CARTOONS AS ART

Car­toon strips have been part of French cul­ture for more than a cen­tury and can be a se­ri­ous busi­ness, says Robin Gauldie

France - - Contents - (con­gres-per­pig­nan.com/agenda/ fes­ti­val-in­ter­na­tional-du-disque); and the

Dis­cover why the bande dess­inée plays such an im­por­tant part in French cul­ture.

In Bri­tain, comics are no longer just for chil­dren. There is still a nos­tal­gic fond­ness for Des­per­ate Dan, Den­nis the Men­ace, Dan Dare and other char­ac­ters from the pages of The Dandy, The Beano and The Ea­gle (not to men­tion the ju­ve­nile sca­tol­ogy of Viz). But the idea of the ‘se­ri­ous’ graphic novel has taken root among ‘ les An­glo-sax­ons’. Artists such as the French-ira­nian Mar­jane Sa­trapi, au­thor of the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal Perse­po­lis, and the multi-tal­ented Neil Gaiman, cre­ator of Sand­man, have given the genre cred­i­bil­ity.

Even so, we are only just catch­ing up with France, where the bande dess­inée has long been taken so se­ri­ously that it is known as le neu­vième art. The other eight are, ap­par­ently: architecture, sculp­ture, paint­ing, mu­sic, lit­er­a­ture, the per­form­ing arts, cin­ema and tele­vi­sion/ radio. Some BD fans ar­gue that their favourite genre de­serves to come before cin­ema in the peck­ing or­der as the first graphic novels pre­date films.

The grand­fa­ther of the French comics scene was a pro­fes­sor of botany at the Sor­bonne, Ge­orges Colomb, alias ‘Christophe’. He cre­ated La Famille Fe­nouil­lard, the story of a glo­be­trot­ting French fam­ily, in se­rial form in 1889, and later as a book that has been hailed as the first graphic novel in France.

One of Colomb’s botany stu­dents was Mar­cel Proust, and both men would prob­a­bly have been as­tounded to see the lat­ter’s best-known work turned into a graphic novel. Stéphane Heuet’s BD ver­sion of Du Côté de Chez Swann – the first vol­ume of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu – was pub­lished in English last year. The trans­la­tor, Arthur Gold­ham­mer, said it was like “a pi­ano re­duc­tion of an or­ches­tral score”. That’s how se­ri­ous the French are about their BD.

One in eight books pub­lished in France is a comic or graphic novel, ac­cord­ing to Livres Hebdo, the French pub­lish­ing in­dus­try’s trade mag­a­zine. Al­most 350 pub­lish­ers pro­duce around 5,000 ti­tles a year, and sales are es­ti­mated at more than €400 mil­lion. This is big busi­ness.

ABOVE: Marc-an­toine Mathieu’s Réal­ité, Sor­tie de Se­cours on a build­ing in Rue de Beaulieu, An­goulême; RIGHT: The Cité In­ter­na­tionale de la Bande Dess­inée et de l’im­age

No prizes for guess­ing which char­ac­ter is France’s comic best-seller. It is, of course, Astérix, whose se­ries sells more than 1.6 mil­lion copies a year. I first en­coun­tered the diminu­tive Gaul and his pals while on a fam­ily hol­i­day to Brit­tany, only a few years after their de­but in 1959 and some time before the first English edi­tion ap­peared. To a ten-year-old used to quintessen­tially Bri­tish comics, the French ver­sions were a rev­e­la­tion. Even the sound ef­fects were dif­fer­ent: I came home say­ing “Paf!” and “Boum!” in­stead of “Pow!” and “Bam!”, which puz­zled my con­tem­po­raries.

The best-known cre­ative duo in the genre, Al­bert Uderzo and René Goscinny, in­tro­duced the world to their com­pact hero in the launch is­sue of their mag­a­zine Pi­lote. Over time, they cre­ated a sup­port­ing cast that in­cludes Astérix’s gi­gan­tic side­kick Obélix, his faith­ful mutt Idé­fix (Dog­matix in the English edi­tion), and the druid Panoramix (Getafix in English). Astérix’s ad­ven­tures have taken him to Rome, Egypt, In­dia, and to Bri­tain ( Astérix chez les Bre­tons, 1966).

The hu­mour of Astérix is, of course, aimed pri­mar­ily at younger read­ers, but the au­thors amuse par­ents, too, with so­phis­ti­cated vis­ual puns, plays on words, and lam­poons that gen­tly send up French clichés about their neigh­bours. Among the an­cient Bri­tons (who carry um­brel­las and wear bowler hats), our Gal­lic he­roes dis­cover, ev­ery­thing stops at five o’clock – not for tea, which had yet to reach Bri­tain, but for a cup of hot wa­ter.

Scan­tily clad hero­ine

In Eng­land, ac­cord­ing to Philip Larkin, sex­ual in­ter­course be­gan in 1963 “be­tween the end of the Chat­ter­ley ban and the Bea­tles’ first LP”. In France, comics went sexy around the same time. Jean-claude For­est’s sci-fi comic strip Bar­barella – first pub­lished as a hard­back book in 1964 and filmed by Roger Vadim, star­ring his then-wife Jane Fonda, in 1968 – was un­til the early 1970s deemed too risqué to be sold to mi­nors. Com­pared to what is avail­able now, the an­tics of its scan­tily clad hero­ine seem tame. But by treat­ing Bar­barella as some­thing for adults only, the au­thor­i­ties cre­ated a new genre of graphic novels for grown-ups – books de­signed not just to tickle the li­bido, but to ap­peal to more re­fined in­tel­lec­tual tastes and épa­ter les bour­geois, too.

Surfing the crest of this new wave were Les Hu­manoïdes As­so­ciés, a mot­ley crew of writers and artists who be­came leg­ends in the BD world, in­clud­ing Moe­bius, Philippe Druil­let and JeanPierre Dion­net. Their mag­a­zine Mé­tal Hurlant, launched in 1974, had a sci­ence-fic­tion twist – Moe­bius went on to design sets for Ge­orge Lu­cas’s The Em­pire Strikes Back and Luc Bes­son’s The Fifth El­e­ment, among oth­ers – but the genre is not all rock­ets and ro­bots.

West­erns are big, from the light­hearted hu­mour of Lucky Luke, cre­ated by the Bel­gian artist Mor­ris (Mau­rice de Bévère) in 1947 and still go­ing strong at 70, to tales of ruth­less gun­slingers such as Moe­bius’s Blue­berry, and Le Bouncer, the one-armed anti-hero cre­ated by Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky and François Boucq. Fighter pi­lots such as Tan­guy and Laver­dure, cre­ated by Al­bert Uderzo, are also pop­u­lar he­roes. And we must not for­get that side­burned swash­buck­ler Corto Mal­tese, fa­thered by the Ital­ian Hugo Pratt but so cen­tral to the French comics scene that his ad­ven­tures reg­u­larly oc­cupy sev­eral pages in Le Monde’s week­end edi­tion.

BD has its se­ri­ous and ed­u­ca­tional side too. In Bulles d’en­cre, a spe­cial­ist book­shop in Poitiers, I find Win­ston Smith; Une Vie, an imag­i­na­tive retelling of Ge­orge Or­well’s 1984. Brows­ing the shelves at Le Bu­veur d’en­cre, a funky lit­er­ary café in An­goulême, I come across

Les An­nées Noires 1940-45,

a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween six lo­cal artists that tells the story of the city and its peo­ple un­der the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion. This sum­mer’s bumper edi­tion of

Alexan­dria Quar­tet.

Nowhere in France is BD taken more se­ri­ously than in An­goulême, soi-disant world cap­i­tal of the comic book and venue of an in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val, where street names take the form of speech bub­bles, buses are dec­o­rated with favourite char­ac­ters, and works by more than two dozen of the genre’s stars adorn build­ings all over town. A lime­stone mono­lith out­side the sta­tion could at first glance be a war me­mo­rial. At sec­ond glance, it is dec­o­rated not with the names of fallen sol­diers, but with speech bub­bles: ‘ Poff! Bonng! Plouf!’ It is an obelisk for Obélix, ded­i­cated to his co-cre­ator René Goscinny (1926-77).

On the side of the build­ing at 44 Rue de Mont­moreau, Philippe Druil­let’s Voy­age Au Travers des Im­ages de­picts ti­tanic space war­riors pow­er­ing across a vivid blue sky criss-crossed by yel­low laser beams. Other walls are tri­umphs of trompe l’oeil, such as Max Ca­banes’s La Fille des Rem­parts, gaz­ing across the

River Char­ente from her perch on Boule­vard Pas­teur, or François Boucq’s Chas­sez le Na­turel, a stam­pede of African fauna ap­par­ently burst­ing through the wall of an apart­ment build­ing above Boule­vard du Doc­teur Duroselle. Through false win­dows at 58 Av­enue Gam­betta, Lucky Luke and his horse Jolly Jumper share a laugh while their arch-en­e­mies the Dal­tons skulk above. At Square Saint An­dré, two Sap­phic lovers em­brace in Ys­laire’s Me­moires du Xx­eme Siè­cle, while in Rue de Beaulieu, Marc-an­toine Mathieu’s Réal­ité, Sor­tie de Se­cours shows two pe­cu­liar chaps peer­ing through from an al­ter­nate uni­verse.

A statue of Corto Mal­tese him­self guards the foot­bridge that crosses the Char­ente to the Cité In­ter­na­tionale de la Bande Dess­inée et de l’im­age – the Lou­vre of the graphic novel.

CIBD’S col­lec­tion traces the his­tory of comics, high­light­ing land­marks such as the in­tro­duc­tion of speech bub­bles – a sur­pris­ingly late in­no­va­tion – to the use of colour and so­phis­ti­cated ef­fects.

It cel­e­brates cre­ators from all over the world, with ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions each year. This sum­mer’s show marked the cen­te­nary of Amer­i­can artist Will Eis­ner, cre­ator of the masked hero, The Spirit.

If you are a col­lec­tor, or a new con­vert to the de­lights of BD, you will find up to 5,000 ti­tles – from clas­sics to ris­ing stars – in the CIBD’S book­shop. I could browse there for hours. I can also for­age hap­pily among the stalls at events such Les Utopi­ales (www.utopi­ales.org), held in Nantes every Novem­ber (1st-6th in 2017); Per­pig­nan’s Fes­ti­val In­ter­na­tionale du Disque et de la BD

Case­mate, one of France’s big­gest BD mag­a­zines, de­votes 32 pages to Le Premier Homme, by Al­bert Ca­mus. This is a bit like the Bri­tish comic 2000 AD de­vot­ing an is­sue to Lawrence Dur­rell’s

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: Obélix and Idé­fix meet Cleopa­tra at the Parc Astérix near Paris; Jean-pierre Gi­brat’s orig­i­nal il­lus­tra­tion Gare d’auster­litz made €47,500 at auc­tion; Max Ca­banes’s La Fille des Rem­parts, a trompe l’oeil in An­goulême; Car­toon he­roes L

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