Belgium: Kingdom of Comics

Why did we choose the medium of comics, for our Animate Europe competition (currently running in its third round)? Why not movies or caricatures or something else entirely? It might have to do with the fact that we’re right in the heart of comic country Belgium. Willem de Graeve, Director of the Belgian Comic Strip Center  and jury member in our first two Animate Europe competition rounds, gives us some insights into why the “ninth art” is so popular in Belgium.

With more than 700 professional comic strip authors, Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometer than any other country in the world. It is in this country where comic strips have grown from a popular medium into an art in its own right. Nowhere else are comics so deeply rooted in everyday life and in peoples’ imagination.

Morris, the Belgian creator of Lucky Luke was the first to refer to comics as “Ninth Art”. The title couldn’t have been better chosen – comics are part of the socio-cultural heritage of the Belgians. All Belgians have read comics, they have a collection at home and, most importantly, they are proud of their comic strip culture.

Comics embelisshing houses all over Brussels_ Von Fotografie: Stefflater / Wandgemälde: Morris - Eigenes Werk, CC-BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46057134
Comics embelish houses all over Brussels_
Von Fotografie: Stefflater / Wandgemälde: Morris – Eigenes Werk, CC-BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46057134

Why Belgium?

But why are comics so well developed in Belgium? Why didn’t the same phenomenon occur in Holland, France or Italy? Of course we conducted several studies on this topic and found three main answers:

The first explanation is historical and very straight forward: it is Hergé, the creator of Tintin. While he wasn’t the first comic strip artist neither in the world (Hergé made his debut in 1929, when comics were already very popular in the United States), nor in Europe, he was the first comic artist who became really famous with his comics. From the beginning, Tintin was a huge success. His success inspired many youngsters who dreamed of also becoming a famous comic strip artist. Hergé was thus the locomotive of a whole train of young comic strip talent.

The second explanation is economical. Although Belgium is a small country, it has three official languages: French, Dutch and German. The German-speaking community is small, so we can say that the country is mainly divided into two language clusters: Dutch and French. For each language, Belgium has, with the Netherlands and France, a powerful neighbour. One of the consequences of that is that it has always been very hard for Belgian publishers to compete with the Netherlands or France. Still today, if a Belgian writer is French speaking, they will go to Paris to find a publisher. If he or she writes in Dutch, there is a good chance that the book will be released in Amsterdam. Historically, this explains the keenness of Belgian publishers to publish comic strips as soon as this new medium crossed the Atlantic around 1920. Other than the well-established literary publishers, Belgian publishers didn’t look down their nose at this new medium and immediately started printing comic books and magazines.

Animate Europe Award Ceremony at the Belgian Comic Strip Center 2015, c B. Maindiaux
Animate Europe Award Ceremony at the Belgian Comic Strip Center 2015, c B. Maindiaux

The last important explanation for the popularity of comics in Belgium is cultural and, although not as scientific, not less interesting or relevant. Belgium is not only a small, but also rather complicated country. The three national languages are definitely a cultural enrichment, but we have to admit that they don’t exactly facilitate communication. As previously mentioned, is surrounded by powerful neighbours.  In that context, Belgium has often been occupied by other nations in the past; not only by France and the Netherlands, but also by Spain and Austria among others. This succession of occupations forced the people of this area to learn new languages. Whilst speaking more French during one period, they privileged Dutch, German, or Spanish at other times. More often than not, they were mixing up all the different languages. For this reason we can suppose that the people of this country realized very soon that communication by images was by far more efficient than traditional communication by words.  Since Belgians were thus fond of visual communication, their fascination for comics shouldn’t come as a surprise.

 

Willem De Graeve