We asked Mathieu Bablet, the creator of the critically acclaimed, award-winning SHANGRI-LA and CARBON & SILICON (which are both available for pre-order NOW at www.carbon-and-silicon.com) 20 questions about his illustrious career so far…
1) Did you always dream of being a graphic novelist? When did you first become interested in comics?
As far as I can remember, being a comic artist was my dream job (along with astronaut, but let face it, it is far easier to be a comic artist than an astronaut.) Because my parents read a lot of European comics themselves, and also American comics and manga. I was lucky to discover this vast world very young.
2) What sort of education did you pursue? How did you get your first professional introduction to the industry?
Apart from reading a lot of comics since my childhood, I decided as soon as I graduated from High school to pursue art school. I was drawing since I was able to handle a pen, but I needed some academic courses if I wanted to improve what I was able to do.
So I spent 3 years learning as much as I could in comics, illustration, animation, and graphic design. Then once graduated, I immediately started to write my first story, and asked the best French publisher (in my opinion) if he was interested in what I wanted to draw.
3) Your first full-length project was THE BEAUTIFUL DEATH (“La Belle Mort”) a science fiction tale about a world overrun by giant insects. What was the inspiration for that story? Carpenter? Miyazaki, perhaps?
When I wrote The Beautiful Death, I wanted to pay homage to John Carpenter and George Romero. I love B movies, but I especially love the work of Carpenter and Romero who use fantastic stories to talk about more complex themes, such as racism, consumerism, politics, etc… There is such a great balance between entertainment and intelligence with those two creators!
The Beautiful Death is about giant insects, yes. But more than that, it is about the humans struggling to find a good reason to live during an apocalypse.
4) How long did that first project take you to complete? How did it find its way to Ankama (the original publisher)?
During my art school, I discovered Mutafukaz, and I knew it was the kind of book I wanted to do. Back in time, there were few graphic novels in France. With Mutafukaz, I realized I could make comics as I wanted, with however many pages I wanted, etc… So clearly Ankama and Label 619 was my first wish to The Beautiful Death.
The book took me more than two years to complete. It was my first professional work, and it was very hard to create so many pages!
5) Your next project was ADRASTEE, a two-book fantasy series that mixes mythologies from various cultures, including Greece, India, and Asia. What was the inspiration for this project?
I always traveled a lot. Foreign countries and cultures are a big part of my inspiration, and it was obvious at some point I would make a story about the feeling of wandering through beautiful landscapes. And because there is always a movie behind my desire to create a story, I am a big fan of Ray Harryhausen’s work on Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts. Putting my story about immortality in an ancient Greek context would be quite relevant.
6) Next came SHANGRI-LA, a return to science fiction, but with the scope of a sweeping space opera, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. What was the inspiration for this project?
I think Science fiction is my favorite genre. For my third book, I felt I was experienced enough to write something as ambitious as the classical stories I always loved: 2001 of course, but also 1984, Brave New World, Solaris, Sunshine, etc… I wanted both the space opera side of science fiction and the political side too. Because science fiction is the best genre when you decide to question your present through the mirror of the future.
7) SHANGRI-LA was a widely celebrated achievement, winning numerous awards and recognition. How did that success change your life or your work? Did it make the next project easier or more difficult?
More difficult, with no doubt!!! A critical success, but more so the recognition of your peers, is everything an artist can dream of. After that remains one big problem: what’s next? People are now waiting to see if you were lucky with this book, or if you can make another story as good as this one.
So it was a lot of stress, I had a 6 month of white-page syndrome before assembling some ideas to try my best to create a better story than Shangri-la.
8) After SHANGRI-LA, you buried yourself in your next large project, CARBON & SILICON. What was your goal with this project? What was the initial inspiration and what did you want to achieve this time that you hadn’t yet with SHANGRI-LA?
I couldn’t put every theme I wanted in Shangri-la. There were a lot of other aspects of science fiction I wanted to explore. Artificial Intelligence and robotics are such an important part of our life today. I couldn’t make a Sci-Fi story without talking about it, and how it comes along with a lot of other questions we have to consider such as climate change, immigration, and political disorder. I wanted Carbon & Silicon to be the reflection of everything that concerns the human race in the 2020s.
Shangri-la was also quite radical in its political message. But between my first script for Shangri-la in 2014 and the script for Carbon in 2017, I changed. I didn’t want to make the same kind of science fiction. There was more to explore with the relationship between people than the relationship between characters and society. Carbon & Silicon would be character-driven.
9) Although the central characters in CARBON & SILICON are artificial constructs (androids), it is pointed out quite interestingly that humans are ourselves little more than organic constructs: tissue instead of synthetic material, cells instead of circuits, gray matter instead of memory chips, etc. Even emotions can be seen as the product of infinitesimal stimuli and sensory input. The line between “life” and “simulation” boils down to the complexity of coded behavior — some might call that tipping point “the soul”. What would you call it? Do you believe that it is possible, with our exponentially evolving technology, we will create “artificial sentience” someday, or will mankind’s hubris get in the way?
That is the entire point of the story!
I think we are really far from creating anything artificial that could be called “conscious.” It is so complex, so far beyond the data we are feeding our A.I… I am not sure we will see that “artificial sentience” someday. But it helps us realize that some parts of us are indeed like a machine, and some parts are something else.
10) CARBON & SILICON shares many qualities and themes as SHANGRI-LA but while the latter is set in the confines of outer space, CARBON & SILICON is set in recognizable, terrestrial locations here on Earth. The characters visit many real locations which you present through several decades and centuries into the future. I understand you like to travel — how many of these locations did you actually visit for reference?
I chose the location in the list of the countries I visited because I wanted to be sure I could illustrate those countries with the most accuracy and small details I could.
India, Japan, South America, China, Australia, etc were parts of Earth I visited.
It was very important to me to avoid science fiction centered on a western point of view. The world is changing for everybody, and at some level, we will all face the same kind of problems.
11) The future that you present in CARBON & SILICON isn’t very pretty. Do you believe we are on a downhill slide towards dystopia, or is this merely a cautionary tale that you present with more optimism?
I think this dystopian world was announced by the Meadows Report (The Limits to Growth) in the 70s. To me, this dystopian world is pretty realistic, according to what specialists are telling us about our future.
But I didn’t want to fall into an all-pessimistic point of view. By showing the world as it changed, readers can see that we are not at the edge of a world’s end, but at the beginning of something different. And that is, according to me, a more optimistic message than what my story seems to tell.
12) Some people might classify CARBON & SILICON (and to slightly lesser degrees SHANGRI-LA and A BEAUTIFUL DEATH) as “cyberpunk”. Is that a genre that you follow as a fan or is it merely a coincidental set of common elements?
Even if it is a genre where the word “punk” is hardly visible today, it is a genre I particularly like.
13) Your science fiction stories are filled with poignant social observations that are relevant today: consumerism, racism, animal abuse, corporate politics, medical ethics, transhumanism… so many thought-provoking issues, yet the book doesn’t feel “political.” This is something that the great science fiction authors are known for: Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, even Gene Roddenberry. Is social commentary a goal when developing story ideas, or do the ideas give birth to that commentary as the story develops?
It is hard to tell what comes first. As a storyteller, I need to feel my stories can be somehow useful to people. Art doesn’t have to be useful of course, but I personally need that as I am first a citizen struggling with the same questions as everybody else.
There are political concerns everywhere nowadays. Reasons to be angry. I have to put all of this in my stories, it is part of my everyday life.
But themes are not what makes a good story. Never. So I focus on trying to make great characters, emotions, tension. That is what will make the story possibly great.
14) Like ADRASTEE, CARBON & SILICON hints at the concept of immortality and the value of experience, memory, and purpose in the face of ultimate mortality. Does this topic have personal significance to you?
Memory is something that obsesses me. Memories that slowly disappear. They make us who we are. They define us as a society. They make us repeat the same mistakes, etc… It comes with the concept of mortality, and how you deal with it, what you will do during your life. I think those two themes are the ones that define who I am the most. So you can see them at various intensities in all my books!
15) While the stories were created independently and stand on their own merit, it is conceivable that both SHANGRI-LA and CARBON & SILICON exist in the same universal timeline, separated by many millennia. (This is similar to how many fans have connected Blade Runner to the Alien universe.) Do you ever intend for your stories to exist within the same universe?
I don’t try to connect them all, no. When I finish a comic, it was so much work that my first goal is to dive into another world, another story, and never come back to the last one!
But I think Shangri-la and Carbon are indeed connected. I see the two books as different sides of the same coin. I put everything I needed to share from my reflection about the future in those two books, and while Shangri-la explicitly criticizes our society without showing any optimistic solution, Carbon tries to find a few answers to create a new society, a better world.
16) You have become very well known for filling your stories with large vistas, complex architecture, and sweeping set designs. The level of detail and spatial depth is consistently astounding. What is it about drawing sets that you love so much? How does it compare to drawing the more intimate, character-based panels and pages?
To me, creating complex landscapes and architecture allows the reader to dive into your world more easily. And there are so many things you can tell with just locations!
It is part of the pace I want to create in the book. I Invite the reader to spend time observing where the characters are evolving. Characters for the emotions, landscapes for the immersion.
17) What is your creative process? Do you start with a complete script, or do you prefer to develop the storyboards from a loose outline and let the dialogue and characters grow organically?
I am also kind of an architect with the script! I need everything to be at the right place, everything planned before I begin to draw. On so many pages, I think it is important to know where you go, to control the pace, the narration from beginning to end.
18) What tools do you prefer? Pencil and ink on board? Traditional colors or digital?
I keep working traditionally for the drawing. Pencil, ink, I feel the world I am creating on board better. But let’s be honest, for color, digital is so much easier than traditional! You can create a lot of tests and keep modifying your colors until the very end.
19) Are you enjoying a break with the success of CARBON & SILICON or have you already started your next project? Can you tell us anything about what you will do next?
I enjoyed a little break, yes. Carbon was four years of hard work; it is hard to start a project like that over again. And I didn’t want to rush the next story. Having time to make the best script I can is what success has brought me.
Now I am working on a third science fiction story…? After Shangri-la and Carbon, I really wanted to show a world after all the problems happened. What would it look like? How do you build a new society?
I want to create a brand-new world with its own logic, with big inspiration from Mad Max, Death Stranding, and Nausicaa (by Miyazaki)!
20) Are there any special projects you dream of creating someday?
As a kid educated with American comic books from the 70s from my mother’s bookcase, I would dream to work on superhero stories someday. Just for the pleasure of high-fiving the 10-year-old me spending his time reading and saying to him: “You did it!”