by Kim Jooha
Melek Zertal is an Algerian-French artist based between Paris and Oakland, California. Zertal’s art combines the best of French and North American independent comics, while distancing from both and making its own. Beautifully illustrated and juxtaposed with their own rhythm, Zertal’s comics talk about things that are unfortunately uncommon in both French and North American independent comics– the plights and life of an immigrant and queer love. Zertal’s latest work is Together, published by Colorama, which I highly recommend.
Kim Jooha (KJ):How did you get into comics? Were you always interested in comics from a young age, or did you get into comics later in your artistic journey/career?
Melek Zertal (MZ): I started reading / copying mangas as a kid! Getting better at drawing was my way of making friends when I got to my new middle school. There, I met someone who became my best friend and was an absolute killer at drawings; her parents were artists (and her mom is a comic artist). I spent years rummaging through their books, CDs, DVDs, and I owe them a huge part of my cultural education, as well as nurturing my drawing journey, from 13 years old and up. They made me discover Ghost World around this age, and it made me understand that you could convey so many different feelings through comics.
KJ: How would you describe your artistic practice?
MZ: I would describe my practice as sporadic and unprofessional at best, my teenager self’s wet dream at worst.
KJ: Your instagram bio says “Oakland <-> Paris <-> Constantine”. Do you live in three cities? That’s so cool!
MZ: I was born and raised in Constantine, Algeria. I moved to Paris with my close family as a kid and have been living / travelling to Oakland for 5 years now. I don’t spend an equal time in each city but need a regular rotation of the three to feel whole.
KJ: Your art is beautiful and the dialogues are witty, but the subject matters often are not. As someone who has personally had difficult experiences with the immigration system in North America, to be honest I was surprised to find this topic, from someone with lived experience, in an indie French/European comic. Because North Americans do not care much about things outside of North America, when we think of Europe we only think about white Europe. We hear “news” about the migration crisis, or “read” post-colonialism, but especially in comics and indie comics it’s rare to face it directly. Do you think art / comics / indie comics in Europe and North America are less perceptive on such critical matters?
MZ: They’re definitely less perceptive on these matters due to the fact that people experiencing them rarely pursue careers in this field. Immigration/colonization history is very different in EU and North America, and the place of minorities in society is also very different. In France, art in general and comics are a big part of our education and upbringing. Every big and mid-level city has its own art school, which are all mostly free. There is almost no financial separation between students of different economic backgrounds, but what does separate them is the social background. We were probably a handful of students of colour in my 600 student school, and probably 4 or 5 students from North-African diaspora – the biggest minority in France.
I guess the funny thing is that I wasn’t mentioning my emigrating to France consciously in my work; I’ve been trying to emigrate to the US for a few years now and it’s been a very complicated process. That’s what I have been writing about… even though our immigration process in France also hasn’t been easy at all.
Maybe off topic but I’ll vent : I’m always mad at North American’s obnoxiousness to the rest of the world lol. I found myself having to “prove” my past, heritage, and history to people who have trouble understanding that racism and colonialism are issues that a lot of countries have to deal with.
A funny thing that I often think about is: most of the people reading and embracing my work are from North America and it might be only due to the fact that I’m mimicking image by image, word for word, what we non American think this country is. I’m taking every cliché that we have on American culture and putting them in a nice bow, and everybody seems to like it. Fiction, auto-fiction, assimilating to a new country’s culture… I feel like I have been in a way prepping my immigration to the US as early as possible by showing that I can speak their language and culture. And I feel like every immigrant can relate to this lol.
KJ: As I mentioned, one characteristic of your comics is the contrast of beautiful and meditative art and witty dialogue. How do you approach the relationship between words and images when you create your work?
MZ: I usually try to find the images before the words. I’ll find a string of images that strike me, that resonate together, and build off of that for the whole atmosphere of the story. Each story is actually just an addition of all the images I’ve stumbled on during the making of the book and which makes it go a certain way. For the text, I’m often writing down sentences and situations on notebooks or phone. Once I have found my atmosphere through the images, I’ll appoint a few sentences that match them and build off of that as well.
So, I’m constantly foraging for words and images, and once the mood board is set, just trying to put every puzzle piece where it belongs.
KJ: There is a sense of mystery in your works. Some narratives end in the middle, and even the narratives with resolutions give readers the feeling that there is more to this work than what they have understood so far. Is it intentional? What do you try to convey to the reader when you make your work?
MZ: The first books I’ve ever read and been a fan of were Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. I’m a huge fan of mystery in general but there’s this dread that, as a reader, you’ll find out who is the culprit before the author tells you, in which case you lose most or all interest. I’m not very interested in having this burden as an “author”, of holding your reader’s breath to give them a bow wrapped ending that would satisfy them (or not).
My favorite part is what comes before that : characters interacting between them and their environment. Like in those 90s movies that we grew up with, with the status quo before anything happens. For example: in Jumanji, when Peter rides his bike through the street, says hi to everybody in his small town then goes to his dad’s factory, or in Home Alone, before the family forgets Kevin. Those parts made me dream way more than the actual subject of the movie. I really want all my books to be this precise moment of naive bliss stretched forever.
What I want to convey is a feeling – a moment – an atmosphere – that I experienced once in my life and cannot transcribe with words. Those moments in time do not have a truth, a lie, a reason to be. They’re just here.
There comes a curation and accumulation of colours, frames, dialogues, to try and capture what I am trying to say. I usually don’t really know if I succeeded myself once the work is done, and can see the bigger picture of it way after the book is done, printed and published. I’m just now starting to like some work I’ve done five years ago, so that’s nice.
KJ: Your distinctive style and form seem to be born out of fusing diverse influences from both European and North American comics in addition to traditional media like cinema. You homage them too (for example, Danslecieltoutvabien and Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Could you discuss your artistic influences?
MZ: My influences are 95% of my work! I’d say most of my work is curating the things I want to use, and the actual final drawing bit is just the thing that is going to tie everything together in a coherent manner. I feel like each one of us is a sum of the things that move them, so my work is just a giant mash-up of this.
I’ve always been very fascinated by US pop culture (watching US shows/movies dubbed in French on Algerian TV as a kid). For influence name-drops, there would be: Daniel Clowes, The X-Files, Nick Drake, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Ween, Henni Alftan, Daniel Johnston, Verner Panton, Bladee, David Lynch, Elliott Smith, Top Chef (only the French one), Alex Katz, Dans Le Ciel Tout Va Bien, Malibu, Hockney, Sammy Stein, Mary Cassatt, Oneothrix Point Never, Stephen Shore,… 99% of them English speaking depressed men🥰 (I could dive on the why haha)
KJ: I love how you utilize the juxtapositional/serial nature of comics. You often juxtapose different styles, forms, narratives, or diegetic space-time. This juxtaposition is not always drastic. You also incorporate sequences with minuscule differences– like Eisenstein’s Montage theory, these produce effects that are more than the sum of two images/pages. How do you decide what kind of images/styles/forms to put in a specific place in a story and on a page? How do you approach a page design/layout?
MZ: There’s no formula for the dialogue between two images; it’s all luck and a vague gut feeling. Sometimes I don’t fully consciously know why some images work together, but understand the connections way after the book is published. It’s pretty fun not having 100% of the answers to your own work and discovering subconscious choices that make sense way after.
Since I draw most of my “key images” before knowing what the exact story is, I move them around like I would with a photo book. Images that talk for themselves but go a different direction once put together. And in another direction once you add some text! I love this possibility, because that’s what makes comics amazing: you take an image, you add some text, and the end product is different from the sum of its components.
The layout of the page actually dictates its content. I try to create a layout that will work within the page, within the spread, then within the whole flow of the book – the frame needs to have a meaning in the page, the page in the spread and the spread in the book. Kinda like Russian dolls. Then, I see which sequence of images and sentences would fit in this chosen layout… a giant puzzle.
Creating a rhythm is one of my favourite things in the comic medium. You can create a fast paced reading, then cut it with a long focus of an action that would take a millisecond. You can force the readers to pay attention to what you want them to pay attention to, the important details that they would have missed but are important to your storytelling.
KJ: We should talk about the amazing colour of your works. How do you approach colouring in your work? How important are they for setting the mood of your comics, for example? Are they different depending on the ending printing method? Why are word boxes yellow?
MZ: I’ve actually always had a hard time doing colours ! I started using alcohol markers while in school and it really helped me. They are pretty expensive and I had a very limited choice. Found a couple of colours that worked well together, and used them often. Added some accents here and there, and it kind of worked. I’m still working like this, but with a bigger array of colours. Now, after almost ten years, I feel like I can kind of understand what goes with what, next to which colour !
I don’t change the colour choice for the printing end. I’ve found myself working with a lot of risography printers, but it wasn’t really a deliberate choice – just happy luck. It ended up being absolutely great collaborating with people printing differently, with their own style and gear, and seeing how my take on colour was interpreted by them as I do not give colour matching directives.
As for the boxes, they’re here to achieve a color balance when the image doesn’t work by itself. Or, if the layout demands a box, I’ll work the colours around the yellow of the box.
And they’re definitely yellow because of old US comics. It just works so well, they figured it out perfectly!!!!
KJ: It seems that some of your works you painted digitally and some did not. Do you decide the technology depending on the specifics of the work you are working on?
MZ: Yes, as I said markers are pretty expensive – and my favourite brand are only purchasable in the US (they’re so toxic they’re banned in France), so I’m always rationing them for fear of running out.
For the only long body of work I made, I had to use computer coloring, but also because it fit the story: it was a quick paced, funny little book. It did not particularly need the poetry of smudged pencil and blurring and bleeding ink.
But I really don’t like working digitally. I’m trying to find another analog way of working colour, as markers are really not a long term solution.
KJ: As a queer woman, I am just SO HAPPY to read such great wlw love stories in the alternative comics/self-publishing world. Thinking about it, it is weird that wlw/queer women/lesbian comics are not common in our scene. Yes, this is “not a question and more of a comment” LOL. I cannot think of one in the French scene. Do you have any recommendations?
MZ: I’m so sorry I have no idea! This might be terrible to say but I am trying to be as honest as possible: I haven’t read that many comics in the past years I’ve been producing them. Like, at all. (Or, just my friends’). This is so bad!!!!! But I can’t, it’s like, too close to home.
KJ: Your work portrays the typical wlw desire of “yearning” so well. How?!
MZ: Thanks! I think I’ve just really suffered of it most of my life and need an outlet for it haha. I’ve always romanticized romance, and felt like it was not made for me from a young age – not the right body type, look, height, or even ethnicity. I could not even understand how people who had something in their life could not be entranced by this feeling.
Is there something more beautiful than to be mesmerized by someone’s unnoticeable habits? and something sadder than it being unrequited?
BUT ALSO, a big part of this is that I just want to be able to show these little things that can make someone connect to another person. The wlw storytelling is the only one I can create, because writing the exact same story and dialogue in a cis heterosexual relationship would not be perceived the same way, due to societal domination dynamics. If I want to convey an atmosphere, a feeling, through dialogues, I have to do it in an ideal world free of those dynamics– so, without men.
All in all, yearning and unrequited love are really the only subjects that i like to draw about. So probably all of my works are going to touch on it one way or another.
KJ: Every character in your work is unique and so livable. How do you build your characters? Do you think about their backstories? How do you decide their appearance, their hairstyles and clothes? How do you approach writing each character’s dialogue?
MZ: I don’t think of the characters beforehand. I usually write down my own fears of what could happen in a relationship : boredom? guilt? anger? sacrifice? And how it would play out if it was a movie. It’s essentially playing Barbie dolls with relationship insecurities, both and none of them are me. That’s also why from one book to another, the characters are not that different. I don’t feel the need to differentiate them drastically, they’re just created for the sake of the situation and dialogue. The hair, skin tone, clothes, stems from the need to be able to read them as two separate characters (and then I have fun with the choice of clothes, but it’s pretty secondary to the story).
KJ: Do you hate McDonalds? (JK, referring to the above scene in Together) But: I can’t believe that you insulted pizza-flavoured chips! Although it’s not specifically pizza-flavoured, ketchup-flavoured potato chips is an iconic Canadian classic. LOL. Have you heard of poutine, another Canadian classic?
MZ: I wrote the pizza-flavoured chip as a joke, as in “it would be the most disgusting thing I could think of at the moment”; I didn’t know it existed!!! But … I’m sorry if I insulted it without trying. I usually try not to insult anything if I haven’t tried it. After I try it, everything is fair game.
I have eaten quite some poutine and it’s just beyond me; why would you drown perfectly crispy fries in thick gravy? Also, I saw Pizzaghetti in Montreal–then I saw a Pizzaghetti slushie at the couche-tard. I wanted to put it in one of my comics but I didn’t want people to think I was erring on the side of the “funny absurd” because -no one would believe that it exists???
KJ: How was Montreal food? Of course it can’t be compared to France, but I remember I randomly went to a bakery and had the best croissant of my life. Actually, what do you think of North American food culture? I do love ketchup chips and poutine, but actually the thing I love the most is the diversity, i.e. food NOT originated from North America. You can have so many different cultures’ food in a city, and it’s a luxury now that I live in a much less immigrant-populated city. I miss Mexican, Middle Eastern, Greek, Chinese, Italian, etc. food soooo much! The only downside in Toronto was that because it’s far away from the ocean, the seafood price was high. But I believe Oakland is close to the Pacific Ocean, right? and I bet California has more diverse food in general… but I also assume that for French and/or Europeans, North American food culture would seem… too much (was gonna say “trash” but it might be too harsh* for the official page? I mean, I can’t have poutine everyday!
(*Festival Director note: it isn’t)
MZ: For Montreal food well… I have very specific memories of my time there.
The first time I spent a good amount of time in Montreal, I visited my aunt, who I hadn’t seen in years, and her husband and kids. We were super close when we were living in Algeria but she moved to Canada when I was a pre-teen, so it was great to see the rest of “her” family. I got there the first day of Ramadan, which I’d been very loosely following the previous years– I love to fast surrounded by family, but by myself at school, not so much. Her husband was an absolute fat-phobic mansplainer, and was telling my aunt to hide the food before she went to work because he couldn’t believe I was able to refrain from eating 8 hours straight lol. I also got a daily TED talk on how to create the next “ANGRY BIRDS” because for him that was the only way I could ever make money.
Anyhow, I discovered maple butter, which is incredible. I would spread it on kesra or khobz dar (two Algerian breads) that I would have made the day prior with my aunt, baking and hiding from her terrible husband in the kitchen 🙂
The second striking memory I have from Montreal is when I did a 2-week residency at the Jacuzzi Club, a little apparement/residency held by my now-friend Keren. I was very depressed at that time and remember wanting to binge on whatever was not available to me in France. In front of the apartment: Tim Hortons and the (questionable) joy of 24/7. I would go and buy Timbits at 2 am and sit in bed watching Stranger Things– which then made me want to try Eggo waffles. I had to leave a whole box untouched because it is quite literally cardboard? The same way Twizzlers are plastic? Anyhow, for people who don’t know what Timbits are, they’re just doughnut holes, but I’d never had them before that so I really thought that was their actual name until a year ago- Timbits. I also ate Domino’s for the first time there! I will not comment on this subject though.
As for food in the US, well… I feel very happy in California for sure. All of the international foods are amazing, but it’s also super funny to see how Americanized they are, or to see how Europeanized ours are. Mexican, Chinese and Japanese are my big three in California. You can just never go wrong, even in their Americanized versions. I discovered so many more Middle Eastern foods than we have in Europe, especially Iranian, Iraqi and Yemenite food. Also let’s talk about soul food! Barbecue ribs, brisket, mac n cheese, collard greens, potato salad? I am HERE for it.
What I am not here for on the other hand are Californian prices! I’m sure that seafood is exquisite but I still unfortunately need my two kidneys. One day I went to the restaurant with my partner and cried (this is not an exaggeration, I had tears rolling down my cheeks) when they ordered a 10$ side salad. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had a Californian income® but I still have a really hard time adjusting to the price, and the tax, and the tip. It just seems so out of touch with reality.
I actually have a favourite game when I’m back in Europe! Every time I eat something I play …. * drumroll * “How much would this cost in California?” 🙂
The things that I miss the most when I’m not in California are Trader Joe’s seasonal goodies, surf and turf burritos, all of the funky barely-FDA-approved health freak stuff, Chinese mom-and-pop donut shops, specialty neighbourhood coffee shops, seltzer (and hard seltzer), shocking people when I put mayonnaise on my French fries (I look them in the eyes and say that I am French, therefore know better. Anyways, fries are Belgian). Mochi muffins from Third Culture Bakery. But above all, In’n’Out.
When I’m in California, I really miss Algerian food and kebabs. Like, European kebabs: mystery minced meat swimming in its grease pool, grilled for god knows how many moons, accompanied by “salade tomate oignon”, and sauce algérienne – spicy creamy crunchy sauce. Its soft pillowy bread and its more than lovely price of 5 euros – 5.5 with a huge French fry portion, 6 with a soft drink. The best drunk food ever created. I miss it so much.
Cheese tip: Trader Joe’s French cheese is the shit. (And their frozen croissants!!) That’s it, that’s our product. Don’t go spend 200% more at Whole Foods for bleh cakey half-moldy milk.
I do miss bread though. Ah, bread…
And obviously the GREAT and AMAZING and CHEAP food that you find everywhere but everybody knows about this so… I think flaunting the price/quality ratio to my Californian friends visiting Paris/Europe is probably one my most toxic traits 😬
One thing that is for sure is that it would be very hard for me to live in a city that doesn’t have a decent immigrant population. Food is the first bond between people, and in my case and many others a very comforting aspect of life when things get tough. It’s super hard being oceans away from your family and loved ones, and recreating/sharing the food they made you love or you discovered with them can sometimes be the only thing to mend a heartbreak. The joy of finding an ingredient/brand /food item you use back home in a far away place is absolutely unmatched!
KJ: Do you like facial peel-off masks?
MZ: I like them as much as they unsettle me, but I’m more of a “forgotten-ripe-avocado-mashed-with-a-black-banana-end-of-fridge-mask” kind of person. But peel-offs are definitely funnier to draw.
KJ: Finally, do you have any upcoming projects?
MZ: I’m currently writing a book with poétesse Christina Svenson about *drumroll* a failed relationship, through the scope of food, my very first passion. It will be published by Perfectly Acceptable Press.
I also would like to do a third book with Colorama, that will be the end of the Fragile-Together combo, this time about the looming breakup.
And lastly, steering away from sad relationships, I’m also working on a mystery ethereal book with Studio Fidèle, not too far from what I started with Sleepless. Ideally with a Las Vegas set, but we’ll see how it goes…
And also working on a tiny clothesline with Studio Fidèle 🙂
Our sincere thanks to Melek Zertal and Kim Jooha for their time and efforts on this interview! You can follow Melek Zertal on Instagram or purchase TOGETHER from Colorama.
Kim Jooha is a critic, curator, editor, and former publisher of comics. You can follow her on Instagram as well!