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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Understanding Bandes dessinées - a guide to European comics

© Dupuis.

Comic books... Mangas...
Different names, same basic idea.
As popular as they might be in their local birthplace, there's a form of funny books that simply isn't as well documented and known outside their countries' border. European comics. What is known, in various languages, as "Bande dessinée" (literally, "drawn strip") the french term for Franco-Belgian comics.
Though I like to also count as such comics from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, as well as many more regions and to some extend, those from the UK as well. (more on that later, below!)

Mostly, they aren't as well represented on the net outside specific regional websites.
Perhaps its due to a lack of information regarding them or documentation beside the few high profiles long running series (Tintin, Lucky Luke or Astérix come to mind).
Or the irregular exportations of those few books, try to get a complete run of Spirou in english, at a single editor and on a regular format.
The problem is that if you don't read French (or Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc..) and aren't ready to end up importing those from way across the sea, you might end up letting quite something pass by you. And you won't know what you will be missing...

© Casterman.

So here's a little in-details blog post about European comics, a brief look at their histories, the various editors, the genres and some personal thoughts and recommendations.
And if there's some demand, I might review some of these books, some series I'm a big fan of.
© Dupuis.

History of an art form from an old world.
Comic books might have originated from Europe (at least, the form in which we know them nowadays*), some even name the Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer as creator of the genre, but it is their American and Japanese evolution that has spread the medium and conquered millions of fans all over the world.
Even so, comic fans shouldn't ignore the impact and growth that came from their original roots in Europe.

As the 2nd World War ended and comics in both their Asian and American new found homes started finding a niche genre and a direction that would leave a path for most future generations (specifically the "superheroes" genre after Batman, Superman lead the way to the Stan Lees, Steve Ditkos and Jack Kirbys that would define the medium: and meanwhile, Osamu Tezuka would do the same to the "shonen genre" all the way through the 50s with mangas like Astro Boy for example)....
Comics in Europe started exploring genres and styles, never truly defined under a single style or rule.

If the world know today European comics for Tintin, which has only been drawn by Hergé until his death, putting an "end" to that series as it is (not counting movies or cartoons obviously), not all European comics use the same techniques and styles as seen in Tintin.
Not all comics there are about adventure, the same way you could say that 80% of American comics are about Superheroes. Nor Tintin's unique use of realistic simplistic cartoons characters over detailed backgrounds can be seen elsewhere other than in Tintin.

And Bande dessinée spawned a various and diverse inspired genre over nearby countries. Be it with Spanish comics, Italian comics, etc.. their roots can style be traced back to earlier Franco-belgium works but their tone specific to their region.

© Dupuis.

Various genres and styles.
Nowadays, the most mainstream and popular style is what people call the "big noses" humor genre.
But don't make any mistake, if some similar graphic approach can be found in various titles, the feel of those books might not always be the same.

Not all books employing this simplified genre popularized by André Franquin and his Spirou, Gaston or The Marsupilami after the war up to the mid-70s are destined for children for example.
The same way, lots of mature comics don't always employ realistic art styles. Both graphic styles cross over each other's type of stories.

Let's resume simply the styles that can be most found in European comics.
What can approach US Superheroes' monopoly on comics in Europe is probably the humor genre.
Most based around those simplified cartoony "big nosed" characters I mentioned above.
Big name artists that helped out comics survive and evolve over the previous century include Peyo (The Smurfs/Les Schtroumpfs, Johann & Pirlouit), Morris (Lucky Luke), Uderzo (Astérix, Oumpah-pah).

Lately, there's been an increase of what I call "customized" everyday-comics. Parodies too.
These humor comics are often of pretty cheap productions quality. They're made by generic easily replaceable. (I'm harsh, I know)
They're often named like "The cops", "The car mechanics", "The baker", "The gardener", etc... You get the idea?
They're aimed at specific audiences and are in the form of one-pages comics collected in albums, and they're mass produced and each series easily counts over dozen of volumes.
They're produced fast and cheap and can by found in supermarkets, 24/7 stores, etc..
The problem I have with these so-called parodies is that there's too much of them on the market and they're literally drowning the other books more deserving of a chance.

Comic strips found there way to America, like Calvin & Hobbes or Garfield, but they're still pretty present in Europe.
Strangely though, it is these US comic strips imported (and translated) that remain the more popular over most of Europe. But there's been some major successes lately. Like Bertschy's Nelson comic strips.
They still populate most newspapers.
They're more popular in the United Kingdom in which through various formats (the Beano magazine comes to mind) they've survived alongside imported American comics. (perhaps due to the similar language which helped US Superheroes establish a secondary market there)

There is the adventure genre too.
Defined by Tintin many years ago,  it's a very popular genre in France.
Characters are often stereotypical and cartoonified to contrast over rich and impressive backgrounds. It also helps make heroes relatable in incredible settings/stories.
Some series use this contrast to a smaller extend and feature more realistic characters of course.

And finally, the fantasy genre.
Why do I separate it from the adventure genre? Because it truly evolved over something of its own over the years.
Fantasy stories spawn spinoffs, prequels, "cycles" of story arcs, etc.
They're also the only genre to have successfully been passed over other artists, like American comics do all the time. For you see, most comics are creator-owned in Europe. Series rarely change creative teams, thing that often happens with the fantasy comics though. Guest artists writing/drawing spinoffs, different team continuing the sagas, etc.

© Dargaud.

But ake into account that's just a generalisation.
All genres are permeable, so are the styles authors employ.
In the late 80s for example, Conrad (with writer Yann) threw chaos right in the middle the natural order of European comics with their long running franchise Les Innommables.
The style seemed to follow in the footsteps of the Franquins and other Uderzos..but it was far from being yet another innocent comic.
Their new series was crude, shocking, tongue-in-cheek, featured nudity and over-the-top violence and was clearly destined for an adult audience. Probably meant for a public that grew up with the classics but was tired of the conformity established over the years.

With this success, it opened a door to a large range of mixed genres, more graphic cartoony series for adults as well as realistic yet comedic comics for kids...the possibilities are truly endless!

© Dargaud.

Culture and European-specific formats. 
Bandes dessinées in Europe might have a similar origin to their Japanese (mangas, manhuas,..) and American (comic books) counterpart but they've certainly obtained a much different status and part in the culture.

First of all, they're not episodic. Yes they are, but I would not exactly call them that really. Except for stories using cycles in storytelling like the above mentioned fantasy genre.
Let me explain.
Sure bandes dessinées used to be published in magazines, kinda like monthly/weekly anthologies which you can compare to the Action Comics or Detective Comics DC Comics used to do. But over the years it's the collected trade paperbacks that have become the true release form of comics in Europe.
Similar to hardcovers or softcovers in the US (kinda in between actually), they collect complete story arcs. Releases kinda depend on the creative teams, but they often vary between half a year to be released (for quicker artists) to 2-3 years of work (for others).

All major editors in Europe (more on that, next section!) used to have their own magazines. Today only a few little ones and one long-running magazine continue to be released regularly.
There's been a Pif magazine, Spirou magazine, etc.
This is what people call pre-publication. With the actual publication being the Volumes, or Tomes, (or also Albums).
To compare, imagine the pre-publication of a Superhero comic being the issues and the actual publication the trades at the end. The market has changed, evolved and adapted to this way of thinking in Europe.

The same way, comics hold a much more respectable status as "art" in Europe. Probably due to the work of Hergé or Franquin and the likes. And the collected Volumes probably helped that. But anyway, comics found their way into various libraries, schools and readers over the years. With a more durable format being the standard and praises over the genre for years.

© Glénat.

Local publishers vs. international editors.
Finally there's the matter of the publishers, the editors.
This is where the problem of comics not crossing over the ocean comes to.

Naturally, like comics in other places like Canada, India, China, the USA, etc.. There's a giant independent market of comics. Often local production, lots of gems can be found there. But they're harder to come by, or import, etc...
Some editors, like Les Humanoïdes Associés started this way, but ended up nowadays being the official importer of DC Comics, publish books in America and start the movement of digital comics long before Dan Didio even thought of it.

Most big houses publishers are Belgium based, the original country of almost all of European comics today (did you know the Smurfs are Belgium? so is Astérix, Lucky Luke, Tintin,..). Most artists/writers either send their work over there or even go live in Belgium to become authors. But it is not necessary to publish a comic book. Many of these publishers have established various sub-houses in other countries. Glénat is well established in the Mediterranean region. Dargaud has various smaller companies across Europe.

What you could compare to DC and Marvel Comics in Europe could be Dupuis, Dargaud and Casterman.

Casterman is well known for Tintin mostly, but they've published various creator-owned and independent features too. They've got an inprint edition for Mangas that has been focusing in only importing work from independent and smaller Manga authors as well.

Dupuis was the rival house, the place that spawned that other redheaded little Belgium adventurer accompanied by his best friend and an animal mascot... Spirou! Unlike Tintin, Spirou has seen a continuous publication over the years since his creation by Rob-Vel and Jijé, through the hands of Franquin for many years and many different other artists and writers up to this day. Kinda like long-running American characters Batman or Superman, right? Dupuis is today the only house that still continues to run a pre-publication, the Spirou magazine, since World War 2! They're mostly known for publishing classic series, humor comics and a strange growing number of fantasy/adventure stories these last couple of years.
They have various inprints, like DC or Marvel. They publish more adult serious work at Repérage Dupuis, kids books at Puce Dupuis, etc.

Finally, Dargaud is another classic old timer.
They've published tons of adventure and more realistic comics. They seem to prefer a more adult audience over Dupuis' younger public.
They do have some comedic titles though.

Those three are amongst some of the oldest editors.

There's various other companies that I'll briefly mention.
Glénat is a big international publisher, with various Editions solely developed for children, kids and young adults. They have various houses in many countries, translate tons of mangas each year in even ore languages (mostly "shonen" adventure/action genre for boys). What about the European books?
They've got an inprint for pre-publication called Tchô where they run some of their more popular series along new titles to test them with an audience. They've been known to publish a lot of Swiss based cartoonists, like the super popular Titeuf by Zep.

And to mention a few more, there's also Vent D'ouest which publishes mostly big authors or adventure books, Soleil who's specialized in adventure and fantasy, etc...

© Casterman.

Other information
Comics in Europe have been known to be mostly written and drawn at the same time by the same guy. Artists often write what they're gonna draw. There isn't as big a specialization of work in comics as in America. Perhaps due to the fact there is no such pressure of time, the deadlines are longer without the "issues" approach of comics.
People often color/sketch/ink/letter there work all by themselves. Though there still is some workshops working on comics, but nothing like you'd find for a manga at least.
Inker is never a separate job from artist. Never!

But there's still various writers that have made a living by writing comics, but they either write a dozen books/series per years or write novels/have another job at the same time.

Colorists don't get as much respect as in American comics.
I mean, who knows who Cerise is? I sure don't, but he or she colored a hundred of books I own!

There are huge comic book specialized libraries all over Europe. Rarely found outside big cities, but often in larger numbers. (I think we have like 5-6 comic book stores in such a small city as Geneva)
Comic books slowly retreated from newsstands as they slowly retired from pre-publication/magazines format. (but there's still some surviving comics there!)

If you live abroad in a foreign country in Europe, don't hesitate to either try or read comics there.
It's a graphic medium, even not being able to read shouldn't be such a big impasse to enjoy a comic!

Many comic book authors have "crossed borders" (so to say), and have published books around other countries despite their origin.
Munuera (Nävis, Spirou et Fantasio) has been drawing books in Spain for many years and only started making books for France now. And his original work has since then been translated, as well as the current books, in one and the other language.
Jordi Bernet had a career in Spanish comics before starting to work for DC on Jonah Hex these last years.

And finally, European comics have influenced the work of various artists all across the world such as Will Eisner (who's admitted being a fan of Franco-belgium comics) as well as Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki.
Even the more independent Jiro Taniguchi has been influenced in his story telling and artistic orientation by European works.

© Dargaud.

I'd recommend giving a try to these series like:
Spirou et Fantasio  by various authors - the groom turned reported turned adventurer, a classic!
Une épatante aventure de Jules by Emile Bravo - pure Tintin-esque adventure series set in modern days. 100% entertaining fun read!
La Quête de l'oiseau du temps by Loisel - I never really liked fantasy books..until this one! Great creative universe, wonderful art.
Peter Pan by Loisel - same author as above, his own personal (and much more faithful) take on the classic Peter Pan tale.
Les Innommables  by Yann & Conrad - mischief, fun, aggressive violence and humor, a series taking place during the Cold War days.
Jérôme K. Jérôme Bloche by Dodier - a long running and incredibly creative polar/thriller series.

Sadly I can't recommend any precise book or edition since getting these books translated isn't always easy nor do I know exactly which title has or hasn't been translated/imported.
So try finding if a book was edited in the country you are from. Even a single volume.
Or go for the original untranslated work!
Either way's fine with me.

*Scott McCloud wrote the highly recommended book:
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
in which McCloud goes in detail in the long and unclear history of comic books as an art form, from hieroglyphs through mosaics in cathedrals and the disputable but probably origin of modern comics with artists Rodolphe Töpffer.


  1. Great post and I'd like to add that Cinebooks translate a fair number of the comics mentioned here into English.

  2. I liked your article. I've been a fan of sci-fi and fantasy European comics since I picked Heavy Metal back in highschool. Sad though that where I'm from (The Philippines), this "genre" is relatively obscure to the likes of manga and superheroes. Which is why, as an art teacher I always tell my students about this. :)