Although subtitled “A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs”, I learned more about winemaking than comic creating in The Initiates. And that was great, because I already know about graphic novels, and the lessons imparted by Etienne Davodeau about the patience and craft need for fine wine were welcome and insightful.
Author Davodeau proposed to Richard Leroy an exchange of knowledge. Davodeau will come work in Leroy’s vineyard, and Leroy will explain wine making and tasting to him. Meanwhile, Davodeau will provide Leroy a reading list of graphic novels and introduce him to their authors. We, the readers, will be enlightened by the discoveries they make about what creative work in various fields has in common.
The greyscale art has a certain bleakness that represents well the hard work in the vineyards, but it also provides a realism that underpins these two real-life friends and makes us feel we know them and share their journey. There’s a ton of conversation, but it’s all kept visually interesting as the two travel together and move through a variety of settings.
It makes sense for the visit to the fields to begin in winter, as the vintner prepares the vines for coming growth, but I was surprised to see Leroy’s first exposure to the comic business to be a visit to a printing plant. There’s a certain similarity in the established businesses, each with their speciality methods and particular equipment, but printing is near the end of the comic’s creation, while the growing of the grapevines has just begun. That’s not the only difference between the two crafts — much is made of the winemaker’s connection to the earth and the seasons, the way different soils and weather affect the grapes, while comic-making is a solitary, quiet work done locked away. Yet the visit to the printers shows that even that is dependent upon others to create the final product.
Both also involve a lot of labor, from the weeding and staking and plowing in the fields to the time spent drawing. This book is over 250 pages, with plenty of detail, and as the seasons pass in the narrative, I’m led to think about the time spent capturing these illustrations, although we rarely see artists drawing in this book. Most of the knowledge in that area comes from visiting conventions and exhibitions.
When it comes to the comics read and their creators, the more you’re familiar with European creators, the more you’ll understand the references. Leroy does read two familiar American works, Maus and Watchmen, although he doesn’t like the latter. There is a list at the back of the various books (which aren’t always mentioned by full title in the story) they read, which helps a little. There’s also a list of the wines they drank. It’s actually refreshing not to be familiar with the particular works discussed, since it helped me concentrate on the universalities of artistic creation.
My favorite part, though, featured a creator I loved — Lewis Trondheim guest-stars to discuss his Approximate Continuum Comics. Leroy doesn’t like it much, particularly wondering why Trondheim draws himself with a bird beak, which leads to some informative discussion about autobiographical work.
For the wine, there’s a chapter on “biodynamics”, or what sounds like homeopathy for plants, which gets a little mystical, while one involving a visit from an assistant of Robert Parker discusses reputation and ratings. On the comic side, they visit an established publisher. Even the comic chapters feature wine, as everyone tends to go to lunch and enjoy. However, there’s another parallel, too. The winemaker trims his vine buds, so only a few grapes are allowed to grow on each, and the publisher only selects a few books, those they have faith in. I was inspired, by the end, to better appreciate just how much hard work goes into a delicious wine or a beautiful comic. This would make a wonderful gift to any artist, or those aspiring to be. (The publisher provided a review copy.)