Your presentation is featured during the day dedicated to contemporary art in comics. So, since in many European countries comics are treated (or was treated for a long time) as “low-level” art or non-art drawings, or easy literature, what was the key point for Belgium comic scene to be acknowleged as legit art form?
It’s interesting that you take this for granted (“to be acknowleged as legit art form”). Such a thing is a complex process, which the Belgian author and scholar (but living and working in France) Thierry Groensteen has studied and described in his booklet La bande dessinnée au tournant (Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2017) very well for the French context. It’s a matter (if I remember well) of the interaction between different art and media fields, such as both the quantitative and qualitative number of articles that appear in newspapers, (serious) magazines and websites, topics in radio and television programmes, exhibitions, academic research, prizes and awards, and, last but not least; the statal support of authors and the heritage of comics in the form of subsidies.
Key moments in Belgium are, in my opinion, the opening of the Belgian Comics Art Museum in 1989 in a superb art nouveau building (designed by Victor Horta, one of Belgian finest architects from the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, as a warehouse), opened by the Belgian king Boudewijn, which gave the signal that comics deserved their own museum. And a museum is a concept most people know and associate with ‘high culture’ (please see the discussion that took place before ICOM recently agreed upon a new museum definition in Prague). The opening of the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve in 2009. The appreciation of Tintin and, more broadly, the work of Hergé and the enormous success of the so-called ‘Franco-Belgian school’ (with authors such as Jijé, Franquin, Morris, E.P. Jacobs, Bob De Moor, Willy Vandersteen, Peyo, Wasterlain and many more) and the direct line to serious (but at the same time less ‘educational’ and crazy in a way) adult comic magazines, such as Pilote, A Suivre, Métal Hurlant and L’Echo des savanes, helped also to give a fundament to the appreciation for Belgian comics, in- and outside the country. Slowly, academic research followed. Umbero Eco started, with his famous essay about Superman, in which he explained / argued the success of the comics figure, as ‘early’ as 1972. Others, such as the French Michel Foucault followed and analyzed ‘ordinary’ stuff as … comics.
A final thing I could mention is the recuperation of that golden era of the Belgian comics by tourism. The capital, Brussels, distinguishes itself by… yes, comics. There are comics walks, with murals, comics about Brussels, a large festival organized by VisitBrussel and so on. And recently you will find comic heroes and a rare heroine in the official Belgian passport! That’s, in a way, the absolute recognition of the importance and signification of comics for the country. Before, it featured old buildings (castles, belfries, city halls and the kind).
In a short indroduction to your lecture, there is a notion of “participation” as a way for readers to decide about the characters and their roles in comic series. How do you see the impact of this way of communicating with the audience?
It’s an old concept, in a way, and is/was in a very organic way, marketing driven. Famous and immensely popular magazines such as Tintin / Kuifje (yes, the hero with the same name had his own magazine since 1945) and the older Spirou / Robbedoes (°1938) organized pop-polls amongst the young readers. The magazines really evaluated in that way the popularity of characters and series: those who weren’t popular, simply disappeared, as a token of the struggle for survival, commercially. It was as simple as that. You could describe this technique as ‘participation avant la lettre’. In the classical approach – let’s say the editing model that exists as from as early as the 1950’s – there was and is no room for real participation. An author (or several authors) work on a project, and when it’s finished, they’ll publish it – first in a newspaper or magazine, then in an album. As a reader, you’re a consumer, not a participant.
This is a completely different with the webcomics, in which there can be an ‘intimate’ contact between the author(s) and his/her/ their readers. I don’t think the traffic / communication between them could be described as ‘participation’ in the proper sense, but it is indeed a way of steering the story, the characters, places, atmosphere and so on. I think it’s a good and interesting practice, but at the same time it also asks time (to harvest and to deal with the correspondence, remember it, work on it and so on…).
I tend to think of comics participation also on another way: fans / readers that really like to express their link with an author, series or character, can easily buy all kinds of gadgets, such as t-shirts, caps, buttons and so on, in order to distinguish themselves and to connect with other people with whom they share the same preferences. They become ambassador to the medium, the series, and can interact with other fans / readers and sometimes the author, too.
Also, it is obvious that the promotion and marketing are important. But it’s also reasonable to say that the way you market your product is not the same for cars or shoes, as for art and comics in particular. So what is the specific marketing strategy which was suitable for Belgium comic art scene?
There was (and remains) a rather successful marketing strategy for series: as from the end of the fourties / beginning of the fifties, newspapers contained every day a comic, part of the story that ‘ended’ with a breathtaking cliffhanger – comics were in that sense, a real reason to buy the newspaper. (You really wanted to know how the story continued). Once finished, the editor of the newspaper made the album available. The advantage was that the story and the characters had already had a broad audience, prone to buy the album. In recent years, we’ve noticed that is practically impossible to launch a new comic series without another ‘media engine’ (newspaper, television). The last series that successfully used this path is called De Kiekeboes, and was published in the Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, as from 1977 (and still standing strong). All the other series that became a success were first launched as a television series, and can be seen as ‘line extensions’, such as the immensely popular F.C. De Kampioenen, K3 and Samson en Gert.
It seems that the actual publishers are seeking their way through a VUCA-world: the old recipes are slowly dying (becoming less successful, since media are cost-cutting all along the way), and hence are – at least in Flanders – taking less risks, by investing in all kind of spin-offs of (once) hugely popular series. This, on one side, and maximize the value of their ‘heritage’-catalogue, by publishing ‘integrales’ of older series that once were popular, often with extensive dossiers with some background information.
For how long are comics present in your school system – are there programs just on faculties or even earlier in primary or secondary school?
As to me, they don’t have a structurally embedded place in the educational programmes of both primary and secondary schools. It all depends on the goodwill and energy of the teachers who have (or not) an affinity with comics. Both the Comic Art Museum and several editors invest in the development of ready-made class materials (that don’t ask to much effort from the teachers to plug in into the programme), but this is far from a general thing. There are numerous teachers, though, that do work with comics, and often they share their material on a peer-teachers website, called Klascement (see http://www.klascement.net, in Dutch).
Are there any problems in Belgium comic scene and is there a room from (more) progress?
Oh yes (x2). There is the problem of the market, from which, in my view, a lot of other challenges derive. It’s a complex thing, but let me try to explain it briefly: first of all, there are just a handful of publishing houses. An author doesn’t have much choice or chances to be published. Secondly, a publisher asks always for a lot of material (synopsis, sketches and so on) before he decides whether the story / book will be published or not. This is work for which the author isn’t paid in many cases. As I wrote before, there aren’t many publishers that take risks nowadays, and enter the numerous spin-offs.
So, back to the market: most children get in touch with comics, as young children. Comics are often easy to read, with adventurous stories and so on. Once they become teenagers, the offer for potential readers shrinks to an absolute minimum, and they lose, in a way, the connection with the genre. (And there’s the stream of academic research that reveals, year after year the dwindling appetite for reading by young people. This inspired the Flemish minister of Education to create a ‘Day of the Reading’, with a first edition on the 23rd of April 2023). There are indeed a lot of comics for adult readers, with more serious stories and arty stuff, but the volume of readers is minute, compared to that for young readers. There’s a big challenge for publishers to close the enormous gap…
And we’re very proud of the different comics schools (in Brussels: 3. In Ghent: 1, with the emphasis on illustration), but this means that the alumni have a hard time in getting a living from their work. Most of them have to combine different assignments and jobs to survive. There is indeed the Flemish Literature Fund, but the way to subsidies is difficult, and only a limited number of people are supported. There’s need for a bigger market, but in order to do so, better stories and the recognition of comics as an interesting, satisfying artistic medium that deserves attention and the money from our wallets.
What is the best way to develop the publishing scene for comics in underdeveloped countries, where there’s no big market for this kind of art?
That’s a very good question 😊
I’d suggest to use comics in any way to tell stories, even outside the ‘art domain’ or literature. Give comics authors a job in the communication campaigns of governments, institutions and organisations. Tourism, cultural heritage, history… People do have a close connection with the place they, but they don’t necessarily know much about the history and meaning of symbols etc. Comics are ideal to tell both short and long stories, also about ‘difficult’ and complex subjects. They even can help in the mental recovery of people with diseases or traumas.
It all starts with the ability to read a comic, which is more ‘complex’ than it seems. A reader has to read the text, and – at the same time – look at the drawings, and bring the two together. It would be nice if comics can be introduced in the educational system, as part of the reading programme and as many other subjects as possible. This asks form the government a vision, and also, a strategy and a budget to implement this.
How do you see the importance of such conferences and their impact on local scene(s), from your own experience?
As long as the local scene(s) are involved in the construction of the programme, everything in conferences like these are pure ‘gain’ I think: the audience gets familiar with ideas, projects and practices from elsewhere. There’s a saying in Dutch that goes like this: ‘You don’t need to invent the warm water over and over again.’ And in my view, that’s exactly the meaning and importance of conference like these.