MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Now the latest offering in what some people call graphic novels and other people just call comics. In this case, no superheroes, no modern-day eccentrics, no symbolic mice. Instead, French artist Joann Sfar's work features an Algerian rabbi, his cat and a variety of adventures in theology. The book is called "The Rabbi's Cat." It was a best seller, as comics go, in France. The author, Joann Sfar, credits American comics as his greatest influence and has a special nod to his grandfather, a Ukrainian-born, secular Talmudist turned physician who loved comic books.
Mr. JOANN SFAR (Author, "The Rabbi's Cat"): He liked very much superheroes comic. And I remember he bought me, like, every week the Jack Kirby's comic about The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and whatever. Those were the cheaper comic books in France.
Mr. SFAR: So it's not--we were not poor people, but the interest of superhero is that you can buy a lot. So every week I had a lot of comic books of those ones. You don't bring a European comic book to school, while superheroes Stan Lee and Jack Kirby--you can go to school with them.
SIEGEL: I'm not sure, why is that? Why can you bring the American comic book to school but not the European one?
Mr. SFAR: Because they are small, cheap, softcover books, while European comic books--they appear like art book for me when I was a child because they were hardback cover and more expensive and so on. You know, when you're a child, you don't understand the artistical interests or something. First of all, you see the objects. And when you have a small book who can go into your bag, it's easy to take it to school. And you don't care if someone steals it because you can have another the day after. But when it comes to hardcover, the parents say, `Be careful. This is a book.' When it becomes a book, it means don't read it, you know.
SIEGEL: Well, I want you to talk about a moment in "The Rabbi's Cat" when the title character, the rabbi's cat, eats the rabbi's parrot. And I'd like you to describe what happens at that moment.
Mr. SFAR: Yes. This cat lives in a very traditional family, and he wish he could talk to the daughter of the rabbi and tell him about many forbidden things, such as love. And there's a parrot in this family. He's a stupid bird. He talks all the time. So the cat--he decides to eat this talkative parrot, and then the cat begins to talk. And the rabbi is worried. He say, `I cannot leave this guy with my daughter anymore because he's no more a cat. He can be a bad influence.' So he does his best to prove he's still a good cat, and he say, `OK, maybe I can become Jewish. Maybe I can become a Jew, so you'll be happy. I can make a bar mitzvah or something.' But he does not want to make a bar mitzvah to please God or whatever. He just want this to please his master and to keep on living on the knees of the mistress, and that's all.
SIEGEL: Now while these themes are universal, they are played out in the story in a very specific place: in Algeria. And you've tried to bring to life a rabbi's household in an Algerian Jewish neighborhood--say when. The 1930s? Is that when this is taking place?
Mr. SFAR: Yes. I do my best not to put special dates on the story because historians might say there are many mistakes. But this is a tale that occurs in the beginning of the century, mostly in Algiers and in the whole Algerian countryside. And it comes from my family's stories and from the stories of my grandmother. So I knew the name of the streets, the name of the people, but I had no image to put on this because there were no photographs, no anything 'cause they have to flee this country. And so I imagine the visual.
SIEGEL: Now the central character of the book is a cat, and I believe you're no stranger to cats in real life.
Mr. SFAR: No, this is my actual cat. He comes from Siam, and he's a very funny, very thin animal. And one day my wife came to my studio, and she said very nicely, `There is one thing you managed to draw not too bad. It's the cat. You should make a book about the cat.' And "The Rabbi's Cat" came from this. And something funny occurred. When we sold the first 100,000 copies of the book, my publisher--they send me a huge case with cat food...
Mr. SFAR: ...just for my cat, for his retribution.
SIEGEL: Now let me ask you, if there are a bit over 140 pages of the book and there are six panels to every page, does that mean that you've made 800-some-odd completely independent drawings that you've drawn separately?
Mr. SFAR: No. The fact is I draw in a very simple way. The actual pages are in black and white. They are quite bigger than what you can see published, maybe half-part bigger. And I bring them wherever I go. And I got ink and a pen, and I draw like this one page after the other. And then I send it to a colorist, and with computer stuff much too complicated for me, they put color in it. It's very funny 'cause I'm a Jew from Algeria, and my colorist--she's a Christian from Iraq. So we have many things to discuss, and we have a lot of pleasure to work together.
SIEGEL: But the coloring is done by computer, but if you have to draw, say, the cat or the rabbi 300 times or 500 times in the course of the story, each time it's an independent drawing. Or do you have elements somewhere in a graphic, you know, software project that you download or something?
Mr. SFAR: No. The funny stuff is to draw them by hand every time and to try to have them recognizable but different. Sometimes I draw them in a very symbolical way, as it would be maybe in the Peanuts or whatever, and sometimes I try to do engravings with their faces. So when you're beginning to draw comic books, you find yourself involved into a methodical process and doing again the same thing. It's maybe like surreal musician. You find your pleasure exactly here, as in jazz, you know. You got a theme, and you go back to the theme, and when you go back, you change something a little bit. And watching a comic book, it's not like looking at a painting. You look one picture. You're watching moving image, and you make the movement by yourself. And you find yourself reading your own comic.
SIEGEL: Now you've been drawing for--ever since you were a little child, I understand.
Mr. SFAR: Mm-hmm.
SIEGEL: Do you have a secret artistic life? I mean, do you also do oil canvases and paint completely differently at some other time?
Mr. SFAR: My secret is not very secret. I spend my time playing the guitar and the ukulele and the banjo, and all my friends think it's really not secret. And it's a big problem for them because they prefer while I draw because I keep silent.
SIEGEL: And you're a big country and Western fan, I gather.
Mr. SFAR: Of course I am. I love Hank Williams and Tex Ritter, and many, many friends don't understand this, and it can be difficult. I also like Dean Martin very, very much.
SIEGEL: Well, here's your chance to baffle millions of Americans, if you'd like to, to sing one of your favorite songs for us for a moment.
Mr. SFAR: Oh, really? This is very nice of you. OK, let's go for "Blood on the Saddle" from Tex Ritter.
(Singing) And there was blood on the saddle and blood all around and a great big puddle of...
This is Jacques Chirac's favorite song. He sings it every time.
SIEGEL: (Laughs) Well, we greatly appreciate your sharing your secret artistic--not-so-secret artistic life with us.
Mr. SFAR: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: Joann Sfar, whose latest book is called "The Rabbi's Cat." To view frames from the book and the real cat that inspired it, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.
NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.