This is an edited transcript of an online conversation between Simon Lamouret, author of The Alcazar, and Paul Gravett, critic, curator and comics historian, on March 4, 2022.
Paul Gravett: Thank you Bharath for inviting us. Simon, we met in Paris, didn’t we, at an Indian literature festival, which had quite a big focus on comics. Actually, maybe I had already seen an extract of The Alcazar in Vérité Vol 1, which is published by Bharath. I was also thinking of my first experience of being in India, and I remember looking out of my hotel window in Mumbai at people doing road repairs, and the thing that struck me was that there were women doing the job alongside men. They were fairly young looking and were doing some heavy lifting. Part of the theme of your book, it seems to me, is that you are aware of the contrast between this very beautiful, extravagant apartment block and the people who built it but cannot possibly afford to live there. Tell me how did this project begin? I do know that your previous project is called Bangalore, based on your observations of everyday life in the city. Is there a deeper earlier connection between you and India?
Simon Lamouret: I had travelled twice to India when I was much younger, nineteen years old, during summer vacations. Every time I went, I carried sketchbooks. As a young person stepping out of Europe, these impressions stayed with me and later I went back to India for longer periods. Then I got a job in Bangalore. My actual journey started then. Those strong early impressions and novelty vanished after a point. Bangalore has more of a Westerner’s perspective of the city, while The Alcazar has a more mature view. Also I need to mention that I was assisted by Mansi Kashatria, who is now a PhD candidate in Sweden, who was then a fresh ethnography graduate.
Paul: How did you and Mansi get together?
Simon: We met at a gathering of common friends. Later on when the idea of documenting workers at a construction site popped in my head, she offered help. She has an essay in the book, which was an idea that came from Bharath, and along with an interview with me, it gives more context to how the comic came about.
Paul: You decided not to take a Joe Sacco approach to the story, the autobiographical approach by putting yourself into the comic. You remove yourself completely from the story. How did you manage to build a rapport, of course with Mansi’s help, with the workers? How do you build trust, that relationship, for them to tell you so much, to share their difficulties, and for them to show a not always flattering side of themselves.
Simon: I think that to go a construction site every day for about seven months really helped. This is not something that can be done in a month. A month is what it took us to get accepted inside the premises of the construction site. Salma, one of the characters in the book, took a long time to open up to us. Trust wasn’t granted in the beginning. The main group of workers featured in the book, Rafik, Mehboob, Basha, Salma, saw us getting permission from the boss. We didn’t tell the boss that we were documenting the workers’ daily lives…
Paul: So what did you tell the boss your plan was?
Simon: I had to justify to the boss why I was there. I told him I was an architecture student. So he showed me the plans and other material which I pretended to be interested in, while I was observing the workers from the corners of my eyes. I was pretty naïve and unsettled… on the first day I told them I was interested in their lives… maybe I should have hidden it from them but I told them it was interesting to make a story of their lives and then I showed them my earlier Bangalore book and said this is a graphic novel. I told them I would draw them. It was very straightforward with them, because I wouldn’t use any of what they shared with me without telling them. Of course it is fictionalized in the book. In the beginning they shared the simple facts about their lives, and as we gained trust it got into more personal issues between the group. It was interesting to see how hierarchies work between themselves. Something I knew from the beginning was that there wasn’t going to be one hero. There were going to be multiple characters, like a ‘chorale’ in French…
Paul: Like an ensemble perhaps… you still had to pick who you were going to be foregrounding. Were there other people who you were interested in? Did you combine people’s stories? How honest were you in portraying them? Did they want to see the drawings or the script? Did they have a sense of ownership in how they were portrayed?
Simon: To answer the first part of the question, initially I had focused on Mehboob and Rafik and their group because they lived on the site. They worked during the day and lived in a makeshift house on the site at night. I thought that was interesting because it was two sides of the coin… you have the working life and the personal life all at once, day and night. But at some point, I had to change my approach because they were no longer available to me to observe. There were other people… too many characters. When I returned to France and started working and got a contract with a publisher, he said that there were too many characters and he was right. Some characters were saying the same things, so I combined them. For example, Rafik is a combination of him and others. One of them expressed hope and kindness and the other cynicism and yet another expressed meanness. For the second part of the question about ownership of their own story, I never felt their sense of ownership but there was definitely an interest and they kept sharing. I sketched during research, but then I mostly wrote down whatever happened as they reported to me every day. That’s what I took back with me when I started storyboarding.
Paul: We have some sketches that we can see, don’t we?
Above: Simon showing storyboards.
Simon: So I started building the story and I sent them sequences and even character designs… very minor exchanges, but sometimes Mansi would get us on a call and help me with that.
Paul: Could we see some of the sketches that you brought back to France with you, because the main drawing had to be done in France. I imagine that with the sketches you were also able to record details that you could build into. The story has such an intense feeling of being there, I mean, you really feel like you’re in the city. It’s quite an achievement of drawing because you’re not doing any quick sketches here. Your every panel is very intensely detailed and a lot of is clearly your superb observation. You really want to convey the intensity of the city.
Simon: I sketched mainly technical things around construction, that helped me make my story more realistic. Then I drew the people there of course, but I gave away many of the portraits to them. It was a good way to communicate since we couldn’t really speak to each other because of the language problem. I think that was appreciated. There are also some images I found strong. For example there’s one where a couple is standing on the rooftop and the cemented slabs are watered. They look at the skyline and I found that scenic and allegorical of the situation they were in. I drew that almost like an illustration and kept in mind that it could reuse in a scene, which I did. Some frames appear to you that way. You know it’s going to be a part of your book. There would be a scene that would be built around an image. Sometimes the image doesn’t serve the story but the story serves the image. It happens rarely but it happens.
Paul: When it comes to producing the complete work, you need to give it shape. Most people’s lives don’t have a shape… I guess there was always going to be the basic shape of the building being built. So how did you go about structuring your book? Because the one thing that stands out in your book is the building literally forming before your eyes. That gives you a recurring pattern of time passing. Did it acquire a natural shape, and possibly a natural lack of an ending because as we know, cities are endlessly being built and there’s always going to be another empty plot, ready to get filled up?
Simon: It was clear to me from the beginning that the ‘main character’ of the story would be the building itself. The book is named after the building. So I knew that my story would pretty much start with the plot of land and end with the finished building. But the shape was hard to define, and I think that’s where my publisher [Editions Sarbacane] was most sceptical about the project. He didn’t want it to be just a chronicle… everyday life of the workers. I had to dramatize the story, but I didn’t want to lie. I guess you have to use some magician’s tricks, make it look like there’s a lot happening. I think that the normal lives of these kinds of workers have very interesting anchor points that you can play around with and build a climax and keep the rhythm interesting. Yes it is fictionalized but this is a documentary… I trusted their lives and what they said. It gave the momentum to make the story rich. Even when some of my main characters vanished from real life, as it were, I would bring them in earlier in the story. I played with the chronology of the events to sustain the readers.
Paul: Yes. But also obviously another big thing in Indian life is class and caste and aspirations. There’s Rafik who’s convinced that he can get on with the boss and be trained up, while Mehboob is convinced that there’s no chance. What I thought was clever is the way you subtly address inequality and exploitation. There’s a very touching moment where you mention that these labourers would often end up living on site in tents, one that is described by Salma as a ‘match box’ house. And of course the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. You were actually bringing to our attention an underclass, ordinary people, labourers who have rarely, I think, been documented in comics. So did you have an agenda to raise awareness and empathy or just understanding maybe, of these people? Most of us just don’t notice or think about the people who build our cities.
Simon: I didn’t exactly have an agenda but as I got more curious about construction workers, I asked about them to my Indian friends and I realised that they didn’t have much information to share. There were a lot of clichés and stereotypes and they weren’t very nice stereotypes either. So I tried to figure it out myself. The documentation is both the meaning and the goal, if you know what I mean. I had very little knowledge. I just met people. I’m not claiming to do an objective case study. I got to know some of the workers who eventually became my friends. I guess it addresses in a subtle manner, the inequalities and stuff. Spending a lot of time everyday with them in their space made it feel like home, you know… it might not be an ideal home, but it was home anyhow. The social conditions are in the background, they are always hinted at by the characters, in a way seeing things from their perspective.
Paul: Yes, that reminds me… I’d walk around at night (in Mumbai) and there were these enormously tall condominiums which were unlit, because nobody was occupying them. People would tell me that they were bought only to be sold again later, and one of them even advertised in the front page of the newspaper saying something like ‘you will never have to go out again’, where you can be cut off from the rest of the dirty city, literally your ‘ivory tower’. That struck me. Of course it’s not something unique to India.
Can we see a few pages from the book?
Paul: You don’t use any panel borders in your book. What was the thinking behind you doing that?
Simon: I’m not going to say that it’s because I don’t want the panels to be locked in by a ‘box’. What I will say is that this book was printed in spot colours. For those who might not know what spot colour is, the printing process is slightly different. We don’t use the four major colours (CMYK) that are normally used. We used three specific colours, black, orange and blue. Every colour is on a separate layer and they overlap to produce other tones. When I drew the book, I had to draw every layer separately. Using a light-box, I would draw the outlines in black and then the orange part and then the blue part. Then they were assembled on the computer and then printed. So as I was working on paper, there are always these little misalignments that I found interesting. It reminded me of silkscreens, or old publications before computers. That made every print unique. I guess not having the panel outlines emphasizes these slight imperfections and that the human hand made the drawing. I’m not very fond of drawing on computers. I guess every book is for me an opportunity to try out different techniques.
Paul: I was reading an online Indian review of The Alcazar which mentions the colour blue being like the tarpaulins that they use to cover buildings. I was wondering if that was one of the starting points of the colour. That gave you one of the colours and maybe the orange came from sunsets, sunrises or bricks? How did you arrive at the colours?
Simon: The earlier book I did was black & white and I wanted to get into colour, but step by step. Orange and blue are complimentary colours. It’s basic interactions of colours. So you have the warmth of the orange and you have the coolness of the blue. It creates poles that can be contrasted or combined. And yet it’s not as complex as a full colour book. I wanted to have a book that had the clarity and readability of black & white. Many colours would distract the flow of the reading experience. I wanted to use complimentary colours because they can mute down the colours. So if you put equal amounts of orange and blue, you get a sort of grey, a neutral colour. The neutrality was important, so orange and blue was a far better choice than red/green, yellow/purple for obvious reasons, because yes, as you say, the blue for the tarpaulins and sky and the orange reminded me of the mud you find in Bangalore which is almost red. The colours are great in the Indian version as well as in the French.
Paul: Was skin colour an issue as well?
Paul: We haven’t talked much about the bosses, because some of the bosses, the site managers etc., their lives are not much easier than the labourers… they have their own problems. Were you able to get close to them? Have they seen the books… are they going to sue? (laughs) You’re not terribly complimentary about them…
Simon: There are three levels of authorities. You have the big boss, the contractor, who’s barely at the site. He is almost abstract to the workers. He’s more like an allegory of power. In the few scenes he appears in the book, he’s not humanized too much. Then you have the site engineer, Ali. I was close to him because he could speak English. He was nice to talk to and he had a different perspective. He did not have much power, also not paid very well. He only had a little better education than the others. He was also a victim of the construction business. Only some people make money and most are paid very little and as you said, it’s a space for inequalities. For that reason, I had sympathy for him. Then at the third level, the poorest in the hierarchy, there’s the chief mason. He used to be a worker. It’s fair to say that I was clearly on the side of the labourers, because I was intimate with them and saw through their eyes. But at some point, I tried to give a counterpoint to the story and show it from the business or job perspective.
Paul: One does have some empathy with people who apparently are higher up on the ladder, shall we say, but still facing all sorts of issues, still kept in their place. They’re not going to be allowed to rise up. I think the effect of the book does stay with you, it’s quite powerful. I’ve spotted details and I most enjoyed pausing and looking at the amount of observation you’ve made of the city. There are panels where there’s a lot going on. You get a sense of the energy of the city, that this is just one of many, many stories. So the obvious question now is for your next book do you want to move into four colours and are you going to go back to India for your subject matter?
Simon: No, I’ve physically and literally left India. I think I’ve said more than enough… I’ve made two books based on India and they were my first books as well. I’m based in France since 2018, but I will go back to India soon for the release of this book. [Simon visited India in April 2022]. But to answer your question, I’m working on book right now, which is more fiction, and in full colour. It’s a totally different subject but like The Alcazar, there’s a house in the story, the role of the building in the mise-en-scène is fundamental and it’s also an ensemble story. There are multiple characters… that’s the way I like to tell stories. There are human interactions… it’s almost like theatre in a way.
Paul: We really look forward to that. Is it going to be another fairly epic 200 pages or something?
Simon: Probably more.
Paul: Very best of luck with that!
(transcribed by Bharath Murthy)