Willy Linthout Survives the Year of the Elephant (1/3)

- Part 1 -
Willy Linthout ... the name will not exactly ring a bell in the ears of the American audience. In Europe however, his name is known for creating one of the longest running comedy strips still going strong today: Urbanus. This comic, about the popular comedian with the same name, presented Willy's first big break into the Dutch comics world. Since 1983, Urbanus himself co-writes the strip with Willy Linthout who is also the artist. This year the comic has reached its 129th number and celebrates 25 years of Urbanus comics. Other work includes Roboboy, The Final Station trilogy and numerous illustrations for various magazines.
In 2004, his son unexpectedly took his own life. After a harrowing two years he decided to put down on paper his emotional journey as a graphic novel, entitled The Year of the Elephant. Experiencing many positive reactions in Europe, he went one step further and tried to see how the American comics market would respond to this original and innovative work. Broken Frontier has a heartwarming chat with this iconoclastic creator about life, his feelings and turning such a life-changing event into a graphic novel.

Broken Frontier: What kind of process did you go through before you started working on The Year of the Elephant?
Willy Linthout: It took me two years before I started working on The Year of the Elephant. When my son passed away, it was not my intention to make a comic out of this occurrence. I thought about writing a book for awhile and even involved my therapist in the project. A book where both sides of the coin are highlighted, the therapist point of view and the person undergoing the therapy. I thought that was an original starting point. It was then that I arrived at the idea for The Final Station [Willy Linthout's previous comic series]. I was already working on that comic while Sam was still alive but after the incident, I got the feeling that there was something more I could do with the concept.
The writing part of the first issue of The Final Station also took me years and then I still had to find a publisher. In the end, I arrived at three parts that, when taken as whole, have at least something to say about suicide and the surrounding circumstances but it did not give me a lot of satisfaction. It didn't really seem to tell my personal story. A story about myself had to go about my pains and my experiences. So supported by my brother - who helped write the script - I started working on The Year of the Elephant. You need to really believe in a project and you need a person to bounce ideas with, so this process took me two years. I haven't finished the last part of The Final Station yet either, the last pages are always the hardest. And at this moment in time, The Year of the Elephant is completely finished.

That's quite special, having a brother who is a big support during such an emotional and difficult project.
That's certainly true, it creates a real feeling of bonding! You're searching for a deeper insight into your own being which is quite a good thing. The fact that we can do this together is quite special. As I said before, I also need someone to bounce ideas off. For instance, I once had the idea of ripping out a page of the comic as a way of illustrating the immensity of the pain I felt. I just wanted to rip a page out and integrate this into the story. Together with my brother we reached the conclusion that this would only be detrimental to the story. I was going too far so I didn't push my idea through. It's always good to have someone to talk things over with.

In the end, you're showing a very vulnerable part of yourself to the world.
I don't have any problems with that. I also enjoy working with other people. For comic scripts I tend to come up with a synopsis and general plot like for Urbanus or Roboboy and then I always tend to involve other people. A lot of my scripts are written in a pub or bar. I like to combine business with pleasure, I guess.

Does the creative process of The Year of the Elephant differ a lot from creating your Urbanus comic?

It is a totally different thing. Incomparable. It's gone so far that even the way I sit at my drawing table is different. The way I approach the working process, the drawings ... everything is different. Some people might say that the style of drawing is the same as my Urbanus comics but to me, it is something else altogether. The Year of the Elephant comes much more from the heart. It is a very emotional process.

That's exactly the beauty of The Year of the Elephant, that very visible, vulnerable part that's even apparent in the pencil drawings that appear uninked in the comic. How did this come about?
It turned out to be a discussion between several people. A few pages had been inked but, to me, it didn't feel right - especially my wife felt uncomfortable with it. And suddenly Ria, the publisher who runs Bries, says that she would just leave it in pencil. I thought about it for some time and bounced the idea off other people and I must say, most of them found it to be a bad idea. That touched something in me and I started thinking that, if everyone finds it such a bad idea, I should just go ahead and do it. [laughs] I thought "Why should I care?"; "It doesn't touch me. " Looking back, I realise that I thought wrong. When all the reviews started coming out and they all turned out to be positive, it did touch me. So it stands to say that if the reviews had been negative, I also would have cared. I thought back then that I was stronger but I wasn't. But the pencil reproductions, yeah, it turned out to a good choice.
To me it's become really special to do it in pencil because these are my drawings. When Steven de Rie - the inker of Urbanus - inks my pencils, it becomes the pencils of Steven, they're not completely mine anymore. And I sure wasn't going to ink my own pencils. Sam's life didn't get the chance to go all the way, it stayed unfinished, so the same goes for my pencils. It may be less commercial but it feels more honest and straightforward. For the trade paperback though, I hope to include the inked pages as an extra.

In the comic you also refer to the chalk outline of Wannes that keeps popping up to torment Karel, the protagonist. That chalk line almost seems linked to your pencil lines in the same sense that both are of a finite nature.
That chalk line is actually more of a way of including my son in the comic without actually drawing him. I didn't want to draw my son. I thought that it would never seem good enough for me, it would never work. How am I supposed to draw my son? And the chalk line turned out to be a very good solution for that dilemma.

Everything in the comic is organised according to Karel's perception, his illusions and all. Everything comes together in his sensations that turn out to be very imaginative in his attempts to communicate with his deceased son. Did you have to take a deep look at yourself to come up with all those scenes?
I can say that all characters in the comics are real. For example, my therapist was also pregnant in real life during my treatment with her. Everything in those pages is based on real life except for one person: Karel's boss. I don't have such a boss and never had. He turned out as an amalgam of people out of my living sphere. I guess in a sense that does make him real though.
In part 5 or 6, Karel is searching for another therapist and he meets an esoteric type of therapist - that really happened. Or the breathing apparatus Karel uses at night, I use it myself. I don't use it to communicate with my son like Karel does but the idea to do it did come to me in the middle of the night while I was using it. That's also the reason why you never really see Karel's wife. All those things formed a gap between my wife and me. When you go through such an experience, you don't see the other person anymore. Your only concern is yourself. I wanted to show that feeling of isolation, the loneliness. The Year of the Elephant is my therapeutic process.
When Karel starts having trouble with his back and he needs to go under the scanner ... I myself had back trouble for over half a year. And I realised that it was partly physical pain and partly mental pain, just as with Karel. I myself was in a train that stopped abruptly because another young person threw himself under the train. It's all true! And the reactions I heard about people on that train were as horrific as I describe them in the comic. I lived through all of it or I wouldn't feel I had the right to put this story on paper. I just put down my own life. There wasn't much sense in making it any other way.

Did you originally want The Year of the Elephant to come out as a big graphic novel or did you really see the story as a serial in 8 different parts to keep it as close as possible to your own emotions?
If it wasn't serialised, I wouldn't have made it past the first pages. I needed the support of every part that was printed. I had never done anything like this. Even financially speaking, I donate every profit to a good cause that supports the family of deceased children or something like that. I made these comics in between projects. Whenever I felt like it. In order to complete it, this method was necessary. On the practical part, it also played a role that enough had to have happened in reality in order for me to be able to make a comic out of it. And these happenstances had to be transformed from fantasy to the page.
The first part is almost completely fantasy though. I really wanted to show that, when something of this magnitude happens to you, your whole world turns upside down. You go crazy and most of the time you don't even realise it. Another big part of it is that other people don't really understand you. They say that you can talk about it, that you can take your time to get over it BUT don't take too long, after six months enough is enough or otherwise you're a boring old fart.
I went to a therapy group. I tried it and so did my wife and that kind of therapy didn't really work for me but for my wife, it felt good. I would say that every method is okay as long as it helps.

The search is probably already a part of the healing process. Like you making a comic about it is part of your catharsis.
That's true. What helped for me was individual therapy and making The Year of the Elephant. I guess I'm lucky I can make comics. It doesn't really end though, there will always be some pain left. But the comic has already helped me enormously with coming to terms with it.

It does suit you, that creative outlet.
Yeah, I discovered that. I also found out that I can do it and want to do it.

Did you have any trouble breaking through your creative patterns from the Urbanus and Roboboy comics to create The Year of the Elephant?
Not really but I did have to find my way first. The first part leaned more to the funny side of things while the second part "There is only one colour" turned out to be much more the kind of story I wanted to tell. I think it is one of the best comics I ever made and again, all events in the comic are based on reality. There is this moment where all the people around Karel are starting to die and that was exactly what was happening to me. First my son, then my mother died, then my neighbour and then another person in the family was laying on his deathbed. I was convinced that I was next in line. I couldn't keep that thought out of my head. Karel then, in the comic, discovers this checker pattern on the windows of his apartment building where the black squares represent the people dying. The only thing needed to complete the pattern is his window. That was my way of dealing with those thoughts I had. It is pure madness but also very symbolic and surreal. At that time, I wasn't really dealing with Sam's death, that took me a few more years, that starts to happen in Part Three. I just wrote down what I lived through at that moment.

Maybe you sell yourself short now because you not only wrote it down but you also made a strong story out of it with strong and resonating graphic sequences. For instance the scene where Karel and his wife are having a fight and you just focus on their feet and the ground they're standing on.
Now that's a scene that reminds me of Crumb, I must say. [laughs] I really like it but I guess everyone thinks at least once that he did something decent. What I really like is the fact that this comic really seems to help people.
There was this one time that I was sitting in a pub and a friend enters with another person. She asks if she could join me and we start talking and the other person mentions that she has read The Year of the Elephant. And it turns out that she herself had a son who jumped off a roof and died. And that was twenty years ago and this is the first time that she mentions it to anyone! My friend who worked with this woman for over ten years didn't even know she had a son. And this woman just keeps talking about her son and I hear afterward from my friend that they spent the rest of the day just talking about that and what a relief it was for that other woman to throw it out into the open. And I have other examples like this one. And at that moment, I think to myself "Dammit, my comics really accomplish something." And that is what is most important.
The comic reader in me also wants to turn out a good and decent comic that people like to read and I managed to also integrate that aspect into The Year of the Elephant. I like to admit to myself that I really accomplished something.

This graphic novel does have a real feeling of strength behind it, something universal where people can recognize their own experiences.
That's why the trade paperback will contain some extra pages with more information about those themes. Like the breathing apparatus that can make the difference between life or death for some people but many don't even know it exists. I also have a therapist who is an expert in breathing methods who went through the same thing with her son and I asked her to write a piece for the paperback. So I'm working on adding information that will really enrich the content. Especially now that everything is going so smooth with the comic, I think that it should represent something that will mean something to people; where they can find out what to do or who to contact for help in these cases.
What I really want to achieve is deliver a pioneering work in the field of therapy. If you live in Belgium and you visit a therapist, people look at you like you're crazy. A lot of people here still feel that way and that's a real shame. A lot of roads still have to be paved in that respect. I also think there should be better trained therapists but that's a story for another time ...

It does seem difficult to me. You're already working on your own process, trying to find some peace of mind and then you also have to find the right therapist with the right approach that fits your personality.
I'm lucky in the sense that I already took courses in that field for over 15 years. In my hometown of Lokeren, I've been a member of a group of therapists for over 15 years, I follow yoga courses etc. It is not a strange world to me. When my son died, I had the good fortune of knowing a good therapist. She didn't have any experience with suicide cases and their families either but that wasn't really necessary. Together with me, she went down that therapeutic road and she learned a lot, of that I'm certain.
It is a fact that a therapist in Belgium doesn't need a diploma. Officially they're not recognized and they're also very expensive. Sometimes you're better off at a governmental institution or social welfare centers who help you find a therapist for a cheaper price.

And this interest in psychology comes from where?
After two years of doing the Urbanus comics, I was sitting in our bedroom, doing some drawing and I felt locked up and plain lousy. I followed a course in relaxation and really loved it. It turned out that the wife of the person who originated the class was there too and I told her that the four lessons weren't enough for me. I wanted more. So we decided to create a new group right there, really out of necessity for me. I couldn't relax anymore. That group really helped me. It covered a range of topics from breathing to being able to talk about everything. The Chinese for example say that we are always occupied with what we are going to do in the future while they occupy themselves with what they are doing now. There's a big truth in that. Live now!

This concludes part 1 (of 3) of our interview with Willy Linthout. Come back for part 2 where Willy talks about his experiences at the New York Comicon, finding a publisher for The Year of the Elephant and how those publishers react upon hearing his tale.
(http://www.brokenfrontier.com 29 Juni 2008)