A serious devotion to comics on display
All I knew about Belgian comics before visiting Brussels was that Tintin had a bad haircut, a taste for adventure, and an all-white fox terrier named Milou. It turns out there's a lot more to the country's comic strips than Herge's slapstick reporter who has been amusing children and adults alike for 80 years.
In fact, the Belgian flair for comics is as inescapable as Manneken Pis, the statue of a urinating toddler that is the unofficial mascot of Brussels. And the comics are much more sophisticated. Walk down the street, turn a corner, and there's Neron lifting beefy burghers into the sky or the irrepressibly cheery fairy-tale fantasy of true love in the strip Olivier Rameau.
But there are also those wall paintings more appropriately glanced than seen, the ones that seem to lurk in dark corners at the edges of one's peripheral vision. I strolled down rue des Chartreux half a dozen times before I caught sight of Yslaire's L'Archange. Looking up to check the sky for rain, I spotted the long-winged angel crouching under the eaves where the roofs of two buildings meet. It seemed an apt roost for the graphic first cousin of a gargoyle.
I was beginning to grasp that the Belgians take their comics seriously. In Flemish "stripverhaal" or "story strip," or French "bande dessinee" or "drawn strip," the local term carries none of the juvenile association of the American "comic strip." As far as the Belgians are concerned, graphic storytelling is more art than amusement. They often call comics the "ninth art" (after architecture, music, painting, sculpture, poetry, dance, cinema, and television).
From Tintin's debut in 1929, the art form blossomed after World War II with two weekly magazines of strips introducing dozens of characters and sagas. Now nearly a dozen publishers issue hard-cover graphic stories every month.
While Brussels remains the city of European Union ministers in standard-issue suits and tourists gorging themselves on massive cones of fried potatoes doused with mayonnaise, it's also a city of considerable visual sophistication. Shortly after the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee (Belgian Comic Strip Center) opened in 1989, the museum and the city began collaborating on a project to paint famous comic heroes on the city walls. The first mural went up in 1991; now 30 of them are scattered around the city, and looking doesn't cost a dime.
But it's worth paying to see the museum first. Located in an Art Nouveau masterpiece building by Victor Horta, the museum often has long queues. Inside, the place is so spacious that you can spend as much time as you want with each exhibit. Most of the permanent exhibits have English signage in addition to French and Flemish.
The center's first sequence of exhibits explains the process of creation from initial concept to printed strip. The wall text seems to have been devised by French academics who cut their teeth on Cahiers du Cinema and deconstructionist criticism, but the actual comic strip pencil drawings, text lettering, and hand coloring are far more eloquent. Not only is the comic strip an art, it's a complicated craft with lots of practitioners.
Once you've run the educational gauntlet, the rest of the museum is pure fun. The tour begins in the "treasure room," a rotating exhibition of unique original drawings of famous comic strips. The remainder of the museum consists of freestanding wall panels where you can study the styles and signature characters that you'll see on the walls of the city.
The exhibits detail the careers of important comics innovators from the launch of Tintin to "adult entertainment" graphic novels of recent years. A sign in French and Flemish warns parents about delicate subject matter.
I found myself most simpatico with Andre Franquin, who created several strips over the years, including the antihero goofball Gasto Lagaffe, an avant-garde ecologist and slacker way ahead of his time (1957). Toward the end of his career in the 1970s, Franquin turned to a series he called "Les Idees Noires," which translates best as "Dark Thoughts." In these satirical meditations, generals and admirals toss hand grenades with planet Earth as the target in a game of lawn bowls, race horses shoot fallen jockeys, and a man feeding seagulls is left on the beach as a pile of rags and bones.
Now that's a long way from Tintin.
David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.