Interview with Matz

Interview with Ace Masters

By Kevin Agot
Published: 2008-04-23

Kevin Agot: For the American audiences who may not be as familiar with your work, please tell us a little about yourself.

Matz: I live in Paris. I grew up in the West Indies. Which means that I speak Creole, and that I am homesick most of the times. Not that I don’t like Paris, though. I love it, but still. I first started out in the comic book industry in 1990 with a book published by Futuropolis. A book called Bayou Joey probably best forgotten, too. Then I published a few other things, including a novel, under my real name (Matz is a pseudonym). Then I did The Killer. The first book came out in 1998. It wasn’t an instant success, even though it attracted a lot of attention. I also worked on other projects, including the Cyclops and Headshot series, which are likely to be released in the USA soon. I also did a historical series that took place under Napoleon, with an English hero, called Shandy. It did really well in France too. Other than that, I guess I have a pretty normal life. Married. Three wonderful kids. A Vespa. You know. Typical Parisian life.

KA: I noticed that you work for Ubisoft. What do you do for this company?

Matz: I have been with Ubisoft for quite some time now. I first started in 1994, when I was hired after I submitted an idea for a video game. An old-school “point and click” adventure video game based on historical facts (this was before the high-end, graphics-intensive 3D images that are the norm nowadays). I ended up writing, directing and producing it, and it did really well in France and in several other countries. Then, I moved on to other projects. I am now responsible for all the writing for the company. I oversee the writing on most games, and my job is to try and have the best possible writing and storytelling quality for our games. Basically, I’m like a story editor. I mostly work on the Tom Clancy games, the Splinter Cell series, the Ghost Recons, Endwar and such. This is not an easy job, but it’s a fun one, in an industry in constant evolution, which makes it really interesting. It’s also great because it keeps me in touch with what the audience likes and wants. Comics, games, novels, movies, it’s all connected. Nevertheless, yes, comics are my night job.

“I figured the Killer character could be an interesting vehicle to express how tired and angry the world can make people.”
— Matz

KA: Tell us a little about the new hardcover graphic novel from Archaia Studios Press, The Killer?

Matz: The Killer is the encounter of two very different things. First, the book is constantly observing and getting into peoples’ heads. What is going on into the heads of people perpetrating crimes. Why do people make others suffer? I want to explore the reasons why people massacre others. It’s a personal exploration of the things that we see in history and in the world today: Darfur, Rwanda, the concentration camps, torture, South American death squads, etc. What goes on in these guys’ minds, killing men, women and children? To me it’s a mystery. Also, in books and movies, hit men are always portrayed as shallow characters; they are just there to move the story along or to accomplish their mission. They seem completely mindless, but there has to be something more to it. Consequently, I supposed for once, let’s get into one of these guys’ mind.

Second, it is an exploration of the world itself. I figured the Killer character could be an interesting vehicle to express how tired and angry the world can make people; Moreover, apparently, I am not the only one who feels this way. The Killer meets a vast audience ranging from teenagers to adults.

Basically, The Killer series is a story about conscience. What’s fun about it is that the Killer is a character with a really weird conscience. The only thing he has for him is that he refuses all the bollocks and fake morals people try to force on us so that they can do their own things. The Killer is an angry piece. It’s also cynical and human at the same time. Perhaps if the world had been a better place, this guy would have turned out differently. However, the world being the world, the Killer is thinking he shouldn’t worry about it. Sometimes, he makes a disturbingly good point.

KA: What was your inspiration for this type of comic book?

Matz: Originally, my intention was to write The Killer as a novel. However, the more I was getting into it, the more I was interested in the silences and the introspective thinking delivered through the voice over, as well as the historical and philosophical references. As a result, I started thinking that what was really interesting in this was to be able to show things completely different from what the main character was believing or doing – from what the reader was reading. Therefore, the comic book medium became to me a very interesting way of delivering the ambiguity of this character and his story. Also, I started believing that you very seldom have true “noir” genre in comics. It’s always mixed with fantastic, super-human, otherworldly elements. Having a true down to earth one hundred percent pure crime story became very appealing. The final step to take was to turn the novel into a graphic novel. I met with Jacamon and saw his art. I thought we could have something really good there.

KA: How did you get into the mind of a Killer? What resources did you use for research? Certain books? People?

Matz: I believe it’s part of the literary process to try and create a consistent world, consistent characters, and therefore to try and build the most believable and interesting settings and elements that all fit together to provide an entertaining and interesting experience. In this case, I chose a Killer, so I tried to put myself in his place and see the world with his eyes. I personally don’t know any killer or hit man, so this is 100% fiction and imagination. That’s what literature should be, in my mind.

Regarding all the historical facts, I am an avid reader of historical books, biographies, chronicles, journals and such. Consequently, I have put my memory to work, and I have kept on reading. A book like Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men was a reference. Also, I’ve recently read books about the genocide of Native Americans or what happened in Rwanda 15 years ago that could make you lose your sleep. I also recently read a book about the de-nazification of Germany after WW2, which shows that there really wasn’t any de-nazification. Very depressing. I read Jeremy Scahill’s book about Blackwater. These things need to be known. The Killer knows these people. He lives with them. He hates them, but there is no point looking the other way when faced with the truth. In his own way, he’s a brave man. The problem is that he is a pure product of today’s world: he has lost his own humanity in the process.

“I have to say I was very surprised and impressed with the depth and the quality of American reviews. They have been more positive, more thorough, more analytic than the Europeans, in a big way.”
— Matz

KA: Has The Killer garnered awards in Europe?

Matz: The Killer has never won anything in Europe. However, this has not stopped the book from getting a lot of attention, pretty good reviews, and a large support from the fans. Once, I was told we had won a Best Comic Book of the Year award, but apparently the prize was pulled because the book was considered politically incorrect. I don’t miss the awards; I do miss a little the money that came with it, though.

The Killer has won more awards in the USA than in Europe. Also, I have to say I was very surprised and impressed with the depth and the quality, as well as the kindness, of American reviews. They have been more positive, more thorough, more analytic than the Europeans, in a big way. To me it’s a great reward, and I feel very fortunate about that. Sometimes, I even feel these American people writing about The Killer are just too nice to us, but that’s not something I can complain about, of course. It’s interesting because the French tend to be considered as the biggest specialist when it comes to comics, but now I know that it is not quite accurate (and I’m not saying that just because I get good reviews).

KA: The book is introspective as it delves into a world not too familiar with most of the audience. How did research for this book affect you? I remember reading about CS Lewis’ comments about the time he was writing The Screwtape Letters. This book is written entirely from a demon’s perspective. He explained that it was emotionally draining to get into the mind of a demon every day and write and see things from his point of view. He underestimated the emotional and physical toll it took on him to put him into this role when writing this book. Did The Killer have a similar effect on you?

Matz: There are a few things I could say about that. Doesn’t bother me much yet though. With the series expanding, I find myself thinking about new ways to take people out a lot more often and in depth than I would have genuinely thought. I can be riding my Vespa through Paris, stop at a red light (I am one of the few Vespas who actually do that) and I’m thinking, okay, I could pull a gun, shoot this guy down in his car, ride off, and nobody could ever identify me, let alone catch me in the traffic (provided that I would have removed the licence plates which is no big deal). Also, even though the Killer is a creation, I have tried to give him his own logic, his own consistency, and at first I really didn’t like him all that much, I sometimes wonder now how much of his thoughts I actually share. Even so, maybe it’s a normal evolution, for someone slightly misanthropic as me. Maybe The Killer was just a little ahead of me. Who knows? Haven’t killed anybody yet, though.

KA: What are your European influences on your writing? What your American influences?

Matz: My writing influences are I guess my favourite writers: for the Europeans, I would start with Kafka, of course, and I always thought The Killer had something to do with The Trial, with that man desperately trying to make sense out of life and what is happening to him – with no luck, because nothing makes sense in this world. Only, my Killer is not only a victim, like Joseph K. He’d rather kill than be killed. I’m a big fan of classic German literature, Kleist, Chamisso, all these guys. French literature is very rich too and very interesting when it comes to dark characters. Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert, Proust. All fascinating. Of course, Proust and comics don’t mix too well, and I’m not sure the lineage with The Killer is too obvious.

My American influences that have an impact on my writing? I would start with Jim Thompson. Everything he wrote really impressed me and stayed with me always. Actually, my next book will be an adaptation of his novel Savage Night into a graphic novel. It’s such an impressive work. No one has written about despair and the darkness of human nature like him. His autobiography is also an unforgettable piece. Chandler, Hammett, Ross McDonald, Westlake, Elroy, James Lee Burke, are my personal favourite when it comes to crime literature. Kinky Friedman always makes me laugh, too. But I have many South American influences, with guys like Juan Carlos Onetti, Paco Taibo, Ibarguengotia, Garcia Marquez, Carpentier, Borges, Ramos, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, all these guys are amazing writers I love spending time with. They bring something really unique to our old European/American mould. But of course, if you mean US writers, I always go back to Herman Melville. I always remember that he only sold 500 copies of Moby Dick in his lifetime. Probably, one of the best 5 books ever written, and nobody knew it…

“I always thought The Killer had something to do with Kafka’s The Trial, with that man desperately trying to make sense out of life and what is happening to him — with no luck.”
— Matz

KA: We hear so much about how various societies view comic books as a generally acceptable and mature medium. In America, comic books aren’t as widely accepted in American culture as say in Japan or throughout Europe where you can find people reading comics on buses, subways, etc. It seems that most people view comic books as an art form relegated to children or the film industry’s summer hit special. However, comics in other parts of the world are looked upon with more respect. This is just my general observation as I’ve only viewed this from a distance. Do you find this to be true in Europe? In such case, why?

Matz: In France (I can’t really speak for our neighbours), it is true. There is respect for these books and those who make it. People of all ages buy comic books or graphic novel, which we all call bandes dessinées, which makes it easier. We have lots of dedicated bookshops in France. If ever in Paris, I’m sure you’d be quite impressed with the number of bookshop that only sell comic books. Moreover, they are always packed. As a result, people writing them and drawing them and people reading them are not necessarily looked down upon and considered retarded. Besides, these people probably read novels and newspapers as well. They are not freaks (at least in a bad way). When I go to signings, I see men, women, teenagers and grand mothers buying for their grandsons (at least that’s what they say)…all kinds of people.

KA: Do you have any influences in the comic book medium in the US and in Europe?

Matz: My main influence and reference in comics are really European. I always was a very big fan of Franquin, the one and only true real master of the medium in my opinion, and Sergio Toppi does the most wonderful art I have ever seen. I never get tired of his books. I don’t know if they are translated for the US public, but believe me, they should. I really like a lot of Italians. Pratt, of course, Bacilieri, a good friend of mine, who I think is great and with whom I hope I’ll work some day soon on a pretty sexy project. And when I say sexy, I mean with sex in it – he draws women like no other. In the USA, I was of course always very impressed with Frank Miller’s Sin City. The writing in there, the dialogue, is very amazing. Miller’s art has a lot of energy, too. Therefore, yes, he’s a major reference. I hope I’ll meet him some day: he’s a master! Geoff Darrow is a great artist too. Eduardo Risso is a lot of fun to read. I spent a lot of time as a kid reading Giraud, Palacios, Morris, and Greg… Maybe these guys aren’t famous in the US, but they are big in France!

KA: Do you find that there are different storytelling sensibilities in US and Europe? For example, the most popular comics in the United States are from the superhero genre. Other genres are not as successful here.

Matz: Yes, this could be the main difference. In France you have all kinds of comic books. You have thrillers, mystery, love stories, autobiographies or everyday life kind of stories (these two last genres usually very boring to me, they look a lot like a French film as opposed to a nicely made American one, if you see what I mean). You have sci-fi, war, lots of interesting comedies; you name it, all sorts of books. The variety of genres is something which is quite attractive. It’s mainly because comic books or graphic novels are seen as a medium in itself. It’s not in comparison to the others; it’s something that has its own audience. A very dedicated audience too. You see people reading graphic novels on the subway or on trains; there is no shame about that. Maybe that’s the difference.

KA: Could you tell us a little about your creative process with Luc Jacamon? He beautifully illustrates all the subtle nuances of emotion you try to capture in both the introspective and violent moments of the Killer’s life. Was this difficult or easy? How do you communicate with Luc what you want on a certain page or panel?

Matz: We have a pretty simple and steady process. I write a full script, complete with a breakdown page-by-page, with a description of every single panel, with its size and sometimes even to its colour tone. The entire dialogue, everything. Then I email it to him, and he does whatever the hell he wants to do, provided that he respects the pace of each page and the amount of elements each page contains. To me, the comic book writer’s job is all about the pace of the book. Keeping it tight, keeping it dense enough. Not overwhelming the reader, but not boring him to death, either. That’s why I try to do a lot of cuts forward. I expect the reader to be focused and smart. Always aim for the best narrative style and experience for the reader!

KA: Do you find writing a book or writing a comic book are more rewarding experience? I could be wrong but it seems that given the number of talented people who are involved in the creation of a comic book, this would be more rewarding, at least from a creative standpoint.

Matz: There isn’t that much difference to me. Novels and graphic novels have a huge superiority in comparison to writing for TV or games or movies: what you write is actually what ends up on the page. In that sense, it’s as rewarding. A graphic novel is of course less work than a novel, so it’s not quite the same thing. Both are fun, though. I would hate to choose a “favourite.”

KA: How did you team up with the awesomely talented, Luc Jacamon?

Matz: We met through a common friend. He seemed eager to start working on a graphic novel and I had The Killer script pretty much ready. So he did a test, it was pretty much a perfect style for this story, so we just started working. We then submitted The Killer to a few publishers who turned us down, but the third, which was Casterman, told us they loved it.

KA: How did you get The Killer published for an American publisher? (By the way, I really hope to see more of your work as well as other European imports).

Matz: Archaia picked up The Killer from a French bookshelf. Archaia’s boss, Aki, told me that his brother made a short list of French comic books that he liked, during a trip to Paris. Then Aki and Mark Smylie, the other head at Archaia, liked The Killer and published it. They are great guys, they did an amazing job, and we were very fortunate they were interested in our work and got involved.

KA: You hinted at some future projects you have in mind, do you have any more comic book projects coming out in the near future? Can you tell us about them?

Matz: Well, for the American readers, I hope to see two other series of mine published, one called Cyclops, also drawn by Jacamon, which Warner Bros has picked up for a film, and another one called Du Plomb Dans La Tête, drawn by Colin Wilson, with whom the American readers are probably familiar, as he worked on Point Blank and is now working on a Star Wars series. For France, I am currently working on The Killer #7 and Cyclops #3.

KA: I noticed on pages 95-97 in the hard cover graphic novel a sequence of panels where there is a dialogue between the nameless Killer and his boss interspersed with images of the crocodile. The narrative is unique in that while the dialogue continues, the reader is trying to figure out why the panels of the crocodile were inserted in between. We finally see the “resolution” in page 97 as the crocodile approaches the slain victim.

I love the use of how some apparently disparate panels’ presence and purpose are revealed by a splash page that reveals the two parallel events. This is a great storytelling technique used in the book! What other storytelling techniques did you implement in the series?

Matz: Thank you for the kind words. The croc is something like a motto for the Killer. He’s something like his iconic reference for how to behave in life. It drives his reflections about life. In that sequence, the animal is both in his mind, and in life . He’s left the guy for dead in a swamp, and a real croc is about to have a little snack. The other technique I can think of is fast-forwarding wherever possible, and preferably at the turn of a page, which unsettles the reader. It is matched by the fact that I always try to end the bottom of the page on the right with something that makes you feel compelled to turn the page. It’s a great challenge! I hope it’s not too obvious. Basically, I’m trying to make this a page-turner – literally! But I need to keep it seamless and fresh, otherwise it could get a little tiring. Let me know if it does.

KA: I want to thank Matz for taking the time out of his busy work schedule and conducting this interview for CCdC.