Although there’s no shortage of literary works that have been turned into graphic novels, it’s rare to find a novelist writing a graphic novel directly. So, the birth of Chick I, in September 2013, provoked considerable interest. Illustrated by Janry, the ravings of a newly-hatched chick are entirely the invention of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. In two decades, Schmitt has become one of the most widely read French-language authors in the world.
His books have been translated into 44 languages and his plays are regularly put on in over 50 countries. Appearances are deceptive: Volume II of Chick I has just come out. Between a trip to Canada and theatre commitments in Paris, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt was kind enough to interrupt a hectic schedule to meet me and answer my questions.
How did Chick I come into being?
I’d been carrying the character around in me for thirty-odd years. He was the basis of stories I used to tell my family and friends. He started life as a funny little personage who asks pertinent questions but comes up with the wrong answers. On several occasions, people asked me to write a book about him. I couldn’t see how I was going to turn him into literature, and as the stories resembled sketches involving short adventures, the graphic novel came to mind. I told the publishers about my idea and met up with the Dupuis team, and they sent me a pile of albums to help me choose an illustrator. I picked out Janry because I felt that the marriage of my world and his comic energy would be a great encounter.
Were you already interested in graphic novels before the project began?
Absolutely! I was born in the 60s and grew up with Pilote, Goschinny, Bretécher, Fred, The Masked Cucumber… The graphic novel was coming into its own and being read by people of all ages, and it was just as much a part of my life as Dumas and Maupassant. I have great respect for the graphic novel… unlike many intellectuals I come across, who are still contemptuous of the genre.
Should we see Chick I’s animal kingdom as a reference to Aesop and La Fontaine’s fables?
Not really… In Volume II, I make a reference to Zeno’s paradox of the tortoise and Achilles, which goes back even further. I like slipping a few cultural references into the series – they’re in there in all kinds of little details. In any case, I often find myself in the world of the fable. Oscar and the Lady in Pink and Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran are seen as contemporary philosophical fables. To my mind, Chick I’s animal kingdom owes as much to Disney as it does to La Fontaine. It involves a marvellous transposition that allows me to write about fundamental issues in a concise, light-hearted way.
More broadly, you’re sensitive to animal rights, as your recent text on Cecil the lion showed…
Yes, I’ve always been an animal rights activist and I’m glad I’m less alone in the movement. In the old days, the only two people I knew to be interested were Brigitte Bardot and Marguerite Yourcenar! Over time, people have woken up to animal rights, but it’s the responsibility of humankind to support those rights, because animals aren’t going to go out on to the streets and demonstrate to defend them! Readers were also very touched by my short story “The Dog” in my collection Two Gentlemen of Brussels. People often talk to me about it at book-signings, and actually, it’s one of my favourites, among all the stories I’ve written. “The Dog” is about the way animals look at humans and what we can learn from animals, instead of how we look at them. I’ve regarded animals as people since I was a boy. With Chick I, you’ve also got the eternal question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Chick I can puzzle over where he comes from, which makes him a kind of Hamlet… NB: I didn’t say “Omelette”… (laughter).
How did you establish a relationship with your collaborator Janry?
Each of us had to tame the other because we were coming from very different worlds. Personally, I had to learn to think and split things up into images and illustrations, an approach that’s similar to the cinema but even so, totally different. I started out suspecting him of some kind of initiation process, when he asked me to draw my scenarios, but now I send him full descriptions and dialogues and I’ve stopped drawing altogether. On his side, he made various suggestions, but my way of proceeding is very specific. Anyway, our collaboration has become a real pleasure.
You mentioned writing about fundamental issues in a concise way. Writing a graphic novel must be very different from your literary experience.
Yes, of course; it’s very concise… super-concise, even. It’s a way of thinking that’s completely new to me. You’ve got to put your mind to an intellectual journey that’s consistent with the joke or story, and with the character’s disasters which are a kind of extra… It’s possibly the most concise and dense form of writing there is. It’s a good literary exercise.
Literature, theatre, cinema, graphic novels: you cover a range of disciplines. Do you get a different kind of enjoyment from each one?
For me, in each case, the subject or characters dictate the form I choose. In a way, Chick I forced me to tackle a graphic novel. When it comes to the subject, I see myself more as a sort of obedient scribe than as an all-powerful creator. I don’t collect forms of expression in order to boast about how I can do everything. I have doubts every time and I experience tensions about the choices and the territory the subject requires me to explore. The graphic novel allows me to give free rein to my imagination in a concise way. A novelist has to rise to the challenge of his subject. Chick is funny: his self-importance and self-worship mean you can inflate certain faults and make him say certain things but poke fun at the same time.
What kind of readers do you meet at your book-signings, graphic novel readers or Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt readers?
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt readers, who’ve often read my other books, too. Maybe Janry meets more specifically graphic novel readers… But sometimes, children come up to me in the street and tell me about Chick I and quote lines to me… I just love that!
You’ve been carrying Chick I around in you for 30 years; so should we expect a long series of albums?
I’d love to and I think Janry would, too. He told me he wasn’t an animal illustrator, but he’s delighted and we have a wealth of stories to tell. There’s a wonderful paradox about a tiny character like Chick I encompassing a vast field like philosophy… and I feel tremendous sympathy for Chick I. He’s got great strength because he’s in love with himself, and there are times when I really envy him!
Replete with convictions, swollen with self-esteem and chicanery, ignorant to a degree, this chick nevertheless wants to understand the world – the total opposite of Calimero! Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and Janry’s creature continues his exploration of the universe from the humble farmyard, at times philosophising with dubious logic, at others sounding off with debatable acumen, but there’s no denying that he’s a comedian. With mischief and infinite refinement, the two authors have clearly had a field-day observing humanity from the perspective of an irresistible fowl.
The most insufferable, narcissistic, often dumb but nevertheless poetic and disarmingly candid chicken is back: re-enter Chick I. This yellow-feathered ball of egoism is the unlikely invention of best-selling author, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, and the keen-eyed illustrator of graphic novels about the equally popular Spirou (15 episodes) and Petit Spirou (volume 17 has just come out). Janry is also capable of producing a wildly funny bestiary, and this is the moment to use that talent.
The brilliant duo has climbed into the chicken run to track the discoveries of a tiny chick, whose elevated idea of himself is a significant part of his character. The world inevitably turns around him.
His mentor, the rat, makes futile attempts to give him a rather more universal reading of the world; the cicada does what he can to get him off the ground for an aerial view that will extend the limits of his pen: all to no avail. “I’m not just the centre of the world, I’m the origin of the world,” the feathered philosopher retorts, never missing a beat. “Everything appears, develops and disappears through me.”
In Volume I of his trials and tribulations, he was dubbed the “Existential Chick”, on the grounds that he questioned where he came from, and woe betide anyone who suggested that he might have come from a chicken – that would be a slight to his dignity! This time, he tries to fit into the world with the same blinkered vision.
The mirror is not his best friend
Of course, his companions sometimes take it upon themselves to put the negligible little chick in his place, but that’s to reckon without his legendary chicanery that puts him back on his high horse! Insufferable to the end of his beak but surrounded by a surprising crowd of hairy beasts (bat, rabbit, dog, cat and tortoise), he abounds in syllogisms, takes a swipe at La Fontaine and discovers that the mirror is not his best friend… Chick I, unanimously elected king of animal humour.