April 26, 1986 was meant to be another normal Saturday - for most people in the world. Except for Chernobyl.
After an experiment at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Prypiat, Ukraine, a severe steam explosion caused a meltdown and the release of radioactive material. Soon things got out of hand, and the reactor that had been running since 1977 started to collpase and spread radioactive material for thousands of miles over Europe. At that point noone was realizing yet that this was to be the greatest nuclear catastrophe of the 20th century.
When these events took place, back in 1986, French comic book artist Emmanuel Lepage was 19 years old – like many of his readers today would have been. Since the mid 1980s he is widely know for using the medium of comic books for social criticism and therefor most people will probably have heard of his books „Muchacho“, and „Oh les Filles“.
In his 2013 publication „Un printemps à Tchernobyl“ (A Spring at Chernobyl published in German by SPLITTER), Lepage produced an impressive backflash and at the same time presents a very interesting and personal investigation of the accident's long term impact on its surroundings. A task that obviously has greatly improved his style art-wise.
The book's story initially started with a request by Dominique Legeard, founder of Dessin’acteurs (http://www.dessinacteurs.org/) in 2004. He invited Emmanuel Lepage to join a special project and the artist and some of his colleagues finally visited Chernobyl in April 2008, after much preparation. They intended to create an extensive report on the families living in these highly contaminated areas, driven by a clear intention to support a critical debate on the use of nuclear technology in general.
At the beginning of his book, the author picks up his audience in a sober, reserved and matter-of-fact fashion.
Numbers, facts and figures are presented to take readers back to April 1986, back to the moment when people received the catastrophic news and suddenly had to deal with it. This research material also obviously represents the period of time that preceded Emmanuel Lepage's actual mission. It sums up the ideals and slogans of his colleagues and himself, before they set out to find the "real thing". From a reader's perspective, the initial style produces a great distance - one gets the far-away-look that always sets in, whenever facts dominate a story. It is a common phenomenon whenever people go about analyzing, specifying, classifying, and rationalizing - although they really should be horrified.
Still, this feeling rapidly vanishes, as soon as we arrive at the actual scene with Lepage. All of a sudden facts are of no further importance. At Chernobyl we encounter human beings and are confronted with numerous emotions and a range of subtle impressions – many of which come across quite contradictory. More than once the book reminds of Tarkowsky's science fiction classic „Stalker“, where people also frequently enter a „forbidden zone“ that is guarded by military, shielded off from the public, and dominated by a very peculiar atmosphere.
It feels the same here: In „Un printemps à Tchernobyl“ we are not only confronted with people, but with the soul of an ever changing place, where obvious danger remains unseen – and where individuals are bound to become meaningless.
It is almost a kind of surreal environment, where only nature rules. It isn't facts and numbers, nor the constant beeping of the contamination meters that stir your feelings in the end. Its the unique atmosphere – the one the artist himself senses and puts on paper through his sketchy brown-tinted drawings. He couldn't have chosen a better way to do it. You are expecting to see something horrible, and yet – like the artist himself – find out you are looking at something horribly beautiful. The harder you look, the more so. It almost makes you afraid to admit it. In „Stalker“, Tarkovsky called his zone a „room for wishes“. This is quite similar to how one might perceive Lepage's landscapes. On their return, all the artists in this project seemed to have arrived at the end of an inner journey, - the kind that never leaves you unchanged.
On closing the book, a definite feeling remains: Emmanuel Lepage has encountered something that is hard to grasp.
We can't see it, yet we can feel it. It's a kind of imminent truth. It isn't a loud coup against a nuclear power lobby, nor a striking denunciation of evident political or economical power-play. It is a very quiet knowledge that merely shines through. It is hardly to be felt – and much more important. It is the thing that might really scare us if it looked us straight in the face - infinitely more than a stupid system's mere greed for power.