Arts, Culture & Media

Belgian comic book industry seeks return to prominence

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Visitors peruse comics at the Cultures Maison Fair and Expo in Brussels. (Photo by Don Duncan.)

Belgium is famous as the home of the modern comic strip, birthplace of the creators of Tintin, the Smurfs and Lucky Luke.

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But the industry has been in the dumps for decades, and now the country is trying to change that.

During the recent annual Belgian Comic Book Festival, enormous balloons featuring comic strip characters paraded down the main streets of Brussels.

Roadrunner sauntered along, followed by a bouncy Sponge Bob Squarepants.

But despite the cheer, there was something missing: Not one of these gigantic parading balloons was of a Belgian character.

In the industry, Belgium is referred to as the “home of the comic book.” That’s because, since the 1920s, Belgian artists blazed a trail of innovation inventing the “speech bubble,” for example, as well as the drawing technique called “clear line,” which moved comic books from cartoonish blobs of color to a sharper kind of realism.

Comic book historian Thierry Bellefroid says that by the 1970s, Belgian artists drew about 80 percent of all comics in Europe.

“The Belgian comic book became so famous and established because of the success of Tintin,” he said.

Tintin, which still sells over one million comic books a year worldwide, was the industry leader between the ’20s and the ’70s. But by the 1980s, Bellefroid says Belgium had become a victim of its own initial successes.

“Tintin and other big Belgian comics couldn’t reinvent themselves because they had developed a very clear, loyal fan base and they were also trapped in a very Catholic Belgium at the time. This is how Belgium got its market share eaten up, initially by new, edgier French comics,” Bellefroid says.

Today, most of the Belgian publishing houses have been bought up by multinationals. The business is mainly controlled from Paris, London or Tokyo. But Belgium is fighting back, by positioning itself as a center of innovation and excellence for the rest of the industry.

It set up the Comic Book Commission in 2007, a government body with an annual budget of $170,000. The commission funds 30 to 40 new projects a year to advance technical and aesthetic aspects of comic book publishing.

Commission Director Bruno Merckx says the initiative goes beyond just paper and ink.

“The symbolic element of all this is that it helps the comic strip emerge from the category of subculture or subgenre," Merckx said. "A comic book author is a literary author in his own right.”

After five years of state support, signs of success are beginning to show on the once-stagnant Belgian comic book landscape. A small Brussels office is home to GrandPapier.org, a small Belgian comic book publishing house that is trying to move the comic book into the next frontier in comics publishing — the Internet.

Grandpapier’s founder says that while novels have the e-book, comic books have no digital equivalent yet, and so developing a digital format that will be adopted as a standard by the industry is Grandpapier.org’s next big thing.

“We must see how we can manage to automatically generate digital formats from comic stories posted to our site, so people can either go on Grandpapier.org or download a comic book as an e-comic,” Merckx said.

If Belgium succeeds in developing an e-comic standard, and implementing other innovations, it will once again play a crucial role in the global comic book industry.

It may be a big “if,” but considering the country’s comic book history, this may be the beginning of a comeback.

If all goes as planned, we may well be seeing a few giant balloons of new Belgian characters on the streets during the annual comic book festival in years to come.

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