Continental Comics

While I was in Paris I took the opportunity of browsing in some bookstores and bouquinistes (the rare and second hand booksellers with the lockups by the Seine) for some bandes dessinée (French comics, basically). Unlike the English language book world comics and graphic novels are taken more seriously as culture and art; we cover a tiny bit of the European scene on the FPI blog but what gets translated into English and republished for the UK and US markets is pretty limited compared to what actually gets published in Europe so I decided I would have a look at some BD while I was there, my basic and rusty French not withstanding and ended up writing an article out of it for the FPI blog last weekend, which I’m repeating below:

Apologies to Wim for appropriating his usual title for this post (normal continental correspondent service from Belgium will be resumed shortly), but I’m just back from a terrific break in Paris where, as well as the usual tourist pastimes of marvelling at the motoring madness that is the Circus Maximus around the Arc de Triomphe (the greatest free show in the City of Light) or wondering if it was permissible to push very loud and irritating backpackers off the Eiffel Tower, I managed to have a couple of little browses through some bandes dessinée. Sadly the first dedicated comics shop – Super Hero Libraire – was closed when we passed it (unlike the UK French shops don’t always stick to the regular 9 to 6 sort of hours every day, but many are open into the evening, so its worth checking hours if there is a specific store you want to catch) and it was too far from our hotel to make a return visit feasible.

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(French one volume edition of V For Vendetta and a big dollop of Wolverine – did you know Logan spoke French?)

But this is France and unlike Britain you can find BD pretty much wherever books are sold – even the famous bouquinistes with their distinctive green lock-ups along the banks of the Seine often feature both BD albums and old comics issues, although since some of these may be rare rather than simply second hand you have to watch the prices. I came across a multi-volume series collecting V for Vendetta en Français and was quite tempted to pick them up, but at just shy of 20 Euros per volume it was just too pricey.

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(one of the windows of the Super Hero Librairie; in the bottom left shelf you can see Chroniques Birmanes which Wim reviewed here last week)

Still, the bouquinistes are something any book lover will want to enjoy, whether you are looking for BD, paperback novels or any other literature; actually on a spring day simply browsing among them as the barges move along the Seine, the simple pleasure of rummaging through used books combined with being outdoors and sightseeing. One stand in particular had an interesting mix of French BD and English language titles, so you’d see second-hand Bilal albums next to a rack of old Daredevil issues. As with second hand and antiquarian bookstore here though, the bouquinistes choose their opening hours according to arcane signs among the stars and from a formula calculated using an ancient equation worked out by Diderot, so it is pure luck which ones will be open or closed when you go past at any time of day or evening, but hey, if you’re there its as good as an excuse as any for a walk long the banks of the Seine without feeling like a total tourist.

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(some of the bouquinistes by the Seine, near Notre Dame)

In the bouquiniste stands, the comics stores and the mainstream bookshops it is also common to come across English language titles translated into French – the aforementioned V Pour Vendetta, of course, but quite a diverse selection, even in mainstream bookstores (some of which had graphic novel sections almost half as big as you’d find in specialist comics stores here, and that’s just adult BD, not counting the younger reader’s material). Even in the land where comics are considered the Ninth Art you’re still going to find the ‘underwear perverts’ as Boing Boing refers to superheroes, translated and nestling among the slimmer, hardback BD albums – as with any comics store its hard not to spot some X-Men titles.

Kirkman and Adlard’s excellent, Romero-influenced zombie series The Walking Dead seemed popular too and I spotted several large paperback translated collections cropping up in a number of places. There’s something fascinating about leafing through the pages of something you’ve read but now in another language (and this seems universal – plenty of the many tourists who come to Edinburgh like to pick up Tolkien in bookstores here, for example, to read in English having read it in French, German etc). In one of the many bookstores between the Saint Michel and Latin Quarter areas I also came across a very handsome, thick collection of Eddie Campbell’s early work. You’ll appreciate the irony that if I want to track down most of that work by an acclaimed British artist at home I’d have to go second hand because it’s currently out of print, yet in France I can find a very fine-looking collection in an ordinary bookstore. Then again the French probably appreciate it more; “Monsieur Campbell, sacre bleu, ‘e is a true artiste de BD.” (and of course, they are right). And I noticed quite a few artists familiar to me via their translated works which have come out from Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, NBM, First Second and Fantagraphics over the years, from Trondheim to Zograf.

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(just some of the BD on offer in Gibert Jeune in the Saint Michel area of Paris)

Of course while you’re there you want to have a look at some European titles. Now my French is pretty basic and those school lessons seem a long time ago, but one of the advantages the comics form offers is (usually) less actual text to comprehend (or not!) and the visual aide of sequential pictures, so even when your command of French is less than stellar there’s a lot of extra context to give you a hand. It doesn’t make the medium completely accessible and bypass the linguistic barriers (unless it is a ‘silent’ strip), but if you have even a small grasp of the language a comic is going to be a much easier way to try and interact a bit more with another tongue.

That shouldn’t be surprising to us; after all we first encourage the comprehension of written language and structure in children using picture books. And living as I do in Edinburgh, as awash with visitors as Paris, I’ve seen a number of adult tourists deliberately picking up Asterix and Tintin in English to take home because it is a great way to try and get more into another language, so I thought I’d take a similar tact and ended up coming home with some Jodorowsky – Les Technopères, with fabulous science fiction art from Zoran Janjetov which made it worth picking up just to admire – and on spotting a recent collection (just published by Air Libre/Dupuis in January) by this year’s Grand Prix winners at Angoulême, Dupuy and Berberain, Un Peau Avant la Fortune, I thought that would be worth a bash too.

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(cover to Dupuy and Berberian’s recently published Un Peau Avant la Fortune, published Air Libre/Dupuis and (c) Dupuy and Berberian)

To be honest I could easily have blown more money picking up several more, but since I don’t know how well I will cope with them it seemed prudent to limit myself (and spend the remaining money on wine). But language aside it is hard to resist when you are faced with shelf upon shelf of BD, everything from the funny books to tales of daring Resistance heroines in wartime Paris (one book I randomly picked up had a scene with the Resistance heroine set on one of the Seine bridges I had just passed over to get to that very bookstore, sadly I can’t remember the title now), science fiction, biographical… Even if you aren’t going to buy yourself some, if you find yourself visiting France its still enjoyable for any comics fan to have a good browse through the BD section; its always good to try something different in your reading, as we’ve said here on more than one occasion (and will doubtless say again, because its true and there is so much out there just waiting to be read).

There is another way for those of us with only a limited grasp of the language to buy into the French BD experience a little more though, and it is much cheaper than buying new hardback albums – the journals. Paris is awash with newsstands and as in any city the railway and metro stations and the airports also have plenty of stores where among the newspapers, movie mags and copies of Elle (I was vaguely disappointed the French version of Elle wasn’t called ‘her’) you are likely to find several magazines and journals dedicated to BD and some specialising in manga. Of course the language barrier is still there, but if you are interested but wary because of the language a mag is a lot cheaper to buy and try than books – it’s also a good way of introducing yourself to different comics creators.

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I settled on BoDoï – “explorateur de bandes dessinées” – which has a special edition celebrating 35 years of the Grands Prix at Angoulême. For 7.50 Euros (about five pounds, slightly pricey for a mag, but it does have a lot of colour art) I got a special edition which offered up some 40 artists, with two or three pages each of art and a short bio/interview (in French, naturellement). And just check some of the artists covered here – Robert Crumb, Enki Bilal, Morris, José Muñoz, François Schuiten, Trondheim, Hugo Pratt, Moebius, Will Eisner, Jaques Tardi, Jean-Claude Forest, Jaques Lob, Neal Adams, Max Cabanes, Uderzo… That has to be worth a fiver of any comics fan’s money, surely?

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(an excerpt from Mister I, (c) Lewis Trondheim)

The art and themes on offer are as varied as the artists – Philippe Vuillemin riffs nicely on the old joke – old jokes seem to be universal, I’m pleased to note – about the young polar bear (I won’t ruin the punchline in case you’ve never heard it), Georges Wolinski offers up a take on psychotherapy which would work in almost any Western culture (especially if you’re a Woody Allen fan), Lewis Trondheim’s Mister I makes a welcome appearance with a wordless tale (so it was only the bio/interview I had to struggle to read!) and we get a quick visit to Eisner’s Dropsie Avenue.

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(Rendezvous a Paris by the one and only Enki Bilal)

Personal standouts for me came from Bilal, who I’ve always admired for his beautiful, imaginative science-fiction artwork. In this case it is just a couple of wordless pages, including one spectacular full page splash set above the Eiffel Tower. Jaques Tardi has four pages first created for the magazine L’Aisne set during the carnage of the Great War which are highly effective and moving. Even if you don’t speak word one of French I think you would still grasp the scenes of French infantrymen suffering and the word “boucherie!” repeated, larger and bolder each time until it is screaming “BOUCHERIE!” at the reader while below a smug General Nivelle stands in front of a charnel house of bones of fallen soldiers. Actually looking at a couple of the frames in Tardi’s piece I’m moved to wonder if they influenced the trench scenes in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement.
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(two pages from Jaques Tardi’s segment, these are from “la BD du Avril 16″ and although very different in style seem to me to be every bit as powerful and moving as the superb art Joe Colquhoun created for Charley’s War; originally published in L’Aisne magazine and (c) Jacque Tardi)

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Max Cabanes’ Francis Cabrel, les Beaux Dessins, inspired by a song by Francis Cabrel, showcases some beautiful artwork; again, if you can’t read the language you can just admire the luscious art of two lovers amid the trees. François Schuiten (with Benoît Peeters) has two utterly gorgeous pages, Hommage à Winsor McCay (I think you can translate the meaning of that yourselves!), paying tribute to the immortal Little Nemo (I just keep turning back to those pages and looking at the, superb), while back in the world of black and white there’s a great extract from Superdupont by Jacques Lob with artwork by the great Neal Adams; you just have to love the Superman clone meeting his French counterpart Superdupont in his vest, paunch and beret, a Reagan-esque president and something spooky going on at a vineyard (hence the need for the French hero).

So, if you are lucky enough to be going to France on holiday, keep your eyes open – even if you only have basic French there are still comics delights to be had; as a wise comics character once declared, “there’s treasure everywhere!” There are a number of comics jewels in this special issue and I will try to share some more scans from it over the coming days because they are too good to keep to myself.