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The ninth art: a Belgian product

29 November 2016


Belgian Comic Strip Center
© Pieter Heremans

By Jean Auquier, Director of the Belgian Comic Strip Center

In Belgium, comics have grown into an institution. In most Belgian homes you will find a collection of comics or even an entire library dedicated to comic strips. More than half of the books published or produced in Belgium are comics, but the real creators of the 20th century Belgian Kingdom of the Comic Strip are its more than seven hundred artists and scriptwriters.

The names of Hergé, Vandersteen, Peyo, Franquin or Morris spontaneously evoke characters like Tintin and Snowy, Bob and Bobette or Bessy, the Smurfs, Gaston Lagaffe, Lucky Luke… Together with their numerous colleagues based in Belgium, they brought about a real cultural revolution, granting the comic strip its badge of honour and securing an unprecedented level of European success. In the native country of these paper heroes, the comic strip now forms part of daily life. It has become both a medium of artistic expression and the ingredient of an actual cultural industry.

In New York City, media magnates like Hearst and Pulitzer provided a platform to contemporary strip writers. Elsewhere, the communist press such as Vaillant in France, channelled its own propaganda by means of comic strips. In Belgium, it was the Catholic press, be it progressive, humanist or reactionary, which became the cradle of the comics. On 10th January 1929, Hergé began relating Tintin’s adventures in the small, ultra conservative Catholic Brussels paper ‘Le XXe Siècle’. The owner of the publication intended to convince its readers of the evil of communism and the anticipated benefits of Africa’s colonisation without realising that he would be sealing the fame of the European comic strip. Hergé established standards which are still relevant three quarters of a century later.

But he was not the only Belgian to venture into the world of comic strips. In the North of the country, the brothers of Averbode Abbey had nothing in common with the formidable abbot Wallez, head of ‘Le XXe Siècle’. Their intention was to spread the Christian faith among the youth. Thus, as early as 1920, in the French periodical Petits Belges sold as a subscription in Catholic schools and parishes, they mixed enlightening texts with illustrated stories. Initially, the publication hardly differed from what was published elsewhere in Europe: stories in which texts complemented the images. In 1932, the first comic strip appeared created by Jan Waterschoot. Still in Flanders, another pioneer had just started his career. He would sign with the name Pink and his work could be found in ‘Ons Volkske’, the children’s supplement of the progressive weekly journal ‘Ons Volk’. The same decade would see the birth of another giant of the European strip, Jijé. For the Averbode Publishers he drew the now legendary series ‘Blondin et Cirage’. It tells the story of a young black boy, Cirage, who was as intelligent as his white friend. Moreover, the artist never used the word ‘nigger’ which was very progressive for that era!

We can therefore claim that Hergé was the driving force behind the creation of the comic strip in Belgium assisted by the publishers who provided the economic tools which allowed for an encounter of authors and readers.

In Flanders, the popular comic strip owes its breakthrough to the daily press. Bob and Bobette by Vandersteen, Marc Sleen’s Neron and Jommeke by Jeff Nys follow newspaper readers their entire life. These family-oriented comic strips allow readers of any age to identify with one of the characters or, at least, to recognise family members or a quirky neighbour. This type of stories is unique in its genre and in the whole of Europe. These comic strips have been drawn very quickly but with precision and with added ‘footnotes’ often topical and relevant at the time. The plots are diverse and the characters undergo the most farfetched and ridiculous adventures… four times a year. Although the newspaper strips are widely distributed in Flanders and the Netherlands, the market remains limited. Besides the newspaper editions, a publication in paperback volumes follows, sometimes translated into French. Only Willy Vandersteen and a 1950s studio named after him have international ambitions. Apart from Bob and Babette, the adventures of Bessy, for example, develop an international popularity.

In the wake of these giants of the comic strip whose work reaches Flemish popularity rarely seen by the comic genre – including the French translations – other authors appear and gradually equal the pioneers’ fame. This is the case for Merho whose legendary character Kiekeboe has become the archetype of the comic strip amusing entire families. The adventures of the Flemish hero Bakelandt, which are also published as a daily newspaper serial but with a more realistic tone, oppose Napoleon’s occupation of his country. The strip eventually counts close to a 100 episodes. Other native Flemish authors soon transcend borders. Does it matter that the mother tongue of authors of the status of Morris (Lucky Luke), Vance (XIII), Berck then Jean-Pol (Sammy), Griffo, Marvano and countless others is Dutch? This ninth art form reaches far beyond linguistic borders…

A cultural and economic story

The popularity of the comic trip is not limited to Flanders only. In other European countries comics remain linked to the history of specialised papers with roots in Wallonia and Brussels for over 40 years: Spirou (Robbedoes) (Dupuis in Charleroi), Tintin (Kuifje) (Lombard in Brussels) and A Suivre (Casterman in Tournai).

Once upon a time there was a particularly dynamic Walloon editor who, apart from running a very successful printing business, also had an editorial portfolio which included the magazines Le Moustique and Bonne Soirée, aiming in particular at a family audience. Restricted by the French-speaking Belgian market, he dreamed of conquering neighbouring countries with his papers and other more original publications. It is Dupuis we are talking about, the publisher whose printing business was established in Marcinelle just outside Charleroi. In 1938, the Journal de Spirou was launched. It was his intention to use the popularity of the comic strip and reach beyond his existing readers to attract a younger audience as well by offering a new magazine. At the same time, he was also the first publisher who had the nerve to create a magazine entirely devoted to the comic strip with which he hoped to conquer the neighbouring Dutch and French markets. Rather than putting a Belgian illustrator to work on the image of Spirou, he commissioned the Breton Rob-Vel. In colloquial Walloon a “spirou” is a bright and mischievous boy. Through this character the editor hoped to conquer his readers. The result surpassed all expectations. The editorial board of the Journal de Spirou was to become an extraordinary pool of talents. Following the Brussels-born Fernand Dineur (Tif et Tondu) and Jijé from Namur (Spirou et Fantasio, Jean Valhardi, Jerry Spring…), many comic strip artists are recruited. For the most part, they come from the world of advertising or the comic strip. With them, the skies of the comic strip will be illuminated with some of the brightest stars: Lucky Luke, Johan et Pirlouit, the Smurfs, Buck Danny, la Patrouille des castors, les Belles histoires de l’Oncle Paul, as well as Gill Jourdan, Boule et Bill, Gaston Lagaffe, les Tuniques Bleues and countless others such as Cedric, Kid Paddle or Largo Winch.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the weekly Journal de Tintin (1946) appears which, in turn, becomes a breeding ground for talent and popular comic strip heroes. The character of Tintin, already established among young readers and their parents, is soon joined by several others: Blake et Mortimer, Alix, Chlorophylie, Ric Hochet, Michel Vaillant, Modeste et Pompon Oupapah, Bruno Brazil and many more! Hergé himself overseas the journal’s artistic side. He is the one approaching Willy Vandersteen to integrate the adventures of Bob and Babette into his journal. For many fans, this stage will become known as the “blue” period (the colour of his album covers), the most accomplished in the career of the Master of Antwerp, whom Flanders will one day refer to as the “Brueghel of the comic strip”. Two years after its Belgian launch, the Journal de Tintin made its debut on the French market with a young locally recruited co-editor: Georges Dargaud. The success of Tintin will provide the latter with the means to set up a new venture, the weekly Pilote, the brainchild of Goscinny and Uderzo, defectors of Tintin, and the Belgian artist Jean-Michel Charlier from Spirou.

With Spirou and Tintin the comic strip becomes exclusively Belgian territory. To slow down this surge, France attempts to drastically censor literature supplied to the young. But it is in vain. It is all happening in Charleroi and Brussels! In the 1960s, Spirou and Tintin each sell over 300,000 copies weekly. And elsewhere around the globe, from Quebec to Durban, several generations of children go to bed dreaming of the Belgian-born heroes. Gradually, this extraordinary success in the press moves on to conquer the audio-visual world: 350 medium-length cartoons devoted to the Smurfs are produced in California, 104 cartoons of Cubitus in Japan and then there are the lasting successes of Cédric, Papyrus, video games with Boule et Bill, XIII or Lucky Luke and even movie adaptations for the big screen.

The recognition of the Ninth Art

However, the popularity of the comic strip cannot be regarded as a purely economic phenomenon only. Belgians have a long-standing sensitivity to strip cartoons. Being located at a European crossroad, Belgium’s culture is constituted of many influences. Having been ruled by many different occupiers, Belgians have mastered the non-verbal language and imagery like no other. It has also partly created their identity. They have learned how to free themselves from any shackles. Surrealism and self-mockery are never far away.

Since the 1960s, when Morris – the creator of Lucky Luke – first referred to the comic strip as the 9th Art in the weekly Spirou, the European comic strip has gradually emancipated itself from its Belgian tutelage. At the editorial office of the magazine Pilote in Paris many Belgian artists can obviously still be spotted but  particularly striking new French talent can also be found. For Gotlib, Reiser or Cabu, there is more to every story; a perspective on current affairs or even a personal reflection is as important as the story itself. Pilote’s popularity gradually shifts the status quo. The young readers have grown into adults. Then in 1978, the magazine A Suivre is launched by the Tournai-based editor Casterman. With its first graphic novel, the European comic strip changes direction and bursts into the realm of literature. Throughout its nineteen years of existence, this unique monthly publication manages to mix fantasy, mockery and graphic innovation. The cream of the European comic strip artists is present, among them Comes and Jean-Claude Servais from the Ardennes, Schuiten, Peeters and Sokal from Brussels, to name but a few.

These new paths of the modern comic strip are reinforced by the fact that it even becomes an academic subject. Since the inter-war period, the Saint-Luc Institute in Brussels has become the artistic teaching centre par excellence. In the 1960s, Hergé was overwhelmed by commercial assignments with a Tintin theme which lead him to suggest that the Institute should open a department devoted to the comic strip. This could perhaps help him find talented assistants. Consequently, in September 1968, the world’s first comic strip course at higher level was launched in Brussels. Nowadays, comic strip courses are offered in six colleges in Liège, Gand, Tournai and Brussels… in both French and Dutch! They attract students from all over Europe… Besides these, many academies and private colleges across the country also offer training for all ages in the art of the comic strip.

The modern comic strip is diverse and versatile. It has become a mature form of artistic expression with few limitations apart from those imposed by its format. Fantasy, dream, humour, thriller, science fiction, adventure or historical, it is all possible. Numerous readers have discovered history through comic magazines. The comic strip allows the exploration of unknown worlds. They deal with people, emotions, whatever concerns us in the form of an illustration or cartoon. The works of Ever Meulen, Kamagurka, Kroll, Schuiten or Yslaire are all obvious examples. Belgian illustrators and story writers are familiar with all these genres, from the most popular to the most secretive, from the classical to more the experimental. Today, the technical possibilities available to authors are virtually unlimited which allows for any artistic adventures. You need, of course, a readership. The comic strip can also be an effective tool within advertising, ensuring the promotion of a business or a technique. The language of the comic strip is universal. Only the way it is interpreted can vary from one culture to another.

The general Belgian public, initially French-speaking, was the first to enjoy the opportunity to buy a comic book for 8, 10 or 15 euros. Next, the publication  becomes a collective item to be kept in a library. And when books are sold for that purpose, the use of colour, quality paper and hardback covers are justifiable. Of course, the content of these will also differ from disposable strips such as a Japanese manga, an Italian topolino or an American comic book. These are simply light reading. In other words, the collective album is an original and mature cultural product. Consequently, nowhere outside Belgium has so many booksellers specialised in comic strips. Over one hundred of them. In Brussels, strips decorate the metro and some thirty walls in the capital’s centre. Flanders and Wallonia are also involved. Statues of fictional heroes have been erected in Anwerp, Charleroi, Hoeilaart and Wavre and the numbers are growing every year.

The comic strip in Belgium is more alive than ever. It keeps the language active and playful and also attracts new audiences thanks to other means of expression: television, cinema, computer games, etc. Via the comic strip, Belgians also keep in touch with their historical and cultural heritage: a certain perspective on the world, a sense of humour, the recognisable ruins of a castle in the background, an artefact straight out of a Brussels museum, a scene with belfries and polders, an Ardennes forest inhabited by elves and robbers. In a nutshell, Belgians feel at home in this world of fantasy which by now has taken on European dimensions.