Culture | Speech balloons in the spotlight

Celebrating comics as an artistic medium in Angoulême

If someone told you nowadays that comics are harmful literature – not because they’re “childish” or “stupid,” but because they gravely contribute to juvenile delinquency – you would probably think they were ‘making a big deal out of it.’ However, if you were told this sixty years ago, your response may have been different. You may have accepted it as the normalized understanding of comics. You may have taken it very seriously, especially if you were a conservative parent. You may have met their response with agitation – recognizing the highly problematic book that sparked their opinion.

Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, aimed to mobilize parents in a revolt against comics. Wertham suggested that comics turned children into “criminals,” and justified his claims through homophobic, racist, and sexist rhetoric. Wonder Woman, for example, was for Wertham a dangerous icon for her deviance from patriarchal norms. His misguided critiques prompted the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a group established by the Comics Magazine Association of America which sought to regulate and censor the comic book industry based on his principles, which let place to a jaded understanding of the medium as an instrument of “low culture.”

Though Wertham’s arguments contain discriminatory values and practices that are sadly still active today, comics has evolved significantly since then. Now seen as a respectable artistic medium, comics has reached a new level of popular and critical recognition around the world over the past decades. With the upcoming 44th edition of the Angoulême International Comics Festival, we can recognize how “high culture” has previously attempted to police comics in order to silence its popular appeal. But we also see how the medium is providing a space for these same voices to resist conventions and challenge artistic norms.

 

Wertham suggested that comics turned children into “criminals,” and justified his claims through homophobic, racist, and sexist rhetoric.

The festival’s 44th edition takes place from January 26 to 29 in many locations throughout Angoulême, in southwestern France. It is the third largest comics festival in the world after Italy’s Lucca Comics & Games and Japan’s Comiket. Quite different in nature from North American comics convention, in the sense that it’s focused on the industry as much as the public, and doesn’t venture into other commercial mediums like films or video games, the Festival seeks to further promote the value of comics upon the general population by organizing numerous exhibitions on the artistic merits of past and current works. It also aims to draw comics writers and artists into a circle where the reality of their profession can be displayed before a large public, and to maintain the industry active by organizing venues related to publishing and networking among publishers, editors and new talents as well.

Comic book culture is also an integral part of Montreal’s artistic scene. Library Drawn & Quarterly, a world-renown Montreal comics publishing company, features international and North American works from emerging and well-established artists alike. Since the company’s humble beginnings in a Mile-End apartment, the storefront has remained intimate – despite housing adored authors such as Roxane Gay – with an aesthetic that seeks to reinvent a distinctive Montreal comics scene. From indie to international, Montreal also hosts many comic book conventions including the star-studded comicon, the interactive pop-culture expo Kultura, to Otakuthon, the Anime mecca of Quebec. Festival BD de Montreal draws the closest parallel to the Angoulême festival, which features bandes dessinées created by Quebecois artists.

 

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby […]addressed minorities’ struggles against a society centered on the white, conservative, heterosexual male in X-Men.

 

The crossover between Franco-Belgian and Quebec comics is evident in style, theme, and, obviously, language. Quebecois bandes dessinées have remained distinct from English comic styles in the rest of Canada throughout their history – emerging most vividly at the turn of the 20th century in the era known as “The Golden Age of BDQ.” However, in 1904, the celebration ended, as Quebecois artists struggled to compete against the mecca publishing companies in the United States. Moreover, artists were also impacted by historical developments in the American comic book industry: Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent spurred the rise of “Catholic comics” in Quebec to challenge the themes in American comics they deemed as ‘immoral.’

The American graphic novel
In the 1960s, the American comic book underwent significant thematic developments, deviating from the “true blue” archetypes that had permeated the medium since the 1930s. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby metaphorically addressed minorities’ struggles against a society centered on the white, conservative, heterosexual male in X-Men, marking the desire for comic book writers and artists to craft more nuanced, socially relevant stories. This further materialized in the seventies, where superhero comics began to deal seriously with subjects like drug abuse or alcoholism, which Wertham would have considered “taboo,” as seen in story arcs like Snowbirds Don’t Fly or Demon in a Bottle. These comics began to show the importance of discussing and representing real-world social issues in artistic formats – an important step in addressing the stigmas surrounding these topics.

 

The medium is providing a space for these same voices to resist conventions and challenge artistic norms.

Following the rise of the graphic novel with Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, comics studies also began to flourish as a legitimate field through the efforts of pioneer cartoonists Eisner and Scott McCloud to promote the aesthetic value of the medium. The release of groundbreaking literary works, which were concerned more on introspective sensibilities than dynamic action, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, signified the Modern Age of Comic Books, an informal era that began in the mid-1980s and remains the current trend. A new type of mainstream comics also embraced daring, creative visions which freely reinterpreted the superhero figure under a variety of new themes and visual motifs that reflected the socio-political climate of the time – as seen in original works like Alan Moore and David Lloyd’ V for Vendetta, Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson’s God Loves, Man Kills, or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

With the rise of alternative publishers in the nineties, writers and artists were given even greater opportunities to take creative liberties, explore different forms of artistic expression, and challenge dominant narratives. As a result, graphic novels like Joe Sacco’s Palestine, published by the alternative company Fantagraphics Books, revived aspects of the “New Journalism” genre: a style that used unconventional literary techniques to portray a subjective political perspective, which had declined in the 1980s. Sacco’s graphic novel narrates the daily struggles of Palestinians within the occupied territories from 1991 to 1992, interpreting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian landconflict from an individual and group perspective, explored through drawing and dialogue.

 

The Franco-Belgian bande dessinée
Nuance, diversity, and complexity haven’t developed only through explicitly political works. The Franco-Belgian bande dessinée has also greatly evolved from the early comics geared towards children such as Tintin and Asterix. These comics now encompass a broad range of new works that shine through the incredibly rich, diverse narrative tones and visual styles that these stories affirm towards one another, through the individual voices of their authors. These works may address themes that are directly embedded into Franco-Belgian history and society – such as Jacques Tardi’s C’était la guerre des tranchées or Enki Bilal’s Nikopol Trilogy – or deal with outsiders’ perspectives as they arrive in new, unknown societies – such as Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. In any case, they infuse their format with a decidedly more European sentiment, emphasizing the intellectual, reflective nature of characters’ actions and impressions as they progress through their narratives without a great deal of action.
Franco-Belgian comics have branched out into new genres since the seventies, creating original series that embrace concepts of high fantasy, western or science-fiction, while retaining an Old World-type approach; original themes are kept intact while a rich world-building shines through the panels, as seen in works such as Jean Van Hamme and Grzegorz Rosinski’s Thorgal or Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius’ The Incal. Furthermore, aside from the narrative and aesthetic developments that took place for new stories, some of the older series, like The Smurfs or Lucky Luke, found a way to win over new generations by renewing their types of stories and visual gags, thus keeping these series, and bande dessinée as a whole, fresh and alive for the time to come.

 

The Japanese manga
Finally, the Japanese manga has trodden the same path as well, drawing a proud heritage from its first original, children-oriented works such as Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy while reinventing its formula around the 1980s, producing stories that have since then become famous worldwide for their highly dynamic style, memorable character design, and strikingly original narrative approach.

A unique Japanese genre, manga can be examined in dialogue with its American and European counterparts. While Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball and Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk show the protagonist’s growth and triumph through hard work and sacrifice – a thematic structure commonly found in comic books and bande dessinée – works like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom adopt a darker, more cynical, and even nihilistic vibe that is characteristic of many literary works of post-World War II Japan.

While manga are generally marketed to particular demographics – shonen for boys, shojo for girls, seinen for men, etc. – manga artists enjoy different levels of success depending on whether their work achieves mainstream recognition, as did Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, or cult status, which was the case for Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note. Despite tackling vastly different themes, these two categories of works nevertheless manage to converge into a huge market.
Complementing the emergence of anime as another seminal part of Japanese cultural exports, with many series being adapted into anime at some point in their publication history, manga has thus evolved into a comics format that is increasingly made to be consumed in a transnational context despite its cultural specifications.

Comics have developed considerably since Wertham tried to censor their existence, traveling from America to Japan with a long layover in Europe, and gaining more and more credibility as an artistic medium. In its symbiotic juxtaposition of text and images, comics provide a unique storytelling power. Since anything in comics can be written and then drawn into panels, this is a visual medium that, unlike film or theatre, is not at all limited in its creative vision by material restrictions, aside from editorial concerns; it has the power to visually portray anything it can imagine, and to spread its influence upon any sphere of society, from working-class readers who find genuine interest in its popular texture to higher-standing academics who can find value in it from a more literary standpoint.

The Angoulême International Comics Festival then serves as a prime showcase of the cultural recognition that comics has earned since the seventies and eighties. Its inception in 1974 precisely mirrors the time where Franco-Belgian comics was growing in influence upon European society through media discussions, public exhibitions, and increased approval among the adult public. To those who might not read a lot of comics, but are certainly curious: keep an eye out on the festival’s news, and try to read some of the great comics that have been mentioned in this text, or other good recommendations that you might come across in one way or another. You could be genuinely surprised to find out what really goes on behind the seemingly superficial panels and speech balloons.


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