The Inspiration for Cartoon Life: Where do stories come from?
The Cartoon Life and Loves of a Stupid Man is narrated by Philippe Favrier, artist manqué and owner-manager of an independent comics bookshop in Geneva. Philippe is married to renowned cardiosurgeon Marilyne. Their relationship works because they balance each other’s fragilities: she helps him control his delusions, and he accommodates her self-harm, horror of mirrors and odd kleptomania. This balance is upended when an accidental repositioning of mirrors shows Philippe his own profile; he is profoundly disturbed to see that it belongs to another – but who? At the same time, he becomes certain that Marilyne is having an affair – but with whom? To make sense of life, Philippe must interrogate his memory, which he experiences as if it were a physical graphic novel.
So what inspired all that? Truthfully, it’s difficult to answer this kind of question, because I don’t completely understand where stories come from. For me, a story is kicked off when I produce a few words which carry a particular ‘feel’, and that feel draws me on; I want more of it, so I have to write more of it. Fundamentally, it is a selfish exercise. But I don’t know where such word-nuggets come from or how they are first unearthed. Anyway, Cartoon Life, came from a nugget which had the feel of vivid, hallucinatory colour, of fragile optimism, of eccentricity and madness. Something about its gaudiness suggested the world of comics; from there, a francophone setting was almost inevitable (historically, sequential art has had a more elevated position among francophones than anglophones; the French call it the Ninth Art, which implicitly puts graphic novels on the same level as music and sculpture). It was natural to pick Geneva as the precise setting, since I’d lived there and knew it well; I don’t think I’d be comfortable using a setting unfamiliar to me. While in Geneva I’d improved my French by reading French-language comics, and this material definitely fed into Cartoon Life. Also, I’d devoured comics as a child, so that helped too.
As the nugget grew into Cartoon Life and took on accretions of plot and character, it became clear that it wanted to have a strong theme of psychological dysfunction. Indeed, it demanded that all the main characters had significant personality quirks and fragilities. That’s okay when describing what those traits look like from the outside – for example, Marilyne’s self-harm and horror of mirrors, Clooney’s narcissism, Laurence’s raging obsessions – but how to describe what the inner state might feel like for Philippe, the story’s suffering, unstable narrator? With no history of mental illness, how could I make his narration feel credible? True, Philippe’s disorder is never specified, and in principle one might portray unspecified, fictional disorders however one wishes – but this seemed like a cop-out. Fortunately, I found a number of first-person accounts of various paranoid/delusional disorders, and I read them all. Philippe’s narration of his sad and sometimes terrifying world is inspired partly by these accounts and partly by exaggerating the fears and weaknesses from which we all suffer – after all, ‘normality’ is partly a sociocultural construct dependent on imposed norms of time and place. (Similarly, ‘well’ and ‘unwell’ are often on a spectrum, and the point at which one becomes the other may be difficult to pin down!)
Regarding characterisation, I suspect that most fictional folk are mosaics comprised of trait-tesserae; in each character, some traits come from real-life personalities — but almost always in modified form — and some are entirely imaginary. That’s certainly the case in Cartoon Life. For example, some aspects of Marilyne were inspired by a doctor I once knew whose strictly religious upbringing had discouraged the use of mirrors; Laurence was suggested by a significantly unwell, care-in-the-community individual who I often saw around and about in a city where I once lived; and Yves, the obsessive creator of 3D-printed grotesques who causes Philippe such problems, has superficial similarities to people I knew in the pharmaceutical industry. But by far the greater part of each character emerged from the needs of the story itself. In other words, although the story grew these individuals, in part, from germs provided by real life, it grew them into forms dictated by the story’s needs — forms which have no relation to real life. Nobody would recognise the real-life germs in these fictional characters.
In conclusion, my experience of the writing process and the inspiration thereof is that: (i) the author is not in control of the story’s genesis, which remains a mystery; (ii) settings should be based on places of which the author has direct personal experience; and (iii) while character creation often draws on trivial aspects of real-life people (such that several real people may contribute in a tiny way to each fictional character), the final form of each character is overwhelmingly driven by the specific needs of the story.
(c) Marc Joan
About The Cartoon Life and Loves of a Stupid Man:
As an independent comic book store owner and the heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, Philippe Favrier lives a life that straddles the real world and the realm of fiction. Struggling with mental illness, Philippe relies on his wife, Marilyne – a successful surgeon with her own haunting secrets – and a groundbreaking drug his father developed. Bound by their shared pain, they navigate their haunted lives, forever shadowed by the heart-rending loss of their baby, Antoine.
Their fragile world begins to crumble when Philippe catches a disturbing glimpse of an unfamiliar profile in the mirror. And his uneasiness is further fueled by an anonymous comic strip that arrives at his store, featuring a character bearing an eerie resemblance to him.
Is Marilyne hiding an affair? Is she connected to the comic strip that’s tormenting him? As he probes deeper, Philippe is drawn into a web of deception, where the lines between reality and imagination blur – until his investigations into Marilyne and the malicious comic artist at last reveal the tragic truth.
THE CARTOON LIFE AND LOVES OF A STUPID MAN by Marc Joan (Deixis Press) is out now.