The sequential art of R. M. Rhodes
Don't forget to check out my online webcomic!

The Major Publishers at Angouleme

As busy and crazy as the alternative press hall was in Angouleme, it was no comparison to the major hall at the other end of town – the major publisher marketplace.

Where the alternative hall was a long, narrow hallway, this marketplace was wide, which gave the publishers room to set up trade show booths; this was appropriate because we were at a trade show. The major publishers had a couple hundred square feet apiece, which they filled with shelves; the exit inevitably led past the cash register.

There were six major publishers (based entirely on size of booth): Dupuis, Delcourt, Glenat/Drugstore, Le Lombard, Dargard and Casterman. Judging from the pile of books next to the computer, my go-to publishers were Delcourt and Casterman, although I have stuff from Dargard and Glenat in there as well.

In addition, there were about a dozen smaller publishers scattered along the periphery and in an adjacent structure. The back of this second structure was occupied by Soleil – a major publisher of high fantasy comics. The front of the structure contained Marvel Panini, the publisher that obviously has rights to Marvel comic books. Ironically, they also seem to have rights to the DC comics as well. It’s very interesting to see Stan Lee and Watchmen shelved next to each other, but also very amusing. (One American comic that we conspicuously did not see: Sandman. There’s probably a story there, but I don’t know it.)

Each of the major publishers had a section roped off for artists and/or writers who would be appearing later. All of these sections were filled with people in line, patiently reading their comics, secure in the knowledge that they will meet their heroes in due time. The Soliel portion of the building had a big series of tables set up in the back that was filled with artists – apparently, their artists are in demand.

But that was the closest I saw to an actual artist’s alley. In fact, I saw more artists signing in the alternative hall than I did in the major publisher halls. The major publishers were commerce machines. Each of them had a lady with a scanner, cash register and credit card machine – Delcourt had two. By this point, I had come to terms with the fact that I was going to have to learn to read French regardless, so I approached shopping with an open mind.

My wife found a Dave McKean comic in an anthology based on the songs of Bob Dylan. I found a copy of L’Homme Bonsai by Fred Bernard – about a man who is turning into a tree; it’s a pirate story. I also found Le Sourire des Marionnettes by Jean Dytar, a gorgeously illustrated book about Omar Khayyam and his encounter with Hassan ibn Sabbah – the so-called Master of Alamut aka the Old Man in the Mountain aka the master of the assassins.

As I said, by this time, I was well aware that I would be able to read these books in due time. With that in mind, it was easy to convince myself to buy these books. After all, I wanted to read the books at the festival. Taking them home and making the comprehension of another language the only real barrier to reading them would arguably be a good motivation to learn. If I was that serious about comics, I should be willing to make a leap of faith like that in order to expand my frame of reference properly.

So I did.

Next week, the Angouleme comics museum – the penultimate part of this twelve-part series.

Posted 4 years, 3 months ago at 8:14 am.

Add a comment

Alternative at Angouleme

The buildings for the festival in Angouleme are actually semi-permanent structures made of wood and vinyl from the same tent DNA as the air-conditioned dance tents you see at outdoor festivals during summer. The structures at Angouleme are designed to fit into the open space available (presumably park land in the city square), but they are also heated and it’s easy to forget that you’re in a building that will be taken down at the end of the festival.

In the square next to the indie/alternative/small press building was a presentation about a long-running series in the Charleroi style called Les Tuniques Bleues. When we went by the first time, it was filled with screaming schoolchildren who were doing some kind of choreographed reaction to the series, I think. Their enthusiasm for the series was very real, despite the staging. The odd thing was that I had never heard of the series before I started looking at the list of events for the festival. Just something else to get caught up on.

I actually took the time in the cold late afternoon to look at the panels of the presentation. There were six panels per kiosk and five or six kiosks. The panels were about various aspects of the series – where the characters had gone, prisoner of war camps in the South during the Civil War, what historical events and figures the characters encountered, how the series dealt with issues like slavery and so forth. It was fairly informational and probably would have been very interesting if I could read more than a third of the text.

But the use of illustration did provide enough context to give me an idea of what each topic was about and how the topic was integrated into the comic. Given the obvious deference given to the series, the presentation was probably not designed to induce people to read it. But it was intended to explain to people why the series was good and what it had done, correctly or not. I gather that this kind of spotlight is something they have done every year of the festival and I wonder what other comics had been picked out for special consideration – and what was said about them.

The first table in the main entrance of the alternative hall was L’Association, arguably the biggest indie publisher around. Formed by the likes of Lewis Trondheim and David B., L’Association treads the fine line between creating art and creating commercial product. There’s an entire chapter about L’Association in Bart Beaty’s excellent book Unpopular Culture that’s well worth reading. And, of course, they got to sit at the front of the alternative hall. That’s what prestige and a good reputation will do for you.

The remainder of the hall was a long corridor of booths, filled with small and alternative press creators. Erotic publishers were mixed in with children’s book makers and solo artists self-publishing stuff that they’ve been putting out for twenty years. There was a strong vibe of the experimental small press that I would expect to find at Small Press Expo – which tells me that there is always room at the bottom to do weird stuff in an attempt to learn what works.

We ran into two different groups of British comics creators – BASTARDS and Alternative Press. We got several books from each of them. I also picked up a fair number of catalogs. These give me an idea of what the mid-sized publishers were putting out without wasting my time on the day of, trying to puzzle through endless back cover texts. One thing I did notice was the volume of mid-size publishers at the show. The erotic publishers shared space with Sarbacane and Tanibis, who were fairly indicative of what was available.

Possibly the most valuable artifacts that I brought back from Angouleme were the catalogs, buyer’s guides and magazines that carried reviews. They’ve given me insight into what sells and what the range of material available actually is. I found several books in these publications that looked good enough to pick up when I was there. I suspect that I will be shopping from these catalogs for years to come.

Next week, I will be talking about the mainstream publishers at Angouleme, which was an altogether different experience.

Posted 4 years, 3 months ago at 11:15 am.

Add a comment

Arriving in Angouleme

When we first booked our trip in August of 2009, we tried to get a hotel room in Angouleme for a day or two during the festival. Then we discovered that every hotel room within an 80 mile radius of the town is booked solid almost a year in advance; many of the participants probably book for next year as they are checking out.

As a compromise, we took a day trip from Paris to Angouleme. We left Montparnasse at 7:30 in the morning, which got us into Angouleme at about 10:30. At the end of the day, we caught a train at 20:50, which got us back into Paris at about midnight. Waking up early enough to catch the train sucked, but having three hours of enforced not walking on the return trip after a whole day of tromping around Angouleme was quite nice.

Angouleme bills itself as the City of Festivals, but we reckon that its traditional role as the center of paper-making and printing for this region of France is what originally made it a festival destination for BD. At any rate, the city itself is very happy to be a tourist destination and many businesses feature random BD albums in their store displays, even if the additions don’t make sense. One shoe store had a few Tintin books thrown in with the sneakers, for example.

One shock that we received upon walking from the train station to the town center was the fact that Angouleme is, unlike Brussels and Paris, not flat. Not at all flat. Rather the opposite, really. The maps we had of the town didn’t mention anything about hills.

After some effort, we managed to find our bearings and visit a few of the vending halls and the museum across the river – each of which I’ll get to in later essays. At the end of the night, we sat in a space-age bar next to the Hotel de Ville and killed a bottle of wine over a pile of comics that we really couldn’t read. Still, it was a very nice way to end what had been a slightly frustrating, physically taxing, mentally exhausting day.

One thing my wife pointed out when we were on the train back to Paris was that the Angouleme festival really had no demographic. There were multiple school groups in attendance – elementary school through late high school. (Could you imagine an American school taking students on a field trip to a comic book convention?) There were entire families – with and without children. There were little old ladies shopping by themselves and there were sisters, brothers, fathers and sons shoulder to shoulder in the crowd.

Everyone was looking for the material that spoke to them, but they knew that there would be something (most likely many things) to their taste. Even the camera crew from the French news program that had been filming all day had their bag of comics with the equipment.

Frankly, considering how much the Europeans seem to detest traveling over long distances, it was astonishing to see the volumes of people wandering around the town and shopping in the various marketplaces. The festival was 37 in 2010, which means that several people in the crowd had probably grown up with the festival. That level of engagement is extremely encouraging to see, especially considering the state of our comics market. The crowds in Angouleme – even on a rainy Friday afternoon in January – were bigger than they were at Heroes Con or Baltimore Comic Con, both of which I attended in 2009. And I actually heard that attendance was down slightly overall this year – probably due to the weather.

Next week, I’ll talk about alternative comics in Angouleme, part 9 of 13.

Posted 4 years, 3 months ago at 6:22 am.

Add a comment

Marianne

One of the reasons that we were in Brussels and Paris at such a miserable time of year was that the Angouleme Comic Festival was going on while we were there. I’ve heard Angouleme described as “the world’s largest comic book festival” (which, by implication, makes it larger than San Diego Comic Con), but this sobriquet makes me wonder “by what standard?” Still, it easily lives up to the label “Europe’s largest comic book festival.”

Because we were there to spend a day at the festival, I found it interesting to note the amount of advertising there was around Paris, telling people about the festival. There was a massive ad for the festival that we saw throughout the Metro, often in that sweet spot on the tunnel wall directly across from the platform. There were also multiple magazine articles and special editions dedicated to the festival. One lady we spoke to mentioned that she’d seen something about it on the news.

One of the magazines I picked up at a newsstand was Marianne, a fairly mainstream literary magazine from the looks of it. The issue I got was a special on BD, in honor of Angouleme. The front page editorial seems to be singing the praises of BD as literature and the main body of the issue is a genre-by-genre discussion of the best books that BD has to offer. Presumably, this was intended as a buying guide for the casual reader who wants to go to Angouleme and pick up the good stuff. (I certainly used it in this manner while I was there.)

The genres identified in Marianne are as follows: Heros, Adventure, Detective Novels, Heroic Fantasy, Drama, Humor, Historical, Biography, Science Fiction, Reporting, Social Critique, Adaptation and Erotic. There are at least three pages of the magazine dedicated to each genre, with some genres getting five or six or seven pages. And each page is crammed full of reviews, telling the magazine’s readership about what the classics are and what the current crop of good stuff is.

I could not conceive of a mainstream American or British literary magazine dedicating an entire issue to comic books in any fashion, much less avoiding the implication that comics have “grown up.” My wife also picked up a magazine supplement about the history of Asterix that was being given out to people who bought L’Express – a magazine that has the same look and feel as People.

Again, I doubt that People magazine would have an article about the current crop of erotic comics on the market now. Maybe the French are just more open and honest about how much sex sells and who it sells to.

More importantly, I am dismayed by the comparative paucity of the number of genres that mainstream American comics present for consumption: Super Heroes, Horror, Western, Humor and Autobiography. The comic book museum in Angouleme pointed out that Super Heroes are the only genre truly created specifically by the comic medium, but I’m not sure if this justifies the fact that people trying to create something outside that genre are largely relegated to the margins of the American market almost by default.

In a sense, there are two separate attitudes that are divergent between our two cultures. On the one hand, the public and the press have a much more mature and complex view and appreciation of the comic book and what it can do and has done. On the other hand – more significantly, I think – the publishers and creators have a much greater faith in their audience’s ability and desire to seek out something different and develop multi-varied tastes. And, very profitably, cater to those tastes.

I did not get a sense that the comic book reader base was unhealthy in any way, shape or form. The reason for that is, perhaps, that the market is diverse and thus able to adjust to demand as it fluctuates. Also, the most popular best-sellers have been around for decades and have sold millions of copies over their lifetime. Perhaps this is the difference between treating the commercial product as effortlessly disposable or persistently semi-permanent.

At any rate, the French comics market is going strong, pumping out large numbers of different kinds of books every year, with a vast back catalog that anyone can jump into at any time. There is slight regard (if that) for the majority of what the American comic book market produces. Alan Moore featured prominently, as did Star Wars comics. But I was just as likely to find Terry Moore or Brian Wood as I was to find Jack Kirby or Frank Miller.

By and large, though, I got the impression that there are very few people in that market holding their breath, waiting for American creators and publishers to grope their way to other genres. Certainly, they read them as they come out, but seeing DMZ in the context of French adventure and Science Fiction comics, it becomes just another title amongst its peers. Just like it should be.

Next week I will be talking about our arrival in Angouleme, part 8 of 12.

Posted 4 years, 3 months ago at 6:24 am.

1 comment

Other Things We Did in Paris

We did other things in Paris besides comic book shopping. We made an emotional visit to Jim Morrison’s grave so that my wife could say goodbye to her mother. We sat in cafes, drinking red wine and watching the snow fall while the crazy Parisian traffic screamed past. We randomly walked into what the guidebook later told us was one of the best cheese shops in Paris. We sought out, and found, fat girls stores scattered throughout the city. We did not, alas, buy any fat girls from said stores, although my wife did get a nice jacket from a saleswoman who spoke not a lick of English.

Our hotel was between the Arc de Triomphe and the Trocadero, which meant that we could (and did) see le Tour Eiffel from the plaza above the Trocadero Metro station. We also stomped around the Jardin de Tuilleries and watched little kids play with giant soap bubbles that some random guy was making next to the pond. And we found that locating the Concorde Metro station from the ground level is incredibly frustrating, especially in the cold.

Did I mention that it was cold? It was cold. We saw a lot of Brussels and Paris at high speed, mostly because when we stopped to admire something, the cold caught up to us. Sometimes, rain would fall to add to our enjoyment of the cold. It also snowed twice while we were in Paris, which added to the fun.

We also saw the worst French band we’ve ever seen open for Big Pink in a club in Belleville. Big Pink was amazing and the lead singer will do great things if he can curb his self-destructive tendencies. My wife is a DJ, so it’s become somewhat of a tradition to go see bands (big or small, she doesn’t discriminate) when we go to any random city. We discovered that it’s fun to do it in cities where you don’t speak the language. (In Brussels, we saw Good Shoes at an old greenhouse that had been turned into a cultural center/performance space.)

Our other major complaint (besides the cold) was the number of staircases in the Paris Metro system. There were times that we would walk up a flight of stairs, turn a corner and walk up two more flights. Then go down half a flight and up another flight. It got ridiculous very, very quickly. We did get treated to an impromptu guitar solo late one night, though. And there are accordion players on almost every train, asking for money.

Overall, the Metro worked out very well for us, taking us nearly everywhere that we wanted to go within the city. There are a lot of lines, but the real skill lies in being able to read a map, not in reading French.

Overall, it was a pretty city and we’d be prepared to go back in a month that wasn’t known for being cold. August, maybe. A pleasant time of year instead of a miserable time of year.

Next week, I’ll be talking about a French literary magazine that I picked up, in part seven of this twelve part series.

Posted 4 years, 3 months ago at 1:03 pm.

Add a comment

BD Shopping in Paris

One of the most obvious differences between Paris and Brussels is the national attitude towards language. In Belgium, there are two official languages: French and Dutch. By law, everything has to be printed in those two languages and a lot of people find it to be just as much trouble to print in three languages as it is to print in two, so English appears often around town.

France is not a bilingual nation, but a reasonably large number of Parisians speak a little English, which has the dubious benefit of not being German. Overall, we had more encounters in Paris than Brussels where language was a barrier, but it turns out that shopping for clothes knows no lingual boundary.

When I was there, I made the comparison that Belgium:France::Canada:United States. They share the same language, provide a vital input to the national entertainment economy and yet stand apart. I suspect that there are long-running tensions and pre-defined relationships between the two countries that go back centuries. For me, I was just happy that we started our crash course in French in a city that offered an English backup from most signs and merchants. Then we landed in a city that didn’t.

Comic book shopping in Paris was centered in a small neighborhood between the Sorbonne and Notre Dame. There is a small street called the Rue Dante that is the traditional home of old comic book shops in Paris; this makes sense, considering the proximity to the university. Around the corner from the Rue Dante are a couple more comic book stores at the intersection of Saint Germain and Saint Michael. One of these, Boulinier is an amazing example of a reasonably sized media mart. There are floors for books, reference books, CDs and BD.

Again, the selection was impressive, but it was organized in a way that would be familiar to the experienced shopper, not really the relatively uninformed American whose French is worse than it should be. I found myself in the same situation in a used-BD store next to Boulinier and in the few shops that I went into down the Rue Dante. There was a store called Album, which had the best selection. I found some stuff that I had read about in review magazines that I’d picked up and managed to find a few free magazines in the store as well.

The only other store on the Rue Dante that I went into was a little shop that specialized in older, out of print French comics. Again, I didn’t feel that I had the depth of knowledge to browse the store effectively, but I did find an edition of Barbarella for 120 Euros. I didn’t check to see if it was a first printing or not, but it’s out of print now and that sort of price is probably fair if you really want to read the material. I made note of the store, but left without spending any money.

On the whole, though, I found that I had created artificially high expectations of the Rue Dante and was not prepared for the much better impression that the Brussels comic book stores had given me. Size and sheer selection went to the Belgians, but I did appreciate that most of the Parisian comic book stores were in one small area – that made it easy to peruse most of them in an afternoon.

There was one other comic book store that we went into while we were in Paris. Being tourists who shop, we went to the Champs d’Elysees on a very cold night. We walked about four blocks up the street, then walked back. One of the places we stopped was the Virgin Megastore, which contained no escalators and a half of a floor dedicated to BD. In fact, as you walked up the marble staircase to the top floor, there was an entire display of comics that had were official Angouleme selections.

The Virgin Megastore’s shopping space for comics was incredible. The selection was very good, even if it was skewed a bit in the direction of obviously commercial work and less in the direction of experimental stuff. Still, every book on the Angouleme selection list was available and I came back on our last day in the city to buy one of the books that I missed picking up at the festival.

I’m an especial fan of the Virgin Megastores in London – they have treated us very well over the years – but I really wish that they felt that they could dedicate half a floor to comic books in that city, the same way they do in Paris. The trip to the Megastore was yet another sign that the people perceive comic books differently than we do in our culture. After all, if they were seen to be profitable and accepted, more stores would dedicate more space to them. Stores sell what people buy.

Next week marks the halfway point in this series – part 6 of 12 – general Parisian tourism.

Posted 4 years, 4 months ago at 6:58 am.

Add a comment

The Comics in the City

Among the great tourist destinations in Brussels are Atomium, the Town Square and the Comics in the City – a series of murals throughout the city center depicting famous Belgian comic book characters. We’d heard about this before we left the States, but we were unable to find a reliable map online. When we were in Multi BD, we stumbled across a small book that was basically a mural-by-mural guide, complete with detailed street maps and photo of the piece.

On our last day in the city, we made a point of including several of these in our itinerary as we went shopping. That afternoon, we hit most of the murals around St. Katherine’s, although a group of the murals near the canal are in a pretty sketchy neighborhood. Luckily, it was cold, so there was only one group of lingering youths that didn’t seem happy with our chatter. Brussels is so small that getting away from a bad corner only takes a street or two.

One of the things that the murals accomplish very well is revealing a complete lack of knowledge on the part of the viewer. I recognized some characters (Tintin, Asterix), but most of the others I had no idea about. Blake and Mortimer? Titeuf? Lucky Luke? Gaston? Who?

Angouleme had several murals on the walls in their town as well and the first time I saw one, I thought of Brussels. I’m not sure which location thought of it first, but it was a very striking effect in both places.

Also, these public art displays really demonstrate the cultural attitude towards comic books and their creators. From what I understand, the Belgian murals were part of a celebration of comics in that country. In Angouleme, comic books constitute a large portion of the local economy. Either way, the medium is considered to be both an art form and a reputable commercial enterprise without concern about mutual exclusivity. Or, really, much concern at all. It’s simply the ninth art.

And, in a nutshell, that blasé attitude towards something that constitutes a significant thread of their cultural makeup is what makes walking around in Francophone comic book shops so enjoyable. It’s not a big deal to enjoy comics. Everyone reads them because there is, by design, something for everyone.

Reading comics is simply something that everyone does, like drinking beer or watching football on television. Compared to that level of acceptance, watching the Hatfield and McCoy antics of the Big Two back in America is severely demoralizing. Given the choice of comic book cultures, I would chose the one where articles about comic books aren’t obligated to start with “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore.” In the Francophone countries, people would laugh at such a statement; they’ve known that for forty years.

Come back next week for part five of this twelve part series, where we are off to Paris.

Posted 4 years, 4 months ago at 6:48 am.

Add a comment

BD Shopping in Brussels

In Brussels, I went to three comic book stores (in addition to the BD Museum gift shop): Brusel, Multi BD and Le Depot.

Brusel is one of the more famous comic book shops in Brussels and was, coincidentally, down the street from our hotel. After fifteen minutes of shopping in Brusel, I despaired of finding any of the books I was looking for in English and just started grabbing stuff in French.

I found the first book in Fred’s Philemon series, the first book in Matheiu’s L’Origine series, several Schuiten and Peeters books, and what feels like a smattering of other books. (My credit card bill tells me a different story.)

Similar to my experience in the BD Museum, I found that the selection at Brusel was diverse, which reflects the content coming out of the French comics industry as a whole. There were sections set aside for children, adults, new releases and indie comics. We found the Anglo-Saxon comics (translated into French) in the back of the shop. Star Wars is very big among the Brusel customer base, from the looks of it.

The entire top floor of the shop is an art gallery, featuring prints and pictures from many of the prominent comic artists in the industry, past and present. As a rule, our money was earmarked for comics, not prints, so we didn’t peruse the gallery. Still, from what I could see, a serious art lover would have a very good browse.

From Brusel, we walked a block and a half down the street to Multi BD, which was just as large as Brusel, but organized in a much different manner (different space, different organizational schema). There was an entire wall of independent comics, an entire aisle of high fantasy comics and a whole bunch of everything else.

In Multi BD, I specifically asked the guy behind the counter for recommendations; I was looking, I explained, for books like Matheiu or Juillard’s Le Cahier Bleu. Books that discuss the relationship between the medium and the story. He gave me some good recommendations – Jason’s The Left Bank Gang, for example.

Between Brusel and Multi BD, I solidified my decision to learn to read French so that I could enjoy the comics that I had purchased. I bought them specifically because I was interested in reading them and I decided that the only way I could justify their purchase was to learn to read the language they were written in. Having some experience in French meant that it was not so much of a challenge to overcome. It’s not like I have to learn a completely new alphabet, for example.

We went to Le Depot the day after Brusel and Multi BD. Le Depot was much more of a used book store than a first-run comic book store, but its layout and sheer quantity of comics available nearly killed me. If there was an organizational strategy to Le Depot, I did not comprehend it. There were so many books available that I stuck with a few specific authors and titles that I was looking for and cut my losses as soon as I could.

I found two books in the Les Trois Chemins series by Lewis Trondheim, a later Barbarella book and an Arzach collection by Moebius in Le Depot. I’m sure I found other things, but I can’t recall exactly what they were. By the end of the visit to the store, I was very nearly gibbering as a result of information overload. There were simply too many comic book titles that I did not recognize for me to process them all properly.

I did locate the bargain bin area and pulled a few books out of the stacks that had a premise that I could grasp through my broken French and growing ability to figure out what was going on from several pages of sight reading.

One of the things I enjoyed at each of the stores was the sheer variety of comics available. There was no presupposition in any of the stores that prospective customers would be interested in only one or another kind of comic book. Obviously, they know what their regulars are interested in and buy accordingly, but even those regulars seem to be interested in many different genres. Even if they aren’t, there are still many different genres available, should they want to explore outside their comfort zone.

There were also many, many more comics that I could have bought that I simply did not bother picking up. My thought process at the time was to maximize my purchases and only focus on those books that I knew I wanted and anything else that was both good and looked appealing. With the variety available, I knew that I did not want to waste my time or money on something of unknown providence.

Still, the message that I received from the Belgian comics market (later confirmed at Angouleme) was that comic books could be anything they wanted to be. There was no box that comics had to sit in; nothing telling the medium what, specifically, the readers wanted to read. There was a great deal of experimentation evident among the indie comic titles and among several of the larger publishers as well.

I sampled a portion of the comics market that was a mile wide and an inch deep. What I observed, however, told me that the subject matter of the comics available was both a mile wide and a mile deep. There was so much more available that I didn’t buy that I am almost sorry that I couldn’t read French, just because I feel that I was not able to browse properly. It’s a problem I aim to rectify.

The fourth part of this 12 part series will be about the BD walk through the center of the city of Brussels; come back next week.

Posted 4 years, 4 months ago at 7:33 am.

1 comment

Visiting the Belgian Comic Strip Center

The very first thing we did when we landed in Brussels was find our hotel. Once we were situated and had showered the plane funk off, we set out to find the Bande Desinee (BD) Museum (aka the Belgian Comic Strip Center), which the map told us was only six blocks away.

The map was right. (In fact, all of the maps in Brussels were very deceptive. The streets looked longer than they were and several trips that looked significant on the map were a lot shorter than we thought they’d be. This theme came up especially when we went looking for the comic book murals throughout the city, which is the subject of a later post.)

The BD Museum occupies an old art-deco department store that was designed by Victor Horta in the 1930s. It’s a beautiful space and is worth the visit all on its own. The fact that it houses some very interesting comic book exhibits made it that much more enjoyable.

The guy behind the counter gave us an English guide to most of the exhibits, which we stopped flipping through when we got to their “original art pages” gallery. According to the literature, the pages in the gallery are rotated on a constant basis, so what was out when we were there may not be there now. The art on display was beautiful, from a variety of series – most of which I had never heard of. It was also interesting to see how some pages were physically cut and pasted together to get an effect that looks seamless on the page.

Upstairs from that was a permanent collection about the Belgian comic book magazines – Tintin and Spirou. Several of the more prominent cartoonists from those magazines were profiled, along with examples of their work. Herge and Peyo had special sections dedicated to them, obviously.

The top floor holds special exhibitions that are rotated regularly. When we were there, a leading comic critic was asked to identify 20 titles from a 20 year period – the best comic from each year. The comics identified were very interesting – V for Vendetta, Black Hole, Sin City and a smattering of Manga interspersed with some very unusual European comics. The descriptions of the comics were in French and English, along with an indication listing if the comic had been translated into English; many had not been.

When we got to the gift shop, we found that the section containing comics translated into English was very small. However, there also seemed to be no single section dedicated to superheroes. There were sections dedicated to conspiracy comics, historical comics, westerns, aviator comics, children’s comics, humor comics and a section of titles by author. It was a very different way of looking at the content available, mostly because it was a completely different kind of content than I’m used to getting in American comic book shops.

Although most of the books were in French, I bought a few books that looked very interesting – including one that was in the top floor exhibit about the best comics of the past 20 years. I figured that it was worth figuring out if I was able to read French before the real comic shopping began.

That night, I found that two years of high school French was able to get me about 30% of the content on the books that I had bought. I had no dictionary with me, so I wasn’t sure about a lot of the words, but the grammar and pronouns looked familiar. I figured that language is mostly a combination of vocabulary and context. Vocabulary can be solved with a dictionary and reading comics helps establish the context – enough so that some ESOL classes have taught English with comics books in the past.

Having been to a few more comic book shops, I can confidently say that the gift shop in the BD Museum was pretty much like the kind of comic shop you can expect to find in Brussels. Considering that I really enjoyed the shopping in Brussels, this is high praise. I’d say that it was also head and shoulders above the gift shop in Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, but just about everything is better than Geppi’s gift shop.

The one area of the Museum that we really didn’t get to was the reading room. This was basically a library on the bottom floor that contains copies of most of the Francophone comics in print or 44,000 comics (according to the website), whichever is the larger number. At that point, I was not confident enough in my reading comprehension to attempt a library of that magnitude, so we decided not to browse. Maybe some other time.

Next week, I’ll talk about the rest of the places I bought comics in Brussels – part 3 of a 12 part series.

Posted 4 years, 4 months ago at 8:02 am.

2 comments

The Trip in Context

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t reading comic books. I’ve tried to remember what my first comics were and I can’t think of anything specific. I’ve always been a reader – I think I learned to read at four or five. I was certainly a voracious reader of everything by the time I was in elementary school. Comics, happily, have always fallen under the category of “things I like to read.”

My first comics were probably the comics in the newspaper. Broom Hilda, the Wizard of ID, Far Side, Family Circus, Shoe, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, Gasoline Alley and at least half a dozen others. I’m old enough to remember when Calvin and Hobbes started and when Bloom County was really good.

In terms of mainstream comic books, one of my first comics was G.I. Joe #10. I think. I also had a copy of X-Men #169 and remember being surprised a dozen issues later when Storm cut her hair.

My father also had a subscription to Heavy Metal, from issue two or three. Issues of the magazine were always around the house. I certainly wasn’t reading it until I was in my early teens, but I did get around to reading every issue he had by the time I was seventeen.

These days, I read all manner of comic books. I have collected volumes of Buck Rogers, Terry and the Pirates, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Doonesbury, Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes. I also have Elfquest, Watchmen, Box Office Poison, Phonogram, The Rabbi’s Cat, Locas, Preacher, Leviathan, Crecy, Y the Last Man, Fables, Umbrella Academy, Asterios Polyp, Age of Bronze, Alice in Sunderland and many, many more on my shelves.

I have attended Small Press Expo for the past seven years. For the first few years, I worked as press, covering the show for a local magazine (that has since folded). I volunteered for a year and have vended for the past three years. Clearly, I am a supporter of (and contributor to) the independent comics movement.

What I like about Anglo-Saxon indie comics is the sense of possibility. I have seen some very creative, amazing presentations. People are really tackling design questions in the sequential medium. There is a lot of raw love for the medium and creative energy dedicated to making something for the sake of making it. There is a financial aspect to it as well, but the people who have the most fun are those who have come to terms with the marginal nature of the market.

I also find it interesting that anything that is not Superheroes or Horror doesn’t really qualify as a full genre in the mainstream comic book market. Which means that anyone who creates something in a different genre is automatically relegated to the indie comic market. As a result, the creative weirdos are intermingling with the people trying to tell regular stories and the medium is far richer for the intersection.

However, there has always been a special place in my heart for French/European comics (known as bande dessinée or BD, an abbreviation you will see throughout these essays). My original impressions were generated by my early exposure to Heavy Metal and it was only recently expanded upon.

One of the things I enjoyed about the French comics that I remembered from Heavy Metal was the sense that comics could be about anything. Certainly, there were the inevitable erotic comics, but I also read comics about historical settings, social commentary, science fiction, weird fantasy and heavily symbolic and/or abstract pieces. The message that I received was that comics can be anything they want to be – something that I took to heart when I first started making my own.

I did some research over the past few years, reading Bart Beaty’s Unpopular Culture, which gave a very good overview of how comics had progressed from the late 70s (which was where my view was fixed, thanks to the likes of Manara, Moebius, Bilal, Boucq and Druillet). Aesthetically, it’s like hearing disco a few times and deciding that you like American music.

My wife, who loves me very much, made a suggestion in August of 2009 that we should take a trip to Brussels and Paris, perhaps with a side trip to Angouleme during the festival. Brussels and Paris are the epicenter of French comics and a trip to the Angouleme festival would have been a trifecta for the serious comics nerd. So I said yes.

We spent a week wandering the three capitals of French comics. We visited two comic book museums, half a dozen comic shops and I bought far more comics than I should have – especially considering the fact that I only speak un peu Francais and nearly every book I bought is en Francais.

I have written subsequent posts about shopping in French comic book stores, my impressions of Angouleme, wandering the streets of Brussels in search of comic book murals and other adventures. But first, I wanted to provide a little context about comics and why this trip was important to me.

Come back next week for my impressions of the BD Museum in Brussels, part 2 of this 12 part series.

Posted 4 years, 5 months ago at 11:42 am.

Add a comment