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What makes Belgian comics so successful?

Suzanne Cords yc
June 13, 2019

Belgian comic heroes like Lucky Luke and the Smurfs enjoy worldwide recognition. But what makes Belgium the No.1 producer of European comics? Can Dickie and Co. make it on the international stage?

Belgien | Szenenbild im Museum Hergé
Image: DW/S. Cordes

Belgium: land of beer, pralines — and comics. But the Belgian mania for graphically illustrated stories is not limited to the legendary The Adventures of Tintin, that timeless comic book classic that was first published 90 years ago.

"With more than 700 comic writers, Belgium is home to the highest density of comic creators and illustrators in the world," according to the official tourist website of the nation's comics capital, Brussels.

Indeed, the total circulation of comic series amounts to a staggering 40 million copies per year and comprises 60% of Belgium’s annual publishing revenue. It is no wonder that nation revers comics as the "9th art form."

Hergé as Trailblazer

Belgium's storied comics tradition is of course most often linked to Georges Remi, the author of the world-renowned The Adventures of Tintin series under the pen name Hergé. The comic serial about Tintin and his loyal white terrier first appeared in a children’s supplement to the Belgian newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle, but soon garnered an enthusiastic following from adults. And not only in the comic’s country or origin: Tintin sold in 85 other countries around the world.

"No Belgian remains so well-known as Tintin” said Didier Leick, spokesman for the Hergé Museum. “Tintin is not typically Belgian; he is a universal hero but he is not a superhero. He remains a relatable figure who captivates us."

Read moreHow Tintin creator Hergé reflected the ups and downs of the 20th century

Front cover of
"The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets" is the first volume of the Tintin series published in 1929,Image: Hergé

Hergé’s work inspired countless others to take to their pens and master the art of storytelling with pictures. He pioneered the ligne claire (clear line) illustrative style with its strong clear lines, precise contours, bold colors and low contrast  that became the gold standard for generations of comic illustrators to come.

The popularity of the comic genre proliferated thanks to the two weekly comic series: In 1938, the publisher Dupuis launched Spirou, a comics magazine that included the eonymous story of Spirou, a pageboy at the Moustique Hotel and his sidekick, the squirrel Pips; and from 1946 the father of Belgian comics, Hergé, published Tintin in Brussels. Both magazines showcased the talent of young authors and shaped the European comic scene for decades to come.

Comic Heroes

Also well-known far beyond Belgium's borders was Lucky Luke, first published in Spirou in 1946 and the creation of Belgian cartoonist Morris. The story of gunslinger Luke who can "who shoots faster than his shadow," and his loyal horse Jolly Jumper, the duo fight against the Dalton gang in the American wild west.

Read moreBelgian comic legend Tintin now in color as he tackles the Soviets

Another massive global Belgian comic hit was The Smurfs, which made their world debut in 1958 as a supporting actor. Its inventor, the illustrator Pierre Culliford, or Peyo, had not expected such overwhelming fondness for the blue dwarfs. Consequently, The Smurfs was later translated into 25 languages.

Lucky Luke
Lucky Luke und his loyal horse Jolly Jumper overcome all challenges Image: Lucky Comics

Another popular comic book from the mid-1950s was Ric Hochet, the story of a journalist and amateur detective who solved mysterious criminal cases involving werewolves, vampires and other supernatural figures.

"The success of the Belgian comic probably has something to do with the fact that they do not take themselves so seriously," Didier Leick explained. "They always contain surreal elements that appeal to audiences."

Balloon parade at the Day of Balloons in Brussels
"Le Chat" at the Balloons Day Parade in Brussels in 2013Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Hoslet

Belgian comic creations have remained prolific into the new millennium, with the beloved Le Chat (The Cat) comic strip by Philippe Geluck published in the Le Soir newspaper from 1983 until 2013.

The obese, anthropomorphic feline character dressed in a suit was known for absurd philosophical musings. "The cat is a tool for me to say what I want to say," Geluck told a Belgian newspaper. "Sometimes it's very philosophical, political and serious, and other times it's just crazy."

The Manga age

In honor of all the local comic heroes, a comic museum was opened in Brussels in 1989. Comic figures are also immortalized on numerous walls across the country; and at the annual Balloon's Day Parade, part of a comic fair that features inflated cartoon characters parading Brussels' main boulevards.

The newer Belgian comic heroes are no longer as well-known as Tintin or The Smurfs, however. Japanese mangas have long dominated the international market. But in Belgium at least, the citizens remain true to their fictional national heroes.

Tintin drawing fetches over €500,000 at Paris auction

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