With an excess of spirit and driven to be defiantly different, THEO PANAYIDES meets an artist who divides his creative talents between comic books and jazz
It’s clear straight away that Gilbert Simon is a bit original, a little “different” as he puts it – though in fact I have my suspicions even before we meet, mostly because of where we meet: not in his house, or office, or wherever he happens to be staying while in Cyprus, but in a cigar lounge, one of the few in Nicosia. “It’s called Tobacco House but I call it ‘Tobacco Home’, because it’s my second home,” he explains fondly – though it’s not like he has a stake in the shop, or anything to do with the cigar industry. He does lots of other things, to be sure: he’s a comic-book artist, a jazz singer-songwriter, a star of a TV reality show (the Middle Eastern version of Star Academy), an actor, a teacher, a voice-over artist, a marketing man – but is he involved in the production of delicious little tubes of fine tobacco, bringing pleasure to millions? Close, but no cigar.
Tobacco House is actually a shop – but there’s also a kind of backroom where a few men sit on a Friday morning (Valentine’s Day, to be precise), puffing away companionably. Gilbert gets up, cigar in hand, and comes over to greet me, a suave, compact man with effusive energy and a style that’s direct and assertive without being belligerent. People often note a resemblance to Robert Downey Jr, he says – and it’s definitely there, not just in the features but a certain presence, an excess of spirit. He speaks with an American accent, adding to the echoes of Downey – but in fact he’s Lebanese, actually Lebanese-Armenian on his mother’s side. “People ask me, have you been to the States? I’ve never foot in the States!” So he picked up the accent at school? “No, from Bugs Bunny. I was three years old, I used to do cartoons and voices… I can even be speakin’ wiv a British accent, if you like,” he adds, lapsing briefly into Guy Ritchie-speak. Later he does Porky Pig, and of course it’s an easy one (the old “yabadee-yabadee that’s all folks”) but I’m struck by how instantly he turns it on, and how dead-on it sounds when I play it back on the tape recorder.
He’s elegant, in a slightly raffish way. The eyes are brown, the hair flecked with grey and standing up in front, in a kind of 50s pompadour. He’s wearing a blazer with a tiny gold guitar on the lapel – and of course still smoking the cigar, a ‘Flor Dominicana’ from the Dominican Republic. “I’m a huge fan of cigars,” he says with feeling. “I’m an aficionado… It’s not what people think, it has nothing to do with showing off.” Cigars take time, he explains (unlike cigarettes, which he quit years ago), and also give time; he’ll sit here drawing, puffing on a smoke and sipping Cypriot coffee, and he loves it, it calms him down. They also pair well with wine, brandy and coffee, all of which he also adores. “And they’re also a good pair for jazz.”
The jazz is one side, the comic books another. The latter aspect is why we’re here, because he’s just done a five-day cartooning workshop organised by French bookshop La Boîte à Lire (sharing his experience as the cover artist for Asterix & the Picts, most notably) – but music is just as important, not just to him (“I can’t walk without headphones, I gotta have Sinatra in my ears, or Charles Aznavour”) but also in describing him. Sometimes, with an artist, you talk about the work – but with Gilbert you talk about the man, because everything flows from the bubbly wellspring of his self-expression, music and comics and everything else. “Like, back in the day, I used to love Converse – the shoe, y’know, with the white bit in front – so I used to draw 90 per cent of my characters wearing Converse. Now, as I’m maturing – I’m 35 now – it’s the same thing. You always put what you love in the artform.” His creations (notably Mwet, who we’ll get to later) are extensions, and reflections, of his personality. It’s a case of the artist being also the art.
He was always a little apart, always himself, growing up in Beirut in the 90s – a city even more chaotic then than it is now. (Why can’t Lebanese politicians get their act together? “I don’t do politics, I’m sorry. I can’t answer that.”) His dad is a drummer and singer, his mum “is a writer and used to be a painter,” says Gilbert – though, when I ask what she’s written, he adds that “she never released anything, it’s mainly personal”; once again, the artist is also the art. “It was different, yeah,” he notes of his childhood. “Because other kids were playing, and I was drawing”. He’s an only child, and may have been something of a lonely kid; the family travelled constantly (his dad was in a band called Le Amici), the young Gilbert creative, close to his parents – it was his mother, years later, who called to tell him about the competition to draw a cover for the new Asterix book – and distinctly precocious. At three he was singing ‘New York, New York’, at 15 he was teaching cartooning; at 18 he moved into marketing, getting a job doing cartoon advertising (i.e. drawing cartoons for use in adverts) for an agency in Kuwait. He stayed in the sector – rising to senior art director – till 2011, when he joined the contestants on Star Academy.
“I’m a 90s kid,” he muses, having reached for a lighter to keep the cigar going, “but I was always – uh, let’s say avant-garde. Sometimes I feel like I’m a futurist, sometimes I feel like I’m an avant-gardist.” (Robert Downey Jr, he tells me later, is also a futurist, meaning someone who’s forward-thinking and creatively open.) “Sometimes I feel like I’m – not 35, anyway. I’ve never felt my age… Sometimes, y’know, when I sing Sinatra or something that’s a classic, I stop and wonder, like: ‘I’ve never belonged in this generation’.” The 50s hair, the blazers, the cigars, the crooning; all part of his personal style – which may have started out as escape, and has now flowered into originality.
All well and good – but being original only gets you so far, at least in the unforgiving minds of the audience. What has Gilbert Simon done, exactly? There’s the music, but it’s fairly intermittent; “Every now and then I release something”. He composed a song called ‘Peace on Christmas’ in 2018, and recorded it alongside other artists from various countries (the performance is on YouTube, with about 3,000 views). There’s a smattering of movie roles and voice-overs. He made the semi-finals on Star Academy, representing Lebanon, but it doesn’t seem to have led to many offers from record companies. “Um, how am I gonna put this?” he frowns when I ask what happened. “They see that you have experience” – meaning his experience in marketing – “and you can’t be a puppet of the industry. So that’s why I didn’t get chances to sign with people a lot.” I assume a self-made, defiantly ‘different’ outsider isn’t the most obvious prospect for corporate stardom.
Then there’s Mwet, his baby, his creation, a mischievous seagull (‘mouette’ is French for seagull) who’s developed along with his creator. “I’m a huge 60s-cinema person, I love Louis De Funes, Peter Sellers… And that was my style for Mwet when I first created him [in 2003].” He was racy but not really dirty, “stealing the bikinis”, that kind of thing – but Gilbert matured and “Mwet started maturing with me, started wearing blazers, started wearing jeans, started smoking a cigar”.
What’s his personality, though?
“Everything I am, and everything I’m not,” he replies cryptically – then elucidates: “Today I can say Mwet is a seagull with the heart of an eagle. So – yours truly,” adds Gilbert, pointing to himself with a little bow.
Mwet has been the recipient of all his creator’s marketing savvy. “I started promoting Mwet on mugs, on shoes, on shirts, in commercials.” The seagull appeared in a coffee commercial, directed by Gilbert in 2016 – yet, 17 years after his birth, the anarchic bird still hasn’t really flown. “There are no Mwet books out yet. I’m working on my first official one,” admits Gilbert. It’s going to be a James Bond spoof, pitting Mwet against the blue-footed booby (a real-life endangered bird) who’ll appear as ‘Agent DD7’ – ‘DD’ being a bra size, tying in with ‘booby’ as in… well, you know. Did I mention it’ll all be set in Cyprus?
Sounds like a laugh – yet there’s also a lingering sense that, like Mwet, Gilbert Simon hasn’t entirely found his wings yet, and indeed that his style and preoccupations (again like Mwet, with his roots in 60s cinema) may be quite a hard sell in today’s ruthless market. And of course there’s the personal side; it’s Valentine’s Day, I have to ask. “I’ve been single for a while,” he admits, and shrugs eloquently: “I’ve become selective, with time and maturity… Trust has become – not an issue, but it takes time, y’know? To find someone that supports you, that takes you as you are”. He is, after all, an unusual 30-something, treating his smartphone with disdain (the upside of being trapped for four months in Star Academy was not having phones, he says firmly) and excited by long-dead celebs of the 50s and 60s; and of course he’s always gone his own way. “I’m a big kid,” says Gilbert at one point – and he means in reference to cartooning, but there’s also a hint of the kid’s self-absorption. Maybe he’s one of those people who thrives more on being cared-for than caring.
Maybe; but if so, it’s more than just ego. “I’m not gonna say I was greedy. But I always – I wanted more out of life,” he recalls, looking back on his 35 years. “When I got that spark of insanity and fame, though [on Star Academy], and the cameras and spotlights – well, it’s fun, but it’s not the answer.
“Some people think that people like us always want attention – no! I just want to tell it like it is. Like, I grab my guitar and I sing my heart out. I want to write, I speak my heart out. I want to draw, I draw my heart out. That’s how it is. It’s not arrogance, it’s not self-promotion! It’s just the love of what you do.”
To be honest, I wish him well; he has so much energy and seems so candid and unorthodox, with his pompadour and his Porky Pig impressions. “So you too fell in the magic potion as a kid,” laughed Albert Uderzo, the (then) 86-year-old creator of Asterix, meeting Gilbert at a presentation for Asterix & the Picts (a reference to Obelix, whose childhood tumble in a cauldron of magic potion left him with superhuman strength). Winning that contest in 2013 was a wake-up call, he admits, re-igniting his cartooning career which had stalled somewhat. “Y’know, sometimes you don’t find the right window, you find a door,” he says, with the hopefulness of every youngish artist. “And either one is going to open sooner or later.”
What if they don’t?
“Dude, you knock on the door. Ask and you’ll be given… And if you lose hope, grab a marker, draw a door like Droopy [the cartoon character] did and open it. Make your own door!”
Doors – or potential doors – seem to be opening in 2020: not just the Mwet book but a hoped-for film project, a musical titled Too Tired to See which he’s currently rewriting. That too is slated to be set partly in Cyprus; he loves it here and may well stick around for a bit, taking long walks and hanging out at Tobacco House. “I’m writing, I’m at peace now. You can say it’s a long vacation after what’s happening in Lebanon, because it was really sad.” Gilbert Simon is assertive yet noble, a seagull – like he says – with the heart of an eagle; no surprise that his Instagram account is ‘gilbird_simon’! “That’s who I am, the free bird,” he explains. “People who know me call me the free bird.” With a cigar in its mouth, no doubt.