Ker-pow! French passion for comics crosses the Channel

Growth of specialised courses shows greater academic acceptance. Matthew Reisz reports

July 9, 2009

The French have long taken comic books, or BDs - bandes dessinees - very seriously.

Annual sales top 30 million and a vast museum devoted to the topic has recently opened in Angouleme in southwestern France.

Britain's cartoon and comic-book culture lacks the prestige of its French counterpart, despite the international success of major figures such as Alan Moore, Steve Bell and Posy Simmonds.

"The latest releases hit the front pages of newspapers, and comics conferences are attended by presidents," explained Laurence Grove, senior lecturer in French at the University of Glasgow. "But a stress on the literary classics and a lack of enthusiasm for interdisciplinarity mean that BD studies are not well established in French universities."

Yet in the UK BD studies have managed to fend off gags about "Mickey-Mouse" subjects to establish a place in the academy.

The latest meeting of the International Bande Dessinee Society took place in London recently. When the first biannual conference convened a decade ago, Dr Grove recalled, "there were about ten people from various disciplines, but no real BD scholars".

"Now there are more and more who define themselves as such," he added.

Ann Miller, senior lecturer in French at the University of Leicester, believes about six British institutions now offer specialised BD courses. Most French departments also feature them on the syllabus.

As in traditional literature, BD studies relies on close readings of set texts, and Dr Miller said that the art form's mixture of words and images and use of dream and fantasy mean it offers "a fantastically good frame for looking at certain theoretical perspectives - psychoanalytic, postcolonial or autobiographical".

Dr Miller is also "very interested in how a popular-cultural medium becomes legitimate" and how "BDs by women challenge representations of the female body".

About half the papers in this year's conference focused on Herge's Tintin, looking at its racial stereotypes, leopard symbolism and links with Catholic youth movements.

Also under scrutiny was an Italian cartoon in which Donald Duck and characters called "Gyro Gearloose" and "Bum Bum" meet Herge's hero.

Autobiography was another major theme of the event. Some of the most powerful memoirs since the 1990s have taken the form of graphic novels, recounting what it was like to grow up during the Iranian Revolution, as the child of a Holocaust survivor, and even as the daughter of a gay funeral director.

It is another sign of the times that Roehampton University, under the direction of creative writing lecturer Ariel Khan, is introducing the UK's first module on scripting graphic novels.

For Dr Grove, "the relationship between scholars and fans remains crucial - being intelligent and incisive shouldn't mean obscurity".

Last year, with Dr Miller and others, he launched European Comic Art, the first English-language journal devoted to the subject. Things could hardly be healthier.

"We've gone through the stage of discovery and are going forward on the basis of an accepted discipline," he said. "We're getting to the really good bit."

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