Cultures Maison, the annual festival for alternative comic strips and illustration, is again wreaking havoc in Sint-Gillis/Saint-Gilles. With a book fair at which more than fifty national and international publishers are touting their crazy wares, and five state-of-the-art exhibitions, including a focus on the unsurpassed Bries.
Things can happen fast: Ria Schulpen came to the sales fair at Cultures Maison for the first time last year, and this year she and her publishing house Bries are the guests of honour at the sympathetic annual festival for alternative comic strips and illustration. “I was very surprised when they invited us,” she modestly tells us when we visit her at The Bries Space, the creative playground cum comics bookstore in Borgerhout where Stephane De Groef just happened to be showing the results of his graphic road trip You Don’t Own the Road. And perhaps it is precisely that place in the lee that makes Bries such a high-quality and peerlessly original player in the alternative comic strip scene. “It’s true that different criteria apply at other, bigger publishing houses. The marketability of a book, the return on investment, a totally different attitude towards what a graphic story is… If you really want to make money, this is not the profession you choose, or at least you shouldn’t do it in this way. But I can’t help it. I like being close to the creators; I’m attached to the presentation of their work. And I love my freedom. I don’t think I could go and work as an imprinter for a big publisher, unless I was incredibly hard up. [Laughs] You can still discover new artists there, but you lose a great deal. Publishing comic strips means so much more to me.”
What exactly? At root it is perhaps no more than a hobby that got out of hand. What started as a comic strip library in the centre of Antwerp – to compensate for the empty comics shelf in the public library –, and led to an enthusiastic involvement with Verdomd Goed Tijdschrift (“Damn Good Magazine”), eventually, 15 years ago, resulted in an actual publishing company. “I had a lot of contact with comic book artists in those days, and often went to fairs to sell books. The small press world was a complete revelation to me. Gradually, I felt the need to start publishing books myself. The first Bries publication appeared in 1999: the anthology Wind. A short time later, the first real books were published: Brain Songs by Uli Oesterle and The Man on the Moon by Ulf K. They were still in English and in black and white. Starting with Anke Feuchtenberger’s W the Whore, I started investing more care in the presentation, types of paper, and finish.”
In the meantime, Bries has become a smart-looking teenager that increasingly lets its own, very recognisable voice be heard. “Of course it helps when there is only one person who makes all the decisions. [Laughs] Especially when taste and aesthetics are the priorities when choices need to be made. It ensures that, however different the tone or appearance of the books might be, there is always a common factor.” A group of exceptional figures inhabit that typical Bries universe at the moment. In Wide Vercnocke, the publisher has an energetic visual poet in sloth skin in its ranks, in Olivier Schrauwen a young god with an extremely precious talent.
In Dieter vdo – the creator of our grand cover – it has a whimsical explorer of intertextual and graphic-narrative possibilities, and in Brecht Vandenbroucke the only bearded man who can make Marina Abramovic’s eyes pop out of their sockets in a staring contest. In the wordless White Cube by the latter artist, a restless and mischievous pair of baldies plunges headfirst through a wall between two doors marked “art” and “comix”. Ria Schulpen: “Sure, you could say that that drawing is applicable to Bries. Especially over the last few years, the focus has increasingly shifted to the crossroads between comics, illustration, and drawing. The composite whole as an artistic object, with content and a story that match the visual quality of the work. For me, a book has to be worth printing. There has to be a certain urgency to the publication. If I think all these things match up, then I can really go for a project.”
Breaking new ground
“Yes, I do think I can be proud of what I have achieved,” Ria Schulpen diffidently admits. “But that is not what motivates me. My aim is to make good books and have people read them. Over the years, my selection criteria have become stricter and Bries’s range has become more limited. But that was a necessary sacrifice to be able to focus on quality. If you used to have the super mainstream stuff on one end, what we call the washing powder comics, and extreme experimentation on the other end, then Bries occupied the space right in between. These last few years the catalogue has moved a bit further from the mainstream, while the distance to experimentation has remained the same.”
It proves to be a sunny spot: big international names like Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, and Glénat have all come to take advantage of the publisher’s fertile breeding ground. “Oh, you know Olivier Schrauwen (My Boy), Brecht Vandenbroucke, and Pieter De Poortere (Dickie) could undoubtedly have made it on their own too. What matters is that you take your readers seriously and challenge them. I like a story to force me to stay awake to keep up; for something to be incredibly intriguing without being able to put my finger on it, for a lot of things to remain unresolved so you can discover new things every time you reread it. That’s what I’m looking for: new things, new forms of narration, new projects to get enthusiastic about.” Not just another brick in the wall.
BRIES: 12/9, 18 > 22.00, 13 & 14/9, 13 > 22.00, 16 > 21/9, 13 > 16.30, Maison des Cultures
CULTURES MAISON • 12/9, 18 > 22.00, 13 & 14/9, 13 > 22.00, Huis van Culturen Sint-Gillis/Maison des Cultures de Saint-Gilles, Belgradostraat 120 rue de Belgrade, Sint-Gillis/Saint-Gilles, www.culturesmaison.be