Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Comic Book Cultures: France

I've looked enviously at the French love affair with comics several times over the years. When I was very young, before I was interested enough in comics to discover that Herge was from Belgium and not France, I thought all the major cartoonists were born there; the European ones at least. Of course I later found out that many major European cartoonists, and those from further afield, had simply, naturally, gravitated toward France, a natural home for artists, and, it seems, a natural home for cartoonists. From Herge, to Hugo Pratt, to Ronald Searle, to Crumb, and to Gilbert Shelton, that migration toward the place continues even today.

In the UK, we cartoonists, perhaps with two exceptions (no more), are artistic pariahs. The lone arts programme on independent terrestrial television, The South Bank Show, now cancelled, was more likely to feature a dancing-bear as an artist, than a cartoonist. Like Newsnight Review, our "other" arts programme, from the BBC, The South Bank Show figured there were maybe two or three cartoonists in the UK, Ronald Searle (living in France), Scarfe, and Posey. They are, of course, two very different sorts of arts programme, The South Bank show, chaired by Melvin Bragg, focused on one artist or movement at a time, whilst the BBC programme consists of a panel of arty-types, almost always journalists, poets, authors, or sculptures, curiously enough. Think, the London/Notting Hill village and you will have a mental picture of the usual panelists.

Newsnight Review is more of an arts magazine, and more like the French model of discursive TV, and it constantly reviews movies and TV shows based on comic book characters. Now, you might think that on the odd occasion the show actually does feature the work of cartoonists that it might have the odd cartoonist on the panel discussing the merits of the work, but no, it just doesn't happen. In fact, I have my doubts that the researchers even realise that much of the material these poets and journalists and sculptures review is written and drawn by UK cartoonists. As I said, we cartoonists are the pariahs of the arts world.

The position of cartoonists in the UK is solidified by the absence of cartoonists and cartoons not just from Britain's art shows on TV, and newspapers and magazines (with obvious exceptions), but also from artistic debates, art magazines and galleries. With the exception of Computer Arts, which occasionally mentions maybe Peanuts in a passing article on merchandising, I can't really think of one magazine that has ever devoted time and space to the artform. Oh there has been the odd review and even the odd 4 or even 8 page piece on French or US cartoonists, like Sempe or Chris Ware in the broadsheets over here, but those are mainly puff-pieces by trendy hipster journalists trying to appear geekily cool. The same people ensure that lots of ill-informed column inches are devoted to the most talked-about graphic novels and even manga, but those always seem to have been squeezed in for novelty value amongst the "real" literature.

Over in France, meanwhile, The Musée de la Bande Dessinée, in Angoulème, the town that hosts the celebrated comic book festival every January, has been granted full status as a Museum of France; so it ranks alongside The Louvre, not just in the public imagination but also in officialdom. Not that there has ever been a great distinction between comic art and any other art in France. Indeed, The Louvre itself recently celebrated comics art, the 'ninth art', with an exhibition of original drawings and paintings by some very famous bédéistes (Bande Dessinées creators). The new museum, with thousands of original drawings and more than 100,000 magazines and comic books, will also function as a reference library, storing every comics publication published in France. And fortunately for the museum's director, not all the 34 million graphic publications the French consume every year are published there.

In France, there is no suggestion at all that cartoons are such low art that neither they nor their creators should be seen and heard. The French magazine, Beaux Arts is the sort of publication I imagine we will never see in the UK. It is an arts and culture magazine that will discuss Fauvism in one issue, Expressionism in another, Bande Dessinee (graphic novels) in another, and Manga in another. It is simply accepted that cartoons are art and that the cartoonists who create the work are artists.

It is the recent manga edition of Beaux Arts hors serie, Qu'est-Ce Que le manga? that, for me, really illustrates the lack of interest in cartoons, of respect for cartoonists, and of inquisitiveness and interest about the artform amongst the literati in the UK. It is, perhaps, this manga edition, more than those that have focused on Band Dessinee that illustrates the poverty of Britain's art scene. It is unimaginable that such a magazine with such an in depth discussion of the history and role of manga would be published in the UK.

Edited by Claude Pommereau, the manga edition of the magazine celebrates the artform looking back at the history of manga, and forward to the new wave of mangaka. From an examination of the ubiquitous role of manga in Japanese life and culture, the magazine looks at different genres and looks back to link the art of Hokusai with the venerable movement. The overview of the artform, in this context, makes it almost impossible to argue that comic books are not art and it goes some way to illustrating the poverty of thinking on these shores.

In addition to an examination of the culture of manga, and a small history of manga there are liberal illustrated examples, including a gorgeous reproduction of a Walking Man piece, by Jiro Taniguchi and an episode of Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, both of which are 'un-mirrored' and should be read right to left. In addition, they are printed backwards through the magazine - better to enjoy the real Japanese-style experience of reading manga. The 'Walking Man' page below, is the final page of this excerpt.

Like Walking Man, this wonderful Black Jack adventure, the tattoo man or man with tattoo, ends with the first page you see. For die-hard Tezuka fans this excerpt is a delight, and there is little doubt in my mind that it looks so fresh and vibrant that it must also serve to bring new fans to worship at the feet of 'the god of manga'.

With some excellent pieces on the masters of manga, the current crop of young masters, and the enfent terribles of manga, this edition of the magazine goes some way to explaining why you seldom hear any French cartoonists say 'I don't like manga', as many of their British and American counterparts do. Let me explain what I mean by that, whenever a cartoonist from Britain or America says 'I don't like manga' they invariably mean they do not like a particular genre of manga and, unsurprisngly, that genre is usually the genre of manga created for young girls aged 8-13. It is difficult to imagine the well-informed French cartoonist, and no doubt a good deal of the wider comics loving French public, if this magazine is anything to go by, mistaking one genre of manga for all Japanese comic books.

Beaux Arts magazine really does bring home to me that there is an almost unbridgeable chasm here in the UK, not between the reading public and the creators of comic books, graphic novels, BD and manga, but between the gatekeepers of the British Art World (including publishers) and the rest of the planet. Britain is fast becoming a cultural wasteland, obsessed with the sort of ephemeral souless art that the toxic banks hung in their foyers, and the prattle-filled thoughts of celebrity "authors". No wonder our cartoonists and illustrators and writers increasingly look elsewhere for support. You'll have noticed, I hope, that while the French have 'les bédéistes', and the Japanese have 'mangaka', Britain has no word to describe a cartoonist or illustrator who is skilled and experienced in the creation of comic art.


Anonymous said...

Hi Rod,

my boss wants to talk to you. I emailed both your addresses so hopefully you got it at least once.


Rod McKie said...

Got it, thanks. Interesting.

Bren said...

Rod, you're right. I've seen very little decent coverage of cartoon art in the UK media, it just doesn't seem to happen. This is in contrast though to the interest I get from people at large when I tell them I'm a cartoonist. After the obligatory question on what I earn they are generally very interested what what I do, and appreciative of the art form.

I didn't realise the respect and coverage cartoon art has in France.

Do you have any ideas for changing the situation here? I suppose I'm not helping. When I was a fine artist I'd join in group exhibitions and I staged quite a few solo exhibitions and demonstrations. As a cartoonist I seem to have fallen into a different mindset. I socialise with cartoonists but I work alone, and have never really though of exhibiting. I suspect many cartoonists work this way too.

Do you think if cartoonists got together and organised small regional exhibitions we could create a ground movement that would involve the public and grow? Or is there something we could do at a higher level?

There is undoubtedly public appreciation for the cartoon art. I'm not sure what I could be doing to help the situation. I'm sure I could be doing more, but I'm not sure what.

Bren said...

I just read what I wrote again. I should say that I used the term "fine artist" as used in common parlance, someone who prints, sculpts, paints... (though printers can come in for some stick when using the term). I consider cartoons to be fine art but they're not commonly referred to as such. Is that part of the problem?

Rod McKie said...

Hey Bren, I forgive you for the 'fine art' blooper; if you'd said 'high art' I'd have gone totally mental:>)

You make a very good point, I think, there is a 'cartoonist mindset' and that mind-set encourages a loner attitude in cartoonists themselves, and affects the way we communicate, or fail to, with the public.

As you say, the public are interested in cartoons and cartoonists, but it must seem to them that many cartoonists are not interested in them. Historically, some British cartoonists could not sign their work so there was a barrier between them and the public, but that is no longer the case. So I think we must accept at least some of the blame for our absence.

There is no such abscence of cartoonists in the media in many other countries, and some galleries run permanent exhibitions of comic art or like France and Belgium have dedicated museums to the artfom. It seems ridiculous to me that the country that gave birth to modern satire through Hogarth, to the humorous modern gag cartoon through Punch, and which has more than 100 years of comics history makes no celebration of cartoonists.

My own feeling is that unless more cartoonists graduate through Oxford and Cambridge, in any discipline, even geography, they will remain invisible to the Oxbridge-dominated media. At the moment I think only about 4 cartoonists graduated from that university, and since they didn't graduate in cartooning that really should not make any difference, but of course it does.

I think the only solution is to draw attention to our absence ourselves, and combined gallery shows and exhibitions will go some way to doing that. But we must also lobby newspapers and magazine to get cartoonists to review graphic novels and arts programmes to have cartoonists on their panels. I mean, honestly, who the fuck cares what some poncy sculpture or gossip columnist or comedian thinks about Watchmen or the X-Men?

Huw said...

As a lifelong fan of french comic art, I loved the post, cheers. Love the blog in general - much hard work, greatly appreciated by this cartoon/comics fan.

Many happy hours I've spent browsing through shelves and shelves of BDs and Comics in French supermarches. I can't see that happening in a local Tescos anytime soon. Even the one that stocks garden fences and tuxedos.

Your article brought to mind my visit to the musee de bande dessinee at Angouleme when I was 15 or so - it's stayed with me ever since, mostly by making me even more depressed at the continued interchangeability in the UK media of the terms 'comic art' and 'superheroes'.

Rod McKie said...

Hey Huw

very kind, thank you.

Yes it is a depressing situation. I think the die was cast when IPC and DC Thomson got a stranglehold on comics and ensured they were for 'kids' only.

It's pretty telling though that both those comic publishers were happy to reprint creator-owned work Lucky Luke and Peyo's strip in their comics, allowing the Franco-Belgian cartoon studios to flourish - while insisting on 'owning' the creations of British cartoonists and paying on a work-for-hire basis.

That does