Comic Strip Festival

The Comic Strip Festival in Brussels has become an annual event that attracts comic fans from across at least the Francophone world.

Mysteries revealed

If you hang around long enough, mysteries will be revealed. Apparently.

TheSupercargo with presumed Atomium mascot - perhaps Spirou?Back in the spring I visited the Atomium here in Brussels (and wrote in May about the time-slip I experienced there). Entering the Atomium building I was accosted by a mascot and a photographer and paid my €7 to be able to share this photo. I wrote after: The mascot doesn’t appear anywhere on the Atomium web site, so I’m guessing it was all in aid of advertising something else – but I have no idea what.

Spirou

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters 4 - Spirou sittingWell, now I think the mascot was supposed to be Spirou. Spirou is a Belgian comic strip character and protagonist in the comic strip series Spirou et Fantasio… He also serves as the mascot of the Belgian comic strip magazine Spirou.

OK, I know this because I’ve just looked Spirou up on Wikipedia. But I was prompted to look him up by meeting him in various guises all over the place at the weekend.

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - SpirouSpirou was big at the Brussels Comic Strip Festival. I’m not just talking about the Spirou-shaped balloon whose crotch the young man is groping in the photo. There was a whole section in one of the festival tents dedicated to this intrepid bellhop-come-boy-reporter. Every other person seemed to be wearing Spirou pill-box hats.

Tintin surprised(And I’ve just gone through all my photos and found not one to back up that last statement. Not one!)

Mind you, I’m still no wiser about what Spirou was advertising at the Atomium in May.

Fête de la BD/Stripfeest

Comic Strip Festival: Things to leave outside
Comic Strip Festival: To leave outside…

The Fête de la BD/Stripfeest as the Comic Strip Festival is called locally is pretty big. I don’t mean it can hold a candle to Comic-Con in the USA (judging by all I’ve seen on YouTube), but in Brussels, it’s an event. It spreads over the whole weekend, it occupies the big park opposite the royal palace, it attracts comic fans from across at least the Francophone world. And on the Sunday a parade of inflatable characters winds through the city to the sound of  walking  bands.

For all these reasons it seemed appropriate to take myself and my camera off to the park on Sunday.

Inflation problems

According to the programme I found on-line, the parade was supposed to leave the palace courtyard at 2pm. When I arrived at 1:45, though, it was obvious some of the characters were suffering inflation problems.

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - Garfield
Garfield lay on his back and Le Chat was face down, levitating a metre over the cobbles. A gusty wind wasn’t helping.
Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - Le Chat
I’d seen ads for volunteers to help manhandle the balloons through the streets and I suppose most of the inflation teams were also volunteers. I could have waded in to help, but, nah. They would probably manage better without my interference.

I think these soldiers below would have liked to help out too. (Sadly, we’ve become all too familiar with scenes like this over the last few months.)

Strip Cartoon Festival: Security presence

In the festival ground

So I went for a walk through the festival. Four long tents occupying avenues through the park, each filled with stalls dedicated to cartoons. You could buy vintage cartoons and new; vintage “merchandise” and new.

Comic Strip Festival: Collectors cornerOr you could meet cartoonists and stand in line for an autograph. Or join a master class.

Strip Cartoon Festival: Workshop 2You might meet characters in costume for a photo op.

Cosplay - Alex the boy legionaire and friends

(I think that’s Alix in the middle with Julius Caesar and Alix’s sidekick Enak from The Adventures of Alix.)

And you could read – read – read – read…

Strip Cartoon Festival: Reader 1
Strip Cartoon Festival: Reader 2
Comic Strip Festival: Reader 3
Comic Strip Festival: Reader 4
I don’t really know what was going on below here – although at a wild guess it had something to do with Marvel Comics.

Comic Strip Festival: The Marvel Mobile

Absent friends

There were noticeable absences. Apart from the van above (if it really was from Marvel), almost nothing from the world of English comics. (Nothing till the parade anyway.) Nothing obviously from Japan or South Korea either. I came away with the feeling of having seen a world that was at once familiar but alien. Which is kind of what you want from a festival that predominantly celebrates fantasy and science fiction. But it’s kind of disturbing too.

I wonder if French speakers get the same frisson visiting English language conventions.

The Comic Strip Band

The photographer in me was also a bit disappointed that there were so few people in costume. Cosplay is such an eye-catching feature of Anglophone events nowadays. Fortunately there was this band of pirates. They played first to keep people’s spirits up at inflation square, and then walked in the parade.

Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 1
Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 3
Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 5At last the parade got under way, and finally here were a few familiar faces. From Star Wars: BB-8,

Comic Strip Festival: BB-8 BalloonRey,

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay - Rey… and Darth Vader.

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay - Darth VaderI think Darth Vader is a little like Father Christmas. It’s amazing how he can get around and be at so many events in so many places all over the world. (And the galaxy.) Not a lot like Father Christmas, of course. Just a little.

And look below here, from Tintin – Thomson and Thompson.

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay -Thomson and Thompson

There was a real problem getting the balloon characters out of the park and across the road into town. The electrified tram lines were a serious barrier.

Comic Strip Festival: Getting the balloons under the tram linesBut once their wranglers had wrestled them down and under, the parade could proceed.

Comic Strip Festival: Le Chat balloon in processionAnd I think the wranglers felt a real sense of achievement.

Comic Strip Festival: Handling the balloons is funAh! Look! That guy to the left is wearing a Spirou pill-box hat! You see, not fibbing.

Comic Strip Festival: Le Chat leads the flags


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The adventures of Hergé

I’m not going to pretend that Tintin was a significant feature of my childhood, but I was aware of him and his adventures. Mrs SC feels much the same, although I think her childhood exposure may have been greater than my own. I have come across some of the Tintin books (along with one or two Lucky Lukes) among the pile of well-thumbed Asterix albums in my wife’s childhood home, suggesting she and her siblings had a more French-oriented experience than my sister and I.

Here in Belgium Tintin is something of a national hero and you soon realise (if you didn’t know it already) that Tintin’s creator, Georges Remi, was Belgian. Georges Remi’s initials, reversed (RG) and spoken in a French accent become Hergé, which is how Georges Remi signed his cartoons.

Herge

There’s even a Hergé museum, which is where Mrs SC and I found ourselves on Sunday.

Like many places in Wallonia it is at one time not that far away, yet not the easiest place to get to. Located in a town called Louvain-la-Neuve. It’s a fairly short train journey from Brussels, but for us at least finding the train wasn’t straightforward. The museum has a website with instructions for “Localization”, and it advises train travellers to visit the SNCB website – this is the website of Belgian Rail.

Belgian Rail has a search function where you can input your departure point and destination (“station, stop, address”) and – in theory – get information about your train. However, you do have to know exactly where you are going. The Hergé museum advises you to “choose destination Louvain-la-Neuve”, but do so and the search engine replies: “Your input is ambiguous.” It then gives you about twenty options to choose among. There are a lot of stops at Louvain-la-Neuve, but none of them is the Hergé museum.

seagull

Our first attempt to visit the museum was scuttled by this confusion. However, we persisted and the next time we were in the Brussels Central Station we asked a young man with “Student” printed across his Belgian Rail sweatshirt. “Ah, no. What you want is Louvain-la-Neuve-Université because the museum is located next to l’Université de Louvain.” And so it was.

Louvain-la-Neuve is a rather disturbing place. It appears to have been built completely new, sometime in the 1970s, solely to house a university – the French language, Catholic University of Louvain. On Sunday morning it was giving a good impression of a film set for a rather creepy science-fiction/horror movie. One of those films in which most people have been stolen away by aliens, or turned into zombies that only come out at night, while the few who remain go about their lives apparently oblivious to the population disaster that has struck their town.

Herge museumThe Hergé museum is housed just a short walk from the echoing centre of Louvain-la-Neuve in a purpose-built, architecturally designed edifice that sits like a ship in a grassy dry dock, reached by bridges from a couple of sides. It’s an interesting building, odd angles and white with big windows. The entrance (as you can see from the photo) gives a passable imitation of an open book – one that’s been well-read and has pages coming loose. Sadly, the architecture is a wonderful shell for less inspiring contents.

I can’t say the Hergé museum is the most overpriced and boring museum I’ve ever visited. (That honour goes to a museum of natural history on Malta.) But at €9.50 per adult it isn’t cheap and though I wouldn’t call it boring, I wouldn’t call it exciting either. It certainly wants to be exciting and gets very excited about Hergé: “one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century”, it calls him. It seems Hergé had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being a commercial artist. The museum responds to this by going out of its way to praise him for his innovation and success in the field of commercial graphics. He was a “[g]raphic designer, caricaturist, cartoonist, illustrator, storyteller… a multi-talented artist who was a perfect reflection of the twentieth century.”

Yeah. Right.

Seriously, the only reason Hergé is widely known – the only reason he has a whole museum dedicated to him – is because of Tintin. The tension between the man and his creation is palpable throughout the museum, and the curators are aware of it. At the very beginning of the audio guide one recorded voice demands to learn about Tintin while another promises Tintin but insists there is so much more. But there really isn’t. Not here, anyway. And actually there’s not a lot of Tintin either.

Perhaps that’s unfair. There is a lot of Tintin, but so many opportunities are missed. Considering the reason for the museum’s existence and its star attraction is not Hergé but Tintin, a beloved children’s cartoon character, the museum is absolutely not designed to appeal to children. In fact, I think the only people who might find the Hergé Museum truly gripping would be the sort of adults who collect comic books and memorabilia.

Despite the museum’s attempts to enter the digital age with an audio guide on a smartphone, the material it has is presented in a crushingly traditional way. Glass cases display objects Hergé owned; framed pictures of original strips hang on the walls… and that’s about it. Beautifully lit, spacious, architecturally designed gallery after gallery with glass boxes and framed pictures. For variety there are occasional video screens. There’s almost nothing to do but walk, look, read, listen. The relief when we found the stereoscope images from Hergé’s research collection and were able to operate the machines to switch pictures. It wasn’t much, to be sure, but in the desert of monotony one learns to be grateful for even a little variety.

Waterfront

More than this, after a short while you begin to suspect the museum is presenting a highly edited account of Tintin and Hergé’s lives – so highly edited that the same information, the same pictures, the same video clips are recycled in the galleries and the audio guide over and again. We gave up listening to the guide during what seemed to be the third run-through of Hergé’s biography, and gave up on the museum itself after the fourth or fifth gallery.

Some of the information you don’t get from the museum you can find on Wikipedia. For example, while the museum tells you Tintin started out in 1929 as a weekly cartoon strip in the children’s supplement to the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, Wikipedia tells you the earliest Tintin strips were right-wing Catholic propaganda for children. The first strip (1929-1930) was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. (It is the only story Hergé seems in later life to have been embarrassed about – he never redrew it or republished it in colour as he did all his other early Tintin stories.)

The second story was not an improvement. Tintin in the Congo (1930) with its caricature Africans and paternal colonists still attracts criticism – most recently, in Sweden, when there was a big row about whether or not copies of the album should be displayed in libraries and loaned out to children.

Hergé, who was in his early 20s when he came up with Tintin, did grow more serious and more sensitive with the passage of time. Later stories starting with The Cigars of the Pharaohs (1932) and continuing with The Blue Lotus (1934) began to introduce more complex storylines and more relatively sympathetic characters, as well as developing a cleaner, more direct drawing style which came to be known as ligne claire. (This is presented in the museum.)

Tintin quiff

Although the propaganda was toned down, Tintin continued to be imbued with conservative values. The fact that Hergé went on to publish Tintin stories in approved publications during the German occupation of Belgium, 1939 to 1944, led many to conclude he was a collaborator if not a committed Nazi supporter. He was certainly identified as a collaborator by the Belgian resistance. However the fact that he was “only” drawing cartoons for children seems to have counted in his favour. Though blacklisted for a time after liberation, he was never put on trial and eventually his wartime activities were officially described as those of “a blunderer rather than a traitor”. He was allowed to resume a professional life. (This is glossed over in the museum.)

Hergé’s Catholicism also took a beating. His first marriage seems to have been less than happy and a consequence of social pressure at Le Vingtième Siècle. His first wife was the secretary of his editor at the newspaper. A series of affairs, with the inevitable accompanying Catholic guilt, was followed by a divorce and eventually a second marriage. According to Wikipedia, towards the end of his life Hergé may have been more of a Taoist than a Catholic. (None of this is in the museum – at least not in the first three reiterations of his biography that I listened to. Possibly because his second wife was responsible for establishing the museum after his death, and possibly because the museum is in the grounds of a Catholic university.)

Tintin and seagull

The museum shop and “café” between them show the that the museum has clearly identified the economic group it expects to appeal to. The shop is packed with overpriced memorabilia – mostly plastic (or even ceramic) models of Tintin and other characters from the albums. Want a Tintin moon rocket? It comes in sizes from a few centimetres high to one taller than a full-grown Belgian man (1.786). You can also buy Tintin albums in various translations (so there is something for the kids after all). You can probably get a fizzy drink or a cup of coffee in the café too, if you ask really nicely, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the bill of fare. Three course meals are what they want to sell you. We decided the museum had already got enough of our cash and went looking for something else.

We ended up eating largely tasteless but faintly savoury waffles at a Belgian fast-food establishment in the by now slightly more awake Louvain-la-Neuve. Hardly a culinary delight, but not nearly as expensive as the food in the Hergé Café. And after that we took ourselves back to Brussels.

So that was our Sunday.

(By the way, the museum is very protective of Hergé’s copyright and forbids photography – which is my excuse for the paucity of illustrations this week.)


This week’s recording is not quite as good as I would have wished – none of my own ambient recordings were useable and the editing process got a bit rushed. Some background sounds courtesy of Freesound.org and Freesound uploaders zagi2, sagetyrtle and cris. Many thanks!

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.