With 400,000 copies sold in France and 50,000 in the United States, her series of albums Culottées has made her a star. And an exception. At age 37, Pénélope Bagieu remains one of the few Autrices to have made a place in the world of comics, reputed to be masculine, if not misogynistic. The sign that times are finally changing?
Published on 01.12.2019
After four years in New York, you have just returned to France. Why did you leave to live in the United States? I had never lived anywhere other than in France – except for one Erasmus in London, but it lasted six months so it does not really matter – and at that moment, I had my first comic strip coming out to the States United, so I said to myself, ‘Go ahead, do the crazy things you always tell yourself are too complicated.’ I can work from anywhere, my publisher could help me steps, there was no reason I would not leave. I applied for an ‘exceptional personality’ visa, as it is called, and I got it. It is a renewable three-year visa. I stayed four years, and I am very happy to be back.
“People do not be suspicious when you draw them”
How successful are you in the United States? Culottées, I sold 50 000 there -in France, 400 000. So I was overjoyed, 50 000, it’s the party! And for them, it’s nothing. It’s so big. But I had a silly press, it was crazy, the Grand Slam of what my publisher could expect as a promo, even the New York Times Best Sellers. Many because I am French; all articles were titled ‘Ouh là, là’ or ‘Joie de vivre’ – it really does not mean anything as an article title, you know? But it has nothing to do with France, you do not recognize me in the street. On top of that, over there, Les Culottées, it’s been marketed like a youth comic. I mostly had teenagers signing.
Today, as an artist, do you feel that your success gives you the power to do what you want when you wan? Much more than before, because now, I have material comfort. The whole speech I have is the speech of someone who is not in a situation of ‘yeah but I have to eat, actually’. Today, when I am offered to work for something I do not agree with – which happens to me all the time – I can say, ‘OK, but either you change the whole speech altogether, is no and too bad for the money. ‘
What kind of proposals?
My last experiences with brands, it was always complicated, because there are so many things that I do not want to write or draw! Already because I shoot myself in the foot, but also because I do not want to participate in conveying hypersexists or other stuff. When I’m told, ‘Can you make it slimmer?’ ‘Can you joke about it, could it be that the girl, she’s a little bit crooked and she can not read a road map?’ “Parents, could you make a father and a mother?” When I made 40 straight couples and I wish there was a homo couple in the heap, well no. Again, I do not criticize people who can not afford to do that, but I think when you can afford it, you have to do it. From the moment you have the power to shape society on your scale, you are here to give it a small direction. It’s a debate I had a thousand times when I was working in advertising, because you’re told: ‘But we, our goal, is to show the world as it is, we are not here to be five years in advance and say ‘this is the world we want’. Because people are not idiots, they are quite ready to take another direction. I left Paris almost five years ago, and I find that the pubs in the metro is day and night in terms of representation: people are not all white, you have women with different physiques. I fell back on the first episodes of Girls, recently; I remember as at the time, it was wow, we thought that it really dared crazy stuff, and what good news to say that today is innocuous. It’s a girl whose size is 42.
Do you have to be a homebody and a loner to make comics?
I think it’s because you are a homebody and lonely that you choose to make comics. Me, I studied for a job, animation, where you had to work in a team and studio, well that’s a very good reason not to do that. I know myself a little, and what I like is to be in my cave, at home in pyj ‘-à, I got dressed because you come. Working with people is very complicated, I love not having to do it.
Before the project Culottées, did you know the women you portrayed?
Not all. There were ten of them I wanted to talk about. These are stories that you have heard a little throughout your life. Katia Krafft, when I was little, I was watching documentaries about volcanoes, and we still saw ‘Krafft’, including her; Peggy Guggenheim, I had seen a play that told her story … So I started looking for others. And when you start looking, it goes very fast, in fact, because girls who have done things, there are plenty.
It was easy to find info on them?
Those who wrote autobiographies-two-thirds, let’s say-is blessed bread, because there is no filter, you take the information at the source. For others, there was some info here, there. But Giorgina Reid, for example, the one who saved the lighthouse of Montauk, it was really an anonymous, there is nothing about it. In the lighthouse-that’s how I fell on it-there is a small plaque with three lines that talk about her and a photo. I found information in the Gazette de Montauk of 1970, but it was still necessary every time I find two sources for a date to be sure that it is good, and there are women for whom it was hyperdur to have accurate information.
How much did you romanticize their stories?
I was using real facts, and then I was trying to visualize how the scene might have happened. The autobiographies, mine of nothing, it gives you tracks of staging, because the woman in question tells, speaks of her emotions, you have more than unroll. The only thing you do is to make a character, that is to say imagine his reactions. And for that, you use yourself as an actress. So you lend her a character she may not have, but that’s also the principle, otherwise you’re a historian, actually. Wu Zetian, the Chinese Empress, all the historians who wrote about her really portray her as a Cersei Lannister: ‘She was horrible, cruel, bloodthirsty, etc.’ But you saw the life she had ? My job is to say ‘maybe it was not exactly that, maybe it’s a view of the mind’. There are things I can not erase, such as the fact that she sponsored political assassinations. She had people killed, that’s right. But I can decide to tell it by saying, ‘There are people who wanted to beat her, she took the lead, she killed them.’
Of the 30 ‘Culottées‘ you’ve portrayed, only two or three are known to the general public. We have not, or very little, heard of others, even those whose history is recent and / or attached to important news, such as Jesselyn Radack, lawyer whistleblower Edward Snowden; Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to leave for space in 1992; or Sonita Alizadeh, a 23-year-old Afghan rapper who fights against forced marriage. By choosing to draw them, did you feel that you were carrying a mission?
It’s very conceited, but at that moment I feel a tingle of excitement that people are going to find someone. Like when you like to tell a joke that people have never heard, because they will be on the ass. It’s the joy of transmission. And those who are alive, they read Les Culottées, and they wrote to me.
To tell you what?
That they were too happy. In addition to that, drawing has a much less aggressive appearance for people than being filmed or photographed. Sonita, for example, told me that there was a lot of reporting on her, but what she preferred was what I did, because I had made her story more human. But I think it’s because it’s drawn, actually. It’s so harmless, people do not be wary at all when you draw them. A moment ago, I worked for Envoy Special on a trial where the accused had asked for a camera at the last minute, and where they could not film any more then they had planned to devote an entire broadcast ; As a result, Élise Lucet asked me to draw. And what was really interesting was that the first days, the guy and all his family were a little tender, a little curious, like ‘Oh, we can look? It’s nice, without realizing that it was a charge – besides, it was a rape trial. And it was towards the end of the trial that it started to get drunk. It plays the flute to people, drawing. You can do much harder stuff.
It’s not just the naivety of drawing. The fact that you could talk about 30 important but unknown women, what shows what? That we must change the way we identify and label who is heroic. It happens that we celebrate women, but queens, or Joan of Arc, or someone who has been crowned by something really indisputable, like ‘good, Marie Curie OK, Nobel Prize, then of agreement’. For women to have a voice, they must have done something extraordinary that is universally validated. We do not ask as much for guys to do their biography. Whereas if you say to yourself: ‘I’m going to change the lighting and try to find things that seem more innocuous but were crazy for the time’, you find women who have achieved great things by just wanting, base, to advance something in their life to them. Leymah Gbowee, for example: she loses her husband, she decides to go out of her house, she finds a job as a social worker, boom! she finished Nobel Prize after ending an armed conflict. In I’m Every Woman, Liv Strömquist talks about the shadow women who were behind famous guys, often referred to as ‘men to women’. Well, they were men to women; their chicks, not only did they do everything, but in addition they had made them seven kids. We must relaunch the momentum by saying that this deserves the title of heroine. To prevent a lighthouse from being swallowed by the waves, it deserves the title of heroine.
It is a very sexist environment, comics? It is a medium that has hard skin and is very slow to feminize. It’s really done to his body. There is a group of comic book creators – of which I am one – who obtained parity in the selection boards in Angoulême four years ago, after the famous year when there were no women on the list grand prizes because, as the president of the jury said at the time: ‘We would have liked to put women, but there is none.’ It should be known that the third parties have lower rewards than those of men. You can not even justify, as is the case in business, saying ‘oh yes, but hey, it’s because women have matte holidays’ or whatever. we are comics authors, eh, we all work at home, nobody ever sees us. But it really changes very quickly, especially in the last five years. On top of that, I find that there is real goodwill and true kindness on the part of male authors. We do not really meet resistance strictly speaking, it’s more inertia, old habits, festivals where the atmosphere is very ‘boys room, gang of friends’, and where you have to say:’ On is there, in fact. ‘It also changes on the side of the publishers and the media treatment of comics. The fact that there were big commercial hits for comics written by women, it changed the look. But you must never let your guard down. Continue to say: ‘There is a problem of number of women’ or ‘yes, a work where the heroine is a damsel in distress who passes the dishes making jokes of cocks, great, that’s really what it is we were missing.
“I think we have to go through a phase where, artificially perhaps, and indeed with a concern for positive discrimination, we force ourselves to show women. Maybe they will only be a silver medal, well, you have to go all the way to the silver medal”
What do you think of today’s girls, whose childhood or adolescence was marked by #MeToo? They are really smart! Something stupid, but already, they are comfortable with the idea of having convictions. I met little feminist book clubs of 9 year old girls, it’s light years away from what I was when I was little. And then, that’s what was said earlier, they see models of success. It can not evolve other than well, a generation that is raised like that, with parents – and fathers in particular – who are vigilant about it. Watch as everyone goes up to the plate as soon as a brand of children’s wear puts on his ‘dreamy as mom’ and ‘brave as daddy’ t-shirts. At 18, girls will be smarter than me now.
(By Noémie Pennacino / Photos: Jean Jacques for Society.)