Monday 3 February 2020

Bandes-dessinees: the Rich World of French Comics

I have always been aware of the respect that the French hold for the arts. More to the point, since learning, in the mid-1990s, that the two most famous names of 1960s U.S. underground comix - Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton - had both chosen independently to emigrate to France, I have also been conscious that this high regard also extends to that form of graphic storytelling and social commentary so frequently dismissed in the English speaking world as "comics" or "cartoons" (I imagine this is because no one has yet coined a more succinct term, meaning the endless confusion with fields like animation and stand-up comedy persist).
Growing up in the UK I found that only a thin slice of French talent was ever translated and published in English. I had heard of the work of the science fiction illustrator Moebius (pen name of the late Jean Girard), for instance, or the humorous slice-of-life cartoons of Claire Bretecher, and of course books like Asterix and Iznogoud figured prominently in my reading habits from a young age (certainly as much as MAD magazine), but that was about it. 
As i grew up and found myself wanting to seek out newer or more different work I soon found that unless you read Heavy Metal magazine avidly (this being the US version of France's sci-fi/fantasy magazine Metal Hurlant, nothing to do with the music genre), there were very few opportunities to find work by French artists short of actually learning some French and going there.
One of the interesting things you find when you do go there is how mainstream the French love of comics and satirical magazines is. It extends well beyond the walls of comic shops, as here you will find that they grace the shelves of most newsagents in the country. It reminds me of that brief renaissance in the late 80s-early 90s when British newsagents's shelves were filled with VIZ imitators.

The reality for UK mass market comics aimed at a more mature audience has consisted for many years now primarily of VIZ and Private Eye (both of which are really humorous or satirical magazines that also happen to publish a lot of comic strips or gag cartoons). This figure at least doubles as soon as you cross the Channel. For every VIZ you have a Fluide Glacial and (periodically) l'Echo des Savanes. For every Private Eye you have papers printed on equally cheap looking newsprint with names like Le Canard enchaine, Sine Mensuel or Charlie Hebdo.
It also impressed me that within just one French comic magazine you find a much wider diversity of drawing styles than I am used to seeing in either VIZ or more kid friendly fare from DC/Thompson. (This is one area in which the long-running science fiction mag 2000ad bucks the trend at least.) 
Perhaps it is just because I grew up with MAD and US underground comics more than Marvel and DC that I feel more invigorated by publishers that do not cultivate a "house style"? 
In just one edition of Fluide Glacial, for instance, I have seen artists as diverse as those with the loose cartoon-style of Fabrice Erre or Edika, to those with the detailed realism of Dominique Bertail.
And that's just on the news-stands. There is of course an equally dedicated array of specialist comic shops catering for people that enjoy longer, graphic novels. Rue Dante, in the area known as the Latin Quarter (on the south side of the River Seine), has long maintained a collection of different comics and speciality stores. Over the years, we have even seen this unique market developed and catered to by a science fiction-themes creperie.  
Almost makes me wish I could speak French more fluently!

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