Labyrinths and Metaphysical Constructions: An Interview with Marc-Antonie Mathieu

December 2, 2013

Léopold Lambert interviews graphic novelist Marc-Antoine Mathieu.


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Le Processus, Delcourt, Hors collection, 1993 (Detail). © Marc-Antoine Mathieu.

Marc-Antoine Mathieu is a French graphic novelist who, book after book, explores new ways to integrate the very form of the graphic novel, as an integrative part of the labyrinths of his narratives. His series Julius Corentin Acquefacques, prisonnier des rêves (Julius Corentin Acquefacques, Prisoner of Dreams), which gathers six books from 1990 to 2013, in particular, deconstructs one by one every formal component of the graphic novel (cover, frame, perspective, two-dimensionality, page direction, and flatness) while composing metaphysical considerations of what reality really is. As said in the following conversation, he seeks “for the loss of control, the Borgesian vertigo,” in which he himself as the author would get lost and let the world he instigated acquire a certain autonomy.

He believes that, as architects, we have the possibility to either impose an absolute transcendental control over our design or to accept its immanent characteristics by integrating a protocol of desappropriation within the creative process of the design itself. The way Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s graphic novels can help us to do so lies in how his own design—he says he feels more like an architect than a storyteller—is considering the elementary components of his disciplines and explicitly refuses their presupposed purpose by subverting them in their essence. What Marc-Antoine Mathieu does with his frames, his pages, his lines, we can do with our walls, our floors, and our ceilings.

LL: The specificity of your stories can be found in the subversion of the graphic novel’s forms and codes. You use its graphic and narrative elements as a creative essence of spatial, temporal, and metaphysical labyrinths that compose your books. These labyrinths are not the classical ones, drawn by a demiurge architect from above, who is laughing to see all these small bodies getting lost in the complexity of his lines. The labyrinths you create seem to me in the continuity of another form, invented by Franz Kafka, who also gets lost in the labyrinths he creates. Not only are his stories labyrinthine, but so is the medium: at Kafka’s death, The Trial (1925) was a disarticulated sum of chapters that his friend, Max Brod, reconstituted retrospectively—and erroneously in my opinion—to give them a logical order. Similarly, Kafka’s The Castle (1926) ends in the middle of a sentence. How important is this figure of the labyrinth for you?

MAM: The labyrinth is indeed a form that has been working on me for quite a while. It has been a while indeed since you don’t “enter” the labyrinth just like that. It’s a bit like the color, or the absolute. There are many things in which we hesitate to enter; we have to think twice first. The next book that I am going to publish in October will be called Labyrinthum (L’Association Publisher) and it will be a fractal labyrinth. It will be fractal since, for me, the labyrinth is more Borgesian than Kafkaian. I would say that what is Kafkaian is a literature of the absurd, whereas Jorge Luis Borges is more a poetry of metaphysics. I think that the labyrinth is more a metaphysical figure than an absurd figure.

At least in my work, the labyrinth is always somewhere around. Perhaps it is an illusion though. I mean that it might not be the “true” labyrinth in the sense of a complete loss of references in something that we built for ourselves. I don’t think that this is the labyrinth that I am talking about. The interesting thing with the labyrinth is indeed the experience of losing our references; it means the experience of losing ourselves, the loss of our own reality, or so-called reality. This way, it is true that there is the artist’s symbol in the labyrinth, because what is the artist doing if he or she is not trying to lose himself or herself in his or her creation in order to experiment always further? There is a risk of madness in the labyrinth, and this is why we don’t enter it immediately. It is a figure of maturity or, on the other hand, a figure of survival: this is Ulysses who is obliged to go through the labyrinth. Either he dies in it or he survives it. My next story will have for only setting only a labyrinthine route, in the Borgesian sense, that is the desert-labyrinth.

LL: You are referring to Borges’s short story, The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths (1939), aren’t you? You seem to be indeed more interested in Borges’s labyrinth than in James Joyce’s labyrinth, since that is what is implicit in this story: Joyce creates literary labyrinths full of complex apparatuses, and Borges, on the contrary, produce labyrinths in the form of deserts. We find a lot of those in your work.

MAM: Yes, it is an infinite erratic labyrinth that ignores its own status. In my next book, there is a character who is lost in the desert, but who does not know that he is in a labyrinth. This awareness is the one of the demiurge. The form of the labyrinth is here, but it is not represented. It is a roving that goes to the right, to the left, straight ahead, that gets lost, but there are neither walls nor structures; there is no architecture.

One can find the labyrinth in most of my stories. There is also the labyrinthine story, the fact that it can be cyclical or in the form of a spiral, since another labyrinth, just as pure as the desert, is the spiral. In a spiral, wherever you are, you are simultaneously in the center and at the periphery. It is almost the symbol of the labyrinth. The most radical form of the labyrinth consists for us to wonder if we are on the wall or between the walls. In a spiral, whether you are on a spire or between two spires, it is the same thing at the end of the day: you are on something that escapes from your understanding. In a certain way, you are trapped. That might be where the labyrinth can join the figure of the absurd in the sense of Albert Camus.

LL: The “Sysiphian” absurd.1

MAM: That’s it.

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© Marc-Antoine Mathieu.

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Le Processus, Delcourt, Hors collection, 1993. © Marc-Antoine Mathieu.

LL: We can observe several layers or levels of architecture in your books. There is architecture in a relatively classical sense, as you use it in your story and that is far from being neutral: the various City departments’ architecture for example, the Station in La Qu… (Delcourt, 1991), but also the giant computer in Dead Memory (Dark Horse, 2004). There is also the architecture of the book’s page, with which you play (empty frame, “anti-frame,” the page in the page in the page etc.) and the architecture of the book itself, as an object that involves both the author and the reader inside the narrative. How do you articulate these various levels of architecture together?

MAM: I prefer to leave this analysis to specialists. Personally I am not so interested in doing it. That being said, what I would be interested in doing, is to elaborate on the fact that I am thinking of myself more as an architect than as a storyteller. I feel that I am more a space and time manager than a narrator. I have the feeling that, often, the narrative, the dialogues, the texts are a bit of pretext to set up a space/time of which I am less in control. It is as if with words, with dialogues, with a story, I was building a skeleton and what is really interesting is everything that happens around this skeleton that I build from book to book. Each time I am adding some flesh to the skeleton and this flesh belongs much more to the world of architecture—sometimes, even a scientific architecture—than to the world of literature. That is what might make the specificity of my work.

Your question can be pertinent in the extent that the departitioning between some arts can be interesting. When I created 3 secondes (Delcourt, 2011) for example, I did not feel that I was producing a graphic novel at all. I was feeling much more that I was in an architect’s shoes, someone that had made a sketch of a bridge, and who, later, had to wonder about engineering problems for six months, wondering how this can hold itself, which pathway I should add to it, which spring to adjust so that it can work and that the whole thing would be quite harmonious. I was wondering much more about structural questions than narrative ones. Structure is a notion of space and time; much more than narrative that calls for concept like linearity, for example. Linearity is what is appearing: there is a dialogue, it is fluid, it seems quite obvious. In Le décalage (Delcourt, 2013), the dialogues are following one another, they look similar and we feel to surf on a sort of crest, but actually, what is weaved around it is something completely different, something that escapes from me completely. I don’t know how to analyze it. This is what is interesting by the way. What escapes from me at this specific moment, it can only escape from me this way, only in this medium that we call graphic novel. It is a sort of mix between a shaping of time, a shaping of space, convergence lines, a sort of alchemy that not only I am not interested in analyzing, but I actually refuse to do so as it is my terrain of adventures and experiments.

LL: That is perfect, since I wanted to ask you a question about the graphic novel as a specific medium and you just answered it.

MAM: The specificity of graphic novel, where it embraces its value, lies in what it does with the drawing. It creates shapes/forms, but without designating them completely. Cinema, on the contrary, produces forms but automatically designates them. In a graphic novel, you can draw shapes/forms without designating them, by giving them masks. That is what I do in my books: The City Department of Justice, the City Department of Humor, whatever Palace, the Station etc. they are things that I designate, but only partially, 10% or 35% of it, or that I even de-designate, I non-designate them. It creates shapes/forms but they are shapes that the reader will have to complete. The reader is the one who has to designate them completely. That is the challenge.

There is also space-time. Time is the same thing: we designate a time, but what is it? Will the reading of the book take five minutes? Half an hour? Three hours? This time that is defined by the graphic novel is very blurry and mysterious. We can even go backwards. There is also some text. We think that we dominate it, but if we work on it a bit, we can leave blurs, holes, ellipses, shortcuts, it can go very far. The graphic novel is a true terrain of experiments, somewhere in the middle of genres and mediation tools that make of it a real blurry/sandlot terrain (terrain vague), where anyone can have fun experimenting as a creator and experimenting the way the reader reads.

LL: If I follow your reflection, the graphic novel is also an object, and you have been playing with this object a numerous amount of times. If I just evoke the covers themselves, L’épaisseur du miroir (Delcourt, 1995) has two covers and two reading directions, Le décalage (Delcourt, 2013) has an order of pages that seemed to have shifted in such a way that the story starts on the cover and what should have been the cover can be only found at the end of the book. There are multiple other similar examples.

MAM: Yes, we can play with the fourth dimension or an analogy of the fourth dimension when we start to consider that the graphic novel is indeed an object, an image book that I have in my hands as a reader. When I find a spiral that seems to exit the book, a pop-up, color or a torn page, I am starting to ask myself some questions.

LL: It is interesting that you speak of a fourth dimension. For us readers, the book is the third dimension, but for your characters that it is indeed a fourth dimension, is that it? What is our own fourth dimension? Is there a great object in which we can also be read in one way or another?

MAM: That’s it. It was the idea of L’origine (Delcourt, 1990), the first book of Julius:2 to create for the reader a sort of vertigo, an existential story within the story. If these two-dimensional characters were becoming aware that they were living in a world that had actually three dimensions, then we could also try to imagine ourselves that there is a fourth dimension. When we listen to astrophysicists nowadays, that is what they attempt to explain to us: try to imagine that time is also a dimension, I mean a physical dimension and you will have a richer and more complete image of the universe in which we live. Einstein is the one who updated all that: he looked under the carpet and he discovered that the three Newtonian dimensions could not explain everything. It remains however very hard to imagine. A four-dimension world is not something intuitive. The space/time light cone is very hard to imagine, even with a lot of imagination. Sometimes, we succeed imperfectly to have a glance at what it is, but it is so complicated. That might be where the artist sometimes can help.

Let’s go back to L’origine and this analogy of a two-dimension world that lives on a sphere. In this two-dimensional world, characters and scientists discover that their world is a gigantic sphere and that if they go in one direction, they will ultimately go back to their starting point. Other characters, obviously, they wonder what this madness is all about, what this sphere means. They are two-dimensional, it is not possible; there is no thickness. They are being told that they have to imagine that there is a third dimension. The scientists are being called crazy, but at the end of the day, it is our own situation as well: we are prisoners of a three-dimensional world and of the illusion of the world in which we are embedded. Yet, the fourth dimension exists, we have to deal with it.

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L’origine, Delcourt, 1990. © Marc-Antoine Mathieu.

LL: In Dead Memory, a multitude of walls grow overnight in an endless city. These walls are blocking the streets that become different spaces. In order to move, some squads of minors/policemen go through the houses’ walls. This has very poignant historical references. There is Auguste Blanqui and the 19th-century Parisian revolutions, there is the Israeli army that went through the walls and Palestinian living rooms during the 2002 siege on Nablus’s refugee camp. We can also evoke the fictitious opening scene of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil where a character is arrested by policemen who swarm inside his apartment from the ceiling. Can you tell us about your interpretation of architecture as a material assemblage and its political consequences?

MAM: I have indeed an interest for history, but what I am interested in Mémoire morte is to lift my antennas and to express in the best way possible, feelings, intuitions, and instinctive thoughts that I can have about the polis, the city, new networks that are being created, etc. I did Mémoire morte fifteen years ago now, but from what I heard, it might have pointed out a few things. Walls that are interacting and emerging with the city are a bit the symbol of a society that would like to declare itself as transparent, open to everything but that actually closes itself to everything. I formalized it through these walls in quite a radical manner. I would say that it is not the best of my books since it is a bit rigid, a bit stuck, and talkative even. The sociological domain is not the field where I feel the most comfortable.

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Mémoire morte, Delcourt. © Marc-Antoine Mathieu.

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Mémoire morte, Delcourt. © Marc-Antoine Mathieu.

1 Sisyphus is a Greek mythology character who was condemned to roll a heavy stone up to the top of a mountain, but the stone would roll down on the other side of the mountain, a situation repeated endlessly. Camus used this mythological story as the paradigm of the existential absurd in his book The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).
2 Julius Corentin Acquefacques is the main character of a six-book series created by Marc-Antoine Mathieu.