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Belgian Comics:

Frames Of Reference

Forgive me, but I’ve never forgotten that classic Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch, a "Down Your Way"-style programme entitled "Prejudice". It’s broadcast from the stage of an English village hall, where the winners are being announced of a competition to find a new derogatory term for the Belgians. In third place comes "The Sprouts"; in second place "The Phlegms"; but the winner is "Miserable Fat Belgian Bastards." Irredeemably non-PC, I know, but the sort of surreal comedy we British do so well, from The Goons to Viz, and which many Belgians hugely enjoy. Personally, I’ve always liked Belgium and the Belgians, at least ever since as a boy I went on a family holiday to Ostende, and I’ve been told I speak French with a bit of a Belgian accent. Certainly the Belgians I met the week before last were far from miserable, as they celebrated at the champagne launch party on Thursday March 26th of the exhibition Belgian Comics: Frames of Reference at the Royal Museums of Fine Art.

I’d been to these Museums in Brussels several years ago to see a superb Paul Delvaux one-man retrospective and they have since spotlighted James Ensor and René Magritte there, among others. By the way, I saw the fabric-covered, decorated building, curtains parting slightly, to reveal the new Magritte Museum which is opening just round the corner this June and will be well worth a visit.

So the overall mood at the private view was jubilant. No wonder, as Belgian Comics: Frames Of Reference is something of an historic landmark. You might be surprised that it’s taken so long, but this is the first time that original comic art has ever been welcomed and displayed prominently within the Royal Museums of Fine Art, not counting their reprise of the Musée des Arts décoratifs’ significant 1967 show, Bande Dessinée & Figuration Narrative, which consisted of reproductions and blow-ups. I’d become involved with this as their translator into English of all the captions, text panels and even the audio guide. The exhibition is but one highpoint in BD Comic Strip: Brussels 2009, an amazing year-long, city-wide programme of comics activities, promotions and exhibits, under the Grand Events Department, and directed by Eric Verhoest of Champaka Editions.


Top row: Nat Neujean’s sculpture of Tintin with Snowy gazes at Swarte’s mural. Bottom row: (l) Illuminated display cases beneath a detail of Avril’s fresco, (r) live jazz gets the party in full swing, decorated with the Brussels 09 comics logo.

We Brits may tease the Belgians but their quite small country is the birthplace of so many internationally successful comics characters, from Tintin and Blake & Mortimer to The Smurfs and Largo Winch, all four adapted into movies or about to be. Spielberg and Peter Jackson recently completed their motion-capture filming for their first Tintin 3D movie, due out in 2011, the same year we can expect Blake & Mortimer in The Yellow Mark from the Spanish director and comics aficionado Alex de la Iglesia. On top of this, there may be no other nation with such a high proportion of comics creators per capita as Belgium. This may be partly because there’s a distinctive and enriching blend and contrast in Belgian comics, and in Belgian life, reflecting the country’s double languages and cultures, both French and Flemish. Hergé is the father of both Tintin (French) and Kuifje (Flemish), and he also hailed Willy Vandersteen as "The Brueghel of Comics" for his young adventurers Suske en Wiske (see my extra article below about their English translations).


Co-curator Didier Pasamonik gives a guided tour.

How does anyone curate an exhibition of such a massive, bi-lingual comics culture as Belgium’s and make sense of it within the vast, aircraft hangar-like spaces of this art museum? That was the challenge faced by curators Didier Pasamonik, former co-publisher of the legendary Magic Strip editions and a formidable historian, writer and critic on the medium, and Jean-Marie Derscheid, equally expert and well-connected to artists, estates and collectors. They teamed up with the architect-scenographer Winston Spriet, with whom I worked in 2004 in Charleroi, Belgium on the first major exhibit about Alan Moore and his many collaborators.


Clockwise from top left: Herr Seele illuminates a beloved piano with Cowboy Henk, co-created with Kamagurka; Goblet’s cabinet of medical curiosities and pickled things in a jar; Herr Seele enjoys the displays, looking out across the lower galleries; Giant screwed-up balls of paper float above writers Van Hamme and Cauvin’s section, while images from their series are projected on the floor.

One of their solutions was to focus on twenty living artists, each accorded their own space, and ranging across generations from the most established mainstream best-sellers to the most provocative young turks. So to kick off, here’s a list of them, some familiar outside Belgium, others virtually unknown, in order as they follow each other through the galleries. Four of them are writers, enabling the curators to cover a bigger range of series, and all but one of them are men. I’m adding some notes based on Pasamonik’s commentaries, and notes on their work’s availability in English:

JEAN VAN HAMME:
He wrote his first album in 1968, the erotic gem Epoxy drawn by Paul Cuvelier, a true master of expressive body language. This best-selling scriptwriter’s phenomenal thriller XIII with artist William Vance came to its climactic conclusion last year and has been made into a TV movie shown recently in the States. After a couple of volumes in English from Catalan Communications in the 1980s, the first part of XIII was retranslated, in places quite shoddily, and repackaged by Dabel Brothers in 2006. That edition is apparently out of print now, and frustratingly there’s been nothing more since. At least Cinebook are translating his Thorgal, Largo Winch, Lady S. and Blake & Mortimer. The Largo Winch movie was a solid hit and will hopefully get a UK/US release. Intriguingly, its high-finance setting taps into Van Hamme’s studies in economics and his other early career in business. For his special object, he chooses his upright writing desk which for health reasons he works at standing up (just like Marvel scribe Stan Lee!).

RAOUL CAUVIN:
Another phenomenal BD writer specialising in humour, whose spunky 8-year-old boy Cedric, drawn by Laudec, is published by Dupuis and translated by Cinebook. This UK company has also put out two books in his American Civil War comedy series with Lambil, The Bluecoats. I didn’t know that his first collaboration, in 1968, was with the astute satirist Claire Brétécher. He chooses a chaise longue, as he dreams up most of his stories reclining horizontally!

HERMANN:
One of the grand masters of Belgian comics since the 1960s, he got into comics only later in his life while in Canada through his uncle, who also got him his first assignment. His rugged Jeremiah brought fresh vigour into Tintin weekly. It has appeared in English from several outfits over the years and was adapted by J. Michael Straczynski into a US television series from 2002 to 2004. More recently, parts of his historical epic The Towers of Bois-Maury and others have been issued in English by Strip Art Features.

FRANÇOIS WALTHÉRY:
His sexy air hostess Natacha has not crossed over the Channel yet. Interesting to see how he brought into Spirou the dynamic linework of Mad Magazine‘s geniuses Jack Davis and Wally Wood.

MARVANO:
Inspired by Star Wars, this Flemish Clear Line precisionist adapted Joe Haldeman’s SF novel series The Forever War, translated by NBM. His recently concluded Berlin trilogy is highly rated and was picked by Michel Kempeners as one of his best of 2008.

PTILUC:
Rats and motorbikes are his twin obsessions. After a serious biking accident, he pursued his corrosive funny-animal comics, in which he revisited the Frankenstein myth partly as an allegory about his own operations. In the gallery, he shows a bike, laden with his bags of sketchbooks, the sort of machine that he’s ridden as far afield as Africa. Nothing in English so far.

BENOÎT SOKAL:
A key contributor to A Suivre magazine’s early success in 1978 with his Inspector Canardo, a fusion of Bogart and Donald Duck. Fantagraphics put out A Shaggy Dog Story in 1987 starring his "duck-tective" and Fleetway/Xpresso followed up with Blue Angel in 1991. Around this time, Sokal switched to digital art and scored hits in the video games market. His section includes conceptual designs and animatics for these, some of them derived from his comics.

FRANK PÉ:
One anecdote, and perhaps an explanation for his passion for the animal kingdom, is that his mother was attracted to his father because he looked like Johnny Weissmuller, as in Tarzan. His Zoo trilogy is a beautifully watercoloured eco-fable, another treasure so far undiscovered over here.

DIDIER COMÈS:
His bravura black-and-white tale of a mute named Silence blew me away back in 1981 as one on the first great ‘romans graphiques’ serialised in A Suivre magazine. I remember meeting him back then at the Paris Bookfair on my first BD-buying excursion. He’s done subsequent tales of country folk and witchcraft but also diversified into other personal themes. Great to see his striking marionettes in display here.

JEAN DUFAUX:
A lover of both books and cinema and another prolific writer-generator of diverse dramas and adventures. Four volumes of his baroque SF fantasy Raptors, drawn by Marini, have come out from NBM, but there are loads more series waiting in the wings.

YSLAIRE (alias Bernard Hislaire):
Nowt in English from him, sad to say. In a blood-red palette, Sambre, his luscious, erotically charged French Revolution saga about a twisted family tree, is one of Bande Dessinée’s masterpieces. He’s gone on to create some astonishing digital and mixed-media albums portraying the end of the 20th century and most recently involving the art masterpieces of the Louvre, where his work was exhibited. It’s possible that this book may make it into English, as NBM have done the previous two in the series by De Crécy and Mathieu.

FRANÇOIS SCHUITEN:
A genuine visionary with exceptional draughtsmanship and imagination, Schuiten (pronounced "SKOY-ten" in Flemish, "SHWEE-tun" in French)  and co-writer and close cohort Benoît Peeters have constructed a rich mythology of Cités Obscures, brimming with architectural and other postmodern references. Several of these, though not all, are available from NBM. His career makes clear how the school of comics where Schuiten studied, the Institut Saint-Luc set up by Claude Renard, has played, and still plays, a crucial role in training and motivating successive generations of Belgian creators.

PHILIPPE GELUCK:
He is an institution in Belgium, a media celeb in his own right and also for his sardonic, satirical Cat. Mad about acting since the age of 9, Geluck (I think his name is close to the Flemish "geluk" for luck) performs on stage and on TV and on March 22nd 1983 starts cartooning his Cat comics for Le Soir newspaper. I thought his work never had crossed over but I just learned that Casterman, his Belgian publishers, put out one English collection themselves in 2001, entitled Nearly The Best Of The Wise Cat. Who knows, his funny feline philosopher might catch on yet?

MIDAM:
His big hit in Spirou weekly since 1993 is Kid Paddle, tapping into kids’ obsession with computer games, surely a natural for export? It’s had two seasons already of TV cartoons and he’s followed it up in 2004 with Game Over on a similar theme.

PHILIPPE TOME:
Another writer, who took over the groom in the bright red outfit Spirou with artist Janry for 14 albums. This October Cinebook launch their take on Spirou & Fantasio in English with their Australian romp, Adventure Down Under. Their even bigger success has been coming up with a mischievous childhood version of Spirou. Tome’s written other tomes (sorry!), including the excellent detective Soda, with Luc Warnant, then Bruno Gazzotti.

JOHAN DE MOOR:
I found his cow detective La Vache is a real hoot with co-writer Stephen Desberg. Keeping it all in the family, he’s not only the son of Bob De Moor, one of Hergé‘s greatest assistants and a first-rate BD auteur in his own right, but is also the godson of Willy Vandersteen. Johann’s forthcoming autobiographical album promises to be something extra special.


(l) A Cowboy Henk piano topped by Herr Seele’s painted self-portrait
(r) Overhead blow-ups, this one of Schuiten’s Archivist print.

HERR SEELE:
With Kamagurka, he creates the wonderfully surreal Cowboy Henk in 1981, still popping up in Flemish weekly Humo and translated a bit in Raw and in one English album in 1994, King of Dental Floss from Scissors Books. A painter, composer and collector of pianos, with some 220 instruments, Herr Seele (pronounced "hair SAY-la") presents in his section a beautiful piano decorated with Cowboy Henk motifs, crowned with a self-portrait inspired by the Flemish master painters.

JEAN-PHILIPPE STASSEN:
Another Institut Saint-Luc graduate, Stassen offers an unforgettable indictment of the Rwandan genocides and Western cowardice and apathy in his Deogratias album, published by First Second. To document this he spent 7 months in the country while the war was still raging. He has married a Rwandan woman and now lives there. In 2006 he illustrated the Conrad novel Heart of Darkness.

DOMINIQUE GOBLET:
Also coming to comics via her illustration studies at Saint-Luc, she was first published by Fréon in 2001 with her autofiction Souvenirs d’une journée parfaite ("Memories of a perfect day"). The texts of her mixed-media family memoir Faire Semblant C’est Mentir ("Make-Believe is Lying") (L’Association, 2007) have been translated over at the Comix Influx site. Her Nikita Project due in 2012 from Frémok compiles the portraits she has been making of her daughter since 2002, and those her daughter has made of her. Visit her web-site for more details. The only woman among these twenty, she came to the UK last year as a guest speaker at Falmouth’s Illustration Open Forum.

THIERRY VAN HASSELT:
A key instigator in the Frigoproduction Fréon-Frémok avant-garde collective, untranslated as far as I am aware. I never knew that he was a nephew of Schuiten’s, through whom he discovers comics. His major graphic novels are Gloria Lopez (2000) Brutalis (2002) with choreographer Karine Ponties, and Les images volées (2008) with Mylène Lauzon. Pioneer and explorer, Van Hasselt pushes comics into challenging, conceptual, consciously cross-disciplinary territories.


Clockwise from top left: Alien artifacts from the fantasy worlds of Schuiten & Peeters; Van Hasselt chose a cabinet of Jean-Christophe Long’s wood-engraved portraits of Frémok participants; Hermann’s vitrine pokes fun at fine art "found objects"; Comès puts two of his large puppets on view.

Co-curators Pasamonik and Dersheid give the chance to each of these twenty creators to show one object, or a glass-fronted display case of several objects, which have personal significance to them, from Walthéry’s jazz LP collection and Hermann’s stinging parody of fine art pretensions to Schuiten’s otherworldly 3D objects based on his designs and Goblet’s mice foetuses in a jar of formalin. In addition, alongside their framed original artworks on the walls they can pick a selection of works by other comic artists which specially inspired them. So Schuiten can display a Winsor McCay Little Nemo, one of the rare surviving examples, while Herr Seele selects a glorious Krazy Kat Sunday page hand-coloured by George Herriman himself. Among other treats are pages of Asterix, Terry and the Pirates, Peanuts, Bringing Up Father, Spirou by Franquin, Jerry Spring by Jijé, and a surprisingly oversized example by Paul Gillon from Les Naufragés du Temps ("Lost in Time").

There are some clever design touches to add scale and impact to the spaces. Projectors, with angled mirrors, shine enlarged images of each creator’s work onto the gallery floors while overhead at each beginning hangs another blown-up panel. I also really liked the giant balls of screwed-up paper suspended overhead in the opening writers’ gallery, suggesting their thrown-away efforts. Perhaps it might have been helped by having a photo portrait and/or a short interview clip of each creator to personalise and identify them, but as it stands you can easily get a vivid understanding of their individual backgrounds, tastes and sensibilities. Some might quibble that comics are properly made to be read in printed form rather than viewed under glass on walls, but the museum also offers a reading area where you can relax and explore the creators’ albums and a well-stocked bookshop.

But what do you do about all the other Belgian comics creators, living and dead, who are not covered in these twenty creators’ galleries and "personal museums"? Pasamonik and Derscheid cope with this by opening their exhibition with a parade of original artworks and rare magazines and printed ephemera, all in glass-topped display cases, to chart the history and evolution of Belgian comics from Tintin‘s debut 80 years ago in 1929 through to today. It’s here they can show many more creators’ amazing output, including three wonderful original pages by Hergé, and explain their contexts and connections. As the crowning touch to bring this broad survey together, they brilliantly commissioned Belgium’s Ever Meulen, Holland’s Joost Swarte and France’s François Avril to design three sweeping frescoes presenting their interpretations of Belgian comics, past and present. With thanks to the curators and Eric Verhoest, these can be previewed here but they really should be seen in situ in their full-scale glory. Finally, as you go in, I loved the long white wall, which simply listed the names of all twenty highlighted artists, their names in stylishly simple black type.


Clockwise from top-left: Jean Van Hamme and his wife Huguette; Ever Meulen and his wife Leny; Herr Seele and Ever Meulen join me in lively discussion;
Eric Lambé and family.

In the spacious ground-floor reception, brought to life by a jazz trio, a pair of chic women on stilts with long dresses and tiny umbrellas, and illuminated BD ‘09 signage and scrumptious food and drink, the party was quite a grand occasion in itself. I had the pleasure of meeting again with Nick and Fanny Rodwell from Moulinsart, and Ever Meulen and his wife Leny, whose name inspired the Dutch anthology Tante Leny, as well as Eric Lambé from Frémok and his wife Nathalie and son Gaspard. I was also introduced to Herr Seele, who turns out to be quite a fan of Viz, and to Jean Van Hamme and his wife Huguette, who enjoyed a holiday in London only a few weeks ago. My Parisian ami Pierre-Marie Jamet arrived with artists Louis Joos and Brunor, one of the co-founders with Jamet and Philippe Morin of PLGPPUR, later PLG, one of France’s finest "fanzines" and a big inspiration for Escape Magazine.


At the exhibition opening a model at the entrance,
striking a pose on her stilts and covered in badges.

There’s a lavish 232-page hardcover catalogue to go with the show, unfortunately in French and Flemish only, priced 34 euros from the publishers Snoeck in Gent. But if you can, you’ve got until June 28th to hop on a plane, or get over by Eurostar (the train takes only two and a quarter hours from King’s Cross and returns are as cheap as £59) and experience this remarkable, revelatory exhibition for yourself. And be sure to look into the numerous other exhibits and events coming up during the rest of the year. These include the opening next month of the Hergé Museum in new town Louvain-La-Neuve, not far from the capital, and an exhibition on the "Atom Style", covering Chaland, Clerc, Meulen, Avril and more, which I am curating in one of the spheres of the Atomium monument itself. Brussels is turning the whole of 2009 into one long comics party.

WILLY VANDERSTEEN: THE BRUEGHEL OF COMICS

Less than a handful of Euro-comics heroes, famously Tintin and then Asterix, have successfully crossed the Channel and caught on in Britain. After Harvill Press’ Corto Maltese series folded with only two albums, another British publisher is plugging Lucky Luke, but the cowboy didn’t hit the target last time. Shouldn’t publishers give up and concede that these efforts to sell us these un-British imports will never amount to more than "a failed invasion" as Roger Sabin has summed it up?

Canny Scots Intes International don’t think so. They want to tap into the continuing trendiness of Tintin, 70 this year, to unlock a potential market, namely young parents seeking more of the same for their kids. Following Hergé‘s death, there will never be any more new adventures of Tintin, so if you want something more, Spike & Suzy are here to fill that niche.

Hergé praised their creator Willy Vandersteen as "The Brueghel of Comics". The brother-sister duo stay in over 150 albums generated by Vandersteen and his studio, led by Paul Geerts, who continues since Vandersteen died generating four new books every year. For their first books, Intes have shrewdly chosen four modern Geerts books: Sagarmatha will remind readers of Tintin in Tibet; The Circle of Power is set in Britain and involves the Long Man of Wilmington; The Secret of the Incas recalls Prisoners of the Sun; The Fairies of Efteling is set in the real-life Dutch theme park.

Worldly-wise parentless kids caught up with some distinctly wacky adults, Spike and Suzy’s escapades are fast-paced and imaginative, illustrated in Tintin‘s classic "Clear Line" look but with wilder slapstick and more sheer fantasy. The recipe obviously works; the series has sold over 140 million copies worldwide in twenty languages, and in Belgium and Holland it outsells Tintin. With smooth translations and Tintin-style covers and hardback packaging, the timing might be perfect now for Vandersteen’s kids to click in Britain too.

Posted: April 7, 2009

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Frames Of Reference
Brussels 2009

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Euro Comics
Exhibitions

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Featured Books


Frames Of Reference
Exhibition Catalogue


Cowboy Henk
by Herr Seele


XIII
by Jean Van Hamme
& William Vance


Largo Winch
by Jean Van Hamme
& Francq


Blake & Mortimer
by Jean Van Hamme
& Ted Benoit


Nearly The Best Of
The Wise Cat

by Philippe Geluck


Cedric
by Raoul Cauvin
& Laudec


Jeremiah
by Hermann


Raptors
by Jean Dufaux
& Marini


Cities Of The Fantastic
by François Schuiten
& Benoit Peeters


Deogratias
by Jean-Philippe Stassen