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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 7 years, 8 months ago at 6:48 am.

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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 7 years, 8 months ago at 7:33 am.

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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 7 years, 8 months ago at 8:02 am.

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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 7 years, 9 months ago at 11:42 am.

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