The Franco-Belgian school of comics is one of the most recognizable and famous styles in the medium today. There are two main styles within the school; the realistic style of the likes of Hergé and the comic-dynamic style of the likes of Franquin.
But first, let us delve into the long and odd history of the mid-European comics-scene. In the early decades of the 20th century, comics were not stand-alone publications, but were published in newspapers and 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 1920, the abbot of Averbode in Belgium, started publishing Petits Belges, a magazine consisting largely of text with few illustrations.
One of the earliest proper Belgian comics were Tintin, with the story Tintin in the Land of the Soviets which was published in Le Petit Vingtième in 1930. It was quite different from how we have come to know Tintin, the style being very naïve and simple compared to the later stories.
The first nudge towards modern comic books happened in 1934 when Hungarian Paul Winkler (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 "comic-book," in fact, the first real comic-book ever.
The success was quite immediate, and soon all the other publishers would start churning out periodicals with American series. This continued during the remainder of the decade, with hundreds of magazines publishing mostly imported material.
So now you're asking, wasn't this about the Franco-Belgian school of comics and not the American? Well, yes. You see, when Germany invaded France and Belgium, it became close to impossible to import American comics. Likewise, comics of more questionable (to the national-socialists) nature was outright banned.
Of course, the demand was still there, and the previously exclusively French or Flemish comics had scrambled to get new material. For example, Edgar Pierre Jacobs (who later did Blake et Mortimer) had to finish an episode of Flash Gordon in the Belgian magazine Bravo, making up an entirely improvised ending. Likewise, Jacques Laudy, Raymond Reding, Albert Uderzo, and Willy Wandersteen got their start in Bravo.
Spirou had also started shortly before the war, and was one of the few magazines to survive the changing conditions. Despite being outlawed for long periods by the Germans and having a hard time finding paper, they managed to publish a collection in 1944.
After the war, the American comics didn't come back in nearly as large numbers as before. Interestingly, a lot of the publishers and artists who had managed to continue working during the occupation were accused of being collaborators and were enjailed by the freedom fighters.
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 backup 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, changing the line to a more humorous direction.
Hergé was another artist to be prosecuted by the freedom fighters. He, as most others, got off the hook, though, 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 Pierre Jacobs, all of whom exhibit the easily recognizable Belgian clean line style.
With a number of publishers in place, including Les Editions Dargaud & 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, Le Petit Vingtième, Vaillant, Pilote, and Heroïc Albums (the first to feature completed stories in each issue, as opposed to the episodical 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.
Let's take a break for a little anecdote on how the Belgian Peyo came up with his smurfs. In the summer of 1957, he was eating dinner with Franquin and said "pass me the smurf," to which Franquin replied, "there you are, and when you finish smurfing, resmurf it to me." This little play on words and the later inclusion of the little creatures in his then main project Johan et Pirluit created one of the most recognizable figures in the genre.
In the sixties, most of the catholic magazines started to wane in popularity, as they were "re-christianized" and went to a more traditional style with more text and less drawings. This meant that 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 magazine to break an entry.
The time after 1968 brought many adult comic books, something that hadn't been seen before. l'Écho des Savannes with Gotlib's crazed delirium of deities watching porn and Bretécher's Les Frustrés ("The Frustrated Ones"). Le Canard Sauvage ("The Mad Duck"), an art-zine featuring music reviews and comics. Métal Hurlant with the far-reaching science fiction and fantasy of Moebius, Druillet, and Bilal. This trend continued during the seventies, until Métal Hurlant caved in the early eighties.
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). The revival came in the nineties with several small publishers emerging, such as l'Association, Amok, and Fréon.
Vaillant was another magazine emerging from the post-war rubble. It had been published during the war, but until issue 30, it was a strictly text publication. On May 19, 1945, the first illustrated issue was released. Vaillant was released by the French communist party, and could of course not have American capitalist comics. Thus, French artists were assigned, but as the workload was huge at the time, they were told to rip off American comics, ironically.
In 1969, Vaillant changed name to Pif Gadget, named after the character Pif and the little toy usually stuck on the front page. The format changed as well, going to ended stories, and getting new artists. This made the magazine somewhat contrasting, with the emotive and beautiful Corto Maltese on one side, and the bland Loup Noir ("Black Wolf") on the other.
Another influential magazine, Pilote, was started in 1959 by René Goscinny, Albert Uderzo and Jean-Michel Charlier. The high standards set by comics such as Blueberry, Lucky Luke, Iznogoud, Asterix, and Valérian, it quickly became the ruler by which others measured. Later, Claire Bretécher, Gotlib, Nikita Mandryka, and many others joined the magazine, upping the ante and adding a satiric slant to the lineup.
In May 1968, during the students' revolution, the artists of Pilote striked. Goscinny, the main editor, threatened to leave, but was eventually convinced to stay. However, in 1972 it was threatened again. Bretécher, Gotlib and Mandryka left to start l'Écho des Savannes, protesting Goscinnys censorship. They felt the magazine should be an adult magazine, not the youth magazine Goscinny preferred.
A couple of years later, in 1975, Jean Giraud, Philippe Druillet, Jacques Tardi and others left to create Métal Hurlant (Heavy Metal), sucking even more artists from Pilote. Now Goscinny wanted out for real, and so did Charlier and Uderzo, finally being able to extract their characters in 1977, when Goscinny died.
The near-empty Pilote turned into a monthly magazine instead of being weekly, and the remaining artists with a few new ones, reshaped the magazine. The new names, Caza, Lauzier, Bilal and F'Murr turned the magazine into a much more adult one, with many stories involving sex or other such "adult" subjects.
One of the other interesting things to come from the war was the format. Before the war, comics were almost exclusively published as tabloid size newspapers. Now, they were sized about half that, which is incredibly more handy. The comics are almost always colored all the way through, and, when compared to American comics, rather large (roughly A4 standard).
Comics are also often published as collected albums, with about 40-50 pages, after the run is finished in the magazine. Lately, most comics are published exclusively as albums and do not appear in the magazines at all. (Many magazines have disappeared, sadly including greats like Métal Hurlant and Pilote.)
There are two distinct styles within the school:
- The Realistic:
As mentioned, late Tintin is a classic example of the realistic style. The comics are often laborously detailed, making the pictures interesting to look at for times on end. Another trait is the often "slow" drawings, with little to no speed-lines, and strokes that are almost completely even. It is also known as the Belgian clean line style. This was exhibited in magazines like Vaillant, Tintin, and Métal Hurlant.
- The Comic-Dynamic:
This is the almost Barksian line of Franquin and Uderzo. Pilote is almost exclusively comic-dynamic, and so is Spirou and l'Écho des Savannes. These comics have very agitated drawings, often using lines of varying thickness to accent the drawings.
The newer comics don't really fall into the old styles, and have evolved into something completely different. The old artist who pioneered the school are getting old and retiring, so who knows what will come next? I can't wait to see!
Some important works: (there are many more, so if you think I left one out, throw me a line)
Some important artists and writers: (there are many more, and if you think someone deserves to be on the list, you know what to do)
Sources: Kulørte Sider issue 41 (October, 1981), BDParadisio.com, google, smurf bit is from Turkish Daily News February 14, 1999. And let's not forget the lovely people of e2comix (especially Linca who reminded me of several things that I forgot!).