Recently I've read two quite remarkable books by the French artist/author Emmanuel Guibert:
'Alan's War' and 'The Photographer'. I couldn't recommend these books more.
Emmanuel Guibert, photo by Didier Lefèvre
Guibert has written many graphic novels for readers young and old, among them the Sardine in Outer Space series and The Professor’s Daughter with Joann Sfar.
In 1994 he happened to encounter an American World War II veteran named Alan Cope living in France that marked the beginning of a deep friendship and the birth of a great biographical epic.
Another of Guibert's recent works is The Photographer. Showered with awards, translated around the world, it relates a Doctors Without Borders mission in 1980’s Afghanistan through the eyes of a great reporter, the late Didier Lefèvre.
Alan's War :The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope
By Emmanuel Guibert
'Alan's War': A Graphic Novel Revisits WWII
by ELEANOR BEARDSLEY/NPR
May 24, 2009
In 1994, a 30-year-old cartoonist named Emmanuel Guibert was visiting a small island off the coast of France when he
happened to ask 69-year-old World War II veteran Alan Cope for directions.
That request turned into a 15-minute conversation, which evolved into a deep friendship and, eventually, led to the creation
of the graphic novel Alan's War.
"The first time he started to tell me things about his life and his war was on the beach on this little island on which he used to
live," remembers Guibert. "That's when I realized that he was a fantastic storyteller."
A budding illustrator at the time, Guibert was struck by Cope's amazing memory and his narrative ability. The older man told
his stories as if he were living in the moment, not as someone looking back 60 years later. Guibert proposed that they work
on a book together.
Alan's War, the result of their collaboration, recounts Cope's experiences as an American G.I. during World War II.
Guibert says that Cope wasn't a hero — he arrived in Europe too late to see battle — but his stories are still powerful. He
first set foot on European soil in the bombed out city of Le Havre, northern France. One day, while trudging along amidst the
ruined city with their heavy packs, Cope suddenly remembered that it was his birthday.
"He's in the middle of this world in ruins and he's 20 years old, and he forgot his own birthday," says Guibert. "It was very
moving to me to listen to his story because it made me realize something that we all know, which is that war is always made
As part of General Patton's 3rd Army, Cope's unit of about 70 men thrust deep into the heart of Eastern Europe in order to
keep the Soviets from gaining too much territory. But other Allied troops never followed, and the unit was ordered to pull out
of Prague. On the way out, they were told to wear white as protection from advancing Soviet forces and retreating Germans.
Guibert says Cope's unit passed a column of German troops. One German soldier was so amazed to see the Americans all
dressed in white as if they were surrendering that he stopped moving and was crushed by a tank that was rolling behind
"That's the first time, I think, that [Cope] saw someone dying in front of him, and [he] never forgot it," says Guibert. "I
remember the emotion he had 60 years afterward."
Part of what makes the graphic novel so engrossing are Cope's small but extraordinary stories of everyday life as a GI: "He
wanted to tell things as simply as possible, never adding anything, just the things that happened," says Guibert. "That left a
fabulous amount of space for the images. He made me want to jump on my drawing table and start drawing."
Guibert says Cope gave him the freedom to draw things as he imagined them. And sometimes the two were stunned by
how closely the drawings resembled Cope's actual memory.
After their initial meeting on the beach, Guibert's friendship with Cole lasted five years, until the older man's death at the age
Guibert says there's not a day when he doesn't think of his friend. Before Cope died, Guibert proposed they visit the U.S.
together, but he says Cope didn't want to go back. Aside from one short visit after the war, he never returned to his country
again — the war had altered his life forever. But with the U.S. edition of their book, Guibert says, he feels the two of them are
taking that trip to America after all.
By Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier
A review from the Washington Post:
Memories of a Long War
By Douglas Wolk
Sunday, May 31, 2009
By Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier
Translated from the French by Alexis Siegel
In 1986, the French photojournalist Didier Lefèvre joined a Doctors Without Borders mission to Afghanistan. It was a
dangerous place even then -- a country where the Cold War had turned viciously hot after the Soviet invasion of 1979.
Lefèvre stayed only a few months, but beset by disease, brutal weather and extortionist police, he barely survived the
experience. Still, he brought back 4,000 photographs from his trip and returned to Afghanistan seven more times before his
death in 2007.
Originally published in three French volumes between 2003 and 2006, "The Photographer" is a riveting account of Lefèvre's
first journey and his experiences in Zaragandara, the Afghan town where Doctors Without Borders set up a makeshift
hospital. Lefèvre's blisteringly forceful black-and-white photographs, and sometimes his contact sheets, appear on nearly
every page of the book. So does Emmanuel Guibert's artwork. The cartoonist adapted his friend's memories of the trip into
comics form, filling in the spaces between photos with sequences that bind the story together (and providing,
understandably, almost every image we see of Lefèvre himself) and explain what was happening at less photogenic
Guibert develops a new visual style for each project he draws: He's also the artist behind last year's "Alan's War," another
superb piece of oral history in comics form. Here his approach is rough and blobby, clearly modeled on the contours of
photographs but sparely rendered and showing spatters of ink. Seen next to Lefèvre's finely shaded photos, Guibert's
idiomatic line work emphasizes that what we're seeing in the comics sections of "The Photographer" isn't quite real: It's
history recollected and reconstructed.
That's the formal paradox that drives the book. Lefèvre came along on the mission so that he could bring back images that
would bear witness to what was happening in Afghanistan, but the photographs that he published immediately afterward
couldn't say nearly as much as does the combination of his work and the approximations and memories Guibert has woven
around and through it. A cartoonist has more power over narrative than a photographer, and some of Lefèvre's pictures
make more sense in the context of a narrative, including a haunting shot of a horse groom who'd accidentally gotten
separated from a caravan and survived to tell his story: The scene's pacing and text deepen its meaning by making evident
exactly how close he'd come to doom.
Much of "The Photographer" is fascinating on the strength of Lefèvre's experiences alone. He recounts learning to pack
perfectly stuffed, watertight boxes, getting outfitted for Afghan-style clothing (and buying a woman's chadri) to avoid
arousing suspicion, crossing the border into Afghanistan by a hazardous off-road path to avoid the Russian military. The
middle section of the book depicts the work the doctors had come to do, but also Lefèvre's discovery of the bizarre cultural
and economic realities of war zones -- including the fact that the Afghan medical team could occasionally arrange for
assistance from Russian doctors.
Sometimes, the precision and emotional wallop of Lefèvre's photographs cut more deeply than words or drawings could:
There's a nearly unbearable sequence of a wounded child having her burn cleaned, and remarkable images of a couple of
Afghan soldiers laughing about their injuries and of a local chief posing with a gun and some plastic flowers.
But this is as much the show of Guibert and colorist/designer Frédéric Lemercier as it is Lefèvre's, particularly in the book's
final third, which concerns the photographer's disastrous solo journey back from Zaragandara as he was running out of film.
The artists take over altogether for a long, dramatic sequence in which Lefèvre and his horse, abandoned by their escorts,
struggle up a mountain in a blizzard as the sky darkens. For a few pages, Guibert's scratchy renderings are half-obliterated
by patches of white; then all we see are spotty silhouettes against a darkening green background for a few pages, until
Lefèvre abandons hope and pulls out his camera. At last, we see what he feared would be his final photographs: a series of
harrowing, low-angle shots of the exhausted horse; and the largest image in the book, a two-page spread of the gorgeous,
murderous Afghan landscape, its foreground a blur and its background receding into the weather.
349 cm × 776 cm (137.4 in × 305.5 in)
Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid