For the French, there is nothing funny about cartoons. This month’s gruesome beheading of a teacher in a suburb north of Paris, murdered after showing his students caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad that had previously been published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was a lesson in free speech gone horribly wrong. This came just a month after the opening of the trial of those accused of helping the two gunmen who killed 12 people in a terrorist attack at the magazine’s offices in 2015, in retaliation for the publication of those same cartoons.
To mark the start of the trial, Charlie Hebdo re-published them, and a few weeks later a man stabbed two people outside the magazine’s former offices; he later admitted he had wanted to set the building on fire, not knowing the magazine had moved to a different location. The French are closely watching the court case, and thousands have taken to the streets to protest the killing of the teacher.
Political caricature in France has a history dating back to the Middle Ages, but recently cartoons have been used not only to lampoon the political establishment but as a medium for investigative journalism as well.
Ariane Chemin is about as serious a reporter as they come in France. A writer for the prestigious Le Monde newspaper, she has herself been the subject of headlines on numerous occasions, most notably surrounding French novelist Michel Houellebecq, who sued Le Monde over a series of articles she wrote about his eccentric lifestyle and behavior. (Le Monde won the suit.)
That case would soon look like child’s play compared with the so-called Benalla affair. Chemin broke what erupted into French president Emmanuel Macron’s first major political scandal, in July 2018, when she published an article revealing that a member of Macron’s inner circle had dressed up as a police officer and beaten up young protesters in Paris at the annual May Day labor demonstration. Months of articles ensued, shining a light on the murky role Alexandre Benalla, who possessed diplomatic passports and reported ties to Russian oligarchs, played in the Élysée Palace. Opposition figures likened the scandal to Watergate and subjected Macron to two votes of no confidence in the National Assembly (which were handily defeated).
For the French, there is nothing funny about cartoons.
All of this would have been ample fodder for a book, and Chemin, who has already written nearly a dozen, had already been approached by several editors. But she demurred. “I had no desire to do a shock document,” she said as she settled back in a chair in her Latin Quarter apartment in the Fifth Arrondissement, not far from where the Benalla incident occurred. Then a friend remarked that the whole story was like something out of a comic book. “I thought that would be a good means to tell [the story], with the details, all the little things we had learned since the beginning of the affair—a little bit of hindsight, too.”
Chemin approached an editor at the Éditions du Seuil publishing house, who liked the idea and suggested she and François Krug, with whom Chemin had worked on the Benalla story, partner with the Revue Dessinée—a quarterly current-affairs magazine whose stories are all presented as comics, or bandes dessinées, as they are known in France (“B.D.” for short). The result, Benalla and Me, was published in January.
Banknotes, Bombs, and B.D.
The idea was far from unprecedented. In recent years, the B.D. has been the vehicle for a growing number of heavy-hitting works of investigative journalism in France, including a 240-page volume entitled Sarkozy-Kadhafi: Banknotes and Bombs, published in January of last year. The book is a compilation of the reporting that five journalists from noted French outlets conducted over several years exposing the links between the two leaders and their tangled web of oil and nuclear interests, campaign financing, and disinformation operations.
Before they were approached to do a B.D., the journalists behind Sarkozy-Kadhafi were all working their own angles and publishing in different outlets. “We never had the entire story,” said Franck Bourgeron, one of the founders of the Revue Dessinée and its first editor in chief, pointing out a common problem in stories that break over time. The B.D., he says, permits you “to put the whole thing together from the beginning to the end.”
In an age when people seem to have neither the time nor the desire to read, it also brought the investigation to a wider audience. “It’s just a way of making it accessible to as many people as possible, and probably to a number of people who don’t always read the press or the sites where [these journalists] work,” Bourgeron said. The book has sold more than 40,000 copies.
The success of that book and others like it shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, readers have an appetite for weighty topics. “It is a sign of the public’s interest in this type of subject.… And that’s what we’re here for,” Bourgeron said. “Doing it in B.D. is something a bit new.”
In an age when people seem to have neither the time nor the desire to read, Sarkozy-Kadhafi brought the investigation to a wider audience.
Chemin herself hadn’t been a B.D. reader, but she quickly realized the benefits of the medium. “Since the election of Macron, we hadn’t really managed to put faces to the names of the people who worked at the Élysée,” she said. “The B.D. allows one to do that.” What’s more, she added, you can infuse characters with personality traits simply by drawing them in a certain way. In the book, for example, Macron and Benalla “are always like this,” Chemin says, stretching her long, jean-clad legs into a manspreading stance. “That, I love.”
Macron, generally known for his youthfulness, is depicted with a menacing appearance in the drawings. “He is not at all the little prince from the day of the election,” Chemin said. “It’s a trivial thing, but it’s like what B.D. authors say—you can put feeling and emotion into the drawing.” At the same time, Chemin is careful to point out that, despite the accessibility the medium affords, Benalla and Me remains a serious work of journalism. “It’s unbelievable, but it’s all true. Everything is verified to the last word,” she said, adding that even text messages represented in the graphics are exact replicas, down to the line breaks.
Sarkozy-Kadhafi is loaded with footnotes and has a nearly 50-page appendix with reproductions of many of the documents uncovered during the investigation. The journalistic weight of such books has helped convince reporters like Chemin that the B.D. is a viable outlet for their work. “All of a sudden, the genre established itself in France as something serious,” Chemin said. “I think that three years ago I would never have done a B.D.”
The Comic’s Process
Other comic books that have caused waves in France include Joe Sacco’s Paying the Land, a volume about resource extraction and the indigenous people in the Canadian Northwest Territories. One of the pioneers of B.D. reportage, the Maltese-American Sacco exploded onto the scene in the early 1990s after spending two months in the Palestinian occupied territories during the first intifada. The fruit of that time was a book called Palestine, for which Edward Said later wrote the foreword. Though the drawings seem fairly minimalist with their strong black lines, they are deceptively detailed.
Palestine landed Sacco in the annals of comic-book history. “He was the first to do reportage in comic-and-immersion reporting,” Olivier Maltret, editor in chief of Canal BD, a magazine about comics, tells me. Sacco later published several books about the war in Bosnia and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Sacco discussed his process with an audience this past January at the annual Angoulême International Comics Festival, held at the hilltop town about 280 miles southwest of Paris. His approach is to work in the field like a reporter, taking notes and making recordings, and, at night, writing up his impressions and feelings. When he returns home after his period of immersion, he writes a script. It’s only then that he begins to draw—a process that can take him years, one which he fittingly calls “slow journalism.” A major advantage that B.D. reportage has over traditional reporting, Sacco told the festival crowd, is that “comics can take you where a camera cannot go.” He uses the experience of a torture victim as an example.
“All of a sudden, the genre established itself in France as something serious. I think that three years ago I would never have done a B.D.”
B.D. has been growing for some time now: between 2008 and 2018, the industry gained 34 percent in value in France. Comics have become such an important genre in the country that the French Ministry of Culture declared 2020 the year of the bande dessinée, and in 2019 Angoulême was named a UNESCO Creative City for its importance to the medium.
In a display of even the government’s esteem for the B.D., French president Emmanuel Macron dropped in on the opening day of the 2020 festival. The cartoonist Jul gave him a T-shirt that featured the festival’s mascot—a feline with a bleeding, patched-up eye—above the caption LBD2020, a reference both to the B.D. and to the lanceurs de balles de défense (L.B.D.), or “Flash-Balls,” that riot police used on protesters during the yellow-vest demonstrations, causing dozens of eye injuries. A photograph of Macron holding the shirt was circulated on social media amid outraged accusations that the president was trivializing police violence. Macron later issued a statement saying that, while he disagreed with Jul’s perspective, he believed in freedom of expression.
Green New Wave
Inès Léraud and illustrator Pierre Van Hove were also in great demand at Angoulême as the authors of the hottest work of journalism on the B.D. scene at the moment, The Green Algae, a book about the toxic green sludge that has taken over the coasts of Brittany and has been linked to the deaths of several people and animals.
Léraud had done some radio reporting about the phenomenon—the dangers of which local authorities had been sweeping under the rug for years—but hadn’t come close to exhausting the subject when the Revue Dessinée reached out to her in 2016. “I didn’t know anything about B.D.,” she says. The magazine connected Léraud with Van Hove, and together they published their book in June 2019, after four years of investigation.
Much like Sarkozy-Kadhafi, The Green Algae was an unexpected success, and has now sold more than 80,000 copies. The book resonated particularly with younger people, and teachers have used it as course material.
In Benalla and Me, Macron and Benalla “are always like this,” Chemin says, stretching her legs into a manspreading stance. “That, I love.”
The common thread among the majority of the investigative B.D. books published today is the Revue Dessinée; founded in 2013 by a group of six illustrators, it has become an outlet for journalists interested in experimenting with B.D. “At first, the difficulty was attracting journalists,” Bourgeron said. “Today, great investigative journalists have understood the efficacy of comics in doing investigative journalism.”
The magazine tackles the kinds of subjects that most people wouldn’t think to write about in comic form, from fracking to pension reform to drug smuggling, and has brought the idea of investigative comics into the mainstream. In partnership with Mediapart, an online publication, they released a special issue on state violence this past May.
“Today, I think all the publishers are aware … and journalists too are aware, that the B.D. can be a supplementary means of expression for journalism in that it can give the full context of a subject,” Bourgeron said. “There’s an expressive force in drawing.”
Monique El-Faizy is a Paris-based journalist and the co-author of All the President’s Women: Donald Trump and the Making of a Predator