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Interview met Serge Baeken

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About seven years ago Rob and I attended an event in Mekanik (an Antwerp based comic-shop) where you could have an object of your choice painted by a comic- artist. I brought the old coffee-machine that I inherited from my late grandparents and had it redecorated by Serge Baeken, who was one of the artists represented that day. Rob brought his juggling balls, which were drawn on by Nicolas Marichal, Hanco Kolk and Serge too. Many years, a whole lot of coffees and juggling later, I meet again with Serge in his house in Antwerp, this time to talk about comics, and some other things too perhaps.

About 8 years ago you made your debut album ‘The No stories’ which is a black and white album, published by Bries, featuring a collection of autobiographical stories. You drew this album in the shop window of Mekanik where everybody on the street could observe you drawing. Why did you choose to produce the album this way?

Well the idea behind this way of working was to draw the whole album in one month’s time, two pages per day. The main reason was to force myself to produce in a steady, productive way. At home I was distracted really quickly by other things. I said to myself: if I lock myself in this fish tank I am left with no option but to draw. It turned out to be a formula that worked for me.

Didn’t it bother you that people were watching your every move?

Well actually the reaction of the public was a bit of a disappointment. I was standing there but most people didn’t notice me at all and just walked past. At the other side of the street there is a tram stop and the people waiting there got some free entertainment out of it at least. Some of them came knocking on the shop window, asking how much I cost and such things.
I also used this way of working a few years later in the shop window of Bries, where I drew 60 pages in two months for my second album: ‘Sugar, life of a cat’ which is about to be published in December by Balloon’s graphic novel label (Dutch version) and in January by Dargaud (French version). It shows the life of a cat, seen through the eyes of a cat. It’s kind of a cubism-style comic, the drawings flow from one frame into another. In fact it is the biography of a cat we had for 18 years which was named ‘Suske’, but I wanted to use a name that could be applied more internationally so I changed it to ‘Sugar’.

When you drew the No stories in that shop window, was it also a way of making publicity for the comic?

Yes it was, I was working in a copy center at that time and wanted to tell the world that I was drawing. That, from that moment, I was available as a graphic gun for hire, as I like to call myself. Some media reported about me and after a while projects started coming in, ranging from illustrations to commissioned comics. I made a comic for Traject 2, an organisation for young people who don’t know what to do with their future. It was called ‘Los ‘t op’, an educative, promotional comic that focused on the mission of Traject 2, being: to learn young people to take care of themselves and to believe in what they stand for.

How about your own childhood? Has it always been your dream to draw comics?

Absolutely. My younger brother Vitalski was always drawing comics when we were kids and I used to redraw his drawings. I always made them more detailed and spent more work on the individual drawings but he always managed to finish complete stories. The first comic I finished from start to end was the No Stories. At home we were heavy comic consumers. In the beginning we read things like Tina, Donald Duck, Eppo, Kuifje, Robbedoes. When we got a bit older we started to get into A Suivre and Métal Hurlant. This opened up a whole new world. I went to study art, and occasionally drew some comics but more and more my work evolved into independent drawings and paintings. Though very narrative and always in a style that people considered very comic-like. Many years later, I was 38 already, making my own comic actually started to happen, and so I made the No Stories.

Tell us more about the illustrations you do for the newspapers ‘De Morgen’ and ‘De Tijd’.

Recently I have become more active as an illustrator. A job I initially didn’t choose to do, but there was high demand for my drawings. They call me, ask me to make a drawing about a very specific subject and I try to fill it in in my own way. I feel good about doing this, deadlines are something I like. For ‘De Morgen’ they often call me at noon and in the evening I have to deliver the drawing. I was convinced that I wasn’t an illustrator and I never profiled myself this way but if you want to make a living out of your drawing pen you are left with very few options. Illustrations is a good option in that matter because drawing comics in reality very often isn’t. It is a very work-intensive process. Most comic artists combine their passion with the job of an illustrator.

More now about your first album ‘The No stories’. One website reviewed your comic and compared it to Tardi, amongst others. Which is a big compliment of course. One small thing they mentioned though, was their impression that near the end of your comic your drawing style changed and became less detailed due to a nearing deadline. Do you agree?

No, I absolutely don’t agree with this. It is true that the story, at a certain point, undergoes a style change due to the fact that I started using markers rather than a brush. This however never disturbed me since only at the beginning of a comic it is important to draw in a more detailed way to pull the reader into the story, once it reaches a certain pace too much detail works to your disadvantage. It slows down the reading speed.

Regarding the storyline of ‘the No stories’, it focuses on stories that all have one central theme: the absence of something in your life, in the lives of people around you. Why is this the central theme, is life treating you so badly?

No not at all, I wanted to tell things, encounters I had with people that are living on the edge of society here in Antwerp. Somehow I seem to have a face that works like a magnet to that kind of people. One peculiar case was a guy who was begging on the street. I was heading for the supermarket and he asked me for some coins. I only had a note of 20 Euro note so I told him that on the way back I would give him some coins. To my surprise, he then followed me to the grocery shop and so the story begins. This is the first chapter, thus named ‘No Change’. The rest of the stories feature similar encounters in the city.

Who are your heroes in the comic world, which other comics are an inspiration to you?

I have always liked Liberatore’s ‘Rank Xerox’, a very violent story, written in the 80’s, about a cyber-punk robot and his girlfriend. Jordi Bernet’s ‘Torpedo’ is another one. Black and white, really well drawn, about an assassin.

Are there any authors you would like to work with? [/B

I have some projects planned with my brother and some other authors too, but in general I prefer to write my own stories. There is a long list of stories that I wrote that I want to produce. Going from science-fiction to, for example, a story about a circus. All of them have in common that there is some connection with my own personal life.

[B]In March there will be an exhibition at Mekanik about ‘Sugar, life of a cat.’ Will you be presenting your original panels there? What can people expect?

No, I won’t show originals. There might be some larger versions of the original drawings but that won’t be the only thing. When ‘the No stories’ was published, 7 or 8 years ago, I did a similar event. The focus will be wider and a variety of drawings will be shown from this period. I make an average of 500 drawings each year so we have about 4000 of them to choose from…

Well, we will all be looking forward to see which ones made the final selection. Thanks for the interview!

Written by Michiel Desmet

‘Sugar, life of a cat’ gets released to the Flemish readers in December, and to the French public in January of 2014.
Geplaatst op 15/12/2013 Citeren
Geplaatst op 15/12/2013