Friday, September 3, 2010

Ten notable Belgian comics

You can read part 2 in this series here.

Comics have a prominent place in Belgian culture. Just as Belgians love to read Scandinavian mystery novels, so are Belgian comics exported all over the world, sometimes making it as far as the Arctic Circle and beyond. As an introduction to the topic, I've composed a list of ten highlights from the Belgian comics industry.

1. The Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs, Peyo, 1958)

A typical Smurf.
The Smurfs are a race of tiny blue people who live inside mushroom houses in a magical forest. They solve everyday and supernatural problems with wisdom and cooperation, all the while cramming their favorite word smurf into as many sentences as they can.

The Smurfs' success across various media is second to none. They can be found in movies, cartoons, television ads, as parade balloons and on cereal boxes, to mention only a few. (Smurf pasta, anyone?)

Internationally, The Smurfs are best-known for the 1981-89 Hanna-Barbera cartoon series:

2. The Adventures of Tintin (Les Aventures de Tintin, Hergé, 1929)

Tintin and his dog, Snowy.
Tintin is a journalist and adventurer who appeared in The Adventures of Tintin between 1929 and 1976. He travels around the world solving mysteries, discovering legendary places and helping his friends.

Pure-hearted, clean-shaven and adventurous, Tintin has become one of the most beloved comic book characters throughout the world. Hergé's comic has influenced not only other comics but also people such as pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. You can find shops exclusively devoted to Tintin merchandise in Bruges, Brussels, Montpellier, and London.

In 1991, the second and best-known cartoon series adaption of the Tintin books was created. As with the Smurfs, it attracted hordes of new followers to the series that gave Hergé his place among the greatest comics artists of the Western world. This is a clip from the series:

A motion capture 3-D film based on The Adventures of Tintin, produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Stephen Spielberg, will be released next year.

3. Spirou and Fantasio (Spirou et Fantasio, Franquin, 1946)

Vito la Déveine (1991) by Tome & Janry
The character Spirou, with his trademark bellhop uniform, was created by Rob-Vel in 1938. He was joined by his best friend and co-adventurer Fantasio in 1944, but it wasn't until 1946 that the comic found its present form.

Like Tintin, Spirou and Fantasio are journalists with a knack for getting caught in the midst of  nasty criminals and spectacular events. Unlike Tintin, however, the series has continued far beyond the lifetime of its original creator. As a result, the series has undergone numerous changes in relation to style and, subsequently, its popularity. The most recent album, Alerte aux Zorkons, was released on 3 September 2010 (today).

4. Spike and Suzy (Suske en Wiske, Willy Vandersteen, 1945)
Spike and Suzy

Also known as Bob et Bobette in French and Willy and Wanda in the U.S., this comic revolves around the adventures of a pair of young orphans. The stories combine elements of mystery, fantasy and sciencie fiction. Some are set in real-world locations, such as De Schat van Beersel, which takes place in a ruined castle only a few minutes' drive away from where I'm writing this.

Among Dutch and Flemish readers, Vandersteen's original books are concidered to be true classics of the comics genre. The series is still going strong, with over 300 books published so far. It is the best-selling comic in Flemish history.

2009 saw the release of Luke and Lucy: The Texas Rangers, a CGI animated film adaption of the comic. With a budget of €9 million, it was the most expensive Flemish movie ever made. Here's a clip.

5. Billy and Buddy (Boule et Bill, Jean Roba and Maurice Rosy, 1959)

This was my fiancé's favorite comic as a child. The strip describes the humorous adventures of the young boy Billy and his cocker spaniel, Buddy. Billy and Buddy are very popular among children, and they even have their very own mural in Brussels. (Which all really good Belgian comics do, apparently.)

6. Jommeke (Jef Nys, 1955)

Jommeke and his parrot, Flip.

I don't know much about this comic either, but since it's Belgium's second best-selling comic book series (51 million copies published so far), I let my fiancé and my brother-in-law explain the concept to you.

"Jommeke is about a little kid with a crazy parrot on his shoulder. He goes through some adventures with his friends, like finding the Scotsman's wife. And there is a Duchess who has an enormous dog that looks like a polar bear, and she rides it. And hey, Jommeke wins all the time."

There you are, my friends - a recipe for success. 51 million copies!

7. Thorgal (Jean-Paul van Hamme and Grzegorz Rosiński, 1977)

Le Barbare (2002).
Thorgal grows up among Vikings, but discovers a fantastic world of supernatural beings and alien technology that goes far beyond the Norse myths. He is constantly faced with being the only guy in the world who can save it, and that can be very tiresome when you have a wife and two growing children to take care of. Still, he manages.

The realistic, detailed artwork and the shameless genre blend of fantasy and science fiction captivated me when I discovered Thorgal through the Norwegian "Phantom" magazine. Eventually, it became my only reason for buying the magazine.

The 29th Thorgal album, meant to be the last one written by Jean Van Hamme, was the fifth best-selling French-language comic in 2006.

8. Blake and Mortimer (Blake et Mortimer, Edgar P. Jacobs, 1946)

The Yellow "M" (1956).
Blake and Mortimer are a pair of mystery-solving British gentlemen, a Captain in the MI5 and a renowned scientist teamed up to battle mad scientists and other villains. The (French) dialogue is interspersed with bits of English to remind us that Blake and Mortimer are as British as you can possibly be.

The best-known book in the series is The Yellow M (1956), which is rumored to be planned as a movie starring Hugh Laurie and Kiefer Sutherland as Blake and Mortimer.

9. Nero (Marc Sleen, 1947)

Nero is concidered one of the quintessential Belgian newspaper strips, so it's really a shame I know so little about it. If you're curious, check the Wikipedia page. I believe the comic is about detectives solving mysteries around the world, but you probably guessed that already. The two reasons it's on my list are: 1) there's a big waffle party at the end of each story, and 2) Marc Sleen, the creator, totally looks like Ian McKellen!

10. Gnome Wesley (Kabouter Wesley, Jonas Geirnaert, 2004)

Of course, when you finally got to the one comic in the list that was created after I was born, it had to be the most mental thing on the planet. Kabouter Wesley is the story of an angry gnome. There is little to no mystery-solving, no spectacular artwork to praise and absolutely no clever dialog. It's just a pissed-off, slightly stupid gnome with killer punchlines.

Here's a clip from the cartoon (no subtitles, sorry), in which Wesley receives a complaint about not including any women on his adventures.

Notable exceptions for future lists: Marsupilami, Gaston, Cowboy Henk, Blueberry, Largo Winch, Lucky Luke, XIII, Yoko Tsuno, Bessy, [your suggestion here]



  1. Haha, so typical for gnome Wesley =)
    Baby, your writing is epic!!! Promise me you'll never stop :) <3

  2. Thank you, sweetie! And that's an easy promise to make ;-) <3

  3. Hello ! I am Fench and I arrive in the course of my reading on your blog.
    Interesting point of view about belgian comics we like very much in France.
    If you know a little French language (or even not !) go and visit the complete and amazing website of a fan who dedicated it to E.P.Jacobs and "Blake & Mortimer" serie :

  4. Thanks for reading! I currently devote all my time to learning Dutch but would like to learn some French in the future, too. In any case I'll check out the site. Thanks a lot.