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Friday, January 11, 2008

Brussels, Comics Capital of Europe

A couple months ago, I took my first trip to Brussels. I went there to ride in a helicopter and to write a piece on Wim Robberechts & Co., one of the preeminent aerial cinematography outfits this side of the Azores.

I'd never been to Brussels before. It struck me as a sensible, serious city. The home of NATO and the European Union and quality chocolate. The city's slogan ought to be: "Brussels: We do things properly."

But did you know - and if you're an American, you probably didn't know - Brussels is one of the world's great capitals for illustration and comics?

Actually, if you're an American, you probably didn't know that NATO and the EU are headquartered in Brussels either, did you? In fact, you probably don't even know what NATO is. And you're understanding of the EU is that there are French people somehow involved and it's where they have Euros. You know, it's true. Of course you do. You wouldn't be so mad at me if you didn't think it was true.

What was I on about?

Right. Brussels - one of the world's great centers of illustration and comic art. The other centers would be, I suppose, Tokyo and New York. Los Angeles too, possibly, but I think there are actually fewer comic stores per capita in L.A. than people suppose.

Dalai Lama w/Tin Tin
Brussels not only has murals of Tin Tin on the side of every building - or so it seemed to me - but in some areas there are comic stores on every block. They carry the usual American fare - high concept stories about physically powerful beings and character stories about physically powerless beings. And Asian comics too. But the third part of the inventory - the one rarely seen, or heard of, in most North American stores - is the Franco-Belgian comics, traditionally dubbed bande dessinée ("drawn strip"). In general, these comics feature high-quality illustration and more ... subtle? ... meaty? ... rich? ... stories. 
As I browsed the comic shops of Brussels I found myself again and again picking up comics that could very well be adaptations of high-end movies - usually of the kind I write myself. Medieval adventures. Strange and hallucinatory stories of suspense. Sexy science fiction dramas emphasizing emotion over explosions. 

Franco-Belgian comics world are rooted in a French illustration tradition, but also feature a strong Dutch bloodline. Brussels is the geographical and cultural meeting point of Dutch and French culture, and the comics landscape of the city is enriched exponentially by this intersection.

The main reason English speaking readers know little of the Franco-Belgian comics / graphic novels / sequential art world is that relatively few of the titles are ever translated into English. The profit margin on the most successful American comics can be relatively small, for European comics, the profit margin may be nonexistent. Unless some enterprising publisher makes it a priority to translate and distribute American versions of Franco-Belgian comics en masse, it's likely the U.S. will continue to miss out on a whole universe of dynamite storytellers, illustrators, colorists, printers.

I only had a morning to tour around the comic stores of Brussels. But the highlights were:

HET B-GEVAAR (all Dutch comics, all the time)

Greepstraat 15
1000 Bruxelles
tel: 02 513 14 86


122-124 boulevard Anspach
B-1000 Bruxelles
tel / fax: 02 513 72 35


126-128 Boulevard Anspach
B-1000 Bruxelles
tel / fax: 02 513 01 86

DONG CO (specialist in Japanimation)

33, Rue di Midi
1000 Bruxelles


39, Rue di Midi
1000 Bruxelles


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