Comics in France / La B.D. en France

Catherine Deneuve by graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis fame. Image used in metro ads for the exposition “160 ans d’esprit rive gauch” [160 years of rive gauche spirit]. Photo taken by me, but image copyright Marjane Satrapi, 2012.

So I want to write a bit about the French love of what artist Will Eisner dubbed sequential art (comic books, comic strips, graphic novels, etc) – la bande dessinée, or “la BD”. Despite the recent (slow) rise, since Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1989-1991), in the commercial success of and intellectual interest in the graphic novel / comic book in the States, the US, and especially the US literati, has lagged waaaay behind France and Belgium (and of course other countries, notably Japan) in celebrating and promulgating one of my favorite art forms.

La BD is really important to French culture. I used to joke that one of the things that defined the French people, insofar as we can be defined, was the childhood reading of comic “albums” (to use the French term) like (most notably) Astérix, Tintin and Lucky Luke, because nearly every single French person, regardless of age/gender/ethnicity/etc, seems to be familiar with these. I have literally never met a French person with whom this has come up who has not read Astérix (plenty of non-French people have read it too, of course). I’m sure it’s technically possible to grow up in this country without reading any of those, but it has to be really unusual.

Astérix & Obélix engraved in the Plaza del Humor, La Corogna, Spain. Image by wikimedia user JJ Georges, 2012; original engraver/artist unknown.

(I’ve chosen to post the above image instead of one by Uderzo, the artist behind Astérix & Obélix, in part for copyright reasons, but also because my other option seemed to be to take a photo of the cover of the last Astérix, published in 2004, which is an unbelievably disappointing and appallingly racist installment that I don’t feel like going off on a rant about or unintentionally promoting. FYI.)

So, yeah. Basically all French people grow up reading these comic books. It is of course the case that most Americans grow up – or used to grow up, back when papers were in greater physical circulation – reading comic strips, an amazing art form which, in my opinion, America perfected in the form of work like Krazy Kat, my beloved Peanuts, and Calvin and Hobbes – but that’s not the point. Or perhaps it’s part of the point. To this day, I think sequential art, and in particular comic strips/books, are thought of by most Americans – even adults who might still flip to the “funny pages” or read the occasional webcomic – as childish, shallow, not to be taken seriously (they are, after all, called comics). I think this is a ridiculous perception in the face of the many serious, “adult” elements of the strips I just mentioned and about a billion others, but the idea persists. I live my life in US academia, and I can tell you that the bias against comic strips and comic books, despite increasing respect for “graphic novels” (essentially longer-format comic books, but few seem to want to face that), remains very strong.

In France, la BD is not considered inherently childish at all. Yes, the ones I’ve mentioned were or are written primarily for children (with plenty of jokes that only older readers would get, particularly in Astérix), but those are basically the gateway drugs. As you get older, you are presented with an amazing smorgasbord of age-appropriate BDs to choose from (when I was fifteen, for instance, I discovered the sci-fi surrealism of Philippe Druillet’s famous Lone Sloane). In fact, the (sizeable) BD sections to be found in basically all French bookstores tend to be heavily dominated by BDs that are really not for children. I just wish I had a photo to post of a current métro ad, roughly ten feet tall by ten feet across, featuring an extremely scantily clad BD superheroine beckoning the potential reader in one of the most overtly sexual ways possible.

About 2/3 of the not particularly large BD section at the Fnac (a large Barnes & Noble type store) at Les Halles, Paris. Notice that everyone pictured is a certain age.

The same Fnac’s enormous Japanese manga section, separate from the main BD section and also full of adults.

To my amusement/ delight, this Fnac, like most, lists BDs prominently along with philosophy, history and politics.

The métro, side note, is full of ads for adult-oriented BDs (as are magazines and newspapers), as well as ads done in a comic strip style (like the ad for Deneuve’s appearance at the expo that heads this post, or for water, or yoghurt, or what have you). Here’s one that’s running currently:

An ad, currently in many stations, for a new Perrier. Designed by Joseph McDermott.

But back to the reading of BDs by adults. French adults are simply not embarrassed – at all – to display large collections of BD albums at home where visitors can see them. I know highly literate people who, in fact, only read BDs, and this does not reflect on them negatively (ok, a literary snob might object to the lack of novels, but the objection would be to the lack of novels, not particularly to the reading of BDs). The release of a new book in a widely-read series is a very big deal. When I was living in Clermont-Ferrand in 2000, the aforementioned Druillet released an eighth Lone Sloane book, Chaos, after fourteen years of BD silence. This made the national news for days – I still remember the anchorpeople on tv talking excitedly about it – and prompted both journalistic exposés on the literary importance of Druillet’s work as well as episodes of round-table or interview type literary shows (which are themselves significantly more popular in France than in the States).

Ok, a pic of Lone Sloane. From Les Six Voyages de Lone Sloane, 1966. Copyright Philippe Druillet and Éditions Dargaud.

I could go on about this forever, since la BD/sequential art/comix/whatever you want to call it is one of my great loves in life and one of my subjects of research, but I think I’ll wrap it up. I’ll wrap it up by saying that it is a great pleasure to me that the States – the birthplace of so many amazing works of sequential art since the 19th century (including some of the first Western comic strips ever made) – is catching up, in terms of taking the art form seriously, with the French and the Japanese and the Belgians (who, side note, have produced the creators of all the really major children’s strips read in France) and various other countries. Spiegelman is taken seriously (and in fact won a special Pulitzer – now for a day when there’s a permanent Pulitzer); Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is taken seriously; Alison Bechdel’s masterpiece Fun Home (and more recent Are You My Mother?) are taken seriously. I think things are moving along, if more slowly than I would like. I look forward to the day when a “graphic novel” doesn’t have to be a memoir or deal with war or other grave topics in order to get real attention from critics, and then past that, to the day when my beloved comic strips get the attention they deserve…

And in the meantime, I’ll keep collecting comics, and, when I’m in France, revel in the ginormous BD sections and the more or less universal culture of taking pictures with captions seriously as the art form they are.