Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Brussels Comics

After the iconic Mannekin Pis sculpture, another major cultural influence that seems to define Brussels is Belgian comics.  Even more so than in Antwerp, Brussels has a strong affiliation with comics, with over 40 full-scale murals of popular comics gracing the sides of buildings throughout central Brussels, and more in the suburbs.  In addition, Brussels is home to the Belgian Comics Strip Centre, a large and comprehensive museum covering the history of comics including current works, focusing mainly on Belgian as well as a few French artists.  At least from a North American perspective, the most famous Belgian comics series must be the Adventures of TinTin by Hergé (a.k.a. Georges Remi).  The TinTin mural was the first one that we found, located prominently in the midst of the busiest tourist area, just across from the Mannekin Pis fountain.  A few blocks from there was “La Boutique TinTin” where you could buy postcards, drawings, toys, mugs, and clothing.  I’m not sure if I’m doing it on purpose subconsciously, but for the fourth European trip in a row, I misjudged the weather and did not pack enough warm clothing.  While in our home swap in Antwerp, I was able to borrow a sweater from our hosts, but now that we had left the home swap on our final leg in Brussels, I decided once again (like the other 3 times) to buy a sweater.  To my delight, a pretty green knit sweater with an embroidered logo of Tintin was on sale for only 12 Euros, so I snapped it up.  I was warm and also had a nice souvenir.

The Belgian Comics Strip Centre is located in the former Waucquez Department Store designed in 1905 by the famous Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta (whose house and museum we would be visiting on a later date).  We spotted the first exhibit on the street at the top of a flight of stairs leading down towards the comics museum.  It was a giant sculpture of the titular character from the comics Gaston, a lazy and accident-prone office worker with his black and white cat by his side.  Inside the museum, we admired the Art Nouveau lobby with the glass and ironwork in the ceiling, and Art Nouveau features in the lamp stands and railings.  Several more large-scale sculptures were on display in the lobby as teasers for what was to come upstairs.  These included 7-year-old Boule, his dog Bill and their red Citroen CV car, cowboy Lucky Luke and his horse Jolly Jumper, a sculpture of TinTin positioned next to a photograph of Hergé, as well as the red and white rocket ship from one of TinTin’s adventures, and to my surprise, a character from the Smurfs, which I didn’t know was a Belgian comics series.

The museum starts with a bit of history about comics in a permanent exhibit called "The Invention of the Comic Strip".  There is a reference to Christian monks from the Middle Ages who reproduced sacred texts of their religion, embellishing them with colourful illustrations, dividing the story into panels and conveying dialogues in balloons.  Another pre-cursor to the advent of the comic strip was the political satire cartoons such as one that showed the British and French carving up Europe like a Thanksgiving turkey.  Cartoon characters were also used to decorate commercial products like calendars, as shown by one from 1906.

We are given a definition of the “comic strip” followed by some of the earliest examples.  According to the write-up in the exhibit, a comic strip is “a series of images incorporating a scenario which forms a narrative”.  The Yellow Kid is an American comic strip created by Richard Outcault between 1895 to 1898 about a good-natured, bald, toothy, barefoot boy wearing an oversized yellow night shirt who speaks in slang.  Set in the slums of New York, the comic strip used humour and social commentary to comment on class and racial tensions and was published in newspapers owned by the two major news moguls, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.  Created by Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1926) is also an American comic strip  which depicts the fantastical dreams of the titular character before he wakes up in the final frame.  One such scenario includes his bed coming to life and taking him for a stroll.  A reproduction of Little Nemo’s bed is on display in the museum.  In 1914, McCay also created one of the first animated films, Gertie the Dinosaur, which lay the groundwork for modern day cinematic animation.

A large section of the museum called “The Art of The Comic Strip” is devoted to detailing the steps involved in creating and publishing comic strips or comic books.  An author (who may or may not be the same person as the illustrator) creates a synopsis and scenario, which is then passed on to the illustrator or artist.  Rough pencil sketches are made to create a story board that delineates the panels and speech bubbles.  From the storyboard, the actual drawings are made using inking, colouring and graphics techniques.  Multiple examples are shown of an artist’s rough sketch, displayed next to the final drawing.  If this is a black and white comic strip, issues such as lighting, contrast and shadow need to be taken into consideration.  For coloured comics, several methods are discussed for painting with watercolour onto printed or scanned images, followed by final online touch-ups using a computer program such as Photoshop.  Also discussed are the concepts of cover design for comic books and steps required for publishing.

Next came examples of different types or genres of Comics and I was surprised by how many were listed.  These included drawing styles such as Realistic, Graphic Novel or Expressionist, topical genres such as Humorous, Educational, Historic, Science Fiction, Heroic, Gothic, Political, Family, Animals and target audiences ranging from young children to adolescent to adult comics.  It was very interesting comparing the look and feel of the various genres as well as the subject matter and tone.

After our tour through the history and technical aspects of comics, we were treated to in-depth looks at some of the more popular Belgian comics.  My favourite is based on a character called Boerke in Dutch and Dickie in English, created by Pieter de Poortere.  This dumpy, semi-bald sad-sack everyman with the little black moustache has tough luck in everything that he attempts. While he was originally depicted as a farmer wearing overalls, he later becomes a stand-in for a variety of historic or otherwise well-known characters. In general, there is no dialogue in the 9-12 paneled scenes, relying instead on visually depicted humorous situations.  This makes Boerke much more accessible and universally appealing since there is no language barrier to understanding the joke.   In addition to the comic strips, de Poortere recreated a series of famous paintings and inserted Boerke into them.  So in the rendering of Eugène Delacroix's 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People, there is Boerke to the left of the man in the black coat and top hat.

De Poortere also made a series of “Where’s Waldo” styled cartoons where Boerke is hidden amongst a large scene involving many other characters.  The cartoonist recreated scenes from famous situations such as the sinking of the Titanic, the Tsunami in Thailand, and the trenches from a World War II battle.  Another one of these cartoons that paid tribute the world of comics, featuring many of the items in the Belgian Comics Strip Centre including TinTin, his rocket, a Smurf, Lucky Luke and Gertie the Dinosaur, as well as other iconic comics characters from around the world including Hagar the Terrible, Asterix and Obelix, Superman, Astroboy, Mickey Mouse, Maus from the famous graphic novel, and many more characters that I didn’t easily recognize.  It was such fun closely inspecting these drawings as well as the ones that spoofed famous art, in order to spot Boerke or just to take in all the detail.

The largest exhibit of course was for Hergé’s TinTin comics, which the museum was originally going to be dedicated solely to, before Hergé himself convinced the other stakeholders to expand the museum’s focus to the entire Belgian Comics industry.  Several plaques provided quite a good explanation about the appeal of the TinTin character, a red-headed teenager with a tuft of hair that sticks straight up in the air who travels the world as a reporter and adventurer.  Very few lines or details are used in drawing TinTin and his face is usually relatively expressionless, allowing him to be a stand-in for the reader.  Meanwhile his innumerable costumes and disguises lets him take on any role, nationality or occupation.  Accordingly, as the exhibit puts it, Tintin is nobody and everyman at the same time.  Tintin’s exploits include chasing thieves and spies, flying a plane, riding a motorcycle and a horse, deep-sea diving, swashbuckling and even traveling to the moon.

Tintin interacts with a slew of other friends and adversaries.  His closest companions are his little white dog aptly named Snowy and the volatile seafaring Captain Haddock.  Tintin also frequently encounters the absent-minded Professor Calculus, the bumbling police detectives Thompson and Thomson, and the opera singer Bianca Castafiore.  Some of his adversaries include the evil Rastapopoulos and Doctor Mueller.  A comprehensive chart maps out all the characters and which TinTin comic books they appear in.  There were 24 comic albums published between 1929-1976 in 70 different languages with over 200 million copies sold.   The stories span many genres with elements of fantasy, mystery, political thrillers, and science fiction, often providing satire and political or cultural commentary.

The other major exhibit was dedicated to the Smurfs, a colony of little blue creatures wearing white cone-shaped hats, who live in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest, in a world of sorcerers and dragons.  Created by Belgian artist Peyo (Pierre Culliford) in 1959, there are over 100 Smurf characters mostly named after personality traits such as Jokey, Dreamy, Grouchy, Lazy, Brainy, Greedy or professions such as Farmer, Poet, Barber, Doctor, Tailor, etc.  They are led by Papa Smurf (the only one dressed in red, with a white beard) and for a while, the sole female character Smurfette (with long blond locks and wearing a dress).  The Smurfs’ main enemies are Gargamel, the evil wizard who wants to use them in an alchemist process that changes metals into gold, and Gargamel’s cat Azarel, who just wants to eat them.  The Smurfs first appeared as part of a plot in one of Peyo’s previous comic strips, Johan and Peewit, but quickly became more popular than the source material, especially in North America.  The Smurfs have been portrayed in comic books, movies, TV series, merchandising, theme parks, video games, music recordings and more.

The top floor of the Belgian Comics Strip Centre concentrated on the merchandising of comic books or albums, providing examples of current titles and describing the various factors and considerations involved in creating a finished product.   This includes tips for the design of the front cover including the content and layout of images and text that lead the eyes from left to right to encourage the book to be opened, and providing imagery that piques the reader’s interest without giving away the plot.  Also considered are the use of colours, lighting, positioning of the title and authors names, typography including font size, and style, the role of the publisher and marketing strategies.

We ate lunch at Brasserie Horta, the beautiful designed Art Nouveau bistro located inside the Belgian Comic Strip Centre.  The entrance way is decorated with a cut-out of the comics character Spirou, a bellhop and elevator operator created by French cartoonist Robert Velter in 1938.  Open since 1906 as part of the original department store,  the eatery provides further examples of Victor Horta’s design including more ornate ironwork and cornices at the top of the supporting beams.  Cartoon sketches cover the walls of the second floor en route to the toilets.

The ground floor was decorated with Victor Horta’s sketches of his building design including the majestic, ornate staircase and elaborate ceiling found in the lobby, as well as several large cartoon paintings.  Our place mats were whimsically covered with Smurfs.  Traditional Belgian fare was available on the menu.  I ordered an asparagus soup and cheese fritters while Rich had smoked salmon on toast.  It was a nice way to end our visit to the museum.

In addition to the titles that we had seen in the museum exhibits, the souvenir shop in the Belgian Comic Strip Centre contained some interesting books including comics about Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and even Weegee, the New York crime photographer of the 1930s and 40s.  Tintin books were available in a multitude of languages including ones featuring Chinese characters.  There were so many miniatures and figures in the gift shop that we dropped our plans to next visit MOOF, the Museum of Original Figurines.

Instead we spent more time walking around the downtown streets of Brussels looking for more comics murals.  It was like a bit of a treasure hunt since we didn’t have a comprehensive map of where the murals were, like we did in Antwerp.  Whenever we did find a mural, there would be a small map underneath that showed which other murals were in the vicinity.  But there were no street names shown on the maps so we had to figure out where they were relative to where we currently were.  Amongst others, we found the mural for Lucky Luke, and many more that we did not recognize including “Oliver Rameau and friends”, “Nero and friends”.  We did find a large mural of Asterix and Obelix, which I guess are still popular in Belgium even though it is a French comic strip. One of my favourite cartoons seemed to be a graffiti drawing as opposed to an officially sponsored cartoon mural.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful travel blog and I'm very glad to have found you. I'll also be following your Retired at 48 blog as my husband and I read through your book and continue to plan our own retirement. We are Canadian and living in Ottawa and hadn't planned to retire here as it is quite expensive but Toronto is much more so, so we are inspired by your ability to retire early and still live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada. Looking forward to reading all of your fabulously detailed travel posts :)