Artist/illustrator Julian Peters talks about Arthur Rimbaud, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Robert Crumb and music

"The ethos of jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop and all kinds of musical genres have inspired literary content, and literary form as well. In the case of comics, I think there are so many ways in which the structure of comics can be compared to that of music."

Julian Peters: Rhymes, Strips & Art

Julian Peters is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Montreal, Canada. In the last few years, he has focused primarily on adapting classic works of English, French and Italian literature into comics. His adaptations of poems by Arthur Rimbaud and François Villon were included in The Graphic Canon (Seven Stories Press, 2012), and his on-going comics adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was recently featured in Slate Magazine. Julian holds a master’s degree in Art History, and takes his creative inspiration from the great and minor masters of all artistic periods. Julian Peters’ publications: Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town, in Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town: Graphic Poetry John Philip Johnson (Graphic Poetry Press, 2014); ‘Witch-Wife' by Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Splitting The Genre: An Intersection of Poetry and Visual Art (Edited by Chelsie Meredith, Dillon Scalzo and Scott Stewart/Six Arrow Press, 2014); ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ de John Keats” and ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ d’Arthur Rimbaud, in Le canon graphique Tome 2 (Edited by Russ Kick/Éditions Télémaque, 2013); ‘La dernière ballade’ de François Villon, in Le canon graphique Tome 1 (Edited by Russ Kick/Éditions Télémaque, 2012); ‘The Drunken Boat’ by Arthur Rimbaud, in The Graphic Canon, Volume 2 (Edited by Russ Kick/Seven Stories Press, 2012); The Last Ballad of François Villon, in The Graphic Canon, Volume 1 (Edited by Russ Kick/Seven Stories Press, 2012).

Canadian artist and illustrator Julian Peters says: “I am a comic book artist and illustrator living in Montreal. In the last couple of years, I have focused primarily on the adaptation of classic poems into comics. I am also currently pursuing a master’s degree in Art History, with a thesis focusing on two early graphic novels: Dino Buzzati’s “Poema a fumetti” (“Poem Strip”) and the “The Projector” by Martin Vaughn-James. My favourite artist is Aubrey Beardsley. My favourite comic book artists are Andrea Pazienza, Dino Battaglia and Alberto Breccia. My favourite living comic book artists are Lorenzo Mattotti, Kate Beaton and Gipi. My favourite comic book is Dino Buzzati’s “Poem Strip.” My favourite poets are probably W.B. Yeats and Arthur Rimbaud. My favourite poems are probably the four English poems featured on this website, or possibly Edward Fitzgerald’s  translation of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”. My favourite food is risotto.”

Interview by Michael Limnios               Illustrations  © by Julian Peters

What experiences have triggered your ideas most? What characterize the philosophy of Julian Peters’ artwork?

I’m attracted to the idea of circular life goals. As T. S. Eliot puts it, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” When I was a little kid I drew tons of comics, and the reason I was able to produce so much was that it was a very spontaneous process. I would draw and write the stories as I went along, often with only the vaguest idea of where I would end up. Crucially though, in spite of this spontaneity and rapidity to everything I did back then, I was generally quite satisfied with the results. Since then, the growth of my critical judgement has unfortunately far outpaced that of my artistic abilities, and now in order to create something I’m halfway happy with, I need to put in a great deal of  time and effort. And even then I’m rarely satisfied. Nevertheless, over the last few years I have felt my ability to produce something satisfactory in comics has been growing, as has my speed of execution. My ultimate hope is that one day, when I am a very old man perhaps, I will be able to draw comics with the same immediacy as when I was a kid, and be as taken with the results as I was back then. In terms of what I’m trying to capture in comics, broadly speaking, I would say that in that sense too I’m trying to get back to something from my childhood. I’m ultimately most interested in recapturing that greater connection that I felt I had as child to some kind of essential, beautiful sense of mystery surrounding all things. It’s not something I can really put into words, or even images… but maybe in some combination of the two? Maybe someday.     

What has been the relationship between music & literature in your life and art? How does affect your inspiration?

I would say music and literature are the two forms of art that touch me the most. Music because it speaks in some mysterious language beyond all explaining, which nonetheless seems to resonate at the very core of our being, and literature because it uses as its medium the very building blocks of our conscious thoughts, our words. That’s why if I could have any artistic ability I liked, I would choose to be a singer-songwriter. I personally consider the visual arts inferior to these two forms in terms of expressive power. Nonetheless, I find there is something really appealing in the very challenge of trying to wring something comparably expressive out of this imperfect medium, to capture some small glimmer of the beauty of music or poetry in visual form. It’s a venture that’s doomed from the start, but because the goal is unattainable, it also never loses its allure. There are some artists, like Aubrey Beardsley or Botticelli, for example, that I find are able to conjure something almost musical in the perfect harmony and rhythm of their line, or the balance of the compositional elements. And I also find there is some art that is in a way almost literary, in its ability to describe a personality through a face or a pose, for example, or to tell a story. Comics are the best example of this, of course, even when one considers the medium purely in terms of its visual aspects.     

What were the reasons that you started the comic and literature researches and experiments?

What really set a spark off for me was seeing a drawing of Arthur Rimbaud made by his companion and lover Paul Verlaine. Something in the simplicity of the depiction of the round-faced adolescent made me think of the Belgian comic book character Tintin, and it wasn’t too long before I conceived the idea of creating a comics biography of Rimbaud in which the adventures of the enfant terrible of French poetry would be presented in accordance with conventions of classic Franco-Belgian children’s comics. I never finished this project, which was a bit too ambitious for my abilities at the time, but it was the beginning of the association of classic poetry and comics in my work.

What do you miss most nowadays from the comix of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of art?

Probably what I miss most is a certain lack of self-consciousness that comics had before they began to be culturally legitimated as art and as literature, a shift which has mostly occurred over just the past fifteen or twenty years. This artistic innocence of sorts that comics had back then allowed them to express sensations and emotions in a way that would be considered heavy-handed or melodramatic in other more “highbrow” art forms. On the other hand, this recent cultural legitimation has accelerated the drive to expand the expressive potential of the comics medium, and all in all I’d say we are experiencing a new golden age of comics.

In terms of the future of art in general, my greatest fear is that the gradual banishment of art and art history from the educational curriculum in elementary school and high school will lead to a generalized cultural indifference towards the visual arts, and the inability to derive pleasure simply from admiring the visual beauty of an artwork. Already I see signs of this inability in the prioritization of concept over aesthetics in contemporary art, and of the story over the drawings in comics. I get the feeling a lot of readers appreciate the drawing aspect of comics only in terms of its ability to carry the narrative, rather than as a source of artistic enjoyment in its own right, and the soulless quality of much comics drawings these days reflects this lack of interest.

"I definitely still see a huge influence of the 60s American underground comix movement among comics artists today, for instance in the ongoing focus on first-person narratives, and a certain uncompromising honesty in presenting one’s less savory thoughts and impulses." (When You Are Old by W. B. Yeats, Illustrated by Julian Peters)

What has made you laugh from the Beat movement and what touched (emotionally) you from the Romanticism?

I appreciate the Beats and I think “On the Road” is a masterpiece, but there is definitely something a bit ridiculous in their whole over-the-top artsy personas. I actually wrote a couple of short stories meant to satirize the machismo and exaggerated sense of self-importance of many Beat writers. You can read one of them on my website in the “humorous writing” section -it’s titled “A Lesson in Poetry.” As for what touches me about Romanticism –well, I love the hair and the oversized cravats and wide lapels- that look is almost a kind of poem in itself, and if I could get away with, I’d probably dress that way myself. Plus they introduced a simplicity and directness of speech to poetry that cuts through the centuries between us.        

What do you learn about yourself from the poetry and what does counterculture mean to you?

What I learn about myself from poetry seems like too vast a question for me to answer adequately. Like music, it seems to open the spirit up to something beyond words –and yet it does so using words, remarkably enough. But what the words of a poem are ultimately getting at remains in itself inexpressible. As for what counterculture means for me, it’s not a term I really identify with. I think these days there is such a diversity of cultural offerings and a fragmentation of audiences, and at the same time so much dialogue going on between disciplines and between cultural hierarchies, that it is difficult for me to see how one could define a mainstream culture, and by extension a counterculture.  

What are the lines that connect the legacy of counterculture comix of 60s with the new generation of artists?

I definitely still see a huge influence of the 60s American underground comix movement among comics artists today, for instance in the ongoing focus on first-person narratives, and a certain uncompromising honesty in presenting one’s less savory thoughts and impulses. Robert Crumb et al. were really the first comics (in North America) specifically addressed to an adult audience, and the consequences of that, of course, have been huge. Nowadays it seems as though comics written for children are more the exception, and comics for adults the general rule.

"I would say music and literature are the two forms of art that touch me the most. Music because it speaks in some mysterious language beyond all explaining, which nonetheless seems to resonate at the very core of our being, and literature because it uses as its medium the very building blocks of our conscious thoughts, our words." (Les aventures de Rimbaud, Illustrated by Julian Peters)

If you could change one thing in the comic’s world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

To be honest, I’d like the creation of comics to be considered a sexier activity. To be an artist of any kind –rock musician, sculptor, filmmaker, architect, novelist, is generally seen as rather sexy thing to be. The one exception, or one of the only exceptions, is the comics creator. In this case, one’s artistic activity is liable to mark one out as a geek. And the more passionate one is about it, all the geekier one seems. Whereas for a painter, for instance, the more passionate the sexier. Mind you, I am a pretty big geek, myself, so perhaps this popular assumption isn’t so far off. But my point is, a lot of rock musicians and filmmakers are pretty huge geeks as well, and yet they still will be looked upon as sexy.  And that’s just not fair!

What is the impact of music on literature and what is the relationship comix and socio-cultural implications?

Two other huge subjects! Of course the ethos of jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop and all kinds of musical genres have inspired literary content, and literary form as well. In the case of comics, I think there are so many ways in which the structure of comics can be compared to that of music. The panel divisions create the underlying rhythm, the line is the melody, the interplay of black and white or colour provide the harmony, and the words are like the lyrics in a song. Actually, it’s a shame this connection hasn’t been explored in greater depth. I actually think the 60s and 70s underground cartoonists probably went the furthest in creating a kind of “music in comics.” Robert Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin’” or Jay Lynch’s “Um Tut Sut,” for instance, really feel like music. The same part of the brains seems to be activated as you’re reading them. As for the socio-cultural implications of all this? It seems as though music and comics too had a greater social and even political impact than they do today. But that’s probably mostly a consequence of the fragmentation of the market. You can’t count on a large enough group of people listening to or reading the same stuff. Except for TV shows –The TV series seems to be the most influential and vital art form of our times.     

How you would spend a day with Arthur Rimbaud? What would you say to W.B. Yeats? What would you like to ask T.S. Eliot?                  T.S Eliot, Illustrated by Julian Peters

Interacting with really intense artistic types like Rimbaud tends to make me feel a bit uncomfortable, so I think I’d rather follow him around invisibly, just be a fly on the wall and bask in the spell of his ultimate bohemian allure, soak in the passion of his absinthe-abetted pronouncements, and watch him make the other, more respectable and normative bohemians –the hipsters of their day- squirm uncomfortably with the outrageous inappropriateness of his behavior. As for Yeats, I would tell him not to waste away his life pining over Maud Gonne, who always spurned his advances, and take advantage of his status as one of the all-time greatest poets in the English language to play the field a bit. But then, I suppose, I might create a “Back-to-the Future paradox” in which Yeats, no longer suffering the frustration of unrequited love, would no longer be motivated to write all the great poems that made his name, thus eliminating any interest in or even knowledge of him on my part that would have prompted me to say anything to him in the first place. As for T. S. Eliot, of course I would really be interested to know what he thinks of my comics interpretation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I’d be way too shy to ask him in person, but I would maybe just leave a zine copy hanging out where he would find it. Then later I would ask around to see if he had talked about it with anyone.         

Where would you really wanna go via a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

I think in terms of travelling to the past I would most like to visit a previous incarnation of the places I am most familiar with, above all my native Montreal, and Lake Orta in Northern Italy, where my mother is from. I’d be so fascinated to see what those places looked like in other times, what is altogether different and what remains constant in their atmospheres, what food tasted like, how people spoke. In both cases I would probably choose the eighteenth century, which is probably the era that appeals to me more than any other in aesthetic terms. Also, any earlier time seems liable to prove a little too dangerous for me, not knowing my way around a musket or a belt dagger.  

As for what I’d bring back, maybe some clothes, if I could find anything from that era of diminutive men that could fit me. An eighteenth-century greatcoat would be really cool, for instance.

I don’t think I’d want to see the future, even if I’d be extremely curious to do so. I don’t think you would really be able to function in the present once you know what’s in store, and all the ways in which everything that seems of value today will come to seem inconsequential and obsolete, if not completely ridiculous. If I travelled to the future, and hung around more than a few days, I think I’d have to stay there. I would just hope they still have comics.

Julian Peters - Official website

Selfportait, Illustrated by Julian Peters

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