Found in Translation: Franco-Belgian Comics in America (Part 1)

I first encountered French-language comics at age twelve while visiting my best friend’s grandparents at their farm in the south of France. There, on an attic shelf, we found a stack of Astérix ...

I first encountered French-language comics at age twelve while visiting my best friend’s grandparents at their farm in the south of France. There, on an attic shelf, we found a stack of Astérix, Tintin, and Lucky Luke. The books appeared almost talismanic effect to me, not least because, well, they were books. It was 1978, still a decade before the rise of the “graphic novel” in the US, and I found the very idea of comics being treated with the respect of hard covers and quality paper both shocking and sexy as hell.

And then we found more. Buried behind a box of mason jars, a hidden stash of magazines we initially assumed to be porn but that turned out to be something much better: Métal Hurlant. The magazines had no doubt been stashed by one of my friend’s younger uncles, eager to keep them hidden from old-fashioned parents. If the hardback volumes of Astérix and Tintin dazzled me with the prospect of comics being treated as actual books, Métal Hurlant showed me for the first time the possibility of comics doing things that the 1954 Comics Code’s system of self-censorship had rendered unimaginable for American readers of my generation. In France I also discovered Moebius, Jacques Tardi, Philippe Druillet, and other artists who would shape my visions of comics’ possibilities for years to come. The fact that I could not read a word of French didn’t seem to matter at all.

Back in the States, I was able to track down Astérix and Tintin in English-language editions, and an American version of Heavy Metal had started up in 1977 (although it never quite lived up to my vision of the French original). But that was more or less it. Even as Franco-Belgian comics went through a period of remarkable productivity in the 1980s and 1990s, and were increasingly cited by American and British comics evangelists eager for the form to be treated as “art,” little found its way into English.

At the same time, while Francophone comics were largely invisible in American markets, they were working remarkable, if indirect, influence on American comics. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw magazine (1980–1991) is rightly celebrated today for introducing non-comics readers to the artistic potential of comics, as well as to a raft of American creators who would go on to become central figures in the alternative comics movement of the 1990s, including Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Ben Katchor, and Julie Doucet. But it was also explicitly an attempt to bring to the US the chutzpah and ambition of Francophone comics, and it provided translations of important French and Belgian cartoonists, including Tardi, Jacques de Loustal, and Ever Meulen.

Nonetheless, for a long time the idea of Francophone comics—bandes dessinées or BD is the French termexerted more influence in the US than the comics themselves. And the idea was a powerful one; it certainly resonated with my own nostalgia for that 1970s childhood experience in southern France. There, we were told, comics were celebrated as “the ninth art,” and embraced as literature by elite institutions. While such accounts were overblown, their impact on the ambitions of a new generation of American comics creators cannot be underestimated. The idea of how Francophone comics were revered became the holy grail toward which a generation of ambitious cartoonists, publishers, and critics aspired over the course of a generation.

At the far end of that mini-revolution here in the States, Francophone comics are at last beginning to get translated in numbers sufficient to offer to American readers something like a proper sample of the history and future of the form in France and Belgium. Over the next couple of months, I will introduce Public Books readers to a range of recent translations of Francophone comics, as well as to the growing number of publishers bringing this rich tradition to America.

NBM has championed Franco-Belgian comic art since the 1980s and in the 21st century has emerged as one of its major publishers in translation. One sign of how far things have come in terms of exposing American readers to the diversity of this work was the publication by NBM this year of Étienne Davodeau’s The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs (the original French title—Les ignorants: Récit d’une initiation croisée [literally, The ignorant ones: Story of a crossed initiation]—offers a more accurate description of the volume). Here Davodeau describes a year spent learning about wine making and tasting from his friend and neighbor, Richard Leroy, a Loire Valley winemaker. In exchange, Davodeau introduces Leroy to the best of bandes dessinées (along with a couple of masterpieces from the Anglophone tradition), and they discuss the obsessiveness, relentlessness, and elusive magic at the heart of both of their crafts.

This is Davodeau’s first work to appear in English after 20 years of publishing in France (his Lulu, femme nue is high on my translation wish list), and it presents the subtle and understated graphic storytelling of a mature artist at the height of his powers. Like his partner-in-wine, Leroy, Davodeau has no need to show off for the reader, to put on dazzling displays of pyrotechnics or to insist that the reader pause and admire all that a comic can do that other narrative forms cannot. Instead, this is a book about craft, about the subtle rewards—often invisible to reader or drinker—that motivate these masters as they pursue their strange arts.

It is also about the friendship of fellow travelers. Along the way, while being introduced to many of the secrets of organic wine farming, we are also invited into the studios and homes of many of the most influential French cartoonists of the day.

Some of these will be familiar to readers. Lewis Trondheim, who is depicted explaining to Leroy why he chooses to draw his autobiographical self with a beak, has had many works translated in recent years, including his marvelous autobiographical sketch comics, Little Nothings (NBM). And Emmanuel Guibert, whom we visit toward the end of the book, has had several books appear with First Second (another recently emerged proponent of Francophone comics in the US), including The Photographer, Alan’s War, and a collaboration with Joan Sfar (most famous in the States for The Rabbi’s Cat), The Professor’s Daughter. But many more will be unknown, unavailable as they are in English-language bookstores. The English translation of Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s contribution to the Louvre Museum’s ongoing BD series (a series whose existence speaks volumes about the relative cultural status of comics in France) is out of print, while the long and influential career of Jean-Pierre Gibrat is completely untranslated (into English, at least). One comes away from the book with a sense of all the fine wines that will never be exported and all the bandes dessinées that will never be translated.

For a long time the idea of Francophone comics—bandes dessinées or BD is the French termexerted more influence than the comics themselves.

But in the end, the names and artists matter less than the conversations about craft and art, about the pleasure and pain of devoting countless hours, months, years to a book that might not work or a bottle that might never live up to the potential of its harvest. After all, it is just grapes, just pictures and dialogue balloons. That it can become so much more than grape juice or a simple cartoon is both magical and maddening, and it is the pursuit of that magic that keeps wine and comics creators—and their devoted fans—hooked.

While The Initiates reminds us of all that has not yet been translated, never before in the history of comics has there been more to explore for Anglophone readers from the rich Franco-Belgian tradition. Perhaps my favorite this year has been a stunning graphic novel by Belgian cartoonist Judith Vanistendael, When David Lost His Voice, published by SelfMadeHero (a British publisher that has been making inroads into the American graphic novel market over the past year). Vanistendael tells the story of David, who becomes a grandfather and a cancer patient almost simultaneously. But David is not generous with his emotions, and the book in many ways is actually the story of three women—his wife Paula, grown-up daughter Miriam, and nine-year-old daughter Tamar—and of how disease and death shape and transform them.

This should be a miserable book, and indeed there are pages of profound grief and pain. But Vanistendael never lets us wallow: her fluid pen and brush and the often startlingly beautiful watercolor keep surprising the reader, reminding us of all the ways in which death and loss bring us closer to the heart of life itself. This is a thick book, patient in the time it takes with its characters and often entirely wordless for long stretches at a time, and yet it seems to dance on the page and is hard to put down once one starts. Where The Initiates was a carefully crafted experiment, this book feels like a stunning act of improvisation, thanks to how Vanistendael disguises in her liquid and flowing line the careful structure and deliberate craftsmanship of this powerful book.

From these two titles, someone new to Francophone comics might get the impression that they are all about topics like wine or cancer. High-profile French imports—such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (about the Iranian revolution and its brutal aftermath) or David B’s Epileptic (about a family’s decades-long struggle with his brother’s severe epilepsy)—might only confirm the sense that where American comics have historically dealt in juvenilia French comics have always been relentlessly mature.

And yet, we must remember, the Franco-Belgian tradition gave us Asterix—even, for better or worse, the Smurfs. There is a long tradition in BD of magical animals, fantastic satire, and comics like Tintin designed to appeal equally to adult and young readers. Indeed, if American comics devotees needed the high-serious side of Francophone comics to bolster their arguments that comics could take on the weight of the world, it might be argued that today we need work like that of Renaud Dillies to remind us that comics can transport us to magical places and times. In the past two years, NBM has published two marvelous books by Dillies, 2011’s Bubbles & Gondola and, in 2012, Abelard, which he co-created with Régis Hautière.

Bubbles & Gondola was a light and feathery thing of beauty, but Abelard is a real masterwork, and a reminder of a power of comics that we all too often forget in our desire to demonstrate the form’s capacity for realism. Abelard tells the story of a young romantic bird who leaves his backwoods marsh, the only home he has known, to head to America to find a machine that will allow him to capture the moon for a beautiful songbird who has captured his heart. And while this might sound like a light and happy story, it turns out to be even more depressing than When David Lost His Voice—and every bit as beautiful.

NMB’s editions of Dillies’s books also give American readers a chance to familiarize themselves with the album format of many European comics, published in a size and on glossy paper of a quality American readers are more likely to associate with high-end picture books. The American editions of the books maintain the quality hardbound, oversize format, albeit scaled down somewhat from the original and combining the two hardbound volumes that made up the French version into one volume.

Even slightly diminished, one gets a chance in this format to experience comics taken seriously, not (necessarily) because they are serious, but because they are art. It still thrills me as much as it did in the late 1970s, when I held my first hardbound volumes of Tintin and stood in awe at Tardi’s “Polonius” in the pages of Métal Hurlant.
NEXT: Tardi in America icon