Bande-Dessinée

Three “schools” dominate the world of comic books. The most familiar to us at William and Mary would be the American school – comics emphasizing the exploits and adventures of superheroes – and Japanese manga, a form which has just recently exploded in popularity in the US. I won’t be studying the later, alas, mostly because I cannot read Japanese, but also because I can’t find a way to link a semi-immortal Irish priest hunting vampires with literally thousands of bayonets (he gets them from another dimension) to an easily dissected message like immigration. Or something.

The third school is not immediately obvious unless I mention a few of its titles: Tintin, Asterix, and then that vengeful, ever present guardian angel of my childhood, The Smurfs (0r Les Schtroumpfs, which I dare you to pronounce). Those belong to the Franco-Belgian school of comics, otherwise referred to as bande-dessinée, which dominates continental Europe. In a way, bande-dessinée is the precursor of all comics: its first artist, Rodolphe Topffer of Switzerland, arguably invented its modern format, where simplified cartoons are married with written and spoken text to create a storyline, when he drew and published Histoire de M. Jabot in 1831. From Europe, this idea traveled to the United States where the American comic strip began to develop.

However, to be honest, the Franco-Belgian school wasn’t too distinct from the American style until Nazi occupation during World War II. Prior to that, besides having domestic strips like Tintin, many comics were imported from the United States, like Superman and Flash Gordon. For obvious reasons, this practice was discontinued; all importations were banned as were any adaptions made to get around the embargo. As a result, domestic comics had to compensate to meet with surprisingly high demand. After the war, bande-dessinée became highly controlled by the government not to protect the morality of French youth (although that was the explicit reason: see the entry on American comics prior to 1954 to see how violent comics really could be back in the olden days) but in fact to protect the industry from too much foreign influence and competition.

So, unlike in the United States, bande-dessinée never had a serious, across-the-board censorship campaign set against it. Every now and then, there would be attempts, but they never vastly changed the world of French comics the way American comics were decimated by the Comics Code Authority. And in fact, comics overtime became even more violent and explicit; while bande-dessinée was usually perceived as a fun-for-all sort of medium, the early 70’s saw the entry of albums that at best was just extremely graphic, and at worst pure snuff.

Another fundamental difference between the American comic and the Franco-Belgian bande-dessinée is how seriously each are taken in their own respective cultures. Like I mentioned before, there was a long standing stigma in the United States against comics; they were, essentially, only “for kids”. Pure pulp, if you will. It was never like that in France – even in its earlier periods, any self respecting adult could read Tintin or Asterisk and get away without a dirty look. In the United States, this was simply not the case.

Why is this? Part of the reason might be in the name. The word “comic” implies what? Silliness, shenanigans – certainly not for a serious audience. Even today, if we want to describe the artistic value of a comic, we call it a “graphic novel,” because it describes the medium conveys content rather than the content itself. It’s the same with bande-dessinée, literally “drawn strip”, because as a technical term describing the form of a medium and not what it contains, it is stripped of any negative connotation associated with low quality content.

But it also might be a cultural issue, and this is what I am predominately investigating. French culture, to Americans, seems more “open” – more accepting of things like nudity, sexuality, and the like. In comparison, we seem almost prudish with our refusal to even discuss these things, or to even depict them in a medium. Our comic book industry, especially in the era of the Comics Code Authority, seems to confirm this viewpoint, while in France, bande-dessinée was open to, and even embraced these “adult” images. Limited like it was from serious subject matter, American comics would have suffered (which they did) while their French counterparts would have flourished from the freedom (which was the case).

My question is – does this closeness  hurt the transmission of a message? How much was quality actually effected by this major handicap on American comics? More on this later.