Comics and the FILM PHOTONOVEL: One-on-One with Jan Baetens

In Jan Baetens’ creative work as a poet, novelist, and scholar, we see an ongoing interest in image-text forms and content. This takes shape in his scholarly focus that has systematically analyzed all variety of image-text narrative form, especially those that move across genre and form like and that have traditionally been relegated to the canonical margins.

Jan Baetens is professor of cultural studies at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Following his debut as a poet in 1998 with the publication of 416 Heptasyllabes Jan has published numerous poetry collections that use various constraints including the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles  and Prix triennal de poésie de la Communauté française de Belgique award winning Cent fois sur le métier (2004), and the recently published Ici, mais plus maintenant (with photographer Milan Chlumsky). In 2015 he was awarded the Prix Elie Rodenbach for best Flemish poet writing in French. In 2017, Jan published his first novel, Faire Sécession.

He is also co-founder of the publisher, Les Impressions Nouvelles, editor of the scholarly book series, as well as cofounder and coeditor of the journal, Image & Narrative.  He frequently curates art exhibits and collaborates with the visual artists such as Clémentine Mélois, Milan Chlumsky, and Olivier Deprez.  He is the author and editor of numerous books, including recently The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (with Hugo Frey, 2014), Novelization: From Film to Novel (2018), and The Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel (with Hugo Frey and Stephen M. Tabachnick, 2018). You can see Jan talk about the lost art of the film photonovel here.

Right after his latest book,The Film Photonovel: A Cultural History of Forgotten Adaptations hit store shelves, I was able to catch up with Jan to discuss his focus on graphic novel conventions and what comics have to teach us.

Frederick Luis Aldama: When did you become interested in word-drawn and word-image stories? 

Jan Baetens: I have learned to read with comics, like so many other people in Belgium, and this kind of storytelling has always been very present in my life.

What has been very influential as well was the way in which cinema was presented in the public space during my childhood. I started to go the movies at a very young age: I have strong memories of the release of The Sound of Music, for example, which also gives you an idea of my age, um.

During the 1960s, films were not only promoted via trailers, but also through montages of set pictures in the lobbies of the theaters, which were open to the public; even to the public that was not allowed, for age reasons, to see the works themselves. The lobby showcased the film of the week and the films coming soon, each of them containing between five and ten pictures.

I remember how much pleasure I experienced trying to imagine the stories with the help of these almost free-floating images. An excellent training for a narratologist in the making!

FLA: I wrote a piece on your co-created (with OuLiPo writer and artist Clémentine Mélois) Le Roman-Photo (2018) that at once takes the form of the photo-novel and presents an important history and way of reading these.

You recently published The Film Photonovel. How might the photo-story and the “film photonovel” share common and different histories and aesthetics?

JB: At first sight, the film photonovel seems to be nothing else than a photonovel that adapts an already existing movie. Photonovels instead are instead “original” stories; original between inverted commas, since the narrative material of a photonovel is generally the update of older melodramatic plots, freely migrating between authors, media, and periods.

Actually, the film photonovel can be seen as the “victim” as well as the “ally” of the photonovel, which appears immediately after World War II and rapidly becomes the most successful mass medium of the pretelevision years in Europe.

Such was the success of the photonovel format that it “remediated”, less than a decade later, the traditional way of presenting movies in print, that is: as narrativized abstracts cum set pictures (one will find many examples of this practice in, for instance, Life magazine). In that sense, one could say that the photonovel cannibalized the narrated film formats of these years (1955-1965).

Yet on the other hand, the film photonovel was also an important ally of the photonovel in its attempt to fight the influence of the new medium of television. The emergence of television as home entertainment was killing the photonovel and the cannibalization of the narrated film format was an attempt to tap into new audiences and to show that the photonovel was capable of changing and thus surviving.

Yet the differences between photonovel and film photonovel are not only historical, they are also formal and narrative. In general, film photonovels have much more constraints than photonovels. They cannot tell their own stories but have to remain faithful to the movie they retell, they can only use images that already exist, they cannot rely on the suspense photonovel serialization was based upon, since the audience already know the story that was about to be told, etc.

So film photonovels had to invent visual and narrative techniques that compensated the impossibility to play with suspense or surprise, and they did so by stressing the melodramatic content as well as by inventing gorgeous page layouts.

FLA: You write how the film photonovel is “a radically lowbrow, throwaway pulp subgenre.” We could say the same of comics, and yet they continue to thrive. Why comics and not the film photonovel? Is the film photonovel with us, but just in a different evolved iteration?

JB: Film photonovels vanished around 1965, at least as a popular magazine format; they were never published in book form, at least not in these years. We actually do not know why they disappeared.

In 1965 the VHS had not yet arrived — and since one of the main reasons why people bought film photonovel magazines was because it was the only possible way for them to keep a material trace of the movie they liked or had missed in the theater, it is strange to notice that there is such a gap (more than a decade) between the end of the film photonovel and the appearance of the VHS.

The most reasonable way to explain the rapid decline of the film photonovel is, once again, to link it with the success of television, where it became possible to have second viewings of movies, but also with the low status of its “mother” medium, the photonovel, which was rejected by the new audiences of the European art house cinema, which almost erased in the 1960s the more traditional, less elite forms of movie-making.

FLA: Could we say that the photo-novel as well as the film photonovel anticipated the eventual confluence of different visually dominant storytelling media that we take for granted today?

JB: Yes and no. If we stick to a linear way of reading history, my answer would be negative, since the film photonovel has never been acknowledged as an innovative practice.

One should even go further and say that has even never be “noticed” at all: it was widely read, by all kind of audiences, but it was completely, totally, radically ignored by critics as well as creators, probably because nobody wanted to jeopardize her or his career by doing something with a medium that resembled too much the deeply despised genre, if not utterly hated genre of the photonovel.

Yet history is not only a linear or teleological process, and one of the most challenging aspects of it is that we often discover in retrospect aspects or elements that we may reuse to build or imagine a different future. In that sense, yes, I am very tempted to consider the film photonovel an important source of inspiration of new ways of telling, those of today but also those of tomorrow; we see this also in the rediscovery of the photonovel in journalist activism, for instance: critical reportages take more and more the form of nonfiction or documentary photonovels.

FLA: How might the study of the photo-story and the film photonovel enrich our reading and analysis of comics?

JB: Film photonovels and comics may share many aspects in terms of page layout, but in most other aspects the differences are crucial, and the comparison of both media is extremely thought-provoking.

One of the most frequently quoted characteristics of comics is that is a form of “sequential” storytelling, mainly based on “panel to panel “transition and an almost metaphysical approach of the “gap”; I don’t buy the current overemphasis of the “gap” in comics scholarship, but I’ll leave this to another time to discuss and debate.

The film photonovel does not always obey such a logic at all, for in many the sequential arrangement of the images does not represent a chronological sequences — first this, then that, and “that” because of “this” — but a purely visual logic: images are layout in order to make nice pages, visually speaking, and they can be read in any order whatsoever, since the story is told by the captions and the dialogues, not by the images, and moreover the reader knows the story in advance; the idea of “spoiler alert” is absent from the film photonovel, which is less a way of reading a movie than of rereading it.

FLA: Clearly, film and photography played a necessary role in the creating of the film photonovel. How about the other way around? You end The Film Photonovel by talking about how Chris Marker uses the film photonovel aesthetic in his film, La jetee.

JB: The key role of Chris Marker (an Anglo-Saxon sounding pseudonym) in French visual culture of the second part of the 20th Century is increasingly recognized. He really is the forerunner of what has nowadays become mainstream: the merger of high and low art, the hybridization of media, the blurring of boundaries between the verbal and the visual, etc.

From that point of view, his film La Jetée (which in European cinema has been as influential as, for instance, Rossellini’s mythical Voyage to Italy, 1953) does not come as a surprise, since this (high) art movie in a very conscious manner mixes elements from low art (content-wise: melodrama and science fiction; formally speaking: photography and the photonovel, the film being a kind of experimental slide show, with almost no moving images).

Film still from “La Jetée”

La Jetée has proven tremendously influential in various fields: film theory, visual studies, media archeology, and the ongoing feedback loop is even more fascinating, given the fact that Marker’s film, which remediates the photonovel, has been adapted in an amazing and equally trendsetting film photonovel, designed by Bruce Mau and published by Zone Books, an MIT inprint.

FLA: Can we talk about an influence on comics, too?

JB: Definitely, in spite of the fundamental differences between comics and photonovels. Comics have not tried to imitate or emulate photonovels and film photonovels — well, there have been some attempts, but not always very encouraging — but they have opened themselves to photography. On the one hand, certain comics authors have experienced with “redrawn” or “overpainted” photonovels as seen in the work of Jean Teulé, for instance.

On the other hand, and this is becoming a real trend today, artists have been mixing both languages, alternating comics drawings and photographic layouts on the same page or in the same work. I think of Guibert and Lefèvre’s The Photographer that was swiftly translated into English and that has become a modern standard. I’m sure that we have just seen the start of something new here and that many new possibilities are still be discovered.

Interior art by Didier Lefèvre

FLA: The US comics industry is such a juggernaut, many readers of comics have no clue about comics in places like Latin America, Europe, and beyond. As a comics scholar in Europe, where is the vitality of comics happening in Europe today?

JB: As you know Europe does not know, at least not to the same extent, the radical gaps between comics and graphic novels. Indeed, European comics are currently exploring new territories in three fields.

First, there is a real explosion of literary adaptations; since there are so many of them, I refrain from giving examples, since I’m afraid of being unfair those artists I would omit.

Second, there continues to be an extremely dynamic avant-garde and experimental scene, often producing comics in what we call today the “expanded field”, that is no longer just in book form or on screen, but as installation art; as an example, I mention those of the Frémok group who experiment, for instance, with collaborative outsider art projects realized in coauthorship with mentally handicapped artists. You can see examples of this work here.

And third, the very rich and often politically highly committed work in the field of documentary comics, often in forms that supersede the difference between comics and photonovels. Here I should mention the magazine “XXI.”

I should also mention a series such as “la petite bédéthèque des savoirs” that works on the reuse of comics as a didactic tool.

Interior art by Marion Montaigne

FLA: It seems that everywhere we turn, more scholarship is getting published on comics. Have we arrived?

JB: We have arrived in the sense that comics scholarship is now totally accepted by the learning community, teachers, students, study programs, and publishers alike, as shown most clearly perhaps in the fact that comics are no longer just an object but also a tool of serious scholarship. A PhD written in comics format may not yet be perfectly accepted in all universities, but in graphic medicine or in history this way of writing is no longer exceptional.

The biggest problem I see is the relative insularity of the various linguistic traditions. We can learn so much from each other, and we must do so, if not there is the risk that we will be reinventing the same wheel. Hence the necessity of “planetary” portal sites such as yours and the utility of a strong translation policy.

I think readily of the big volume edited by Ann Miller and Bart Beaty, The French Comics Theory Reader, that brings together a large range of classic theoretical pieces on comics.

FLA: At the same time, there’s still a plug in the pipe that seems to only trickle out some and not all of the comics created from and distributed around the world, limiting what’s being read and what is also therefore getting into the hands of today’s and tomorrow’s comics creators.

JB: You’re absolutely right, and this problem is at least as big as the one we observe in the field of theory. Comics is a universal language, but universal does not mean monolithic or homogeneous, on the contrary, and it is a pity that so many fascinating uses of the medium, be it for linguistic or for economic, that is logistic, reasons have so many difficulties in circulating, in spite of the internet and the globalization of culture, as if only those works catering to “all audiences” were capable of leaving its native group or territory.

At the same time, this difficulty is also a warning: many works and authors resist globalization in the streamlined, Disneyfied sense of the word. These works also raise questions on the limits of translation, for even well-made translations do not give access to the cultural and historical context that is so crucial to man comics.

FLA: Those who tend to those at the gender and racial margins are the ones who historically have been blocked from access to production and distribution channels.

It’s why I decided to create Latinographix, the trade-press series with OSU Press that publishes fiction and nonfiction comics by Latinx creators. I’m sure you’re seeing something similar in Europe, maybe you can talk about the historically marginalized comics spaces are there?

JB: Yes and no. As you know, culture in Europe is, once again at least theoretically, much less community-organized than in the US. This means that mainstream publishing companies will be more on the lookout for works representing sexually, ethnically, ideologically, religiously marginalized voices.

The institutional support for this kind of work is following the same policy; in the largest comics fair of Europe, the Angoulême festival, the Belgian authorities actively supported a large booth with “independent”, that is alternative and avant-garde publishing structures. The same can be seen in comics programs in art schools such as the ERG School of St-Luc Brussels—a hotbed of many Belgian alternative comics artists.

It is certainly true that this kind of work is never finished and that each structure, however open and broad-minded it tries to be, needs to regularly to interrogate its own policy.

FLA: Can you describe how you teach comics?

JB: I do my best to strike the right balance between two elements the students may be less familiar with. Students are generally focused on “themes” and “content”, while not always very well aware of the incredibly rich history of the medium and somewhat reluctant to enter into the details of the formal analysis of the works.

Obviously, I do not minimize content analysis, but I prioritize what I think will be most useful to the students: a solid historical background, to begin with — no one should be allowed to work on comics without having a minimal knowledge of Töpffer, for example — and to basics of formal analysis, to continue. In classes where there is no room for an in-depth formal approach, which I generally base on my coauthored (with Hugo Frey, The Graphic Novel), I like to work with an apparently childish but actually extremely rewarding eye-opener: I ask the students to turn the page or the book upside-down and to describe the visual patterns they distinguish. By the way, when I analyze poetry I always start by asking to students to copy, in handwriting, and to learn by heart the poem they have to comment in class. The results are amazing.

FLA: What makes a comic worthy of teaching and studying?

JB: I frankly don’t see any fundamental difference between a comic and something else, for instance a poem by T.S Eliot — one of my favorite authors. Comics as well as Nobel prize winning poetry are both worth studying and it would be a mistake to think that Great Poems are by definition richer and more sophisticated than Great Comics. I add “Great”, for many poems and many comics are uneventful.

The current bibliography on Tintin, for instance, a comic that I have been studying for over three decades, already exceeds more than four hundred volumes; not articles, but volumes.  Every week new fascinating material pops up. It all depends on the way the teaching is framed. Good framing is a mix of close-reading and broad contextualization.

What makes comics particular, is the opportunity they open learning spaces to many dimensions and perspectives that would otherwise remain absent from the curriculum. In that sense, comics are also the perfect route to manageable interdisciplinarity.

Single disciplinary knowledge is not enough to study comics. Narratology, say, as the only approach is never sufficient to grasp the utter complexity of the medium. A narratologist that refuses to dialogue with a media historian or a cultural economist will never be a “complete” comics scholar.

FLA: If you were to look back over the totality of your comics scholarship, how would you characterize it?

JB: I think it tries to go in the direction of some form of interdisciplinarity. From my core field of literary studies, I find myself interested in issues of book history, popular culture, gender studies, and so on. I hope my work is modestly managing to enlarge its stakes.

What has also become clear to me is that it is counterproductive to focus too much on a safely circumscribed corpus: comics, photonovels, film photonovels, films, movies, books, among other media. After all, these are all part of the same culture and cannot be studied separately—even if it would be dangerous to ignore their boundaries as well, since medium-specificity is not just some essentialist fiction: it is also a hard material reality.

FLA: You are a scholar, teacher, and author of creative works. How do you see your work intervening in and transforming the world?

JB: Can I say this without sounding utterly pretentious if not simply stupid? I have always tried to enlarge the sphere of the “visible.” Yes, I am thinking of Rancière, who sees this as the main goal of art and science: to unveil and thus make thinkable and available what remains hidden due to the social and economic and ideological limitations of society as we know it.

I have always tried to communicate my love of works and authors and practices that are perhaps less known, if not categorically rejected. It is always a pleasure to write on less-known forms of culture, not in order to rescue them, but in order to show that they are worth loving and studying.

They are all the same for me and I thank the institution, that is my university, that I have always been allowed to choose my own subjects, even if they were or are less fashionable or bankable. I extend the same gratitude to the publishers who have allowed me to write fiction and nonfiction on unusual subjects.

I think love, passion and motivation are important game changers. I can only hope that students and readers, be it of my scholarly work or my creative work will sympathize with and be inspired by this spark.