Comic books in Belgium are considered to be a “ninth art”. Strolling around Brussels you can find comic book characters at every turn starting from museums, bookstores, cafés, murals covering the walls of buildings on the Comic Book Route and finishing with urban sculptures. In the Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels you assure yourself that comic books are not just entertainment for small children but an art combining literature and cinematography.
Belgian Comic Strip Center (Centre belge de la Bande dessinée)
Situated in heart of Brussels, a stunning building designed in Art Nouveau style from 1905 hosts a museum dedicated to Belgium comic books (Centre belge de la Bande dessinée). Exhibition is divided into two parts. Exhibition on the ground floor presents process of drawing comic strips and different drawing styles. First and second floor are dedicated to the most famous Belgian comic book authors, including Herge (creator of Tintin), and Peyo (creator of the Smurfs), but much space has been adapted for the purpose of temporary exhibitions (during my visit there works of Flemish artist Jean Paul were presented). Relatively small place is dedicated to the general history of comics, though in the very first room of Belgian Comic Strip Center you may find some rock paintings, maps from textbooks of Japanese martial arts or pages from Medieval chronicles. These items show us that drawing comic strips is an art that has been developing for long time.
People who don’t read comic books might be surprised by absence of Batman, Spiderman and other superheroes. Surprisingly, that absence of characters that we used to identify with the world of comic books is main advantage of the Belgian Comic Strip Center. American comics and European comics are two completely different genres which developed independently from each other. The very first comics which attracted wide reader interest in Europe was “The Advendures of Tintin” started in 1929. Tintin paved the way for other European comic book series which authors followed similar scheme creating largely realistic detective and adventure stories. In the same time American comics market was flooded with superheroes: Superman (1938), Batman (1939), Spirit (1940) and Captain America (1941). Why? As comic book were extremely popular within soldiers of Allied forces during World War II, they were used as tool of influence. Both government and private publishers insisted on creating propaganda.
Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels has nothing in common with either American or Japanese comics tradition, but concentrates only on European comics. Taking into account that for a long time Belgium used to be a “comics laboratory”, where many innovations in drawing comic strips has been implemented (eg. Belgians invented writing of dialogs in balloons), there is no better way to show the history of comics through the prism of Belgian authors’ works. However, it means that if you want to fully enjoy museum collections knowledge of French is highly recommended, as the dialogues are mostly written in French. Even though every item in the museum is briefly described in English small explanatory boards refer to the history and the meaning of individual item but do not translate the content of comics. Belgian authors’ works were complemented with two American comics – “The Yellow Kid” which was published on pages of New York World yet in the late XIX century and „Little Nemo in Slumberland” printed in fragments in magazine New York Herald at the beginning of XX century. These two series started the development of comics art in the way we know nowadays. Unfortunately the museum’s workers did not include on the exhibition two other milestones – „Master Race” by Bernard Kriegstein (1955) and “Maus” by Art Spiegelman (1992).
One of the most interesting comics discoveries for me was Boerke (in English transleted to Dickie). Although comic strips graphically remind cartoons for children it is definitely dedicated to adults. One page humoristic stories without dialogues start innocently, but frequently end with brutal and surprising puenta playing with readers’ expectations. That dissonance is definitely the biggest power of the series. In the Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels whole room has been dedicated to Boerke – there is even a big screen where you can watch brilliant animations!
After visiting the museum everyone can take a look at the bookstore – and here another surprise awaits. Although approximately 200,000 foreigners visit Belgian Comic Strip Center annually, there almost no comic book in English or any other language different than French and Dutch. Apart from “The Adventures of Tintin” you may count on the fingers of one hand other comic books in English. It’s a pity, because as I expected to find English edition of legendary Belgian series about adventures of detective Gil Jourdan. Nota bene it is very symptomatic for the condition of Belgian comics and comics industry – local publishers widely agree that beginning from 1990s Belgian market felt into apathy, and next generations of authors addressed their works to loyal fans (mainly from countries of Benelux and France) instead of looking for new auditory. It is expected that the state can help in recovery process – back in 2007 government set up Comic Book Commission with annual budget of approximately 170,000 euro.
Comic Book Route in Brussels
Soon after the opening of Comic Strip Museum, municipality of Brussels announced creation of the Comic Book Route (Comic Book Trail). Walls of many buildings in downtown were covered with murals of impressive size which all together created route dedicated to Belgian comics. The number of street artworks is continually growing, starting from 1991 and currently there are approximately 50 murals. They present mostly characters from Belgian comics, however there is also one dedicated to well-known Asterix, which is a French series. After spending several hours on searching for murals and doing deep research in Internet I created the most complete map of comics murals in Brussels. Enjoy!
Following Comic Book Route you may find plenty of comic bookstores where the variety of English language books is much richer than in the museum’s bookstore. Shelves are full of books drawn by Belgian authors and there are at least six different English editions of “The Adventures of Tintin”. The most impressive edition of all Tintin’s books is compiled in seven hard-covered volumes and costs 150 euro. In the heart of Brussels there is also boutique dedicated to Tintin where you can find various souvenirs connected with the series. Just hit the Comic Book Route and discover the city on your own!
The phenomenon of “The Adventures of Tintin”
“The Adventures of Tintin” is a series of comic albums about adventures of Belgium reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy. The series reminds the adventures of Indiana Jones – Tintin is frequently travelling to different locations of the world and the stories derive from specificity and the history of regions (except of some first rather infantile albums). Rapid tempo of events is accompanied with a good humor, though for some readers the humor in Tintin is the weakest point of the series. Contrary to Indiana Jones, Tintin doesn’t have any special features what some fans consider as disadvantage too. On the one hand Tintin seems to be a flat-character but on the other hand some see Tintin as an everyman with which everyone can identify. It should be remembered that the character of Tintin has been originally created for the purpose of anti-socialistic propaganda and it explains us why the plot, not the character, was foregrounded. “The Adventures of Tintin” has been published in more than 70 languages with sales over 200 million albums by now.
Although Tintin is a product of European comics industry, the series has never attracted wide readers interest in Eastern Europe, being a local phenomenon in Western Europe. It is not surprising, as the first book of the series “Tintin in the Land of Soviets” was drawn under strong influence of editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Le Petit Vingtième” and its main aim was to be an anti-socialistic propaganda tool. For decades Herge was refusing to reprint the first album from the series being ashamed of its infantile politically engaged content. Paradoxically, after death of Herge comics academics found out that the situations introduced in “Tintin in the Land of Soviets” stayed close reality. Nevertheless, after publication of the following album titled “Tintin in the Congo” Herge was accused for using cliches treating Congo as Belgian colony and its inhabitants as childlike idiots. Years later Herge admitted that such criticism convinced him to dedicate more time for research and rather playing with stereotypes than confirming them. Did he succeed? You can answer that question while reading album “The Blue Lotus” or “Tintin in Tibet” which are considered to be milestones for the series.
Translated by: Alyona Kononenko
In Brussels we stayed in warm-welcoming: