France has given us many things. Some of the greatest philosophers minted in the last few centuries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Wine and a wonderful cuisine. Ladurée.
But this culture, famous (to some, infamous) for its linguistic and cultural confidence, has also brought us some of the most interesting work in visual storytelling. French comics and graphic novels appear at a pretty consistent rate, everything from political satire to day-in-the-life stories to works of sweeping magnificence that could only come out of the intersection of so many threads of European history, language and thought.
Satirical bandes dessinées (“drawn strips”) began appearing in France in newspapers and pamphlets in the 19th Century, featuring caricatures of political and cultural figures with captions somehow integrated into the drawing, commenting on the action or representing speech.
For me, an interesting twist to the story of French comics is the forms they took around World War II, in (and after) the time of the Nazi invasion. During this period, American comics were completely banned, as were titles with subject matter the Nazis deemed lacking in character. The surest way to popularize anything among the French is to ban it. The development of a uniquely French quality to comics, including experiments in form around the combination of words and images, has stayed with French artists working in the medium even today.
Compare and contrast with what happened with Japanese comics, which are considered to have started in their present form in the 30s, greatly inspired by the work of Walt Disney. During anti-American wartime among the Axis powers, Japanese comics developed many of the unique characteristics that today distinguish manga and anime from other comics forms around the world.
Given the prolific nature of all things French and literary, there are many comics and graphic novels to look at in this area. I want to focus on one.
My first encounter with comics coming out of a French sensibility is Goscinny and Underzo’s Asterix series. Like my beloved Tintin (which, though originally published in the French language, is Belgian in origin, emphatically not French), this series of 34 books has been published all over the world-it has been translated into over a hundred languages in its long history of publication-and is consumed by kids on every continent. In my case, it was the subcontinent. The series first appeared in 1959 in the French magazine Pilote.
Since then, 325 million copies of the books have been sold worldwide. Unfortunately, many of the puns and cultural references in Asterix don’t work especially well in Hindi, nor would they in most non-Romance languages, but the characters are endearing and the story lines easy to follow.
The main plot of Asterix concerns a small village of Gauls, the Celtic forebears of the modern French people, resisting the tyranny of Roman occupation in the time of Julius Caesar. Setting the story in a Gaulish village is both a declaration of pride in the roots of French society and character (you guessed it, the scrappy Gauls always win in the end) and a funny way of looking at the provincial basis of a culture that came to dominate European thought. Life in Asterix’s village is idyllic, made up of sweet moments in a framework where everyone knows his place, from the hilarious chieftain Vitalstatistix, to the druid Getafix.
This druid forms a key element in the Asterix stories: using his mystical knowledge (complete with golden sickle and mistletoe), he brews a magic potion that, when imbibed, gives the user superhuman strength. Little Asterix, with his winged helmet, superpowers himself with the potion, decimating legions of Roman soldiers and other antagonists with cheerful efficiency.
Asterix’s best friend, Obelix (who works on menhirs, which are large stone megaliths), is also gifted with super strength, having been dumped in a cauldron of the potion at birth. He has a huge appetite to match, devouring entire feasts of roasted boars. Asterix and Obelix are accompanied everywhere by Dogmatix, a tiny mutt that follows them around everywhere they go and, like his fellow villagers, thinks of himself as much bigger and more powerful than he appears.
Some of the best episodes of the series involve our two heroes (and occasionally their companions) venturing out of their little village and into other territories, as far away as Egypt, where they encounter Cleopatra, to the very heart of the Roman Empire. Their friendly ignorance and their steely resolve not to be oppressed by an invader always result in their victory, with various adventures and misadventures along the way. Somehow, the exotic locales never ultimately tempt them to broaden their horizons more than necessary, and they return happily to their village and the simplicity of Gaulish life.
One of my favorite elements of all the stories, whether they took place in the confines of the unnamed village or far away: the great feasts that were held to commemorate Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix successfully concluding some campaign or other-most featuring the tin-eared bard Cacofonix tied up in a tree, so that his awful music wouldn’t spoil the revels.
For a culture that’s undertaken so much introspection, there is something refreshing about this portrayal of the roots of its national character. I highly recommend these books-pick them up when you have a chance. They’re fun for kids, with their bright colors and slapstick humor, but even more fun for adults who can appreciate the puns and cultural, historical, and political references.