From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Franco-Belgian comics are comics that are created in Belgium and France. These countries have a long tradition in comics and comic books, where they are known as BDs, an abbreviation of bande dessinée (literally drawn strip) in French and stripverhalen (literally strip stories) in Dutch. Belgian comic books originally written in Dutch are influenced by francophone comics, yet have a distinctly different style. Many other European comics, especially Italian comics, are strongly influenced by Franco-Belgian comics.
Half of Belgium (Wallonia and Brussels) and France share the French language, making them a unique market where national identity is often blurred. Although Switzerland contributes less to the total body of work, it is significant that many scholars point to a Francophone Swiss, Rodolphe Töpffer, as the true father of comics. This choice is still controversial, with critics asserting that Töpffer's work is not necessarily connected to the creation of the form as it is now known in the region.
During the 19th century, there were many artists in Europe drawing cartoons, occasionally even utilizing sequential multi-panel narration, albeit mostly with clarifying captions and dialogue placed under the panels, rather than the word balloons commonly used nowadays. These were humoristic short works rarely longer than a single page. Even in the Francophonie, there were artists picking up the trade, such as Gustave Doré, Nadar and Caran d'Ache, the latter specialized in pantomime comics, needing no words or dialogue at all. Caran d'Ache also held high aspirations to acchieve a longer pantomime story told solely in sequential images, "Maestro", about a child prodigy pianist; an ambitious work which, unfortunately, he never got to finish during his lifetime.
In the early decades of the 20th century, comics were not stand-alone publications, but were published in newspapers and weekly or monthly magazines as episodes or gags. Aside from these magazines, the Catholic Church was creating and distributing "healthy and correct" magazines for the children. In the early 1900s, the first popular French comics appeared, including Bécassine. In 1920, the abbot of Averbode in Belgium started publishing Zonneland, a magazine consisting largely of text with few illustrations, which started publishing comics more often in the following years.
In the 1920's after the end of the first world war, the French artist Alain Saint-Ogan started out as a professional cartoonist, creating the successful series Zig et Puce in 1925. Saint-Ogan was one of the first French-speaking artists to fully utilize techniques popularized and formulaized in USA, such as word balloons.
One of the earliest proper Belgian comics was Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin, with the story Tintin in the Land of the Soviets which was published in Le Petit Vingtième in 1929. It was quite different from how we have come to know Tintin, the style being very naïve and simple, even childish, compared to the later stories. The early stories were often politically incorrect (featuring racist and political stereotypes), in ways Hergé later regretted.
The first nudge towards modern comic books happened in 1934 when Hungarian Paul Winckler (who had previously been distributing comics to the monthly magazines via his Opera Mundi bureau) made a deal with King Features Syndicate to create the Journal de Mickey, a weekly 8-page early "comic-book".
The success was quite immediate, and soon most other publishers started publishing periodicals with American series. This continued during the remainder of the decade, with hundreds of magazines publishing mostly imported material. The most important ones in France were Robinson, Hurrah, and Coeurs Vaillants, while Belgian examples include Wrill and Bravo. In 1938, Spirou was launched. Spirou also appeared translated in a Dutch version under the name Robbedoes for the Flemish market. Export to the Netherlands followed only a few years later.
When Germany invaded France and Belgium, it became close to impossible to import American comics. Likewise, comics of questionable character (in the view of the Nazis) were banned outright. Similarly, American animated movies were forbidden as well. Both were however already very popular before the war and the hardships of the war period only seemed to increase the demand. This created ample opportunity for many young artists to start working in the comics and animation business. At first, authors like Jijé in Spirou and Edgar P. Jacobs in Bravo continued unfinished American stories of Superman and Flash Gordon, and simultaneously by imitating the style and flow of those comics vastly improved their knowledge of how to make efficient comics. But soon even those homemade versions of American comics had to stop, and the authors had to create their own heroes and stories, and new talents got a chance to publish. Many of the most famous artists of the Franco-Belgian comics started in this period, including André Franquin and Peyo who started together at an animation studio, and Willy Vandersteen, Jacques Martin and Albert Uderzo who worked for Bravo.
After the war, the American comics didn't come back in nearly as large numbers as before. In France, the 1949 law about publications destined to the youth was partly oriented by the French Communist Party to exclude most of the American publications, more adult and violent than the classical European ones. Interestingly, a lot of the publishers and artists who had managed to continue working during the occupation were accused of being collaborators and were imprisoned by the resistance, although most were released soon afterwards without charges being pressed.
As an example, this happened to one of the famous magazines, Coeurs Vaillants ("Valiant Hearts"). It was founded by abbot Courtois (under the alias Jacques Coeur) in 1929. As he had the backing of the church, he managed to publish the magazine throughout the war, and was of course charged with being a collaborator. After he was forced out, his successor Pihan (as Jean Vaillant) took up the publishing, moving the magazine in a more humorous direction.
Hergé was another artist to be prosecuted by the resistance. He, as most others, managed to clear his name and went on to create Studio Hergé in 1950, where he acted as a sort of mentor for the students and assistants that it attracted. Among the people who studied there were Bob de Moor, Jacques Martin, Roger Leloup, and Edgar P. Jacobs, all of whom exhibit the easily recognizable Belgian clean line style, often opposed to the "Marcinelle school"-style, mostly proposed by authors from the Spirou magazine, such as Franquin, Peyo and Morris.
Many other magazines did not survive the war: Le Petit Vingtième had disappeared, Le Journal de Mickey only returned in 1952. But in the second half of the 1940s, many new magazines appeared, in most cases only for a few weeks or months though. But things got clearer around 1950, with Spirou and the new magazine Tintin (founded in 1946 with a team focused around Hergé) as the most influential and successful magazines for the next decade.
With a number of publishers in place, including Les Editions Dargaud and Dupuis, two of the biggest influences for over 50 years, the market for domestic comics had reached maturity. In the following decades, magazines like Spirou, Tintin, Vaillant, Pilote, and Heroïc Albums (the first to feature completed stories in each issue, as opposed to the episodic approach of other magazines) would continue to evolve into the style we now know. At this time, the school had already gained fame throughout Europe, and many countries had started importing the comics in addition to—or as substitute for—their own productions.
In the sixties, most of the French Catholic magazines started to wane in popularity, as they were "re-christianized" and went to a more traditional style with more text and fewer drawings. This meant that in France, comics like Pilote and Vaillant gained almost the entire market and became the obvious goal for new artists, who took up the styles prevalent in the magazines to break into the business.
The time after 1968 brought many adult comic books, something previously not seen before. L'Écho des Savanes with Gotlib's crazed delirium of deities watching pornography and Bretécher's Les Frustrés ("The Frustrated Ones") were among the earliest. Le Canard Sauvage ("The Wild Duck"), an art-zine featuring music reviews and comics was another. Métal Hurlant with the far-reaching science fiction and fantasy of Mœbius, Druillet, and Bilal, made an impact in America in its translated edition, Heavy Metal. This trend continued during the seventies, until the original Métal Hurlant folded in the early eighties, living on only in the American edition (which had in the meantime become independent from its French language parent), although some would argue that it is only a shadow of the original.
The eighties showed the adult comics getting somewhat stale, wallowing in sex and violence (examples of which can be seen in Heavy Metal magazines from the period). A major counterexample was the very stylish (À Suivre), publishing comics by Jacques Tardi, Hugo Pratt, François Schuiten and many others, and popularizing the concept of the graphic novel as a longer, more adult, more literate and artistic comic in Europe. A further revival and expansion came in the 1990s with several small independent publishers emerging, such as l'Association, Amok, Fréon (The latter two later merged into Frémok). These comic books are often more artistic (graphically and narratively) and better packaged than the usual products of the big companies.
La bande dessinée is derived from the original description of the artform as "drawn strips". It is not insignificant that the French term contains no indication of subject matter, unlike the American terms "comics" and "funnies", which imply an art form not to be taken seriously. Indeed, the distinction of comics as the "ninth art" is prevalent in Francophone scholarship on the form (le neuvième art), as is the concept of comics criticism and scholarship itself. The "ninth art" designation stems from Claude Beylie's extension of Ricciotto Canudo's seven arts manifesto (television was viewed as the eighth art) from 1964. Relative to the respective size of their countries, the innumerable authors in the region publish huge numbers of comic books. In North America, the more serious, Franco-Belgian comics are often seen as equivalent to graphic novels, for various reasons, but whether they are long or short, bound or in magazine format, in Francophone Europe there is no need for a more sophisticated term, as the art's name does not itself imply something frivolous.