Recently I’ve been thinking more and more about French comics or “bandes-designes” as the French or the Pretentious call them. I grew up on the East Coast of Canada in a bilingual family, but my French is rather iffy, at best because we had an English mother. This means my father’s side of the family was mostly all French speaking. It also means growing up I had cousins with huge collections of Asterix, Tintin, Lucky Luke, The Smurfs or Les Schtroumpfs, and Gaston. I could have cared a less about Gaston and a few others I can barely remember as I was instantly drawn to Tintin’s adventures and the Gallic adventures of Asterix and Obelix. The Smurfs were on TV so I didn’t really need the comics unless I had time to kill.
In a lot of ways these were some of my first real “comics.” Sure I didn’t own them, and still don’t, but they were always something I’d love to read. Some were English translations and some were still in French. I didn’t quite read French all that well but I’d follow along with the pictures. I would say I’m probably one of the few people who “read” most of the Asterix library in the original French without actually reading a single line of dialogue. I was a weird kid, what can I say? Actually, I just couldn’t read French which isn’t all that weird.
I had access to all the animated versions of these comics as well. I used to watch Lucky Luke* each Christmas vacation even if I didn’t understand it until much later. Everyone remembers The Smurfs and their eventual marketing glut, but Tintin was also on television. I remember Tintin because I was home with the flu or mono or something so I was really delirious and on heavy drugs when the trippy mushroom from space episode was broadcast. This was in high school so I told my friends and we all tried to record it for future “recreational” use – same with the surgery show that was on late night Friday or Saturday. But I digress.
After I left comics for sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, or the teenage years and my early twenties as the time is also called. Well by me I suppose. I don’t think anyone else refers to that time period as Jon’s teenage years, except maybe my parents. And university hit where I met my good friend Brian who should be making comics and I feel is a bit of a wasted talent. It saddens me that he never stuck with it. Anyway, he had some Paul Pope stuff, some Moebius stuff, some manga (Battle Angel, Appleseed and Akira), and Sin City – the one with Marv and Kevin. So it was a cool time and we both did what we could to find as much Moebius stuff as we could. It didn’t really work out that well in that we found next to nothing. I think we managed to scrounge up something in French that had a lot of dirty French words. I think it was a Heavy Metal magazine or something similar that we found. One of the most surreal moments I’ve had reading a comic was reading Heavy Metal (if that’s what it was) full of surreal sci-fi imagery and a porn flick narration translated with a French-English dictionary.
Then I moved to London, England not London, Ontario and stumbled across a Corto Maltese book in a bargain bin at a Borders or something. I sort of equate this with stumbling across a five dollar reprint collection of Golden Age comics that you fall in love with. I picked it up because the art was fantastic and I was pretty sure I knew the name Hugo Pratt from somewhere. It was an interesting read. The translation was crap. I could read the English and see how it was directly translated from the French – which doesn’t work in translation by the way. I was basically translating the book back into French in my head as I read it because it simply read better that way. What an odd turn of events, huh? Then I stumbled across some Dark Horse collections of Moebius (H.P. Rock City and The Mad Woman of Notre Dame). I bought them for my friend Brian and gave them to him when I was back in Canada for Christmas. I never realized he was so serious about his Catholicism until then.
I traveled to Paris and a few other places in France but I never bothered to pick up any collections. This is probably one of the things I regret. I just don’t particularly want to read in translation with a French-English dictionary again. My French is again rusty. But I’ve been thinking about that Corto Maltese book for a while. I have no idea what happened to it. It was such a departure from what I was used to, even in “independent” comics. It was basically a pirate story set just before World War 2. He fights the Japanese Navy, gets shipwrecked on Pacific islands, rescues the rich heirs of someone, and just generally has a rollicking good adventure. There are some questionable portrayals of race in the book which seems to be par for course in French culture and always bothers me.
A weird side note is I later saw Tim Burton's Batman movie and Vickie Vale just came back from the Corto Maltese islands. The more you know...
It was basically this book that lead me to discover that there are a crapload of good comics out there we simply don’t have access to. Has anyone read an issue of Moebius’s western comic, Lt. Blueberry? I would marry your sister if you could get me a copy of that is in English. There’s a lot being made about Blacksad and Valerian being missing or poorly translated although both are really good books. I’d love to read either of them and if they’re as hard to find as the rest of the French stuff I’m screwed. Yeah, I know all the examples I’ve been using aren’t exactly French, they’re Belgian and other European countries, but I can’t help but think of them as French.
I’ve been thinking about how unfortunate it is that we just simply don’t have access to these books. I’m sure there’s a conspiracy theorist somewhere who’ll say it’s a big deal by the American companies who don’t want their audience to get access to these books that make theirs look like Bantha fodder. I don’t know if that’s the case or not because a lot of the audience is different. I think about growing up with Tintin and Asterix even if adults love the stories. But I can’t imagine growing up with Marvel or DC’s heroes today outside of the all-ages books or the cartoons. I know I wouldn’t give them to kids who have graduated into “serious” readers but I wouldn’t hesitate to give this same group Tintin or Asterix.
This has been in the back of my mind for a while because friends of ours have a four year old who is really into heroes and books. I’m holding onto a few of my comics for him when he gets older, but I want to get him started at some point. And what I could think of were Tintin books. Then it made me remember all the other great bandes-designes that just don’t exist in the English speaking market. I’m left to ask why?
I want more Corto Maltese. I want to read one Blueberry story or one Blacksad story. I want to discover all the books that are crammed into every square inch of Paris that I’ve seen before or since. This may be a project for me this year – to find some of this stuff in translation, but I hope someone is listening who can make this a reality. Get that comics company going that translates the French market for the North American audience. Give us some affordable graphic novels and I bet they sell. Then again they may be received like a bunch of lepers, I don’t know. But it would be interesting to find out and I want more than a Tintin collection and the rest of the industry he has become.
Why is the French market so different? It is working in France like the book industry. These books are constantly selling in French Canada. The English transaltions are also always selling or I'd assume they wouldn't be carried in Chapters. So why is it only limited to Tintin and not the rest of the French market? Would you, dear reader, purchase an original viking comic or pirate comic or hard-boiled detective comic that was a best seller in another country? I would. I want more than tights, but I want to know I'm getting my money's worth and this would seem like a guarantee since the work is proven successful. Then again the 2000AD line crashed like a lead balloon with DC...
*Apparently they've edited Lucky Luke's smoking habit. He usually has a cigarette plastered to his lip and not a stalk of straw.