In France, a country that has won more Nobel Prizes in literature than any other, it is now chic for intellectuals to boast about their avid reading of comic books.
Almost every major bookstore in Paris has a comic book counter, and it is usually surrounded by educated, middle-class adults jostling one another to get at the latest publications.
Newspapers and magazines review comic books just as they review any other kind of book, publishers advertise them in the newspapers’ book pages and critics praise the best authors with the kind of imagery that used to be reserved for the works of literary giants.
One comics artist and writer, Jacques Tardi, 39, has been made the subject of a biography. The literary magazine Lire, in its list of the 20 best books of 1983, had a comic book in 12th place. The French Institute of Architecture is mounting an exhibition this year on the way artists use architecture in their comic books.
Sign of Sophistication
The reading of comic books is regarded as a sure sign of sophistication. In a recent article, the French news magazine L’Express drew a composite portrait of the new, young political leaders of France, men like Laurent Fabius, 38, the premier, and Jean-Louis Bianco, 41, the chief of staff to the president. These young politicians, L’Express said, are music lovers, readers of foreign newspapers, world travelers, computer buffs, students of the English language--and comic book fans.
So seriously do French intellectuals take the comics that it has begun to worry some people in the comics industry.
“Kept for many years in the ghetto of children, the comic strip now risks being caught in the ghetto of intellectuals,” comic book editor Claude Moliterni has complained.
The new and special place of comic books in French life was underscored in January when President Francois Mitterrand made an official visit to the 12th annual comic-book fair in the city of Angouleme. Le Monde, France’s most prestigious newspaper, described the event as the consecration of the French comic book.
A critic for Lire wrote: “Among the heroes of comic books, right after Mickey Mouse, we now find President Mitterrand.”
Mickey Mouse, however, is not what the French comic-book boom is all about. Comic books are still popular among children in France, but in the past 15 years or so, an adult comic-book industry has grown up in Belgium and France, with writers and artists developing mature picture stories that are published separately in books, just like novels. The books usually have hard covers and are sold at 50% to 75% of the price of a regular French novel.
The French do not use a term like “comic book” to describe these publications. They refer to “ la bande dessinee ,” literally, “the drawn strip,” or “BD” for short. And they call the books albums.
The industry, made up of French and Belgian publishers selling mainly to the French market, produces more than 800 albums a year. Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, has estimated that 21 million albums were sold in France last year. Le Monde has estimated that comic books make up 7% of all the reading matter bought by the French.
According to a 1980 survey, 40% of the French people buy comic books, mostly in regular bookstores. Among those between the ages of 25 and 34, the proportion is almost 60%. The albums, according to the survey, are far more popular among professionals and middle-class French than among workers and farmers.
Many French obviously feel a sense of intellectual discovery in taking adult comic books seriously. In fact, they seem to think of themselves as cultural pioneers, like the critics who discovered years ago that jazz and the movies were serious art forms.
Pierre Pascal, a restaurant owner, organizes comic-book fairs in Angouleme, where publishers, critics and serious fans assemble once a year for an annual showing of the wares.
“The French intellectualize very quickly,” he said recently. “There’s snobbism in it. There’s nostalgia. It’s like the movies. When Charlot (Charlie Chaplin) made his films, he was popular. No one thought of him as intellectual. Now, you see him in the cinematheque , in the art houses. It’s like that in the bande dessinee.”
Pierre Bourdieu, a well-known sociologist at the College de France in Paris, said: “There are always intellectuals who are eager to discover new kinds of culture to make themselves chic. Today, two things are going on with comic books. First, intellectuals are concerning themselves with comic books and their artists and writers, and, second, these artists and writers are starting to regard themselves as intellectuals. The bande dessinee has become a rather sophisticated and snobbish art form.”
Although it may be snobbish and sophisticated now, the French comic book industry, like all others in the world, traces its origins to the American comic strip.
“Our bandes dessinees come from yours,” Pascal said. “They are the children of yours.”
But the French strip developed in a slower and different way. French artists, for example, did not put the dialogue in balloons above the heads of characters until the mid-1920s. More important, French newspapers did not take to the idea of running daily strips. Instead, publishers printed weekly magazines with series of comic strips.
After World War II, two developments set the industry on its present course. The first was a public outcry against comic books coming from the United States, echoing the protest in the United States against violent and sensational comic books.
Comic strips were so abhorred by French intellectuals in those days that Les Temps Modernes, the literary journal of Jean-Paul Sartre, published an emotional denunciation of American comic strips.
“Comic books,” it said, “have succeeded in giving every American child a complete course in paranoiac megalomania . . . a total confidence in brutal force, such as no Nazi could ever dream of.”
Les Temps Modernes found American comic books brimming with fascism, anti-Semitism, homosexuality and sadomasochism.
Local Artists Encouraged
In 1949, Communists and Catholics combined in the French National Assembly to enact a law that effectively banned the importation of American comic books. It also encouraged more local artists to try their hand at comic strips.
At about this time, Belgium began producing comic books for children that contained a single long story. These were original stories, not collections of series that had appeared in weekly magazines. The most popular were the adventures of “Tintin,” a character created years before by Georges Rami, a Belgian artist who used the pen name “Herge.”
The enormous success of Herge and his colleagues persuaded other publishers and artists to do the same, both in Belgium and France. Some of the most popular characters, aside from Tintin, were the cowboy “Lucky Luke,” little blue creatures called “Schtroumpfs” in the original Belgian comic book but “Smurfs” years later in the United States. and “Asterix the Gaul,” who fought the Roman invaders of France. Adults may have enjoyed these kinds of albums immensely, but they were, and still are, aimed at children.
Most analysts believe that the shift to adult comic books came with the upheavals of May, 1968, in Paris. Frustrated and rebellious students clashed with the police for several weeks in an outburst that led to the resignation of President Charles de Gaulle and set off a wave of rethinking that challenged old ideas and beliefs in France.
Michel Gregg, who had achieved great popularity with his character “Achille Talon” long before 1968, said in a recent interview that the overwhelming changes of 1968 became the great watershed for French comic books.
“All of a sudden,” he said, “everything was possible. Before, publishers were cautious and very aware of the opinions of teachers and families and priests. Then the French artists began to take over the industry and tell adult stories. It was something between a novel and the movies. It was the movies on paper. It was more sophisticated than the comic books of before. It was more intelligent.”
Pascal also believes that 1968 created a new group of French comic book artists.
“They had loved the bande dessinee as children,” he said in an interview at this year’s fair in Angouleme, “and they had learned from them. But they began drawing them for adults. By adult comic strips, I don’t mean sexual. They began drawing political stories, history, adventure.”
It is not clear yet whether the French have really discovered a new art form. But there is no doubt that the French and Belgian albums are a new kind of comic book that have an adult mood of their own.
Quality in Perspective
While covering the fair at Angouleme, Philip Tirard, the cultural editor of the Belgian news magazine Le Vif, tried to put the artistic quality of the albums in perspective.
“I read about half of the 800 albums published every year,” he said in an interview. “I would say that 60% are not really done well. Of the 40% that are professionally done, only one out of every 10 are artistic in the sense that the author has an original and creative thing to say.”
An outsider can understand some of the appeal of the albums by looking at what intellectuals regard as the best.
“The Fever of Urbicande,” by Belgian artist Francois Schuiten and French writer Benoit Peteers, won the award at the last Angouleme fair as the best album of the year. Produced in black and white, this 96-page album focuses on the frustrations of architect Eugen Robick, who has designed most of the monumental city of Urbicande, which is set in the unspecified future. Prevented by the political leaders from building a bridge between the north and south river banks of the city, Robick watches as the metal tubes of an old cubic object mysteriously begin to grow at a geometric pace, a myriad of expanding cubes quickly breaking through his own ornate, monumental architecture to dominate the city, changing its life forever. The album is moody, serious, Kafkaesque and difficult to put down.
An Industry Classic
Another album, “The Killer of Cockroaches,” by French artist Jacques Tardi and French writer Benjamin Legrand, has won so much praise since its publication last year that it is already looked on as a classic in the industry.
Tardi is regarded as the darkest in mood of the leading comic book artists. Cultural critic Jean-Claude Loiseau, writing in the French news magazine Le Point last year, used strong imagery to describe Tardi’s work.
“Expressionist to the fantastic,” the critic wrote of Tardi, “playing the contrasts between black and white to their utmost, ferocious in his caricature, violent, and with a minute, classic and booming precision, he seems to keep inside of himself all the energy of despair.”
The 51 pages of “The Killer of Cockroaches” are somber and symbolic in their dark humor, with a strange hero in Walter Eisenhower, an exterminator who lives in New York. Walter was a German baby bought by a GI at the end of World War II and carried off to the Bronx. Caught in a confusion of identity, fantasizing that he is killing Nazis instead of cockroaches, Walter passively involves himself in a murderous adventure in the most decrepit and despairing neighborhoods of New York.
It is not an accident that “The Killer of Cockroaches” is set in the United States. The French and Belgian artists cherish the roots of their art form and sometimes turn to the United States for their settings. Several artists like to turn out American-style Westerns.
Many in the French and Belgian comic book industry, in fact, hope that classics like “The Killer of Cockroaches” will someday be prized in the country that started it all. Dargaud, a Paris publisher, set up an office in Greenwich, Conn., in January, 1982, with hopes of marketing translations of the French comic books in the United States.
Will Gregg, who has created 36 albums with his character Achille Talon, was put in charge of the office. The job has proved to be difficult. Gregg has managed to place translations of some of the children’s classics like Asterix in American bookstores, but there is no market as yet for the adult albums. American bookstores have difficulty with the concept of stocking large numbers of comic books on their shelves.
“In the States,” said Gregg, who returned to France recently for the Angouleme fair, “you have daily newspaper strips in a family mood or cheap comic books with superheroes. You have nothing in between. An album is not accepted as a normal book in the United States.
The he added, with the full confidence of those in France who know they are involved in a new art form: “It is going to happen sooner or later in the United States.”