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March 10, 2008

The Birth of a UFO

[from the drawing board of Fabrice Parme]

I'm not going to talk about how Tiny Tyrant came into being. That'll be for another time.

Instead I want to tell you about the birth of another work I created with Lewis Trondheim.

In June 2004, Trondheim and I were invited to attend a comics convention in Haarlem, in the Netherlands. Lewis was just starting to work on his book Désoeuvré, in which he explored how comics artists handle getting old—a crucial question that he was asking himself and his fellow authors (and, not uncharacteristically, a weird premise for a book).

After a pretty packed first day at the convention, we were heading back to our hotel. Lewis was wondering where to go next in his career. He explained that he had rummaged around a lot and couldn't really see what else he could invent. I think he was a bit tired, to tell you the truth, because I don't for a second buy the thought of Trondheim ever being short of original ideas. To help him get over his despondency, I pointed out that, sure, he might have explored tons of different directions in terms of storytelling, but everything remained to be invented from the standpoint of drawing. I talked about composition, color, signage, modern art, cubism, abstract art; about the possibility of designing the page differently based on graphic networks, on shapes. He told me to keep talking about these things, that he found it nourishing.

When we got to the hotel, we sat down at the desk in his room with paper and pencils. I started filling his notebook with sketches and scribbles to explain a bit better what I had in mind. My idea was to take the formal ingredients underlying comics and rearrange them differently—for example, not using panels or strips. Lewis thought that was a really fun idea, but as it was getting late he said we should try to find a common thread of meaning holding all those ideas together, and first grab some sleep. I headed back to my room with shapes swirling in my head.


By breakfast the next morning, Lewis had found the common thread: an alien from outer space crash-lands on Earth in the middle of the Jurassic period. Through a labyrinthine system you can follow various routes taken by this character, spanning all epochs of humanity. Depending on what path he takes, the alien will get eaten, crushed, trampled, chopped to pieces, etc. Only one path will allow him to repair his flying saucer and return home. The story was as bare-bones as possible: an issue of survival, no frills. Exactly what was needed to cause the form to blossom. No panels, no strips, no text balloons. A fresco 32 feet long, starting with the cover and ending with the back cover. As we ate our breakfast, I continued to fill Lewis's sketchbook with diagrams. The authors at our table were watching us with interest. We explained to our Dutch publisher what was going on. Right away he was game. A month later I found the title: OVNI (that's UFO in French). At the same moment Lewis was launching Shampooing, his imprint at Delcourt. OVNI would be for Shampooing first, then for our Dutch publisher.


All that was left was to give birth to the beast, which involved a 14-month pregnancy for the colorist and me, and a 14-day process for Lewis.


To be able to produce the book we had to come up with a new method. Computer-assisted design gave us the greatest flexibility in coloring and the use of archives and image banks, as well as the most freedom to invent through collage, distortions, variations, filters or compositions. That's why the original pages of OVNI were done on the computer, with some parts drawn on paper then scanned and others done directly on screen using the graphic palette.


Trondheim's script looked more like a musical score: there were indications concerning the roads to follow; there were pratfalls, jokes, open proposals. I followed his score whenever possible. Sometimes I improvised, because the composition of the image impacted the story. I took side roads, moved jokes, dropped a few and suggested new ones. Even when a two-page spread was almost complete, Lewis would still come up with new solutions and original finds. Working on the computer allowed us to course-correct until the last minute, because we were working on several layers—up to 50!


In the end, I believe the book truly looks like no other and demonstrates that there's always plenty of stuff left to invent.

When the book came out in France, a producer wanted to make a series of cartoons out of it. Would it be impossible to adapt? Not necessarily, it's just a matter of going back to the drawing board and finding the trick.





I love this book! It's super cute and cruel at the same time, wonderfully drawn too... what software did you use?

Nice pictures.

So it's a choose your own adventure comic, right?

I did a choose your own adventure comic as a 24 hour comic last year:


Anyway, it sounds amazing, I too would like a copy of the book!

What a unique concept! Creating all the different paths for the character to take must have been so much fun. I've got to search out a copy of this!

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