Book History, Episodes

27. Comic Fun with Les Bandes Dessinées

Hello Book Lovers,

Oh yeah, it’s time to get your nerd on with this one because we’re talking comic books. Specifically, comic books from France and Belgium.

That sounds really specific, but these books — known as les bandes dessinées — gained popularity in the 1930s and have only gotten more popular over the decades…even though there was a little kerfuffle during the post-World War II period.

As for me, I was a huge fan of the Smurfs as a kid (I had a slight crush on Johan) and have now reignited my comic nerdom with the Asterix & Obelix books.

But, I ramble on about this in the episode, so I better stop here and let you get to listening.

Enjoy!

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Episode Transcript (or roughly so)…

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

Intro

And holy moly it seems like FOREVER since I’ve been in front of the microphone. I don’t even know what episode number we’re on. 27? Hope so. I also hope I remember how to do all the processing to get this thing out to you. Otherwise this would be a little pointless.

So, April was a weird month for me and I cover why that is in my writing update, and if you want more details there’ll be a link in the show notes (I know you missed me saying that, right?) but suffice it to say that things went a little wacky medically, personally, and with my writing stuff.

And because of all that weirdness I had a lot of trouble getting into a book. I don’t know how many novels I started and just gave up on. Even audiobooks weren’t capturing my attention. And who knows, maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe they were just crappy books.

Either way, what I did find myself gravitating toward were graphic novels. Specifically French graphic novels because my library’s online dohicky added a whole bunch of them to their system. So I thought, what a perfect topic for the podcast after its long spring break.

One Caveat

So just to let you know, this episode is going to specifically be about French comics, or les bandes dessinées, NOT about American comic books, although they do play a part in the story.

Joining the Bandes

Alright, if you’re wondering, the term Bandes Dessinées translates to drawn strips and if you’re cool you shorten it to BD, but that sounds like bidet, so I’m just going to call them BD from now on for the most part.

These are also known as Franco-Belgian comics because they mainly got their start in Belgium where they were known as Stripverhalen, or strip stories, both of which sound like names for a strip club newsletter.

These Belgian comics, if they were written in Flemish, would then be translated into French where they were crazy popular.

Early Strippers

The early versions of these comics, which began in the mid- to late 1800s were a little different from their American cousins because the American comics mainly were used in a political way to mock or criticize the government or people trying to push their weight around. France and Belgium took a more light-hearted approach and kept theirs mostly humorous.

Obviously you’d recognize these comics as comics if you saw them, but they were a little different than what we’re used to today. There was usually only one panel or a very short strip of panels and there were no word bubbles. It was like they hadn’t come up with that idea yet, so the comics would have captions like what people were used to seeing under photos in magazines.

Hubba-Bubba Bubble

So eventually someone flips the calendar page and it’s the 1900s. Comics start appearing in a more episodic nature in magazines or newspapers, meaning that each issue built on the story started in the previous issue. They were pretty popular amongst French readers, but none of these comics really took off outside of France.

And I can’t blame them, one of the more pervasive seres of comics was put out by the Catholic Church’s Union of French Catholic Workers. These comics were geared toward kids and covered that kid-favorite topic of health and correct behavior. Yeah, I know, gripping stuff, right?

But even though things were limping along on the popularity scale, in the 1920s we finally start to see word bubbles in France. Hoorah! Although they had been popping up (see what I did there) in the US, the first French artist to use them was Alain Saint-Ogan.

Unfortunately, the French can be stubborn about changing their ways, and the caption format still continued to dominate comics for at least another couple decades.

The Dark Side of Tintin

Moving along to 1930, we finally have a breakout hit and we also have the first true Belgian Bandes Dessinées. Or do we…? So, as I said, these comics were coming out in episodic form in periodicals.

One of these periodicals was Le Vingtieme Siecle and they eventually put the artist Hergé in charge of a new supplement for kids called Le Petit Vingtieme. And in this supplement Hergé began the story of an adventurous character named Tintin.

Well, Tintin was so popular the newspaper decided to put his first complete story into a hardcover book and claimed it was the first BD published.

Which was a total lie because the publisher Hachette had already published their own BD of the comic Zig et Puce a year or two earlier.

But that wasn’t Tintin’s only controversy. See, Le Vingtieme was a very conservative magazine that just loved to drive home its far-right, fascist views. And some of these views made their way into the Tintin comics, which included a lot of racial slurs and stereotypes. Hergé wasn’t exactly cool with this, but he went along with it anyway, and did later apologize for his portrayal of African people and Jews and a whole lotta stuff.

He never did apologize for taking credit for claiming Tintin as the first BD though. That I know of.

But credit where credit is due. Although Tintin wasn’t the first BD, it was the first to gain popularity outside of France and Belgium and by 1934 Tintin (and I assume Hergé) moved onto a new publisher, was selling all over the place, and had been translated into dozens of languages.

A Popular Year

1934, must have been a popular year for comics because it’s during this year that we also see the publication of the 8-page BD Le Journal de Mickey. It was an instant success. Publishers, not being idiots, quickly brought over more American cartoon characters and tossed them into the pages of their comic pages and BD.

Tough Luck for Superman

But all didn’t continue going so splendidly for those US characters. So, in the early 1940s there was this little skirmish called World War II. You might have heard of it.

Germany got all grabby and invaded France and Belgium. And because the Americans weren’t telling Germany what a great job they did with those invasions, the Germans put a ban on all US comics and cartoon characters because they questioned the morals of those fictional characters. Yes, the regime who invented concentration camps said Superman had questionable morals.

Anyway, as you might expect this only made the French and Belgians want comics even more. Since it was really tricky, and probably dangerous, to get your hands on American comics, young artists seized the chance to fill the need for some levity.

These artists emulated the American style and stories to learn the ropes, but eventually they created their own characters and styles.

And a couple artists from this time period who the BD nerds out there will recognize are Peyo, who would go on to create The Smurfs, and Albert Uderzo, who created Asterix and Obelix.

War is Over…But Not for Comics

So yay, we’re up to the late 1940s and the war is over. Unfortunately, it’s not quite over for comics. See, during the war those young artists I mentioned earlier gained status, their BD were popular, and they had probably kept morale up for many people.

So they were rewarded by being tossed into prison. Seriously. When the new French government came into place after the war, it was mostly made of people who had been strong players in the resistance. Well, they claimed that these artists could only have done well during a time of war by collaborating with the Germans. See, conspiracy theories are nothing new.

And US comics weren’t fairing any better in post-war France than they did during the German occupation. The communist party of France reinstated the ban on American comics because they promoted capitalism and non-communist ideals.

I mean just look at Bruce Wayne. That mansion. The Batmobile. A freaking butler. Clearly his main goal wasn’t to fight crime, it was to subvert the communist cause.

Anyway, during this time many French artists hightailed it to Belgium to avoid scrutiny. Many French magazines that contained comics didn’t survive the war or this post-war period, so who knows how many hijinks we missed out on.

Things are Looking Up

By the 1950s most of the accused artists had their names cleared and were released from prison. And again Tintin and other BD gain a foothold across the globe. And it’s also in the 1950s, 1959 to be exact, that the French periodical Pilote published something to attract teenage readers. The something was Asterix.

And if you don’t know Asterix, he’s this scrappy little Gaul from the time of the Roman invasion of France (or Gaul). And it’s one of my absolute favorites mainly due to the tongue-in-cheek humor, which unfortunately doesn’t always come across in the English translations (especially with the character names), so if you can read French, opt for that version instead.

Sign of the Times

In the 1960s and into the 70s, social norms really start changing in the world. It’s also when some of those people who might have been kids when Tintin and Asterix came out, were now becoming adults. As such, and because there is just this huge increase in BD artists, we start seeing far more adult BD and more adults reading BD, as well as an increase in comic periodicals such as Le Canard Sauvage.

Honoring the Art

So even though one source I used to research this episode said the 1980s saw a steep decline in BD, I’m not quite sure if that’s accurate because in 1982 the French government recognized the importance BD to France’s cultural status and in promoting a French product to the world.

Even more clear that BD weren’t in decline, the French Minister of Culture declared comic art was a true art form, and it became known as the Neuvieme Art, or ninth art  in his policy plan called 15 new measures in favor of the comic.

BD were so NOT in decline that this policy plan was revamped in the late 1990s.

Belgium was a little slower to adopt comic art as a true art form in its own right, but eventually they did, and for a long time France and Belgium were the only two countries to recognize comic art as legit art and to give it backing by cultural authorities.

And the Belgians, even though they lagged behind at first, really went all in with this comics are great idea and built what is the largest comic book museum in the world. It’s called the Belgium Comic Strip Museum in Brussels. It opened in 1989, and receives an average of 200,000 visitors a year…obviously in non-pandemic years.

Updates

So that’s all I’ve got for BD, which means it’s Update Time!

So, as you can already hear, the podcast is back. As I mentioned before the break, I had intended to do video book reviews during the break. I did one. I’m telling you, April was a weird month. But I have done a couple more and they are up on my YouTube channel, if you want to watch them.

I’ve been doing a lot of video stuff lately, so if you like a bit of video goofiness you should probably subscribe to my channel because I guess that’s what I’m supposed to tell you to do to make the YouTube gods happy.

Also, this week I released the third book in my Cassie Black trilogy! It’s so weird to be done!! And if you’re listening to this before the end of May 2021, I’m running a pretty nice discount on Book One of the trilogy, which is The Undead Mr Tenpenny. It’s only 99c on most retailers, but like I said, only for a few more days, so get cracking if you want to get the deal.

As for the new book, the new book is

—THE UNTANGLED CASSIE BLACK—

Sometimes taking an overdose of magic is the least of your worries.

Cassie Black has just lost two people through a magic portal. Her archenemy, the Mauvais, is threatening to destroy city after city if HQ doesn’t hand her over to him. And HQ isn’t exactly saying no to that offer.

As HQ debates her fate, Cassie refuses to sit by and watch the grass grow between the toes of the surveillance gnomes. Biting back her life rule to never get involved, she knows the only way to stop the Mauvais is to go after him herself.

Which is exactly what he wants. Because the instant Cassie falls into his hands, the Mauvais will gain the unlimited power he’s always craved.

So don’t get captured, right? Easy for you to say.

Trouble is, there’s a traitor within HQ who’s proving to be more devious, more powerful, and to have more tricks up the sleeve than anyone could have ever guessed.

In this page-turning conclusion of the Cassie Black Trilogy, the curses are flying, the pastries are plentiful, the bookworms are slithering, and the magical batteries are charged to capacity.

Wrapping Up

Alright everyone, thank you so much for joining me again. If you like what you’ve heard, you can support the show by buying one of my books. And if you do buy one of my books be sure to leave a review. That really is the best way to support any indie author…and your favorite podcast. I am your favorite, right? Right?

Ah well, have a great couple weeks and I will hoot at you next time!

Credits

The book owl podcast is a production of daisy dog media, copyright 2021, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by auphonic .com. Video production by Headliner dot app.

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