Asterix and Tintin are the most famous examples of bande dessinée (French for “drawn strips”), however, the world of Franco-Belgian comics is much richer than just these two icons. Although I am a fan of Franco-Belgian comics, I’ve never actually read either of these massive best bestsellers. In the same vein, I’m not a fan of mainstream Anglo graphic novel superheroes, such as Batman and Superman. World War II is my favorite comics genre, whether in English or French, and that will be the focus of my upcoming bande dessinée (BD) reviews.
First, I’d like to provide a general historical and cultural introduction to the art of bande dessinée. Some readers may already be familiar with BD, but others may not know much about comics in either English or French. Hopefully, both novices and experts will find something useful in this blog post, which draws heavily from Dr. Laurence Grove’s monograph “Comics in French The European Bande Dessinée in Context.”
Grove provides a straightforward definition of bande dessinée as a French language mixture of images and written text that form a narrative (pg. 16). Grove places Franco-Belgian comics in the broad French tradition of visual cultural that can be traced back to medieval illuminated manuscripts. He analyses BD primarily through the lens of cultural studies.
Grove begins by defining a number of basic terms, although he later warns against the obsession of defining BD. For example, a one-shot BD tells a unique self-contained story, which contrasts with an ongoing story told across several published works. BD can be serialized in a journal or can be published in book form (an album). A planche is a single page and most BD are published in the 48CC format. 48 represents the number of pages and CC denotes being published with cardboard covers (cartonnée) and in color (couleur). On each page, there are usually three rows (bandes) that each contain four individual images (cases) which are read from left to right. Of course, many BD creators break these rules from time to time. For example, the “Garage Hermétique” series by Jean Giruad, pen name “Moebius,” could often be read from left to right, top to bottom, or vice versa. The cadre is the boundary around each case. Speech bubbles are known as bulles or ballons. The gouttière is the gap between each case and is used to denote the passage of time. A wider gouttière represents more time (pg. 21-32).
(Image from tolearnfrench.com)
In addition, Grove examines how literary elements have influenced bande dessinée. For example, the voix de narrateur is presented in a special block of text known as the récitatif (pg. 32). Grove also explains that cinematic styles have had a major impact on BD. Examples include the use of wide-angel shots (plan general), low-angle shots (contre plongée), and high-angle shots (plongée) (pg. 35).
Furthermore, Grove refutes the chronological approach that is traditionally used to describe the history of Franco-Belgian comics. Rodolphe Töpffer, a Swiss teacher, is often credited with creating the first bande dessinée in the 1830s. However, Grove argues that there is a rich history of interaction between text and image in French culture. He asserts that focusing on Töpffer ignores how the emphasis shifted from the text to the images during the Industrial Revolution (pg. 88). I tend to agree with Grove’s thesis because it smacks of the “great man” theory of history, which emphasizes the importance of a single individual and ignores greater social and cultural trends.
(Image from Töpffer’s Histoire M. Cryptogame, 1840 – http://www.topfferiana.fr)
Grove asserts many similar proto-bande dessinée works were published around the same time, because the introduction of new lithography technology made it easier to mass produce images. He also argues that by the end of the 1800s, the image began to take a leading role. The growth of photography and the birth of motion pictures helped give birth to the modern BD (pg. 110). Grove claims that the interwar years was the golden age for bande dessinée and that BD became a distinctly French art form after World War II. In fact, BD has since become known as the “ninth art,” which puts it on equal footing with classical arts including architecture, painting, and sculpture.
Since the 1990s, more scholars have been writing about BD in English. Academic conferences have been organized to discuss Franco-Belgian comics and graduate students have published dissertations on bande dessinée in increasing numbers.
BD has become a big business with more than 4,000 new titles published in 2008. Five publishers control more than 75 percent of the market with sales totaling several hundred million euro. Bande dessinée also inspire television and film adaptations, along with merchandising and amusement parks.
On the other hand, independent publishers, such as l’Association, print works that encourage stylistic and narrative experimentation. Grove acknowledges that bande dessinée can also be analyzed through the lens of art history, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. He briefly mentions how male artists dominate the ninth art, and I would like to have read more criticism about the role of gender in Franco-Belgian comics.
Overall, Grove’s book provides a good overview of bande dessinée for both novice readers and experts looking for a more critical analysis. Now that we have a sound understanding of Franco-Belgian comics, I’ll post my first BD review in a few days.