The Hidden Face of Belgian Comic Books
By Hervé St-Louis
Jul 27, 2011 - 0:48
As I expected, Flemish creators – from the Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium also have a strong history of creating comic books. However, the Dutch contribution to Belgian comic books is continually overshadowed and perhaps even ignored by French-speaking pundits. To some extent, I could go into the historical and genealogical records of many of the most popular creators of classic Belgian comic books and easily find Flemish lineage in their families and claim that it is impossible to really separate the identities of Belgian comic book creators from the French and Dutch. Unlike Canada, where a similar situation occurs, with strong comic book outputs and strong publishing forces behind both solitudes, Belgium is a highly populous country in a very small space. Major cities are less than two hours from each other. Brussels’ the country’s capital is also officially bilingual and home to thriving communities that exist in both French and Dutch.
So I went around Belgium looking for Flemish comic books, because my sensibilities as a French Canadian could not accept that there were no such things, as claimed the attendant at a Belgian comic book museum I visited in Brussels. He said that in terms of classics, they were French-produced and that the Dutch-speaking cartoonists had very little to do with the creation of a wide comic book literature in Belgium. The attendant, a French-speaker seemed very adamant about this. Tintin, Luky Luke, the Smurfs, Spirou, Blake and Mortimer, they were all from French-speaking Walloon creators, not Fleming cartoonists. But I kept probing him and asking him. He relented and showed me two series, De Klassieke Avonturen Van Nero from cartoonist Marc Sleen and Suske en Wiske from Willy Vandersteen.
I was overjoyed and jumped on the series. While I could easily find in the bookstore area of the museum, countless French-speaking Belgian comic books and much material from France, Japan and the United States, there was little stuff in Dutch. There was a Dutch section alright, but it was mostly translated French-language comic books that would probably prove easier to read in their original French for me, than Dutch.
Van Nero from Sleen is another adventure series with a wide supporting cast including kids as protagonists. Their design is far more cartoony but not like the Charleroi School. It feels more like what would expect from a Fleisher animated cartoon with strong pantomimes and facial exaggerations. Fans of older comic strips like Wash Tubbs will recognize the rounded lines but will miss the large blacks and light and dark experiments. Everything is flat with full blacks without any shadows or attempts to create different planes through a light and dark composition. Marc Sleen is fortunately alive, and probably has the world record for working the longest on one single comic strip.
I asked about the other Flemish masters, but the attendant at the museum said that that was it. There are others I know. I visited and old book store in Antwerp, and the place was filled with old comic books in Dutch that I had never heard before. According to the attendant, modern Belgian comic books are just Belgian, without any of the linguistic duality. I found that difficult to believe, as Flemish cartoonists, if they are like French Canadians will always publish their work in Dutch first even while the larger market is the French-speaking one.
Belgium appears to many people to be a Francophone country. It is more than that. While the Walloons have an easier access to a larger market through France than the Dutch-speaking Flemish do, the notoriety of Belgian comic books through the French-speaking community has probably much more to do with a larger market outside of Belgium and more emphasis and marketing on comics than the Flemish cartoonists. Two specific schools and publishing rivalries created Le Journal de Tintin and Le Journal de Spirou in French-speaking Belgium, creating an instant demand for more comic strips and comic books to fill the appetites of a nascent fan-base. In all likelihood, these conditions and competitive environment just were not found in Dutch-speaking Belgium. Works by Sleen and Vandersteen are still considered classics in all of Belgium. Belgium hides a lot of beauty and a rich culture for the comic book historian, and I hope to be able to research that country’s comic book history deeper and relate my findings for The Comic Book Bin in future articles.
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