Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Unexpected Delights of Wine and Comics in Etienne Davodeau's The Initiates

The Initiates by Etienne Davodeau
Futuropolis 2011/NBM Comics Lit 2013
I know nothing about wine. I don't drink the stuff, and being not-French I didn't grow up with it. There is a whole culture to wine, its cultivation, its production, its purchase and imbibing. I've always found Wine Tastings, with the ceremony and ritual of sniffing and swishing and gurgling and spitting to be ridiculous. It's just not for me, but I grokk the why of it all. And the culture of comics is just as foreign to many.

Etienne Davodeau is a cartoonist from France, and his good friend Richard Leroy is a well regarded vintner. In 2010, Davodeau proposed a unique venture to Leroy - he would spend the year assisting the winemaker in every aspect of production, from trimming in the winter to shipping in the fall, and the cartoonist would open up and introduce him to his world of comics. What transpires is told in the surprisingly wonderful non-fiction docu-comic The Initiates, which was published in the United States this year by NBM (Davodeau's first work translated to English). And it is, hands-down, one of the best comics of the year.

I was initially put off by NBM's tagline on the cover "A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs." It sounded a bit gimmicky - it cannot possibly be that simple to trade off like that, like some bad reality teevee pitch. Thankfully that is not what happens in the book at all. Davodeau goes to work for Leroy, while Davodeau introduces Leroy to the best graphic novels of France and the United States while meeting some of his country's preeminent cartoonists. Just as Davodeau is given the full process of Leroy's wine making, Leroy witnesses the full process of comic production from editorial meetings to color corrections at the printer. The Initiates is far from the cheap gimmick the tagline makes it out to be, but a vital and entertaining documentary of both the processes and cultures of wine making and comic making in France.  

Richard Leroy's name is well-known in wine making and wine consuming circles. We are made witness to the awe his name brings up, and the sometimes rapturous response to his product. Leroy is by any standard a skilled and dedicated artist, his art wine, and it is made clear that the lengths he goes to to make his product are not necessarily industry standard. He has an extraordinary commitment to a high and sometimes esoteric standard of production. He uses no chemicals, is certified organic (though he won't advertise that on any label), prunes every plant on his vineyard by hand himself and shuns mechanical processing of the plants. He cleans his barrels by hand and tills his fields by hand. He avoids the use of sulfur as long as possible despite it being a necessary ingredient in wine making the world over. He has a relationship to the plants and the soil that borders on mystical. In a burgeoning practice called biodynamics, he utilizes homemade water formulas that feature miniscule mixtures of manure or silica in concentrations that cannot possibly make a difference (but he stands by nevertheless) and even artificially limits the amount he produces.

Leroy's obsessive devotion to his particular style of production and the proven quality of his output year after year has won him a legion of fans across the globe. He is far from just a producer, but a connoisseur of all things wine with a broad and nuanced palette and a selection of wine to match. As often as we see Leroy and Davodeau hip-deep in the backbreaking work of producing his vintage, we see them enjoying, tasting, and testing wines of every possible type. The many friendly conversations with cartoonists and vintners that are documented throughout The Initiates are accompanied by wine that Leroy chooses or refuses with a near snobbishness that Davodeau and those who know him is not snobbery as much as having just simply exceptional standards. For Leroy, not just any wine will do, but he is just as willing to chose a 20 Euro bottle of wine as a 200 - all the factors and nuances of taste are the only things that matter.

From being so embedded in Leroy's production, we get the full picture of how wine is made, or at least how he makes it. We get explanations of the scientific processes at work (and what Leroy does is certainly more art than science), we are witness to the time and toil he puts into everything. Davodeau does a remarkable job of translating, both visually, and descriptively, the entire universe of wine making and consuming that Leroy inhabits. Davodeau's art, expressive and accessible black and white and grey, is well suited for this project, capturing the personalities and settings with equal quality. And in regards to the work as non-fiction documentary, so often with non-fiction work in comics the subjects tend to be downers (to say the least). But the entire execution of The Initiates is simply delightful. 

Just as fascinating as witnessing Leroy's method is the window into French comics culture. I am fairly well-versed in the comics culture of North America and to a lesser extent Japan, but France was a bit unknown to me. I've always had a vague understanding to the French cultural approach to the artform, and I have my share of French imports translated into English. The Initiates opened up a fascinating window into the world of French comic making that I found frankly thrilling. Richard Leroy's experience acts as a kind of stand-in for the audience with Etienne Davodeau as the guide.

The nitty gritty of comics making - drawing the thing, well, that's the same everywhere, and Davodeau does not even touch his own process (and he doesn't need to). Davodeau, as a published cartoonist with an active gig at a well-regarded publisher and friendships and personal connections to colleagues  is uniquely placed as a teacher of French comics. Leroy is as uninitiated into comics as Davodeau was into wine making, so it is interesting to watch his reactions to the comics Leroy gives him, and the general lack of reverence to the cartoonists he meets. Davodeau introduces him (and us) to Jean Pierre Gibrat and Marc-Antoine Mathieu and Emmanual Guibert and many more who appear in-person. Outside of the many French works he read of which he has varying opinions, Leroy can't finish Watchmen, eventually comes around to Maus, and can't stand Moebius, to pretty much everyone's consternation. (Gibrat: "Moebius is Mozart and Jimi Handrix at the same time!") When Leroy questions Lewis Trondheim's style, Trondheim shows up in the form of a one-page cartoon explaining his brilliant "Theory of the Beak" within a context a vintner can understand. Davodeau takes Leroy to comic conventions, Leroy sits in at editorial meetings at Futuropolis, he reviews submissions, takes in art shows, and more.

Davodeau and Leroy share many, many lively conversations with cartoonists and winemakers, with the subject of conversation looping in and out of the worlds of wine making and comics, always always always shared over a bottle or five of fine wine. What days aren't consumed with hard work are equally consumed by friends and conversation and food and, yes, wine. When all is said and done, Davodeau is no less likely to start making wine as Leroy is to make comics. Davodeau gets a graphic novel from the experience if not the nuanced palette of his friend; Leroy gets the opportunity to meet many luminaries in the French comics field, if not a desire to continue exploring that culture. Both walk away with a unique life experience that we are lucky to witness. I get a greater sense that the initiates of the title are us, the readers. The Initiates completely captures the two worlds, not necessarily bridging the two but creating an understanding of both. In The Initiates, Davodeau has crafted a captivating, edifying, comprehensive, absorbing, delightful and incredibly entertaining documentary that certainly deserves to take its place in the growing nonfiction graphic canon.

When you finish The Initiates, you get the sense of having spent the day with good friends, good food, good wine, and good conversation, falling under the spell of camaraderie capped off by the euphoria you can only get from a few drinks at the end of a day well spent.

Buy The Initiates on Amazon now.

No comments:

Post a Comment