Why cartoonist Riad Sattouf believes graphic novels are superior to books: 'A powerful form of expression'

The Syrian-French cartoonist says becoming a graphic novelist has allowed him to better understand the world – and himself

French cartoonist and film director of Syrian origins, Riad Sattouf poses during a photo session in Paris on September 07, 2020. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

Riad Sattouf always wanted to be a cartoonist. Throughout his teenage years, he spent hours in his bedroom drawing pictures and reading comic books. The son of a Syrian father and French mother, Sattouf came to realise that his future vocation would not only describe what he did, but also define who he was.

"Being a mixture of two cultures, I decided very early in my life to choose another identity – that of the author," he tells The National. "I wanted to be part of that people, those who create books. That's my identity."

The books Sattouf has created have been bestsellers in his native France and beyond. He is best known for The Arab of the Future, a candid, emotionally resonant series of graphic – and autobiographic – novels. Together they chronicle Sattouf's journey from childhood to adolescence: his early years in Libya and Syria, his parents' marital breakdown and being a teenager in Brittany.

The narrative is enlivened by what Sattouf calls “colours of emotion”. Each location is washed in a different colour: Libya is yellow, Syria red and Brittany grey-blue. Looming large in the books is Sattouf’s father, a fierce authoritarian and dedicated pan-Arabist who is a mass of contradictions, insecurities and hypocrisies.

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf. Courtesy Metropolitan Books

Over the course of the series, as young Sattouf gets older, wiser and more disillusioned, he sees the man he once worshipped in a drastically different light.

Today Sattouf has fonder recollections of another relative: the Breton grandmother who encouraged him to follow his dream. “When I was a child, I loved to see the admiration in her eyes when she looked at me,” he says. “She thought I was a genius. She loved my drawings and spent my whole childhood telling me I had a gift, that I was special, better than Picasso. That inspired me.”

Sattouf went on to art school in Nantes and then studied animation in Paris, where he now lives. He produced several well-received graphic novels and directed a film, before achieving huge success with The Arab of the Future.

While he welcomed the acclaim, he was less pleased when the media started to look to him as an authority on the Middle East in general and Syria in particular.

“It’s understandable that people ask,” he says, “but I’m not a specialist on Syria. We lived in a little village we hardly ever left. I know that village well, the geography of it, but I only saw Syria from the point of view I describe in my books. I try to avoid making generalisations. I show and describe what I’ve seen, and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions. I can’t stand moralising books.

“As for Syria and all that’s happened there – I’m horrified, of course. The situation there is a catastrophe that has destabilised the whole world.”

Sattouf says he enjoys telling stories from a child's perspective because "children are much less judgmental. They take things as they are, and the certainties of adults can seem funny." He also believes comic books and graphic novels are "a language, an incredibly powerful form of expression, which I think is superior to the novel. If you read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware, you will realise you are experiencing one of humanity's masterpieces."

While Sattouf was working on his graphic memoir he began developing a side project based on another child's-eye view – this one about a girl growing up in Paris. Every week he sat down with his friend's daughter and listened to her stories, thoughts and impressions on everything from school to family and friendship. From this he created a comic strip. French magazine L'Obs showed interest and devoted a weekly page to an episode. Then in 2016, a French publisher brought out a book comprising 52 of Sattouf's strips. It was such a hit with French readers that four more books followed.

Esther's Notebooks 1: Tales from my ten-year-old life Pushkin Pressby Riad Sattouf. Courtesy Pushkin Press

"I've been drawing one page of Esther's Notebooks a week since she was 9 years old," Sattouf says. "She tells me a story and I transform it. I change the names and certain details so that she can't be recognised. But every page is based on a true story."

The first title in this series has recently been published in English. Esther's Notebooks: Tales from my Ten-Year-Old Life introduces an endearing heroine who speaks her mind and wears her heart on her sleeve. With wit, charm and sharp insight, Sattouf expertly conveys her likes, loves, worries, frustrations and disappointments.

In her eyes, boys are stupid, but her father is great (“I find it really hard to believe he’s a boy”). Life can be tough because she isn’t blonde and isn’t allowed an iPhone. But it can also be good because she is bendy, has loyal friends and imagines a rosy future for herself as a singer.

“I really liked the fact that Esther was a young girl with no ‘issues’,” says Sattouf. “She doesn’t have any family problems, she’s not ugly, shy or badly behaved, and her family is neither rich nor poor. I was curious to see how she would grow up, and how her view of the world would develop.”

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<span>I try to avoid making generalisations. I show and describe what I've seen, and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions. I can't stand moralising books</span>

In this book she is already starting to see that there is injustice in the world. Instead of presenting a rose-tinted view of childhood, Sattouf shows Esther exposed to, and disturbed by, bullying and racism. "The Esther's Notebooks series is not written for children," Satouff says. "Childhood, at least true stories about childhood, is not always suitable for children. Esther has experienced cruel, upsetting situations, and she's even been mean herself on occasion. I wanted to show all of that, too."

In several stories, Esther's father makes his feelings known on nationalism. "Who cares about origins?" he tells his son. "All the world's problems are caused by nationalism! Rise above it!" Sattouf insists that he doesn't use his characters to voice his own views; however, in this case, he shares the same opinion. "I wish all humanity had backgrounds as mixed as mine," he says. "I'm uncomfortable with people who are proud of their origins, or where they come from. To be proud of your ethnicity means excluding others, excluding difference."

There is another story entitled The Charlie, in which Esther's school class learns about the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre. Sattouf contributed to the magazine for nine years with a comic-strip series composed of conversations he overheard and observations he made while wandering around Paris. He left the publication a few months before the attack. After it, he spoke about how it left him "traumatised".

In Sattouf's story, Esther tells us that her Muslim school friend Kalila condemns the terrorists, but also believes that "Charlie shouldn't have made fun of their God". Esther agrees. On this, Sattouf won't say whether this is also his opinion. "The idea of Esther's Notebooks is to let the real Esther speak, and to show how she digests or understands what is happening in the world," he explains. "It's her voice. Her 10-year-old voice, that is. I'm sure she will change."

At this stage, Esther refuses to be fazed by challenges. One story ends with her gaining the upper hand over her older brother. “Sorry,” she says, “but life doesn’t scare me one bit.”

Does it scare her creator? “Yes of course,” Sattouf replies, “like it does everyone, I think. But I’m lucky enough to write books, and that is a great comfort.”