Sometimes we underestimate how important passion can be to take us further and to achieve our goals. We can take the case of French comic book writer and artist Chris Malgrain: all he ever wanted was to work with comics and he has not only achieved that, but he is now the creator of his own properties and his own company, Oniric Comics Group.
Chris and I have spoken multiple times over the last few months and it was great to do this interview where we discussed multiple topics, such as his influences, his views on the industry and what drives him as an artist and as a creator. It’s no secret that the industry is going through a strong case of upheaval, but it’s people like Chris that reminds us of how important the concept of the hero is and how much comics matter, so I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
Kevin Tanza: "Thank you for this opportunity, Chris. It’s a pleasure. I would start from the beginning: How did you discover comic books in your life and when was the point where you decided that you wanted to work in this industry?"
Chris Malgrain: "Hi Kevin, thanks for your interest. I discovered American superhero comics at age 9 in my home country, France. I was reading French and Italian adventure comics back then and was intrigued by all the colorful supermen I saw on the covers of the superhero comics at newsstands. One day in April, 1980, I decided to buy one of those comics at last: Nova 27.
The French adaptations contained three or four different series, and in that comic were featured Spectacular Spider-Man, an episode of the Lee & Kirby Silver Surfer graphic novel, and Nova. I immediately fell in love with superheroes in general and the gigantic city in which their adventures took place: New York. I must mention I always knew I wanted to draw comics in my life. When I was at kindergarten, I told all my friends that I was a published comicbook artist and they believed me until their parents told them it was not possible and my popularity went down. Lol. I drew my first comics in school copybooks and imagined they were real comics and when I fell in love with superheroes and the USA, I decided to learn English and to go to the US to draw comics one day. I was to start learning English at school the following year and my determination made it easy. After high school I was not yet ready to be a professional artist and I went to the University to study more English and also Anglo-saxon literature and civilization. A few years later, I became an English teacher and kept drawing in parallel until I was hired by a French publisher and started my artistic career. But my American Dream was of course still on my mind. One of the editors of that French publisher was Jean-Marc Lofficier, who worked with Marvel, DC, and Moebius. He knew my dream was to be published in English and one day, he emailed me to say that IBooks, the comics company run by the late Byron Preiss, was looking for artists and I should apply. I emailed them samples and got an immediate response from editor Steven A. Roman, who hired me on a sci-fi comic based on an Asimov story. Something I must mention now: I’m a huge Silver & Bronze Age fan, and back then, in the early 2000s, I was mostly reading Marvel Masterworks and Stan Lee was my absolute idol. I dreamed of meeting him and I went to San Diego Comic Con in 2002 to attend his signing session, but I missed it. I enjoyed San Diego Comic Con but basically, I had crossed the ocean to meet one person and failed to do it. Now, to come back to IBooks, the Asimov project was a slow moving project, and this lead to it's cancellation. A problem of rights, I suppose. I was crushed and thought there was a curse on me that wold prevent me from fulfilling my dream. But three months later, Steven and Byron got back to me and offered me a new project: Alexa, a graphic novel based on Riftworld, the novel trilogy of...Stan Lee! Stan himself was to be the editor of that new comic. You can imagine how elated I was. I learned that what appears as failure in the present may in fact pave the way for future success and when I have problems I think of this lesson. The crazy thing is that two years after failing to meet Stan Lee, I went to SDCC again and this time not only met him but signed the preview of Alexa with him! That blew my mind! After the show, I talked to him, with nobody around, and told him I owed everything to him and his co-creations: my dream, my job as a teacher, my passion for English and the USA, everything. I thanked him for all that. He listened to me and said "Thank You". That moment was the most meaningful moment in my life so far. I came back to France and got an offer from PIF, the best-selling comics mag in the country, and co-created a sci-fi series for them. I worked on that series for four years, and that led to other French assignments, but when I turned 40, I decided to now devote my life to my true dream: US comics. My series Les Apatrides was adapted by Arcana Comics as The Rovers, and I founded Oniric Comics, to create our own superheroes."
The Astro-Dome issue #1 by Oniric Comics Group
"What is Oniric Comics Group, in a nutshell?"
"A small publisher devoted to trying to recapture the magic of the comics that filled my childhood and adolescence with wonder. I say “trying” because it’s no easy task, of course. But my readers say they do get 1970s-80s Marvel & DC vibes from my comics, and that makes me very happy. The term “oldshool” is sometimes used pejoratively, but I fully embrace it. I’ve reached the age when I want to be 100% me and don’t care what people may think of my endeavor. I don’t care about haters and am only concerned with sharing positive energy with people. When I get messages from readers who say my work brings back fond memories to them, or inspires them or even touches them because they recognize themselves in some of my heroes, I feel a kind of spiritual joy that gives meaning to what I do. It’s a two-way gift, a real exchange."
"For those readers that might not be familiar with the comic book industry in France, what can you tell us about the experience of working there in this particular profession?"
"Well, I was never really at ease in that industry, because I don’t like what is called “franco-belgian” comics. You know, the 48-page hardcovers that are considered a true art form. I always preferred the cheap Italian, French and American comics sold at newsstands. Fans of the former usually despise the latter. There’s an elitist spirit in Franco-Belgian “albums” that I have never liked. And above all, when I was a kid, I didn’t like them because I found the faces and movements stiff and expressionless, contrary to all the explosive cheap comics.
French albums contain too many panels per page and are too wordy for my taste. Reading them requires an effort and sadly, today’s American superhero comics have gone the French way, for realism’s sake. The heroes’ faces are often as inexpressive and without impact lines, speed lines and everything that made US comics unique and larger than life, they have become dull and boring. Add to that dark colors that make them unreadable without a strong effort, and you understand why I do retro stuff. Of course, there are exceptions, some modern superhero comics are readable and good, but the spirit that guides the vast majority of them is very bad in my view."
The Astro-Dome issue #1 by Oniric Comics Group
"One of the most interesting aspects of your career is that you started in France and then you decided to go to the United States. Was it complicated to adapt to this new lifestyle and to the industry on this side of the pond, considering there is much more demand for comic book professionals in North America?"
"Well, I often go to the US but I still live in France, because as I told you I’m a teacher and so is my wife. We have a 10-year-old daughter. It would be difficult to change jobs in the US, and being a full-time artist is not a secure job, especially when you want to create your own stories. The Internet has made working with American publishers very easy, as you can stay home and email your pages. But even if I’m in France, I consider my own comics as American, there’s nothing French in them and I want my work to be part of American culture. All the more so as I’m very Americanized. I love my country, but my culture (novels, comics, music, movies) is mostly American. Some say the American Dream is dead, but I don’t think so. The US is still as magical to me as it ever was and I enjoy staying there when I can. Life in the US is not difficult at all for me. New York City was my dream as a kid, it’s a fantastic city but I prefer California and its palm trees. I love LA, and San Diego too. OK, there’s that mega con there, but the city itself is wonderful."
"I have to say, on a personal note, given what I have talked with you about outside this interview, is that you have a genuine and sincere passion for comic books. I personally say that a lot of creators have lost that passion these days. What do you think about it?"
"It’s hard to know how creators feel. I guess that loss of passion is more common for Marvel and DC artists, because they are under pressure and are not free to do what they want. And many of them are not happy with the characters’ evolution and regret the 80s. I know and have met a lot of Big artists, and they’re usually not completely happy with their lot. But some are, mostly the younger guys.
In Indie comics, on the contrary, there’s a lot of passion. We are not driven by money first, but by a true love of the medium. My friend Dan Sehn, for instance, has an incredible output with his company Argo. I really admire him. The best superhero comics being done, where the passion is obvious, are all indie to me. I will cite my three favorites: Sitcomics’ The Blue Baron, Gallant Comics’ John Aman, Amazing Man and Atomic Pulp’s Rex Dexter of Mars."
The Formidables issue #3 by Oniric Comics Group
"What is your take on the industry’s current state, considering the sales numbers and the quality of the stories?"
"The end of comics has been predicted several times, and they’ve always survived, so I don’t want to be apocalyptic. We all know the main factors for this decline: comics are mostly sold in comic shops and not everywhere, as they used to be. Not everyone has a comic shop nearby. The prices are higher and higher. Young people prefer technological leisure. And of course, the evolution of our favorite heroes, of the stories and art, has made a huge number of people quit the hobby. As I said above, the realism policy the Big Two have been following and the dark colors have destroyed what made American superheroes unique. I will always prefer dynamic and explosive pages from the 70s with their slight anatomy and perspective flaws to the perfect but dull pages put out by today’s hot talents.
Regarding the stories, like many I think they are poor, but they have their fans so it’s a bit subjective, but the major issue to me is that today’s superheroes are no longer superheroes. Comics, like movies, are a reflection of our times, which are ultra-individualistic and cynical. Today, a guy who discovers he has super powers won’t say: “These powers have been given to me for a reason, I must use them to defend the weak and the oppressed!” because that sounds corny and unrealistic. So you get series with super-folks appearing on reality TV or using their powers for money. The heroes are no longer good, but half-psychotic if not completely. OK, there are exceptions, I know, but on the whole, yesterday’s “pure” heroes are looked down upon because they are seen as too Christian. Now don’t get me wrong, I have some spiritual principles but I am not religious and I don’t approve of organized religion. But the altruistic aspect of superheroes is part of their essence. I see superheroes as metaphors and symbols of our inner strength and respect of oneself and others. Superheroes are inspirational and can help you change your life. Through the old comics from the 60's and 70's, you could sympathize with Peter Parker and learn self-respect and not to give up, to go on fighting for a better life. The Thing helped you realize that people shouldn’t be judged by their appearance, etc. I remember reading an article in the 80's about a blind kid who read Daredevil in braille and whose self-esteem and confidence got better thanks to DD. This is what superheroes are to me. They must be useful in our lives, and show us our potential. Wolverine under Byrne was inspirational too, because he repressed the natural violence he felt inside him. He was a darker hero, but he fought for positive things despite his tormented nature. He was useful and then they ruined him by making him a killing machine.
Many superheroes have become killers. As said before, this reflects our times. Western citizens are blasé, we have comfort and we’ve had no wars on our soils in many decades, so we indulge in our individual fantasies. I’m a normal person, you know, I’m not better than anybody else, so I need inspirational heroes. If life in the west became much more difficult owing to major catastrophes, I’m sure the old values of solidarity would come back to comics. But society is in a bad enough shape to get true superheroes back now.
Many people want this return to the basics. Marvel and DC try to fool us by saying retro doesn’t sell, but if it is true, why do they keep reprinting all their masterworks and omnibuses, all their TBPs featuring their classics, their True Believers and now even their facsimile comics? Dan DiDio just expressed frustration over their facsimile comics selling better than their current comics. It would seem it’s time to take a hint, don’t you think?"
"One thing that I have noticed is that despite Marvel and DC not doing as well as they used to, there are more and more creators that are attempting to do their own thing through the indie mediums. Do you think that would help the industry at long term to return to a certain state of normality?"
"Yes, Indie mediums are great because they offer a wide diversity of genres. Today you can tell a story about just anything. The only genre that gets blocked is once again retro superhero comics. Image refuses them. So you have to self-publish in that case.
I’m not sure about a return to normality. It depends on Marvel and DC, and since a lot of creators go away to create their own stuff, they hire new artists who accept low page rates and not all of them are very good. Quality work that can be read by all generations is what we need. My father was a superhero comic reader before I was born and resumed reading them when I discovered them. I saw what a kid was supposed to see in those comics, and he could get the adult subtleties. Family comics with several layers of comprehension are my ideal."
The Formidables issue #5 by Oniric Comics Group
"I had the pleasure of reading one of your creations, The Formidables. You obviously carry your influence on your sleeve with your artwork and story-line. How did you come up with the concept for this comic and what was your goal with it?"
"As said before, when I turned 40 I decided to do what I really love, and superheroes are my thing. I wanted to pay homage to the comics of my childhood, so my heroes had to resemble my favorite heroes without being sheer copies. It was fun mixing elements from several heroes and incorporate them into mine. And of course, John Byrne having been my idol since I was 10, I drew this series in a style similar to his. So basically, it’s an homage to the old comics that impressed me so much and helped fashion who I am. Regarding the subject, here’s the pitch: In 1959 America, where the ideal of freedom is tainted by strong racist, homophobic and atheophobic sentiments, five super-powered citizens targeted by those prejudices rise to save the country from destruction. When I started this project, Gay marriage was going to become legal in France and an unexpectedly hateful movement rose to fight it. France is one of the most secular countries in the world, so that violence was surprising and really unbearable to me, as I have gay relatives and friends. I decided to tackle intolerance in my comic and since I wanted it to take place in the late 50's, my favorite period, racism came naturally. I’m a big fan of American history, and all its periods. In the history of comics, no black superheroes had their own title in the 50's, so I decided to play with real history and comics history. What if a black man with superpowers had appeared in the 50's? White people would doubtless have been afraid of a revolution. What if two of the heroes were gay? What if their leader was an atheistic scientist?
This story takes place in the USA because this is an American comic, but it could take place in any country, and today. I like my comics to be Bronze-Agey, but a little modern twist is good because no matter what time period his creation takes place in, an artist is a witness of his time and society. I must mention and thank my friend Steven A. Roman (the former Ibooks editor I mentioned earlier), who helps me with the scripts.
I wrote this comic for some of my loved ones, but I don’t define myself as a SJW. Comics promote tolerance and justice by nature, but my comics are not a pretext for politics. They’re meant to be fun."
"You’re obviously a big fan of classic Marvel comics. What are some of your biggest influences and favorite titles?"
"My idols are Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and John Byrne, then I love Sal Buscema, John Buscema and I like most of the artists of the 60's to 80's. My favorite superheroes are Reed Richards and Sue Storm, so FF is number One. I love everything Byrne, the 1978 comics of Jack kirby: Eternals, Devil dinosaur, etc. At the moment, I’m reading a lot of Hulk and Captain America classics. These two have been my new favorites lately.
DC-wise, my favorites are Kamandi, The Challengers of the Unknown and Wonder Woman by Byrne. I like the Doom Patrol, some of Byrne’s Superman and The Flash."
"For those writers and artists that are reading this interview, what are the best advice that you can give to them in order to succeed in the industry?"
"That’s a tough one, because it depends on how you define success. For most people, success means working for Marvel and DC. We all have a need for recognition and ambitions, but they can mislead us and reduce our self-esteem. If your work is up to professional standards, do your own comics with the purest sincerity and self-publish them. Creating something and offering it to others is success in itself. If your goal is Marvel and DC, go ahead, but when everything is said and done, what matters most before you die? The glory you had drawing hundreds of comics, half of which you didn’t care for, or the deep joys you experienced with certain projects, with people you met? If everything is perfect at Marvel, bravo to you! If you were happy doing the work and had glory, you will die happy. If you worked at Marvel for your ego, to be admired by millions and didn’t really enjoy the work you did, glory won’t matter at the end.
As far as I’m concerned, my successes are emotions that nobody knows about. When I spoke to Stan Lee at our common signing, when I saw my comic the Rovers at Midtown Comics in Times Square, when I receive touching messages from my fans, when I put out a new book, when I create for the sheer love of comics. These memories will follow me to the grave, not the number of comics I sold. But hey, I will welcome big sales if they happen!"
Sideral The Last Earthman issue #1 by Oniric Comics Group
"What projects do you have in store for the upcoming months?"
"New issues of The Formidables, a new series entitled Sideral, the Last Earthman, and another new comic: Heroes of the Multiverse, featuring a different superhero each time. Issue 1 will introduce The Spirit of Canada. I’m planning a Kickstarter for The Last Earthman."
"What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?"
"Emotionally: Stan Lee’s Alexa, but artistically: The Formidables and also my silent graphic Novel Venus F."
"If you could work in any comic, which one would be and what would you like to do with that character?"
"Mmmm, Marvel won’t publish John Byrne’s X-Men: Elsewhen series, and just cancelled a project for a monthly Captain America comic by Steve Rude, so things will have to change a lot at Marvel before they offer me work."
If it ever happens- and everything can happen- I’d like to do something with the original Alpha Flight. I’ve drawn a 22-page issue for fun. It’s a kind of Elsewhen concept too, but I did it before Byrne announced his project.
Besides that, cosmic heroes like the Silver Surfer are my thing."
"What is your take on crowdfunding, which has become a very popular strategy to promote indie comics?"
"I’m all for it! I’ve backed several comics on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Retro comics, of course. Crowdfunding sites and sites like Indyplanet.com are the only places where you can find these kinds of jewels. ^_^"
"Thank you once again for this opportunity, Chris. It was great. One last message for our readers? Where can we follow you on social media?"
"Thank YOU, Kevin, I enjoyed this interview. Dear readers, if you like oldschool comics, I invite you to take a look at the Oniric Comics page at Indyplanet.com.
If you buy them and like them, please tell your friends who have stopped reading comics because they have changed too much that a small publisher is doing good ol’fashioned comics.
The Facebook page where I post my art is:
The Facebook Oniric Page:
You can also check out my work with Temporal Comics here:
Thanks for reading, I hope to hear from you if you like the comics! ^_^"