On the Comic Trail in Brussels
Brussels, Belgium’s capital, is home to the European Union and the infamous “Manneken Pis,” a 15th-century statue of a naked boy peeing into a fountain. But both city and country also look back at a centuries-old tradition that has become synonymous with Belgian art: comics.
Tintin, the Smurfs, Lucky Luke — many of the beloved comic figures known all around the world have their roots in Belgium, and there is no better place to explore their origins and history than at the Belgian Comic Strip Center, often referred to simply as the Comic Museum, located in the heart of Brussels.
The museum was opened in 1986 in a beautiful Art Noveau building designed by the architect Victor Horta that originally served as a warehouse when it was built in 1906; around the same time, the era of modern comic strips began.
The Belgian Comic Strip Center has gradually become a magnet for tourists, drawing more than 200,000 visitors annually. It is not only an exhibition venue, but also houses an extensive library and research center, and a bookshop, and has become a platform for readers and comic strip artists to meet.
The first floor of the exhibition space is dedicated to the history of comic strips as well as the art of creating one in all its painstaking details.
The roots of the very first comic strips are traced back to Christian monasteries of the Middle Ages, where copyist monks devoted their life to reproducing the sacred texts of their religion.
“Others embellished these unique works with intricate illuminations and illustrations rendering thanks to their creator,” the exhibition catalogue reads. “Without realizing it, they invented most of the principles used by present-day artists to create a comic strip: dividing the story up into panels, movement, foreground, dialogues in balloons etc.”
But it wasn’t until the 19th century that comic strips became an established art form, often used in newspapers and magazines with a satirical note, and later on serialized to be consumed by the masses.
To create a comic strip is a highly creative process that involves a synopsis, scenario, rough sketches and pencil drawings, inking and coloring techniques.
In one section of the museum, visitors can relive this process step by step, where it becomes evident that despite its often fun nature, comics take a lot of work.
“In order to visualize all the work to be done, the artist creates a storyboard by sketching out the pages for the future album, with small boxes and speech bubbles which prefigure the action on each page,” the guide reads. “Armed with all this information, the artist can finally make a start on the actual drawings. He begins with a rough sketch which he will improve and alter until he has obtained the perfect scene which he will carefully copy onto the final support medium.”
As pencil drawings are rare — the artworks are usually not intended to remain in this raw state — the process of inking and coloring follows as the next step.
“The inking is the final stage in the drawings; it allows the artist to give a clear definition to any faint pencil lines and to choose the final outline of the drawing,” it is explained, whereas for the coloring, the inked plate is printed on art paper in the later publication format, and color is applied.
More and more artists these days turn to digital art, using computers to finish their plates, which are first drawn on paper and then scanned in so that they can be corrected, cleaned up and completed on screen. Others have given up the use of paper completely thanks to sophisticated software that helps them draw on electronic tablets.
When the comic strip is completed, the artist has to give some thought to what he wants to see on the cover — which is not always an easy task.
“It must be representative of its content while meeting the commercial requirements of legibility and originality, its objective being to make the album stand out from the plethora of other works,” the exhibition guide says. “Generally the artist will choose to depict one of the powerful moments in the story, but the album cover also conveys other pieces of information which are sometimes more important, such as: who are the authors? Is it a part of a series or a collection? Who is the publisher? Comic strip heroes are often better known than their creators, so the author’s name will be accorded less importance in a series than in a one-shot.”
The exhibition then continues to examine the different comic strip forms, ranging from educational, historical and realistic comic strips, over heroic fantasy and science fiction, to graphic novels. A special mention is also given to press cartoons — not without a stab at the US, which has been accused of snubbing European comics for a long time.
“The comic strip has had a presence in the daily press for many years in the form of humorous strips and cartoons, often supplied by American agencies at prices that excluded all European competition,” the catalogue says. “But the true press comic strip artist is a chronicler who comments on current events and political developments from one day to the next. The press comic strip may be broken down into sequences of images, but its vocation is essentially journalistic.”
It becomes clear that Belgians regard comics as more than just a way to lighten up one’s mood with funny drawings. Instead, Franco-Belgian comics — the shared language of Belgium and France creates an artistic and commercial market where national identity is often blurred — are taken very seriously by both readers and creators. So serious, in fact, that the distinction of comics as the “ninth art” is prevalent in Francophone scholarship on the form, as is the concept of comic criticism and scholarship itself. The term “ninth art” was coined by Lucky Luke creator Maurice De Bevere, better known as Morris, in a series of articles about the history of comics, that appeared in Spirou magazine from 1964 to 1967.
Morris is one of many artists the Comic Museum pays tribute to on the second floor of the exhibition space, called “Museum of Imagination.” From Herge (born Georges Prosper Remi), the creator of Tintin, one of Belgium’s most beloved comic characters, to Peyo (Pierre Culliford), who invented the Smurfs — here, their careers and works are revisited and presented to comic geeks and those who have probably read Asterix at some point in their lives (or at least watched one of the movies) but never knew that the indomitable Gaul was the brainchild of Frenchmen Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo and first appeared in the Franco-Belgian comic magazine Pilote in October 1959.
Another story that may not be well known is the fact that “Les Schtroumpfs” — the Smurfs in French — were born out of a joke: the word was first invented by Peyo during a meal with fellow cartoonist Andre Franquin, when he could not remember the word for salt and asked for “Schtroumpf” instead.
While the Smurfs have gained universal appeal and grown into a powerhouse franchise, not least thanks to the fact that Hollywood discovered the lovable blue creatures, the most beloved comic that derived from the Franco-Belgian community of comic artists is arguably Tintin.
Cartoonist Herge is until today, more than 30 years after his death, a strong influence in the comic scene, specifically in Europe. His works have been praised for their clarity of draftsmanship and well-researched plots.
The Adventures of Tintin, a series that Herge worked on from 1929 until his death in 1983, follows the intrepid Belgian reporter Tintin and his loyal companion, the dog Snowy. The books have been translated into 80 different languages.
Despite its great success, Herge’s cartoons were not free of controversy, and the artist faced accusations of racism for the way he portrayed some ethnic groups in his works, including the Congolese and Native Americans. However, Herge insisted his drawings merely reflected the view of Belgians in the early 20th century and were a product of his immediate surroundings and environment.
The strong influence of comics in Belgium and the city of Brussels is also visible when taking a stroll through the streets — the Brussels Comic Book Route is another way to follow in the trails of Tintin and other characters. It is a path that consists of several comic strip murals painted on the walls of buildings throughout city, most of them showing scenes of Belgium’s most popular comic characters. The project was initiated by the Belgian Comic Strip Center in 1991 and features more than 50 mural paintings — it’s not only a good way to learn more about comics, but also a refreshing way to explore Brussels and some neighborhoods off the beaten path.
This article was first published on May 20, 2014 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.