Franco-Belgian Bandes Dessinées and Japanese Manga
by Dylan North

    The globalization of society and art has led to a definition of contemporary illustrated narrative arts as being fueled by eclecticism. Jean-François Lyotard summarizes a day in contemporary life as such:

One listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald's food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo, and retro clothes in Hong Kong

    No longer are we confined by cultural or geographical boundaries that would once stop us from experiencing the world outside of our immediate area. Modes of art, literature, entertainment, cuisine, fashion and lifestyle that were once designated to specific locations or cultures are now constantly being discovered, contextualized and mutated by the inter-connected masses. The realm of art is long accustomed to the idea that every culture can be a source of inspiration, where vectors seem to come from each geographical region and point to every other. Two countries that exemplify this trading of artistic sensibilities are France and Japan. The term Japonisme was coined in 1872 by French author and collector Philippe Burty to describe the “new field of study of artistic, historic and ethnographic borrowings from the arts of Japan”. Japonisme stretched out from France into the Netherlands, Great Britain, America, Germany and many other countries starting in the nineteenth century. Although much was borrowed from Japanese artworks and re-contextualized in European studios there was a passage of imagery in the opposite direction as well that culminated in the creation of modern manga (Japanese comic strips). The all encompassing time line of the art of the comic book follows a similar winding path of cultural exchange. The following essay examines the connections drawn between American comic books, Franco- Belgian bandes desinées (or BDs) and Japanese manga. The book Masters of the Ninth Art by Matthew Screech discusses the role of BDs in France and Belgium as pieces of artistic artifact and not objects largely marketed to children as cartoons and comic books are in North America:

Comic books are particularly highly esteemed in France and Belgium, where they are known as bandes desinées or BDs. Unlike most English-speakers, the French and the Belgians believe their comics to be a genuine art form: they even go so far as to call bandes desinées 'the ninth art'

(The term 'the ninth art' refers to a list conceived in France and Belgium as a list of all the arts). Although illustrated journals were published in France for many years featuring illustrations accompanied by text they weren't always referred to as bandes desinées. Laurence Grove argues that “the birth of bandes desinées began with the import of American-made Mickey Mouse comics that were presented in Journal de Mickey in 1934 with French translation.”

    The term is specifically related to the use of words balloons within sequential narrative panels, such that the overall message of each panel is only coherent with both elements present. The nature of Le Journal de Mickey was that of American import and because of this French readers were introduced to social commentaries and satire based on American society. In 2012 one of the most prolific and legendary bande desinée illustrators died at the age of 73. The death of Jean Giraud (who wrote under the monikers 'Gir' and 'Moebius' along with his real name) brought thousands of fans, admirers and fellow illustrators together in mourning of the loss of a French national treasure. Giraud had his first major success when he began illustrating a Western bande dessinée called “Lt. Blueberry”. Lieutenant Blueberry was a cavalry officer stationed in American forts in the mid-nineteeth century. The strip was serialized in a magazine entitled Pilote which was known for launching the careers of young artists. Although Giraud was surrounded by Franco-Belgian artists creating work such as Hergé's Tintin and Uderzo's Asterix he swayed from convention in pursuit of story telling techniques that pushed the boundaries of bandes dessinées. Giraud used suggestive colouring which added a new dimension of understanding that readers could interpret. His style also developed to allow the use of highly detailed interiors and landscapes as integral devices in the story telling. Giraud would illustrate Lt. Blueberry for the next 4 decades and it became his longest work.

    The second longest bande dessinée Giraud illustrated was The Incal written by Alexandro Jodorowsky and pencilled/inked by Moebius. The Incal follows John Difool and his concrete bird Deepo on a science fiction adventure through crowded techno-centric cities full of opposing political factions surrounded by a sheep-like populous and vibrant, highly detailed alien landscapes. The Incal follows a traditional Epic storyline that bases itself around a hero who rights wrong. “[The Incal] is also the story of an initiation: the hero John Difool rises from seedy private detective to cosmic messiah”. Moebius exhibits his mastery of clean-line realism, surface treatment through texture and narrative sequencing through panel pacing and composition. The full-length work of Moebius weaved ancient, religious and cultural traditions together into contemporary folklore that French BD readers couldn't get enough of.

    Moebius acted as inspiration for many artists including George Lucas, James Cameron, Stan Lee and Ridley Scott. But his famous fans did not lie in merely Europe and the Americas, he was also a friend of Hayao Miyazaki (illustrator and director who cofounded Studio Ghibli) and Katsuhiro Otomo (illustrator and director known for work such as Akira, Memories and Steamboy). When Moebius passed away Katsuhiro Otomo wrote an obituary for him that was published in the national Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. It is apparent to fans of both creators that Otomo found inspiration in Giraud's work by his similar approach environments and graphic sensibility. In the obituary Otomo “reminisces about how the artist's 'wondrous' and 'storybook-like' Arzach shocked him the first time he came across it.”

At the time, manga was confined to the real, the everyday, the concrete, the social. Everyone swore only by ‘gekiga’, the adult version of manga which used lots of frames and sombre compositions. The clear yet very expressive and detailed line of Moebius was a real revelation. A fantastical universe like that of Arzach pushed us out of our routines. I was far from being the only one to be influenced. Many manga authors took it as an invitation to immerse themselves in new worlds, to open up fresh artistic perspectives.

Otomo urges his fans to seek out the work of Moebius and describes how grateful he was to be able to live in the same time as Moebius and to take such inspiration from him. The manga entitled Akira is Katsuhiro Otomo's longest work to date and spans 6 ~300 page volumes. Began in 1982 the story is a science-fiction epic that follows a disillusioned teen through post-World War III Neo-Tokyo in the 21st century. Similar to the work of Moebius the pages are full of “vast areas of exaggerated perspective, futuristic city spaces and realistic character design.” Akira's realistic approach to world building and masterful execution set it part from many other manga being made at the time. Perhaps without influence from Jean Giraud the series wouldn't have been so successful when it was translated into English and brought over seas. Similar to the process of adopting Le Journal de Mickey for French Audiences in the 1930s, Akira, originally a Japanese manga, was adopted for English audiences in 1988.

    Whenever a cultural artifact is brought into a new region it brings with it the visual language, symbols and social attitudes of it's source area. But from the view of a globalized society Akira didn't bring merely Japanese cultural ideas to North America, it also brought the artistic sensibility of Frenchman Jean Giraud that beckoned a new age of teens seeking artists outside of their North American borders. The history of modern manga is similar to that of bandes desinées in that it did not happen by the sole hand of native artists, although illustration and picture books have been popular in Japan for millenia. Frederik Schodt sees modern manga “as the direct descendant of kibyoshi and ukiyo-e. Kibyoshi (yellow-jacket books) like the red, black, and blue books that preceded them, developed from children’s picture books. Kibyoshi, which mocked conventional mores through humor, jokes, satire, and cartoons, were often published as a series of monochrome paintings with captions.” Twenty years after Japan opened its ports to outside influence (after 200 years of seclusion) Charles Wirgman created and published The Japan Punch (1862-1887) in Yokohama. This publication along with the pouring in influence from the West influenced both Japanese culture and manga as a whole and acts as a both a literal depiction and metaphor for the rapid changes happening in Japanese society in the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Wirgman was a British correspondent for a London illustrator newspaper although he also practised cartooning and taught painting to Japanese students. The cartoons featured in the publication depicted the tense relationship between Japan and the Western world and were popular among Western expatriates as well as Japanese residents.

Wirgman’s cartoons show the ways in which foreign influences were assimilated to create modern manga. For example, Wirgman’s cartoons often used word balloons, which many native Japanese artists, like Kyosai Kawanabe, adapted to their own work. Kawanabe’s Western-style political cartoons eventually became a staple in Japanese newspapers, such as Nihon boeki shimbun.

    The East and West have a long history of cultural trade and in contemporary society the connections are so tangled that it can be hard to decipher what ideas came from where and when. It would be a surprise to the millions of Japanese youth that consume manga to know that one of their favourite styles of entertainment draws influence from a 19th century English cartoonist. Or perhaps that the beautifully decayed world of Akira has much to owe to the work of a revolutionary French artist. What makes contemporary art work so interesting (and challenging) is the seemingly endless amount of references to other artists, movements, ideas and cultures found at every level. To see this contemporary reality in action one doesn't need much more than English translations of the French Incal and Japanese Akira.