With Perpendicular to the sunher first comic strip, Valentine Cuny-Le Callet produces a work of great graphic beauty based on her correspondence with Renaldo McGirth, who has been on death row for more than ten years in Florida.
You first published your exchanges with Renaldo McGirth in the form of text without drawings in The world in 5m² before making a comic. Why this exploration of different mediums?
The idea of World in 5m² came from a real need following my first visit to Renaldo on death row. I had begun to take compulsive notes of the account of these visits, and it was when I found myself faced with these notes that I needed to write a real account. I talked to him about telling our exchanges and his story and he was very willing. But once the book came out, I realized there was a lot more that could be done. Something more complete which could include this important part of our exchanges which was all the images exchanged. This is an aspect that is all the more important since Renaldo draws. It is from there that we created Perpendicular to the sun which is both the adaptation and the extension of the World in 5m².
At the same time, you are doing a thesis entitled: “Testifying and resisting on death row: constraints, censorship and Do It Yourself”. What does this more academic approach to the subject bring you?
The thesis I’m doing at the Paris 1 Sorbonne is a bit hybrid thesis, since in plastic art there is a part of practice and a part of theory. In Perpendicular to the sun we talk about our friendship, our exchanges and my visits to prison, but, in my career, I also had the opportunity to meet other people who I don’t necessarily talk about in comics. These meetings made me really want to do a broader study on a subject that is not studied at all.
But isn’t it only studied in France, or even in the United States?
I haven’t found anything really complete and serious on the subject. There are a few “studies” so to speak, but above all quite sensationalist articles which speak in particular of the paintings of serial killers under the most scandalous prism possible. What interests me is having a scientific approach. There have been a lot of things done on art in the prison environment that relate to the notion of art therapy and the place of art in reintegration. I am more interested in the specific subject of death row and the spontaneous productions made by the prisoners. And it is a part of the subject which is not studied.
Is the materiality of writing at the heart of comics because it was essential to your exchanges or did you have to go through this materiality to tell the exchanges?
I want to say both my general! There’s something I need to clarify now: it’s that right after the comic was published, Florida passed a new law that prohibits inmates, whether on death row or outside, to receive paper letters. So most of the trades I show are now impossible.
Of course, all the material part of the correspondence was of paramount importance: the different types of paper, ink, the mark of the hand that wrote the words or drew… It is something very precious. There is an importance of the material, of the sensitive.
Valentine Cuny-Le Callet
Concretely today how do you do to correspond?
It’s very restrictive. Via JPay which is a money transfer and prison communication company. In short, it’s a paid mail system, since each mailing costs what they dare to call a “stamp” and the prices vary according to the states. This is now the only mode of communication we can use. It is also binding for all that is sending images. They are automatically compressed to the extreme to become a pile of pixels without much interest. Previously I was very careful to send Renaldo good quality prints and now this is no longer possible.
It is more and more isolated in fact.
That’s it, it reinforces the isolation.
Was there a desire to mix documentary and imagination?
The part of dreams, of imagination, is an integral part of our exchanges, so I wanted to introduce it into the narration of this comic strip. There was also the question of this constant opposition between the prison environment and nature, the hyper-luxurious fauna and flora of Florida which is nevertheless a particularly brutal opposition when one passes from these “cold” buildings to the tropical heat of the Florida and the natural wealth that goes with it.
It was Thierry Groensteen who wrote that to draw oneself is to put oneself at a distance, to make oneself a character. You talk about this difficulty when you start drawing Renaldo McGirth but never for yourself.
I had a hard time drawing myself and in fact it means succeeding in transforming myself into a character: trying to focus on what makes my figure, what makes my look, the reflection of my way of thinking and be from that time. It was very difficult.
Throughout the creation of this comic I felt like I was some kind of clumsy tightrope walker on a tightrope and not knowing which way I was going to fall, if I was going to fall.
Valentine Cuny-Le Callet
It must have been quite obsessive to create a comic, to correspond and to do a thesis at the same time.
Yes that’s it, it’s a story that continues, with many ongoing issues. It was necessary to transcribe not only the facts in the sense of “actions”, but also and especially all the reflections that came up as we went along. Yes from that point of view it was a bit complicated.
You took care to keep a balance between you two, that each of you had his place, he in the letters, you in the action, the concrete creation.
One of the pretty neat things is that Renaldo has a way of writing which means that almost every one of his letters repeats very systematically what I was saying myself. It was practical because it avoided repetitions and it made it possible to give all the place they deserved to his texts.
You say you kept everything and crunched everything from the start. Did you unconsciously have in mind to tell this story?
No not right now. It was at the end of the textual note-taking that I started to think about the idea of telling “outside”. On the other hand, the part drawings, sketches, beyond telling for the others, it is almost my way with me to live the events. I build my own memory with texts and images.
And how to find a balance between the beautiful and the terrible? You write : ” I don’t want to find it pretty imagining the prisoners’ orange uniforms standing out against the blue Florida sky.
The orange uniforms on the blue of the sky, it’s one of those thoughts where you don’t think too much, which comes and marks. A bit like meeting Renaldo for the first time in the flesh, I thought he had the same voice as in his letters. It’s these little things which, in themselves, mean nothing if we dissect them but which come to us, which mark us. I had this kind of bizarre feeling of indecency. As if it was going to be indecent to find it beautiful.
But in fact beauty must be found wherever one can. It’s not up to us to start trying to give ourselves some kind of moral duty, to stay on some kind of straight line where things can’t be beautiful in terrible places. And I don’t know if I managed to find a balance in comics, but I didn’t limit myself.
If I wanted to have this breath of fresh air, to draw complex plant carpets that would mingle with difficult stories, I let myself do it. It was difficult to make this comic strip, and these moments of drawing were real breaths of fresh air.
Valentine Cuny-Le Callet
What is the most important thing that Renaldo McGirth taught you?
Perhaps the most important thing is this stability that we have built between us, in the sense that, in prison, all that is in the domain of habit are constrained habits, which crush. And suddenly we have built a happy stability together, something that feels good. He brought me that friendship, that long-term care and from that point of view he brought me as much as I could bring him. Yes, this idea of caring for the long term and not in the flamboyant actions of spectacular generosity, but really in everyday life.
Is a translation of your comic being considered?
As for the translation, now it no longer depends on me but on the interest of a foreign publisher to have the translation rights. Of course, I would like to, because it’s a story that is rooted in another country. Afterwards, I think that talking about the death penalty in France is also extremely important: the population is more than 50% in favor of its restoration. And the issue of human rights in prison is extremely sensitive. By means of the death penalty, we can evoke many questions of human dignity and I hope that it can also be used for that in France.
What has been the reception so far, especially from the public?
So far I’ve been very lucky, I’ve been pretty pampered in the media. On instagram I have nice messages from booksellers and readers. Some aggressive messages too, but from people who haven’t read me. I know this because these are messages that contain false information. So for now it’s more than good.
Around this project, I will have many meetings in bookstores. For the moment I have school meetings planned for the next Saint Etienne book festival, but I would like to extend that. And as for other projects, I want to work on my thesis and work on children’s books that I write and illustrate. Projects that would give pride of place to the marvellous, to the fable, always with a political background. Ever since I was little I’ve wanted to illustrate children’s books, so it’s time for me to do it.
Perpendicular to the sun by Valentine Cuny-Le Callet, Delcourt/Encras editions, 436 p., €34.95
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