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France’s New Wave:

Lewis Trondheim & David B.

The French have a word for it - ‘bande dessinée’, or the almost kinky-sounding ‘BD’ for short. The word has only recently become what everyone calls comics in France; when BD was first coined in the early 1940s, according to historian Jean-Claude Glasser, it meant only newspaper strips. For years, people called children’s weeklies ‘illustres’ (literally ‘illustrateds’), or perhaps ‘petits miquets’, a nickname for ‘little Mickeys’ after Disney’s mouse.

The Sixties changed all that. Championed by intellectuals, elevated to a new ‘Ninth’ Art, exhibited in the Louvre, bande dessinee bloomed, especially after France’s May 1968 cultural quake, and hooked older readers with more varied and sophisticated subjects. Still, the BD album, commonly hardback, 48 pages and colour, makes up about 80% of the 1,200 new titles published last year, and over 95% of sales, but longer, more ‘literary’ graphic novels mostly in black and white are having a growing impact.

‘Big deal’, you say, ‘I don’t read French’; well, BD are an ideal way to learn. And luckily, samples of successive forms of BD have been exported into English: perennials Tintin and Asterix; the fantasies of Moebius, Bilal, Schuiten and others introduced by Heavy Metal; the underground and art inspired approaches of Tardi, Loustal, Baru and their peers in Raw, Escape, Drawn & Quarterly. And after that? Recently, we’ve had sightings of France’s ‘nouvelle vague’, the new wave born in the Sixties, who are shaking up both traditional and alternative BD, led by Lewis Trondheim and David B.

Their beginnings could not have been more different. Weaned on Franco-Belgian BD classics, David B. broke straight into the mainstream, first as a writer. Whereas young Lewis lapped up Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey and started modestly by self-publishing solo photocopied zines. What brought them together in 1990 was participating in a new creator-run collective called L’Association to publish albums that mass-market publishers wouldn’t risk. Twelve years on, L’Asso have put out over 100 smart, unconventional books, from mini-comics and comic books to a 500-page tome and a 2,000-page anthology of silent comics. And they have transformed the landscape of current BD publishing.

Trondheim and David B. remain heavily involved with L’Asso, but both are also producing a profusion of all-ages colour albums for Dargaud, Delcourt and Dupuis.  Trondheim’s hits are now being translated and published in the USA by NBM and Fantagraphics Books. Bursting with his expert timing, idiotic banter and unpredictable lunacy, these books are just the tip of the Trondheim iceberg.

McConey is the American name for his big-eared, big-hearted bunny Lapinot. His funny animal adventures, part Tintin, part Uncle Scrooge, embroil him in ever nuttier mysteries: mutating monsters in Harum Scarum, a cursed stone that brings bad luck in The Hoodoodad. If you thought Calvin in Calvin & Hobbes has an overactive imagination as ‘Spaceman Spiff’, you should meet Trondheim’s kid geniuses Gilbert and Martina in Astronauts Of The Future, written by Lewis and drawn by Manu Larcenet. They live every day convinced that everyone but them is either an alien or a robot. The world has never looked wackier than through these children’s eyes.

Dungeon, another Trondheim comic, is heroic fantasy at its craziest. Co-creator Joann Sfar explained their initial impulse was to devise "a series as rich as Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars, but which took itself less seriously and used everything we loved from Mickey Mouse and the Muppet Show!" From the opening episode of hapless, hopeless ‘hero’ Herbert the Timorous Duck, aided by Marvin the vegetarian dragon, Dungeon is spinning off prequels and sequels into an escalating saga projected to total a ludicrous 297 albums.

Much darker autobiography is the subject of David B.‘s first graphic novel Epileptic. First published in France by L’Association, and finally translated and published as one complete 360 page edition by Pantheon/Jonathan Cape in 2005,  he records his family’s traumas over his older brother’s epilepsy and his parents’ dogged search for alternative cures from a parade of macrobiotic gurus, communes and spiritualists. His matter-of-fact, non-judgmental tone contrasts with his almost carved, emotionally intense imagery.

David B. admits how as an adolescent he mistreated his brother, once almost letting him kill himself. David explores how his childhood inner rage and fantasy life helped him to cope, by transforming their struggles with the illness into symbolic battles. As his parents would never discuss the illness as he grew up, he embarked on this book in his thirties to open a dialogue with them. The result is one of the most affecting family testimonies in comics since Spiegelman’s Maus.

Posted: November 27, 2005

The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.

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