (Dupuis, 2008), and picked up the former Dialogue and Writing Prize at Angoulême for Quelques mois à l'Amélie (Dupuis, 2002), the gentle and intimate story of a writer’s mid-life crisis, which bears some similarities to Seth’s It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken. At the time, Sebastien Gnaedig edited the Aire Libre imprint at Dupuis, which, in allowing authors to tell stories more personal outside of conventional format constraints, attracted major talents like David B. and Blutch. These days, Gnaedig is the editor-in-chief at Futuropolis, which has just brought out Debeurme’s latest graphic novel, Renée, the long awaited sequel to Lucille.
Debeurme, with his goatee and closely shaven head, has something of the dark-eyed intensity of Stanley Tucci, in a more compact package. Born in 1971—the year Jean-C. Denis started art school—he debuted in Comix 2000, an anthology celebrating the tenth anniversary of L’Association. Early books were hallucinatory and largely autobiographical; he pared back both linework and dream content to tell Lucille, his first purely fictional story. Like Lucille, which won the 2006 Prix René Goscinny and was selected as an official “must-read” of the 2007 Angoulême Comics Festival, Renée is five hundred black-and-white panel-less pages that quite limpidly depict the despairs of adolescence.
It was dark by the time we were waiting for fries at Frit Flagey with Debeurme’s partner Fanny Michaëlis. An illustrator in her own right, her work will appear later this year with Debeurme’s in Black Eye, an anthology of essays and comics on black humor edited by Ryan Standfest. It will feature other French cartoonists such as Stéphane Blanquet; American talents like Ivan Brunetti, Lilli Carré, Kaz, Michael Kupperman, and Robert Sikoryak; as well as contributions from Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Argentina, Canada, and the UK.
Things are going well for Debeurme: this spring, Top Shelf will publish Lucille in the US, and he will be a guest of the PEN World Voices Festival. Among the issues Lucille confronts are anorexia, parental abuse, and murder. Renée moves on to prison, pedophilia, and affairs with older men. What dark secrets was Debeurme hiding?
“Well . . . I’m a germophobe,” he said, rubbing his hands with sanitizer. He’d confessed the night before, when one look at the bar hygiene at Belga had deterred him from a drink. “But anything deep-fried is OK. See, they touch the meat beforehand, but afterward, it’s only handled by tongs. I’ve got a system.”
Fanny smiled and shook her head. Though she and Debeurme both trained in fine arts, they were drawn toward comics by a predilection for narrative images—something, says Debeurme, that the contemporary arts scene usually disdains.
For all its precipitous despair, Lucille is also unexpectedly capacious—like the life that opens for us after adolescence—and includes moments of simple happiness (first love, skinny dipping, the thrill of the open road as its teenaged protagonists run away from home).
“Do you think there’s more despair among teenagers in the US than in Europe?” Debeurme wondered aloud. From the east side of the Place Flagey, at the edge of the Portuguese neighborhood, the giant stylized bust of Fernando Pessoa gazed sternly at us in the night.