BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Saturday, 16 February 2008

France takes its comics very seriously

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Angouleme, France

France sees itself as the world capital of "bandes dessinees" or BDs, what we might call comics. Thousands of albums are published every year and there is even an international festival in the town of Angouleme.

I was bear-hugged at the station by a sky-blue pixie in a Phrygian bonnet.

A man looking at boards at the opening of the International Comics Festival (Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images)
The International Comics Festival is the Cannes of "Bay-Days"

Scores of them had descended on Angouleme and they were marauding through the town like a medieval army, bopping people on the head with soft clubs and the like. High jinks indeed.

Who were this tribe of cerulean leprechauns? And why did I find their cavorting both familiar and annoying?

Memories of children's television in the 1970s and a dreadful song by a Dutchman called Father Abraham flooded back.

Of course! It is the Smurfs, now aged 50, in fact celebrating their actual 50th birthday with this merry-making publicity stunt in the cobbled lanes of a provincial town in western France.

Les bandes dessinees

The Smurfs, or to be more precise les Schtroumpfs, are not actually French. They are Belgian, and their creator, Pierre Culliford, was in fact half English.

Next to the bit for regular books you will find an equally big, if not bigger section, for Les Bay-Day

But they are part of the canon because, where comic strips are concerned, France and Belgium are reckoned to be one and the same.

They call it "la bande dessinee Franco-Belge" and, for all the frolicking frivolity of our little friends in blue, it is no joking matter.

If you have ever been to a bookshop in France you will know what I mean.

Next to the bit for regular books - you know, those old-fashioned things with writing in them - you will find an equally big, if not bigger, section for Les Bay-Day.

You can spot it when you walk in the door because invariably there are several glum-faced individuals sprawled on the floor or sitting against a wall engrossed with an album that they have purloined from the shelves.

Quite why staff allow them to do this I have never been able to fathom.

It is not as if you can go in and pick up a novel and just read it in the shop without paying.

Comic connoisseurs

If you look further you will see that the BD section - pronounced Bay-Day - is in fact sub-divided into several categories.

A Japanese artists signs books at the comics fair
The fairs attract hundreds of fans from across France and beyond

There will be classics - Asterix, Tintin, Lucky Luke, the cowboy who shoots faster than his shadow - plus many that never made it out of Franco-Belgium, like Rahan - l'enfant des ages farouches or child of the age of savagery - about a Tarzan-like figure from prehistoric times.

There will be the latest best-sellers. Top of the book lists this month - beating Harry Potter and the latest on President Nicolas Sarkozy's love life - has been the last in a long-running adventure series called Thirteen about a man trying to rediscover his identity after losing his memory.

There will be the American comics section, the Japanese Manga section - this one getting bigger and bigger because they are getting more and more popular.

There will also be the adult section, with works of quite astonishing vividness.

And then, pride of place, the section for what the French call "les Auteurs".

Here, the most highly regarded authors are catalogued by name.

This is the art-house end of the market.

An album in this section may sell only a few hundred copies - compared to half a million for the latest hit - but the true connoisseurs will know all about it.

Here, experimentation and the avant-garde allow the Bay-Day fan to see him or herself as more than just a consumer, rather as a cultured devotee of a thriving art form.

Aesthetic values

In Angouleme, les Schtroumpfs notwithstanding, this is very much the message.

It is the Cannes festival of Bay-Day world and, just as in film the French profoundly believe that there are values that are beyond the purely commercial, so too in cartoon strips.

Map of France showing Paris and Angouleme in the south west

The difference is that in Bay-Day - unlike film - the French feel they really do still lead the world.

This is important because the supposed decline of French civilisation is a sore point.

A recent article in Time magazine set off howls of outrage because it said French literature and art had become provincial and inward-looking.

Far from it, rejoin the French - look at the "ninth art". That is what they call Bay-Day.

Who can deny us pride of place in this fast-growing modern medium which sits so modishly at the cusp of the word and image, the written page and the internet, the virtual and the real?

Personally, I have never got the Bay-Day bug.

The notion that they are a new and challenging way of representing reality I find a bit of a cop-out.

Still, I dare say I am behind the times.

The theorists all tell us that what with TV, computers, video games and so on, future generations will depend more and more on visual rather than verbal acuity.

Perhaps the French are right to take comics as they do, so very seriously.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 16 February, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

The vital statistics of Asterix
18 Oct 07 |  Magazine
Spielberg 'to make Tintin movie'
15 May 07 |  Entertainment
First Asterix book for four years
23 Sep 05 |  Entertainment
Comic lovers flock to French festival
31 Jan 03 |  Entertainment

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific