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Franco Belgian comics, also known as bande dessinée/BDs, have a rich and tumultuous history, and have changed the world of comics. Bande dessinée translates literally from French as “drawn strips”. They have gone through many stylistic changes over the past century and come in quite a few different styles which are done in varying types of media, such as watercolor, pencil, and ink to name a few. Amazingly enough, Franco Belgian comics have been loved so much throughout the years that the industry can easily compete with Japanese manga and American comic books, despite being very different from the two (Echotokki, 2017). Everything from the content to even the way the pages are laid out has evolved since when the first Franco-Belgian comics gained popularity in the early 1900s, and have had a major impact on comic book culture today.
Before World War 1, the United States dominated the world of comics (Echotokki, 2017). However, Franco Belgian comics had a meteoric rise after gaining favor when they were first published in magazines for children. Though Franco-Belgian comic series are now usually sold as hard cover books, it wasn’t always this way. In their early years, they were not stand-alone comics but were featured in magazines and newspapers as “episodes”. France was highly catholic at this point in history and the Catholic church used these early comics as a way to try to teach children good morals. Since this was also at the turn of the century, the Victorian morals and good sensibilities were still held in high esteem and people found virtuous and proper behavior very important. It was originally drawn in text comics format, with the text written beneath the images, instead of in air bubbles that you often see in in comics today. Word bubbles wouldn’t become common place until later in the century, due to educators and the church finding this format unsuitable for teaching, which at this time was the primary goal of Franco-Belgian comics (Screech, 2005).
The short comics found in newspapers and magazines for children in the early 1900s were the precursors to the more standard Franco-Belgian comics. The title of one of the first true bande dessinée is usually attributed to Les Pieds Nickelés (translated as “sensitive feet”), which was created in 1908 by Louis Forton. Initially, it was published in a newspaper called L’Épatant. It was meant to be a satirical piece that poked fun at the government and the aristocracy. Prominent political figures even appeared in the comics from time to time. The story follows the misadventures of three work-avoidant men, Ribouldingue, Filochard and Croquignol who are always at odds with the law. Their self-proclaimed “sensitive feet” are apparently the cause of their ambivalence towards hard work. This particular work was revolutionary in terms of layout. Les Pieds Nickelés was the first major band dessinée to have speech bubbles instead of the traditional text comic format. Apparently, Forton had to fight tooth and nail with the publishers to be able to use speech bubbles in his comics. (Kousemaker, 1970)
Les Pieds Nickelés is one of the longest running comic series, and is still ongoing and vastly popular to this day. Though Forton died in 1934, other artists kept the series going, and multiple film adaptations have been made since then. (Kousemaker,1970)
Another influential precursor to the modern Franco-Belgian comics is a series called Bécassine, which was written by Jacqueline Rivière and illustrated by Joseph Pinchon in 1905. This piece was featured in a magazine for young girls called La Semaine de Susette. Bécassine, the main character of the story, is a housemaid from Breton (a province of France), and though she is absent minded and a bit foolish as her name implies, she is the first female protagonist in the history of popular Franco-Belgian comics. At first, she was not depicted in a positive light, as people from Breton were seen as bumpkins by the Parisians at this time. However, as the comic (which was originally just a placeholder on a blank page in La Semaine de Susette), gained popularity, Bécassine was shown in a more amicable and less foolish way. From its original publication in 1905 until the latest issue in 1950, 27 issues of Bécassine have been published. Since this publication came before even Les Pieds Nickelés, it is considered to be the first true band dessinée. This comic has speech bubbles, and also it inspired the Franco-Belgian comic style of “ligne clair” which would appear in the most popular Franco-Belgian comic; Les Aventures de Tintin (revolyy LLC).
Another magazine that was highly important to the history and progression of Franco Belgian comics is Le Journal de Mickey. Paul Winckler wanted to capitalize on the highly popular Disney character, Mickey Mouse and thus created “Le Journal de Mickey”, which he began distributing in 1934. This eight-page magazine follows the stories of Mickey Mouse as well as other Disney characters. Just four years after its first publication, 400,000 copies of the magazine were sold, which was twice as much as the competing magazines of the time. (Marshall, Bill; Johnston, Christina, 2005)
This age in which bande dessinée were so popular was referred to as The Golden Age of BD (Gabut, 2004). Part of what made Le Journal De Mickey so successful was the fact that it had much higher quality printing than other publications and was also quite a bit bigger. It followed the American style of having word bubbles instead of being in text comic format, and was interactive in the sense that interspersed throughout the magazine, were letters from readers, stories, and contests. Though it had monumental success in the 1930s, when World War 2 began, Le Journal de Mickey’s headquarters had to move to an unoccupied part of France. The war depleted the countries supplies of paper and ink, resulting in poorer quality printing and much shorter volumes. During the war, Germany prohibited American comics, so the comics about the Disney characters were omitted and replaced by traditional French text comic format comics (Marshall, Bill; Johnston, Christina, 2005). Soon Le Journal de Mickey had to cease publication because of a huge decrease in sales. It was out of print until it was revived in the 1950s; which once again became incredibly popular and is the leader in French comic books for children to this day (Le Journal de Mickey fête ses 70 ans, 2004).
The next work I will discuss is the series “The Adventures of Tintin” which was created by Georges Remi, who is more commonly known as Hergé. This comic is one of the most famous and well-loved Franco-Belgian comics in history and is popular in many countries, including the United States. Originally it was published in a magazine for children called Le Petit Vingtième, but later was sold in hard-cover form. The series follows a character named Tintin, who is a reporter who gets into all kinds of predicaments with his trusty companion; a white Fox Terrier named Milou, which translates to “snowy” in English. Tintin is known not only for his characteristic coiffure, but his boy-scout spirit and intense passion for justice. He is Hergé’s ideal self; a hero and advocate for law and integrity. (Les Aventures De Tintin)
It’s debut which was published in 1929, was a volume titled “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”. It was actually a response to the Russian Regime, to which Hergé was extremely opposed. Hergé drew from a book titled “Moscow Unmasked” as inspiration. In his comic, Russia is depicted as a barbaric, and boorish place. This first publication, along with several of Hergé’s first Tintin comics were wrought with racist themes, which Hergé later regretted terribly. It is notable to state that Hergé’s superior and editor, Norbert Wallez, has a great fan of Mussolini and despised the Russians. Since the Tintin comics were geared towards young readers, it became a propaganda piece that hammered the concept that the Russians were savage communists into the minds of the young audience. (The History of Belgian Comics, 2017)
The style of The Adventures of Tintin has changed greatly since its original conception. The drawings used to be quite rough, sketchy, and simplistic in comparison to its current style which is in the afore mentioned ligne claire style (The History of Belgian Comics, 2017). This style was actually developed by Hergé himself and has been copied by numerous artists.
Ligne claire is characterized by fully fleshed out backgrounds, stark black line drawings with flat color and minimal shading. It looks very playful and has a fair amount of detail. Artists who use this style want each of the panels and all of the content in each segment to be on a similar hieratic scale. Though ligne claire style fell out of fashion for a spell in the 1960s, it became popular again in the 80s because of peoples’ nostalgic feelings towards the style. (Ligne Claire, 2015)
When Hergé passed away in 1983, the 23rd volume of Tintin was released. The 24th and final volume was published three years later, just prior to the disbanding of Hergé’s studios. Though the series has ended, it is still wildly popular and manifests itself in new forms of media, such as the recent movie adaptation. (The Adventures of Tintin- Hergé)
My final example of another wildly loved publication is the Spirou comic series, which was published in the Spirou Magazine in 1938. Charles Duplois, who was the son of the incredibly successful Jean Duplois, who founded the Duplois publishing agency, was at the helm of editing and producing The Spirou Magazine. Having seen the meteoric rise and success of the Tintin comics in Le Petit Vingtième as well as Le Journal de Mickey, Duplois employed some of the same format and techniques that the afore mentioned comics exhibited. The Spirou Magazine itself was an eight-page magazine that was printed in a large format on quality paper, similar to Le Journal de Mickey. In addition to the Spirou comic itself, the magazine also contained multiple comics, including popular American comics such as Superman. (Kousemaker, 1994)
Like Le Journal de Mickey, the Spirou Magazine suffered during World War 2 because of bans on American comics, which were imposed by the Germans. Between the years 1941 to 1942, circulation of the Spirou magazine increased from 85,000 to a whopping 152,000 copies even though the war was in full effect. Like Le Journal de Mickey, the printing quality wen down and the volumes became a lot smaller due to the paper and ink shortages in Belgium. Duplois tried to stay in business during the war but had to cease publication for a time to avoid being imprisoned. Luckily, the Spirou Magazine was very popular and the fanbase was strong, so after the war ended, the comics came back into circulation (Kousemaker, 1994).
As mentioned earlier, after the war ended, there came the Golden Age of Franco-Belgian comics; a time when the Spirou Magazine flourished. Many more contributors began working on the magazine and the volumes increased from eight pages to upwards of sixty (Breig, 2009). Now the comics are sold individually, and the Spirou Magazine has become a secondary focus, though it is still quite popular.
One of the most influential comics of today, “The Smurfs”, also known as “Les Schtroumpfs” by the French, was actually originally published in the Spirou Magazine. At first, they didn’t have their own storyline, but were actually supplemental characters that appeared in Pierre Culliford’s (also known as Peyo) “Johan and Pirlouit” series. This series was moderately popular but when the now iconic little blue dwarves appeared in Peyo’s 1958 Johan and Pirlouit strip in the Spirou Magazine, they were an instantaneous success. (Kousemaker, 1970)
Amazingly enough, the origin of the Smurfs began as a joke between Peyo and a friend. When they were at a restaurant, Peyo couldn’t recall the word “salt”. Instead of saying “pass the salt”, he said “pass me the schtroumpfs.” He found this made up word highly amusing and decided to integrate it into his comic. When the smurfs were so well received, Peyo was asked to make a spinoff in which the storyline would be centered around the smurfs. Peyo took Spirou’s offer to do so and subsequently the series moved its way up the ranks into a weekly comic in the Spirou Magazine and then was published as a hardcover series in the 60s and 70s.
Though the smurfs were originally intended for a young audience, there were certain volumes that were meant as satirical pieces and commentary on current economic events in Belgium ta the time. Adults and children alike could enjoy these books due to content as well as the appealing illustrative style.
After having wild success from the 50s onward, the Smurfs gained even more popularity at a global scale when animated features were made in the 60s. Movies such as the Smurfs and the Magic Flute as well as their theme song (which was translated into multiple languages) were major proponents of their ever-growing fanbase. The Smurfs were in fact so loved that they became the Belgians’ mascot in the 1980s Olympics (Kousemaker, 1970)
Unfortunately for Peyo, his creative freedom and artistic vision for the Smurfs television series was more or less usurped by Hanna-Barbera Studios, though his partnership with them made him wildly successful monetarily, as well as winning him an Emmy Award. Though Peyo received numerous accolades for The Smurfs series, he was unhappy that Hanna-Barbera studios was adding in new characters and making plotlines and teaching morals in the television series that Peyo had not initially wanted. In addition, he felt that the show was pandering too much to American taste and was annoyed that some of the mild violence had been taken out as well as the plotlines being dumbed down to cater to a younger audience (Kousemaker, 1970).
Though there are countless incredible Franco-Belgian comic series on the market, the three that I mentioned have been known as some of the most inspiring and most successful ones to date. They have been the source of inspiration for other forms of pop culture such as movies, television series, and comic conventions. In terms of conventions, one of the most attended ones that is not in the United States and features many Franco-Belgian comics is Festival international de la bande dessinée d’Angoulême. This festival is completely focused on comics, which is a bit different that the American Comic Cons, which feature all types of media. However, both are places that foster the ever-growing love for Franco Belgian comics. Fans are able to go to discussion panels about the comics, meet other artists, and many people like to come dressed as their favorite characters from the comics (ANGOULÊME INTERNATIONAL COMICS FESTIVAL). An important fact I might add is that bande dessinée have also been a primary source of creative inspiration to aspiring artists. I speak from personal experience when I say that growing up with these comics has inspired me to be an illustrator and has fanned the flames of my passion for writing comics. Being able to attend conventions and see the artists at work is truly inspirational and, in my opinion, plays a major role in furthering the culture and audience of bande dessinée.
The comics discussed in this essay have been a source of enjoyment to readers young and old throughout the last century. The content and styles that are exhibited in these comics are very reflective of their respective time periods. Though there have been many religious, economic, and societal barriers that that stood in the way of Franco-Belgian comic artists’ way, it has not barred them from producing exceptional comics that have influenced all kinds of media and other forms of pop culture.
- Echotokki. “An Introduction to Franco-Belgian Comics – Echotokki – Medium.” Medium, Medium, 9 Sept. 2017, medium.com/@echo_tokki/an-introduction-to-franco-belgian-comics-ac4808c339c3.
- Bramlett, Frank; Cook, Roy; Meskin, Aaron (2016-08-05). The Routledge Companion to Comics. Routledge. ISBN 9781317915386.
- Screech, Matthew (2005). Masters of the Ninth Art: Bandes Dessinées and Franco-Belgian Identity. Liverpool University Press. ISBN 9780853239383.
- Zig Et Puce, www.coolfrenchcomics.com/zigpuce.htm.
- “Louis Forton.” Lambiek.net, 1 Jan. 1970, www.lambiek.net/artists/f/forton_louis.htm.
- Revolvy, LLC. “‘Bécassine’ on Revolvy.com.” Revolvy, www.revolvy.com/page/B%C3%A9cassine.
- Gabut, Jean-Jacques (2004). Lâge d’or de la BD: Les journaux illustrés 1934-1944” Herscher. p. 192.
- “Le Journal de Mickey fête ses 70 ans”. Le Nouvel Observateur. 18 October 2004. Retrieved 19 March 2009.
- Marshall, Bill; Johnston, Christina (2005). France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: a Multidisciplinary Encycopledia. Ashgate publishing. p. 285. ISBN 978-1-60473-004-3.
- Les Aventures De Tintin – Tintin, en.tintin.com/personnages/show/id/15/page/0/0/tintin.
- “The History of Belgian Comics / Part 2.” Europe Comics, 12 June 2017, www.europecomics.com/history-belgian-comics-part-1/.
- “Ligne Claire.” Comic Book Glossary, 18 Dec. 2015, comicbookglossary.wordpress.com/ligne-claire/.
- The Adventures of Tintin – Hergé, en.tintin.com/herge.
- “Robert Velter.” Lambiek.net, 1 Jan. 1970, www.lambiek.net/artists/r/rob_vel.htm.
- Kousemaker, Kees. “Spirou, the Classic Period (1938-1969).” Lambiek.net, 1994, lambiek.net/magazines/spirou.htm
- Brieg. “Bilan 2009.” Razor Tie Artery Foundation Announce New Joint Venture Recordings | Razor & Tie, Rovi Corporation, web.archive.org/web/20100114103127/http://www.acbd.fr/bilan-2009.html.
- “ANGOULÊME INTERNATIONAL COMICS FESTIVAL.” Europe Comics, www.europecomics.com/events_cpt/angouleme-international-comics-festival/.
- Kousemaker, Kees. “Peyo.” Lambiek.net, 1 Jan. 1970, www.lambiek.net/artists/p/peyo.htm.
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