While most people around the world associate comics and cartoons with Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the Peanuts strip of Snoopy and Charlie Brown, the irrepressible Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes, and superheroes like Batman, Superman and Spiderman, in Europe there is a whole different appreciation of La Bande Dessinée - “the comic strip”. And the undisputed capital of this far more surreal, absurd, and often political medium, is the city of Brussels.
While everyone knows the most famous Belgian creation, Hergé’s intrepid reporter Tintin, there is a whole universe of weird and wonderful characters waiting to be discovered for those who make a pilgrimage to Brussels - the laconic cowboy Lucky Luke and his dastardly enemies, the Dalton brothers, a strange, bouncing imaginary animal, the Marsupilami, the cheerful Smurfs - known here as “Les Schtroumpfs” - and those “très British” detectives, Blake and Mortimer.
The city boasts its own Comic Strip Museum www.comicscenter.net housed in a splendid building designed by the master Art Nouveau architect, Victor Horta, and all over Brussels you can follow the Comic Strip Trail which passes 20 giant wall murals depicting famous BD characters - the term “bande dessinée” is always shortened to BD and pronounced “bay day”. And there are a host of specialised bookshops that are a goldmine for both collectible vintage BD books and magazines, and cutting-edge political and social BD’s that lampoon the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy and George Bush, and address sensitive issues such as global warming, racism and terrorism. So it is no surprise that the city that gave the world the wonderful surreal paintings of Rene Magritte, has also rather grandly christened the work of humble comic strip creators, “The Ninth Art”.
On the Brussels comic strip trail:
To discover Brussels’ special world of Bande Dessinée, the best starting point is a tour 'round the Comic Strip Museum, or to give the official name, “Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art” (Rue des Sables 20, tel: 02 219 1980 www.brusselsbdtour.com open Tue-Sun 10.00am-6.00pm. Everywhere you look, there are fun statues of comic heroes, a battered Citroen car, a copy of Tintin’s “rocket to the moon”. There is an excellent educational gallery which explains the A-to- Z of how a comic strip is conceptualised by an artist and a scriptwriter, roughed out in black and white sketches, laid out in strips by graphic designers, and coloured in by painters using everything from water colours to felt tip pens or even the sharpened end of burnt matches. Another gallery represents the history of the comic strip - from humble beginnings in America at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was created as a novelty sales tool by Sunday newspapers to get readers to buy next week’s edition to follow “the gripping adventures of........”, to the launching in Belgium in the 1920’s and 30’s of cult weekly journals dedicated solely to the Ninth Art - Spirou, Tintin Magazine, Pilote, through till the boom times of today, when Brussels probably boasts the largest proportion of professional comic artists in the world.
There is, of course, a whole section of the museum dedicated to Tintin, where you can witness both the changes over the years in Hergé’s drawings of his characters and the increasing sophistication of his subject matter, such as “Tintin and the Picaros” or “Tintin in Tibet”. Although the original drawings for comic strips were often crumpled up and thrown in the waste basket when everything was ready to be printed, the Centre has built up a comprehensive collection of over 7,000 original drawings. And as these are fragile and cannot be exposed to daylight for too long, the Espace Saint Roch is used as an ever-changing gallery for these original illustrations.
The Comic Strip Trail is just as fun for adults as for kids, and everyone will discover their own favourite. You can track them down on your own - a great way of discovering the backstreets of Brussels – or organise a guide from the Comic Strip Centre. Certain murals just have to be seen though. Don’t miss an action scene of a bank hold-up from Lucky Luke (Rue de la Buanderie), while Cubitus (Rue de Flandre) is a mischievous white dog, who forces the Mannekin Pis statue off his pedestal, and stands there having a pee himself! By the Jeu de Balle market, on Rue des Capucins, there is one mural of two little-known Hergé characters, Quick & Flupke, and a second featuring two 1930’s politically incorrect heroes, Blondin and Cirage.
Comic Strip Murals of Brussels: Comic strip murals of Brussels
While the Aladdin’s Cave bookshop of the Comic Strip Centre seems to stock every BD imaginable, there are a host of specialised “librairies” dotted around town. The one not to be missed is the funky Brusel (Boulevard Anspachlan 100, www.brusel.com) part bookshop, part gallery of original comic strips, which has weekly signings by BD authors from around the world, including Tony Sandoval from Mexico. Just nearby are two excellent second-hand stores, Little Nemo (Boulevard Lemonnier 25), named after the first-ever animated cartoon, and Le Depot (Rue du Midi 108), which has been drawing collectors buying and selling their BD’s for over 50 years. For those who can’t leave Brussels without some Tintin souvenirs, then there is every gadget imaginable at the Boutique de Tintin (Rue de la Colline 13, www.tintin.com . And finally, don’t forget to walk over to the bohemian Marolles neighbourhood where every morning, the Jeu de Balle square is turned into a vast flea market, with booksellers hawking everything from 1950’s copies of Le Journal de Tintin, vintage Mickey Mouse and faded Spirou magazines, to modern Mangas, science fiction and erotic comic strips.
The Hergé Museum in Louvain-La-Neuve (Walloon Brabant)
The 2009 highpoint of the comic strip years in Wallonia took undoubtedly place in Louvain-la-Neuve, where a brand new museum is dedicated to the life and work of none other than the great Hergé. Inaugurated in May 2009, the sleek modern museum does look not just at all those famous “Adventures of Tintin”, but the whole artistic output - paintings, sculpture, photography, film - of this prolific creator. For a comprehensive introduction to this amazing new place, please read Introduction to the Hergé Museum