History of the Comic Strip

Today, more and more historians are interested in this medium, this was seen recently with Fayard who released a collection on the great men of history (Napoleon, Gengis Khan ...), from more and more publishers are dealing with history and more and more historians are writing scripts for comics. Comics then become a scientific genre that fits into a particular social context but which also has a social impact that is still evident, for example for Tintin in Congo. Instead of doing thecomic book story, we will focus here on making the history of this very particular medium that is the Comic Strip.

The origins of the Comic Strip: The appearance of the word "Comic Strip"

The term "Comic strip" is quite late and imposed itself in France at the end of the 1950s. Comics have long been known in a form that appeared in the press (often at the bottom of a page, a strip, a strip, that was drawn). This term “Comic Strip” is a French term but other countries have other terms depending on the specificities of the genre (“comics” in the USA, “manga” in Japan, “Fumetti” in Italy). In France, the genre has long been reserved for children and has been widely criticized, but in the 60s people try to defend comics and we see new formulas appearing as "9th art". Comics are becoming a very versatile genre. In the 60s, it was a kind of adventure for children, today there is everything, it's a multifaceted genre. Certain specialists go so far as to launch the formula of “drawn literature” (notably Harry Morgan). Comics are indeed a form of literature where we have writing through drawing, but unlike painting, the image is at the service of what we say.

The bubble is one of the characteristics of comics, but the texts and images must complement each other and not describe what is in the image. However, the bubble does not define the comic, what defines it is above all the sequence of images (comics is a sequential literature, we have a series of images), with inter-iconic voids between two images. which are spaces of freedom for the reader who imagines what is happening between the two images.

Birth of a genre

Specialists have long wondered when comics first appeared. The term "Comic Strip" assumes a mass reproduction that is not found in prehistoric caves or stained glass. It was therefore long considered that the comic strip was born in the United States in 1896 with the character of Yellow Kid (series drawn by Outcault) with the inclusion of the text on the character himself.

However, the inclusion of text in the image is not critical. It seems that comics are much older than that and would rather have been born in Switzerland. It is generally admitted that it is Rodolphe Töpffer who would have created the drawn literature with a story in 1833, The story of Monsieur Jabot, where we have a sequence of images with a change of framing.

One of the reasons Töpffer is particularly highlighted is that he is a comic book theorist. In 1837 he wrote an article about his little stories saying that it is literature of a "mixed nature". He also perfected a special process (autography) to allow the distribution in large quantities of his drawings.

The development of the genre: American comics, adult comics?

While comics were born in Switzerland, it was in the United States that they experienced their main field of expansion and their first golden age. We can also see there links with Töpffer because it is very early published in the United States in a small format which announces that of comics. What also played a role were the technical aspects.

In the 1890s, the United States developed a major press with significant resources, the literacy rate was quite high, and there were struggles between the major press bosses - notably Pulitzer and Hearst - who generated innovations since 'you have to attract the public with adventures and therefore comics. Hearst will have several cartoonists and will create in 1895 the first "Syndicate" (he hires cartoonists to do comics on his newspapers, has the rights, publishes them in his newspapers and sells them elsewhere). Photoengraving processes will allow easy color reproduction. At the beginning of the 20th century, in the USA, the genre will flourish with categories that adapt to the potential readership (Kid strips for children, girl strips for girls, adventure comics). With the success of these "strips", the idea will germinate of grouping American comics into small specialized comic books, we move on to Comics Books (1930s), a time when the first superheroes developed and appeared and in particular Comics Actions with Superman. Promising themes during the Second World War.

We often have the idea in Europe that comics are children's literature, while in the United States this is not the case, since the readers of the major dailies are more adult men. The comics remain in the standards of the time but will evoke violence or seduction.

1930s-1950s: affirmation of a "Franco-Belgian" school

In the 1930s and 1950s, comics boomed in Europe, particularly that of French-speaking comics. However, the “Franco-Belgian” formula raises certain questions, since it would imply that there is only one and the same French and Belgian comic strip (which is not totally false because the publishers are French and Belgians and produce a coherent whole), but that would be to suppose that Belgium is limited to its French-speaking part; however, there is a tradition of Dutch / Flemish comics that we know very little about because it is less widely distributed in France.

In the term "Franco-Belgian" there is "Franco" first, which sometimes poses a problem because until the 1960s, Belgium had a very decisive role in the Comic Strip, the great heroes who sell are created by Belgium (Lucky Luke, Spirou, Black and Mortimer ...), we had French authors in the 1920s, but who did not have much success in the very long term, on the other hand, the major Belgian series are broadcast in France (Tintin broadcast in Coeur Vaillant in the 1930s), we can then wonder why Belgium is so important in European comics?

Some observers say that since it was a rather despised genre at the time in France, we turned to Belgian publishers who were more open to publishing something marginal and therefore more willing to welcome this literature. French-speaking Belgium knows that there is a market in quantity to be done in France since the existence of the French market makes it possible to sell a lot (110,000 copies of Spirou in France for 54,000 in Belgium). The relationship with comics in Belgium is also different from that in France.

Belgian publishers very quickly understood that the interest of comics is that people can reread them, so we edit and re-edit albums.

The talent of the authors may also have played a role in the success of Belgian comics. Hergé's particular approach to the medium has made comics a bit successful in Belgium. Since Hergé will highlight the action, the movement and not the drawing. For him, it is not the beauty of the drawing that counts but the effectiveness of the story. We also find this movement in Franquin. The Belgian authors will very quickly make the reader feel at home to touch the French reader (for example the police officers wear French outfits). Belgian-French-speaking comics are mixed-race since we make sure that readers from both countries meet there.

Regarding Hergé's technique (we also speak of school), we evoke the formula of the "clear line" which certainly inspires at the level of the drawing and the scenario because it gives a fluidity to the narration. In Belgium and France, this Franco-Belgian comic book will rather develop towards children because it is difficult to imagine that these drawings are intended for adults and in Christian circles, illustrated works for children are developing. We can indeed observe that in Belgium, this comic was born in Catholic circles. Religion is more marked in Belgium than in France and the Catholic pillar dominates education and the press for young people, so this is where authors will take their first steps. The first comic books are also offered for communions.

In the years that followed, specialized comics magazines developed (Spirou in 1938 and Tintin in 1946), they are not denominational but are published by people who are good Catholics with the idea that this comic should disseminate good values. We therefore agree not to show certain things (male heroes do not have a girlfriend, there is no co-education). The puritanical and sanitized side of this comic will be criticized after the 70s.

We do not find that only in the Catholic world, because in the Communist world, we make the same references. In France, they will unite with the Catholics to pass a law on publications for young people which controls comics. Censorship will accentuate the puritanism of comics (Americans do the same). So we sometimes erase the weapons, the breasts of girls ...

When you analyze a comic, and you don't have the story in mind, you risk making a comment. The production context is also quite specific.

French-speaking "adult" comics: ideological and aesthetic break.

All these restrictions ceased in the 1960s, we no longer want restrictions and we want to be freer, so we have to break with the codes of the old generation. The younger generation wants to take things much further. We then have aesthetic ruptures, in particular with Bilal who no longer uses boxes or very little, he also uses new, more flashy colors. But there are also ideological ruptures, in The phalanges of the black order, we address adults (the heroes get old) and comics start to have a message (sometimes political, engaged).

Today the Franco-Belgian comics which made the success of the Comic Strip in the 1930s are still relevant today. However, if it is certain that readers of the time understood the Christian or social allusions made by the authors, what is it today? The Comics of Tintin, Spirou or Lucky Luck are among the classics of comics but the codes presented inside are no longer understood by young people today because they are not necessarily aware of the context of production in which they were made. However, if you reread your old Tintin or Spirou comics today, you will find inside the Catholic values ​​of the Belgian youth of the 1930s.

For further...

- Philippe Delisle, From Tintin in Congo to Odilon Verjus. The missionary, hero of Belgian comics, Karthala, 2011
- Thierry Groensteen, Asterix, Barbarella et Cie. History of French-language comics through the collections of the comic strip museum, CNBDI, 2000
- Michel Porret, Objectif Bulles. BD and History, Georg, 2009
If you pass through Brussels, you can also take a look at the Belgian Comic Strip Center.

Video: Three Act Structure in Comic Strips. Strip Panel Naked (June 2021).