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
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
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