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  1. #1
    Modus omnibus in rebus Roquefort Raider's Avatar
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    Default Classic European comics

    France and Belgium have a long tradition of excellent comics, not all of which are that well known in the Anglo-Saxon world. This tradition is built partly on a very old legacy of illustration (who hasn't been awed by the work of Gustave Doré?), but also on the very fortunate encounter between American and European sensibilities when the art of the bande dessinée was being set up in the first half of the XXth century.

    During WWII and the German occupation, American comic strips were obviously banned in occupiued Europe. Many future greats provided their own versions of Tarzan or Flash Gordon, honing their skills for what was to come later. A few years later, creators like Goscinny, Morris or Mézières would spend considerable time in the U.S. (Mézières was a cowboy in Utah!); meanwhile, people like Albert Uderzo would change a Walt Disney-looking style into their own.

    A big difference between the Franco-Belgian comics and American ones is that the former were not distributed as a periodical pamphlet. For many decades, they were serialized in weekly journals (Coeurs Vaillants, Pif, Mickey, Tintin, Spirou, Pilote). They were also frequently not meant as pure entertainment; Coeurs Vaillants, for example, was a catholic publication and it's not surprising that the stories it featured would contain some didactic or moralistic material (and that's not necessarily a bad thing)! The stories would later be collected in books, usually hardcovers, which means Franco-Belgian comics were early on trated as "real" books and available in regular bookstores. This granted them a certain respectability and a wider readership than if they had been confined to specialty shops.

    In this thread, I will cover series that are maybe not as widely known as they deserve (or just some tat I find cool). With the advent of new technology that makes dissemination of printed work easier, maybe they'll all be available in several languages some day.

    The first one is a historical series going back to 1948 : Alix. It depicts the many adventures of a young man during the last days of the Roman Republic, which serves as a very rich background and an endless source of revoltin' developments!

    Alix was born in Gaul, and as a small boy ended up in the eastern part of the Roman world. (Alix' father was a soldier in a Gallic corps fighting the Parthians for Rome; of his mother we know nothing). Captured and orphaned at a young age, he was a slave to the Parthians in Khorsabad until the city fell to the Romans.



    This is the first images from my 1956 copy of Alix l'intrépide, the beginning of the series. The art is still a bit stiff, very classical-looking, but we can see that much research has been invested in getting the architecture, the clothes and the uniforms right. The plot is a little Ben-Hur (well... make that a LOT Ben-Hur) but since that's before the Charlton Heston movie I'm sure that can be forgiven.

    Alix would be adopted by a respectable Roman in this story and so become a Roman citizen. He'd also gain the friendship and gratitude of Caesar, who was getting ready for what would be the siege of Alesia (and the final conquest of Gaul).
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  2. #2
    Modus omnibus in rebus Roquefort Raider's Avatar
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    The Alix series is now more than 60 years old. Its creator, Jacques Martin, belongs to the clean line school that prevailed in the 40s and 50s and his studio formed generations of talented creators (some of whom continued the series after Martin reduced his own contribution for reasons of age).

    As with many such long-lived series, quality would vary depending on the period studied. The first 30 years (which is REALLY impressive!!!) deserve to be read by everyone, as they give a fun and instructive view of the Roman world circa 50 BC. Historical events are often the starting point of an adventure, even if they happened a long time before 50 BC. For example, in the story "the lost legions", reference is made to Brennus' siege of Rome in 390 BC. (That's the famous episode of the capitol geese)!



    And why deny us the pleasure of a famous citation or two?

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    Modus omnibus in rebus Roquefort Raider's Avatar
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    Later books (say, from the 80s to today) underwent the same process as series such as the Fantastic Four : a few attempts to re-use an old successful plot or old characters; sending the characters in places they haven't been before; resurrecting past popular villains... That's why I consider the "essential" period of Alix to have ended in the 70s.

    But what a period that was, stretching from the late 40s to the 70s. The art, for starters, got better and better... it really conveyed a sense of authenticity, as in this view of Rome :



    Careful research also gave rise to interesting parenthese, as in this example where a character explains the evolution of the Ammon-Moloch-Baal divinities in the near east (and segues into the siege of Carthage by its own mercenaries at the end of the first Punic war)!

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    Modus omnibus in rebus Roquefort Raider's Avatar
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    Classic scenes from literature were also frequently depicted. The fall of Alesia and the surrender of Vercingetorix in the second graphic novel; the terrible scene of the Carthaginians immolating their own children to their god Moloch-Baal (also seen in Gustave Faubert's novel Salammbo).

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    Modus omnibus in rebus Roquefort Raider's Avatar
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    The series reached truly epic levels from time to time, as in the book "The last Spartan" (that's more a graphic opera than a graphic novel)!

    Here we learn that after the fall of Greece to the Romans, a fortified city of Spartans continued living in secrecy, preserving their independence, and sometimes capturing shipwrecked travelers to use as slaves.



    To save his young ward, Alix will infiltrate the city but end up captured. His relation with the city's queen will be ambiguous and tragic. She respects his courage and honesty and wishes him to act as her son's teacher; at the same time, she fears him because in a dream she saw he would doom her city. (At the same time, she suspects he may be the only one who can save her son should her dream proves true).

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    Alix is torn between his word to the queen and his responsibility to his ward and the other slaves of the city (most of them Roman citizens). When escaped slaves manage to bring back a Roman army to besiege the city, the slaves are marked for death and the die is cast; Alix leads a revolt.



    The Spartans are no match for the invading army, but rather than be defeated, the queen and her guard prefer to perish with their city -after the queen asks Alix to see after her son.

    This is drama with a capital D, here. Wagnerian stuff.





    The series was adapted as a TV cartoon, with fairly faithful adaptations. I'm afraid however that there's no way a typical TV animation can do justice to Martin's lush and expansive decors.

    A great series, well worth reading.
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  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roquefort Raider View Post
    A great series, well worth reading.


    Looks nice Roquefort Raider, but has that particular comic ever been translated into English? If not, I won't be "reading" it any time soon I’m afraid.

    The art-style and general page layout kinda reminds me of the historical and educational comics that they used to sell in places like Woolworths here in England back in the late-70s/early-80s. It's possible that these were English reprints of these sorts of Franco-Belgian comics.
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    These comics are nicely done. But I agree with The Confessor, they seem to be rather dry and educational in nature... which really isn't a bad thing in and of itself. It's just that the art sometimes suffers in such undertakings. Overall, they remind me of some of those Classics Illustrated titles that were so popular here in the US many years ago.

    As you say, "... the art is still a bit stiff, very classical-looking..." and unfortunately I feel this is somewhat of an understatement (although personally I wouldn't mind being able to draw like this myself ).
    Last edited by Drusilla lives!; 08-23-2009 at 11:57 AM.

  9. #9
    Modus omnibus in rebus Roquefort Raider's Avatar
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    *Hem*, yes, maybe I would have been better advised to conclude "well worth translating" rather than "reading" (the point of this thread being series that aren't readily availabl in the English-speaking word)!

    The ever helpful Wikipedia tells us the following regarding English translations, and it's not encouraging:

    Quote Originally Posted by Wikipedia
    Alix has seen little translation into English. In 1971 the London publisher Ward Lock & Co issued two titles, The Sacred Helmet (La tiare d'Oribal), and The Black Claw (La griffe noire). These books are now considered relatively rare. Two more titles, The Lost Legions (Les légions perdues), and The Altar of Fire (Le dernier Spartiate) were also projected for publication that year, but never appeared. A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement found Alix singularly lacking in humour compared to Asterix, effectively killing prospects for continued publication in a market not yet acculurated to the wider Franco-Belgian tradition.
    Sadly, I've seen more Alix books in latin than in English.

    An important difference between this series and the Classics Illustrated is that the latter often had an awful lot of expository text, paralleling the images but not being really integrated. They had the distinct feel of a product assembled with one goal in sight : make classic texts more readily available to a young public, not tell a great comic-book story.

    The stiffness of the ligne claire style, I believe, is not a bug but a feature; it's typical of the "realistic" strips of that period (as opposed to the humor strips, where exaggerated anatomy, movement lines and a greater suppleness of the brush were allowed). A Roman in Asterix will not look like a Roman in Alix! That being said, what it loses in dynamism, this style will compensate for in realism. These Romans I could take seriously! The same holds true for strips like Blake & Mortimer, where even the most outlandish scripts were somehow made more believable by a subdued and restrained artwork.

    Cheers!

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  10. #10
    Senior Member Gamiel's Avatar
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    I have read one of Alix's adventures that were translated to Swedish. I found it rather good.
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  11. #11
    *blink* Chris N's Avatar
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    Awesome! My experience with European comics is sadly lacking and it's nice to get some exposure.

    Thanks for this, Ben!
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    Gorgeous looking thread you've got here RR.

    I wish half the Classics Illustrated I own looked so good. Even though my French is not as spectacular as this art, the pictures speak clearly enough. That Chaldean/Assyrian arch and that secret Spartan temple are knockouts. Sure it's not Kirby-style, but there is room for a universe of "languages" in the funny book world.

    I envy your familiarity with this "secret" corner of the comic book world.

  13. #13
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    I grew up reading Alix in Danish. Great series for kids in the age 8-17.

    The pages shown may give the impression of being dry and educational. It's not. It's an action series for kids, and actually a rather good one. Often in European comics, when the story requires knowledge you wouldn't expect readers to have, a bit of space is used for explanation, just like you often see it done in novels. A typical story like Alix is around 45 pages long in album format, so you have the time and space for this, contrary to e.g. a standard U.S. comic book with 21 pages.
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    Modus omnibus in rebus Roquefort Raider's Avatar
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    I'm glad Alix got exposure in other European countries. As Pil observes, it's a good adventure series for young readers and makes learning about history painless! (Before the standard format was reduced to 46 pages, the earliest books had 64... which gave the creators even more room for the plot and background info)!

    B-dot, having access to both American and Franco-Belgian comics certainly is one of the perks of living in Quebec. But I wish we had more stuff from the Philippines or Argentina!

    Next on the list : Lucky Luke.
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    Modus omnibus in rebus Roquefort Raider's Avatar
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    The comic-book world has its famous creators, and then it has its gods... the creators who were so amazingly good that they changed the way comics were made for one or more generations. The kind of people who eventually have a prize named after them.

    One such creator in France was René Goscinny, who among other things was the co-creator of Asterix with artist Albert Uderzo.

    Goscinny was a very, very funny man. A very cultivated one too, but not one to flaunt his culture as an esthete snob; he was one to revel in the sheer fun of it. Hence the brilliance of Asterix, which can be read at many levels and be as much fun for adults as it is for kids.

    Goscinny was the driving force behind the journal Pilote, where strips such as Lt. Blueberry and Valérian would push the limit of what a comic-strip was supposed to be like.

    While he did not create Lucky Luke, he certainly hepled make it the sucess it is still today.

    Lucky Luke was created by Maurice de Bevère, better known as Morris, in 1946. Morris was a big fan of American animation, which is obvious in his early art. He lived for a while in the US where he met Harvey Kurtzmann, and was there when MAD was born.



    The early adventures of Lucky Luke, "the man who shoots faster than his own shadow", were aimed at a very young audience. The very first were very much in the tradition of Popeye or Disney, with a dynamic visual humor and simple backgrounds.

    The series would take a brief detour in a more serious direction for a few books, but returned to humor with the arrival of Goscinny in 1955. And a damn funny book it became, in the Asterix tradition (only in the old west).

    The premise is simple: Lucky Luke is a poor lonesome cowboy, and he travels the west catching crooks and highwaymen and basically exploring western folklore. He would meet such characters as Jesse James, Billy the kid, Black Bart, emperor Smith, judge Roy Bean... and of course his recurrent nemese, the Daltons. He would be there for the Oklahoma rush, for the discovery of oil in Texas, for the race between the two railroad companies that tried to cross the country... Lots of history to cover in those old U.S. of A.!
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