Drawing real life in France

Award-winning French-Syrian cartoonist and film director Riad Sattouf talks to Oliver Rowland

Your latest book is the second volume of La Vie Secrète des Jeunes (The Secret Life of Young People). Your last film, Les Beaux Gosses (known in English as The French Kissers), was also based on the theme of youth. What is it about this subject that you find inspiring?

I have done several things about young people and I’m often asked that question. I don’t really know how to reply. I guess it’s because they’re the noisiest, the liveliest and the most visible of all people.

In La Vie Secrète des Jeunes, you often seem to portray characters as stupid and violent. Do you think these sorts of people are typical of our era in France, and does that worry you? Are there other trends in French contemporary society that you find positive and fill you with hope?

I’m not trying to present an overall vision of what youth is like. The title is a bit simplistic and grandiose: I’m showing people what I see in day-to-day life. It’s not a thesis or a theory.

I have a lot of faith in humankind. I believe greatly in humans’ ability to better themselves.

Are all your stories truly based on real-life experiences? Even the episode in the métro, when someone attacks a fellow passenger with a saw? How do you manage to come across so many oddpeople in your daily life?

It’s too difficult to make up a story like that. It’s much easier to be inspired by reality.

Your use of language in the new book is also interesting: there is a lot of verlan, colloquialisms and words spelt phonetically. Are you trying to recreate what you hear and the way young people write?

I really like transcribing accents; not just the way young people speak, but all sorts of accents. There are so many of them. It’s one of my pleasures, working out how to reproduce language as accurately as possible, how to get from speech to the written word.

You are well-known for your character Pascal Brutal, who is very macho. Do you think the French have a tendency to be macho?

It’s hard to generalise and say the French are more this and less that. I don’t really know. I sometimes see men insult women in the street without any reason, but then, that’s Paris.

Your work often makes fun of Islamic extremism. Are you worried about the trend in France?

I lived in Syria for 12 years, so I see things differently from people who were born in France to Arab parents. Mine is a more Arab vision than a Franco-Arab one.

In France, people of Arab origin suffer great inequalities: all sorts of difficulties and racism, not just from a certain part of society, but institutions as well. I am just recording that.

Do you hope extremists will learn to be more like the very progressive people of “Arabia” in your latest Pascal Brutal book?

I wish the Arab world would become more aware of its potential, more critical of itself and more free, with equal treatment of women and men. This sort of social evolution has nothing to do with France or the Western world; it needs to happen at the heart of the Arab world itself.

It seems comic strips do not thrive in the UK as much as in France: they are less respected and less popular with adults. It is often seen as something exclusively for children. Why do you think thisdifference exists? Have French cartoons changed a lot over the years?

For years, comics were made only for children. That’s changing now, perhaps because the children of yesteryear have now become adults and they still like them.

Your Pascal Brutal work picked up the top prize at the Angoulême comic festival this year. Were you impressed by any of the other cartoons that you discovered at Angoulême this year?

I don’t read many comic strips, but I love Joe Daly’s Dungeon Quest, which also won a prize at the festival this year. It’s a masterpiece.

How I got here

Sattouf was born in Paris in 1978 and spent his childhood in Syria, Algeria and Libya.

He moved to Brittany as a teenager and studied animation at the Gobelins, a top art school in Paris.

2003: Les Pauvres Aventures de Jérémie is published, a comic series telling the story of an unstable teenager taking his first steps into adulthood. It won Sattouf his first award at Angoulême in the same year.

2003-04: Writes two books about his adolescence, Manuel du Puceau and Ma Circoncision.

2006: Pascal Brutal makes his first appearance. Two more albums follow in 2007 and 2009.

2009: Sattouf directs and stars in his first film, Les Beaux Gosses (The French Kissers).

2010: He wins a César for best directing debut for Les Beaux Gosses and the prize for best album at Angoulême for Pascal Brutal.