Bandes dessinees (comics) – the French do it so much better.
Most of my working life was spent churning out comics scripts for the Disney characters, but much of my comics background was shaped by a culture on the other side of the Atlantic from “the evil empire”. I read and was influenced by French comics from a pretty young age. The examples I’ll write about are very much a personal and far from exhaustive selection of those that that fed my addiction.
The first comic book to tempt me away from a diet of Beanos and Dandys was King Ottakar’s Sceptre starring the boy reporter Tintin. (Okay, Herge was Belgian, but Tintin fits right into the francophone comics tradition.) Hitherto all the comics I’d read were one or two pagers, with gags rather than stories, and pretty inconsequential ones at that. Although I couldn’t understand the French text, the Tintin books were feature-length stories with proper plots and well defined characters. I could sort of follow the stories; they were so much better than anything produced in England. I do wonder how many others found Tintin their gateway drug to better things?
What more is there to say about Tintin? In the UK he has to be the best known of foreign language comics characters. The main criticism of the books has to be creator Herge’s racism, which is unfortunately all too apparent – especially in the earlier titles, such as Tintin au Congo.
He eventually came to accept there was a problem, although in his later, more “aware” books there was still a tendency towards racial stereotyping. There was also criticism of Herge for continuing to work for a Belgian newspaper that allegedly followed a collaborationist line during WWII. I’d a say a lot of people did worse; and more generally I think one just has to concede that Herge’s comics were of their time and brilliant with it. After all, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that some comics started to move ahead of society at large in terms of enlightened sensibilities. (Yes, I can defend that sweeping statement, but not here.)
When I was seventeen I started spending some of my school holidays with relatives in Paris. This opened me up to a ready supply of French cigarettes, fascinating alcoholic drinks, blues records… and a new vein of comics to mine. The first that grabbed me was Asterix the Gaul.
I was an instant fan. The simple, cartoony characters belied the wit and humour of the writing; they were wonderful stories and helped me enormously in learning French. The books are well-known in the UK, and in spite of the fact that many of the original puns are untranslatable from the original French, the translators have done a very good job of replacing them.
While the creators, Goscinny and Uderzo, are guilty of a degree of racial stereotyping, they do it in a typically French chauvinistic way. They’ve got it in for everybody, and that includes themselves.
In 1949 the French government had brought in measures restricting the import of American films and comics in order the maintain the purity of French culture. DeGaulle must’ve been delighted with Asterix. As an aside, at the height of Asterix’s popularity, an earnest journalist asked Rene Goscinny, the books’ writer, whether Asterix was a metaphor for the French A Bomb. No, Goscinny answered, it’s about Gauls bashing up Romans.
Another discovery during my Paris visits, more of a slow burn initially, but subsequently of greater import, was Pilote magazine. Unlike Tintin and Asterix, which appeared in full-length, album format, Pilote featured comics of varying lengths by a variety of creators. Initially, in the early 1960s, Pilote catered for a predominantly young readership, but with the passage of time it carried comics for a more varied range of ages. Asterix was serialised in it, as was Lucky Luke, but from the late 60s and through the 70s many “grown up” comics appeared. Artists such as Philippe Druillet, Claire Bretecher and Jean Giraud (Moebius) published in Pilote before going onto grander things – plus a long, long list of others.
Pilote was another gateway drug for me – transitioning from the comics of my youth to the adult fare I’d unknowingly craved. It paved the way for the seminal moment in my comics history: seeing my first American underground comic, “Zap” (which had a similar effect on me to my first acid trip). The beauty of Pilote, along with much of the French comics scene, was that it didn’t set out to be overtly “counterculture”. Underground and overground meshed seamlessly together. Pilote eventually fizzled out in the late 1980s, but I remember it with great affection.
After leaving school my periodic visits to Paris continued. By then my sister had moved to the city (where she lived for over 25 years, working as a graphic designer), so as well as staying with my French relatives I could impose on her hospitality. One of my first ports of call in Paris would be the Left Bank book and comics shops, trawling for fresh discoveries. I was never disappointed.
Bookshops were crammed with comics albums of all sorts, for all ages. Several adult comics magazines sprang up during the late 60s and 70s, such as l’Echo des Savannes, Hara-Kiri, Psychopat, Charlie, Fluide Glacial… which featured a miscellany of characters and creators. In terms of content they could be humorous, violent, satirical, obscene, political…
They were underground comics but unlike in the UK, where you had to search out the few underground comics available in one or two well-hidden head-shops, here they were on display in virtually every book shop and news-kiosk across the land.
The variety was staggering, and what made the best of them stand out was that unlike the overground factory-comics system in the UK and USA , French publishers often allowed their creators complete artistic freedom. A favourite of mine was a “superhero” (I detest superheroes) called Superdupont, dedicated to the elimination of all un-French influences, who was born in Pilote and continued in Fluide Glacial, jammed by various creators.
Another was Nikita Mandryka, who managed to combine surrealism, grotesqueness, cuteness and obscenity in one homogeneous mess.
Reiser and Georges Wolinski (murdered in his 80s in the Charlie Hebdo massacre) combined deceptively crude drawing styles with slice o’ life short strips about the human condition and very incorrect sexual politics. I absolutely loved them. Their strips appeared in all the monthlies plus in collections of their own work.
I have to put in a mention for fantasy comics as well. They’re not my natural habitat, but the French have been immensely strong in that area and to this day fantasy fans are spoilt for choice in France. Initially a quarterly, Metal Hurlant first appeared in the early 1970s, the brainchild of Philippe Druillet, Jean Giraud and the writer Jean-Pierre Dionnet. It went on the showcase the very best in sci-fi and fantasy comics, and subsequently appeared in a USA version called Heavy Metal.
I’ve been a frequent visitor to France right up to the present, and I don’t suppose Brexit will stop that. I always look out for new material, but also keep an eye open for any old favourites cropping up. Anything illustrated by Jacques Tardi I grab; I simply adore his work. His career got underway in the early 1970s, but I believe he’s still working. His genres are historical and detective fiction, mixed with some fantasy, steampunk and surrealism. His hard boiled gumshoe series Nestor Burma I love, with its wonderfully evocative period backgrounds…
…but my favourite of his works is Ici Meme, written by Jean-Claude Forest (oddly of Barbarella fame), but uniquely Tardi’s vision. 90% surrealism and 10% political satire, it involves a displaced man who lives on top of the walls of the properties he believes he’s been cheated out of. It is both quintessentially French and other-worldly at the same time – and I’ve read it God knows how many times.
How is it that 22 miles of water separates two such utterly different comics worlds? Grudgingly I suppose it’s getting a little better in the UK. Waterstones now has small sections for graphic novels. But compare that to French bookshops and news-stands, which have comics by the train-load.
I think a main part of the difference comes from the French tradition of making album length books out of any comics character that’s learned to walk. That involves writing longer and more intricate stories. Even children’s characters such as Pif and Becassine were involved in longer stories in France, whereas in the UK kids subsisted on a diet of one and two pagers in the Beano etc. I believe that has led to a high level of comics illiteracy in the UK, plus the attitude that comics are just for kids.
Sure, there has been a constant supply of American material to these shores since the early 1950s, of mainly superhero-type comics (did I mention I detest superheroes?), but in my humble opinion they only add to the popular UK view that comics are for kids and overgrown spotty Herberts who will never have girlfriends. Okay – attitudes are slowly shifting – but in France comics are far more intellectually acceptable and the choice is staggering.
Worldwide, there are three major comics festivals: Comiket in Tokyo, the San Diego Comic-Con and Angouleme – a small city in south west France.
I’ve tried to attend the Angouleme festival, but it appears you have to book at least a decade in advance to get accommodation. I’ve visited the city though, and it’s an eye-opener. It has a vast comics museum that I could happily get lost in for days, there are independent comics publishers dotted all over the city and its university runs several different courses on comics creation, illustration, history and theory… It is the city of comics…
…In the land of comics. Vive les BDs!
Paul Halas a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party last year with a heavy heart.