Willy Linthout Survives the Year of the Elephant (2/3)

- Part 2 -
Welcome back to Part 2 (of 3) of our conversation with Willy Linthout. In Part 1 we talked extensively about his latest comic project The Year of the Elephant - an extensive, soul-searching work trying to come to terms with the suicide of his son Sam where Willy bares his soul to the readers, capturing his mental processes in a graphical innovating and emotional comic. After the success of The Year of the Elephant in Europe, we talk to Willy about exploring the English speaking comics market.

Broken Frontier: First of all, congratulations on finding a publisher for the English edition of The Year of the Elephant. How did you come to the conclusion that you wanted to go abroad with your GN?
Willy Linthout: I didn't really expect to do anything at all with it. I really thought that I would be shot down with The Year of the Elephant. It's reproduced completely from pencils and the artwork isn't 100% 'finished' so to speak but that's the way I wanted it. My friends and family though were very supportive and the reason why I wanted it translated was because I had reached the conclusion that this comic actually helped people. My own ego of course also played a part in it, who doesn't want his comic translated into multiple languages? I'm not going to deny that.
But I'm so touched by people's reactions to The Year of the Elephant, it's amazing. It even happens when I'm sitting in the pub and people just approach me with their stories. When my comics started to reach the masses and I got a few blurbs in newspapers, it would sometimes happen that people would look upon me as their therapist. When that would happen I would always refer them to a real one and sometimes it turned out for the best. I have come to the conclusion that people who went through the same experience as me find the comic easily recognizable. I made the leap in my head right then and there: if people experience this kind of reaction here, I guess the same thing would be true for people on the other side of the ocean. I'm a big fan of American comics and have been to the San Diego Comicon several times so I just went ahead and gave it a shot.

So that's when you decided to go to the New York Comicon this year. How was the response to your work?
Well, I did a lot of preparation before actually going there. I contacted a certain amount of people beforehand and was thoroughly prepared to speak to other publishers at the convention. It's not easy finding the right person to talk to because, in reality, New York is more the type of convention where they sell their wares instead of buying the publishing rights of other comics. But due to some perseverance, I always managed to get the right person and the conversation always turned very positive very quickly. One publisher even started crying when I told him my story. Imagine that. Some were more interested than others of course. Top Shelf, for example had some doubts and I ended up somewhere else. During all those talks, people told me my work looked like Crumb about three times.

It does seem like the type of project that, like the works of Paul Hornschmeier, would be a good fit in the catalogue of Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and even First Second.
Fantagraphics did show interest. They were truly sympathetic people but the publishing house I ended up with also makes me feel really good and they give me a very positive vibe. I immediately knew that I found a second home, they show an immense love for the business and on top of that, they produce very lovely editions of their books. I'm not going to give away their name yet because the paperwork isn't completely finished.

Did your rather large portfolio open any doors for you at the convention despite the fact that all your work was done primarily for the Dutch market?
There were a few small publishing houses that were familiar with my work, that took me by surprise. I noticed though that I did have a few points ahead of the 'competition'. I have a lot of experience, as is evident in my portfolio, and my age also comes into the equation. I am obviously not a beginner who shows up with his comic, eager to be published. Just the stack of my Urbanus comics is impressive enough -130 albums - and when I mention I'm from Belgium and I made a graphic novel, theyre hooked! I was also very curious about their opinions which turned out to be very positive. In Belgium, they tend to stereotype me because I've been doing Urbanus comics for 25 years already. And that plays into the reviews of The Year of the Elephant sometimes; although the positive far outweighs the negative reviews.

The comic world in our part of the world is indeed small and I think that stereotyping creators is not uncommon.
Definitely but there's also an upside: since The Year of the Elephant, those kind of people can't seem to figure out whether if I'm still bad according to them or if I'm actually quite good! [laughs]

Did someone mention your only American comics-work to date: your story in Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman where Urbanus meets Swamp Thing?
Most definitely not. That was a long time ago. I've been reading comics for over 10 years now and I like to study them: the market, the trends, the evolution. So I knew that Marvel or DC Comics weren't a proper fit for The Year of the Elephant. By accident I ran into the people from Boom! Studios and they were really friendly en enthusiastic about my GN. I did tell them outright that their company wasn't a good fit for my comic and they agreed but still offered to help me in my search for a publisher. They know how important it is to be published in a good environment and where you're treated with respect.

Were you very nervous prior to doing your rounds or were you more 'laissez faire, laissez passer'?
Before I made the trip, I was really nervous. I wanted to take the complete series with me and Part 5 and 6 arrived at the last possible moment. In the end it turned out all right but it was a pretty close shave. Once I reached the Comicon though, I immediately took advantage of the preview afternoon which is press and creators only. This gave me the opportunity to do some scouting and I laid some first contacts without any interruptions from a busy convention floor. My plan was to dive straight into it and practise my sales talk from the get go and the first company I approached turned out to be Boom! Studios. From that moment on, the nervousness disappeared. I always feel the support of my son when doing this. The Year of the Elephant is in a certain sense a gift from him to me and just thinking about that makes all nervousness disappear. By the way, I ran into Julia Roberts on the street and she seemed much more nervous than me. She didn't want anyone to recognize her and she had the rim of her hat pulled down over her face.

This concludes Part 2 (of 3) of our interview with Willy Linthout. In Part 3, we move away from The Year of the Elephant and focus a bit on his collection, his influences and the differences in approach in Europe and the States.
(http://www.brokenfrontier.com 1 Juli 2008)