Belgium: The Kingdom of Comics

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Flemish humor. Sounds like a joke about my imminent Sinus infection from all this rain, right? Now that you’ve indulged me my one terrible pun, let’s talk about Flemish humor. Or more broadly, Belgian humor. Beloved by us Americans for exports like high-end chocolate or the Dardenne Brothers or the muscles from Brussels, Belgium also has rich cultural traditions that include humor. The whole Flemish reference comes from the division of Belgium into three regions, each with their own language community: the Flemish region, or Flanders (no relation to Ned), speaks a variation of Dutch; the Walloon Region speaks a kind of French; and then there is the Brussels-Capitol Region that is bilingual. Also, lest we forget, somewhere off in the far East of Walloon is a small German-speaking community — isn’t there always? (I just don’t know anymore.)

A Variety headline in my inbox initially led me to Belgian humor, something to the effect of “Belgian Comedy takes Top Prize at Montreal.” I don’t actually have an online Variety subscription but somehow still receive 20 emails from them daily; still, I was able to decipher, amidst their crazy made up language of skedding and ankling and prexies, the title of the film as Hasta La Vista, or Come As You Are. The comedy not only took the grand jury prize at the festival, but was also voted audience favorite. According to THR, it is “about three disabled young men on a road trip in Spain’s wine country to lose their virginity in a specialty bordello.” Well, Belgian humor is dark. That much we can glean. A translation services article on translating humor describes Belgian humor as very straightforward where often the “oppressed entrench themselves.” So there you have it. Case closed. The film really does look like it strikes the appropriate hilarious and poignant chords; I suggest you watch the trailer here. But what does all of this have to do with comics?

First, let me point out that I’m not talking about comics as people. Belgium may have the most comic artists per square kilometer in the whole world, but I’m not implying the streets are lined with shoulder-to-shoulder stand-up comedians. No, I’m talking about a much less nightmarish scenario: comic strips. Those black-and-white serialized panels that appear in your daily newspaper, and if you’re lucky, in color on Sundays. Your Family Circus, your Dilbert, your Garfield, your Doonesbury. Comedy snobs may balk at their inclusion in the broad swath of “comedy,” but tough titty — judges say even Dilbert gets included in the humor canon.

While it may be difficult to unsarcastically classify Marmaduke as art, comic strips are revered as just that in Belgium. Belgians may be serious about the art of the comic strip, but they will pretty much poke fun at everything else. Which is important to know in understanding the comedy of their comic strips.

At the epicenter of reverence sits the Belgian Comic Strip Center, a museum in Brussels, housed in an Art Nouveau building, devoted exclusively to preserving the tradition of comic strips and nurturing new talent. The museum/research center considers itself a marriage of Art Nouveau — they’re really proud of the physical building — and the Ninth Art. In much of Europe, comics are considered the “ninth art,” a respect and title Belgian comic artist helped to build.  A character may still bemoan the cubicle doldrums, but in Europe it’s art and artfully done. In fact, Time magazine declared Belgium’s comic-strip culture “Europe’s richest.”

The museum itself houses a permanent exhibition called “The Birth of A Comic Strip,” where you can follow the pieces and players step by step that go into creating a comic strip. Start with the scriptwriter who hands the synopsis to the artist who hands his sketches to the letterer and coloring artist who gives the final inking to the printer who ultimately places the fate of the strip in the hands of marketing. All good things must pass through evil at some point.

The entire second floor of the Comic Strip Center is called the “Museum of Imagination.” Thank God Disney has yet to sue, because this permanent exhibit seems to be an exhaustive collection of the history of the Belgian comic strip from Hergé to Peyo. The museum also houses a gallery of comic strips from all around the world in 20 different languages, as well as a research center with 40,000 titles of theoretical work as well as albums, volumes and books of comics from all over. It might not be saucy cabaret theater, but the Belgian Comic Strip Center gives you a chance to channel your inner child again. Remember what you thought was funny when you were 7? Why not try and find it funny all over again?

Speaking of childhood, some of the most famous characters and series that came out of Belgium may have played a part in yours. Like, the Smurfs for example, or Les Schtroumpfs as the French call them and De Smurfen to the Dutch. The brainchildren of the aforementioned Peyo, real name Pierre Culliford, the Smurfs were themselves born out of a joke by the author who made up the word schtroumpf, and with a friend began using variations of the word to refer to everything. Kind of like in the Gus Van Sant film Gerry. Introduced in 1958, the series grew into a powerhouse franchise — spawning black-and-white animated films Belgium to the more recent live action atrocity from Hollywood (sorry, NPH). In the international versions, the Schtroumpfen name has been all but dropped at this point for the easier-to-pronounce “Smurfs,” but the legacy of Peyo’s little joke lives on as a multi-million dollar empire.

While the Smurfs may be the most well-known legacy to us, the original gangster of Belgian comics is TinTin. Described by another Belgian comic strip author Tibet as “God the Father” of Belgian comics, Hergé (aka Georges Rémi) created The Adventures of TinTin in the late 1920’s — mere years before Europe would tumble into turmoil. It was first published in the children’s pull-out section of a Belgian newspaper, but to date has been translated into 80 different languages and TinTin books have sold over 350 million copies, according to the its robust Wikipedia page. TinTin is a Belgian reporter who has a constant companion in his dog Snowy, and is surrounded by a cast of wacky and nefarious characters.

It’s possible I spent my childhood under a rock, but I had never really heard of or read TinTin. Whereas the Smurfs really took off here, TinTin remained most beloved in Europe and was perhaps one of the most influential series in the Ninth Art movement. Some of the earlier comics now appear quite dated, even featuring some questionable racial stereotypes and fascist inclinations — all of which Hergé chalked up to being a product of his environment. But the negative historical aspects cannot detract from the overall cultural impact.

Plus, pretty soon everyone in America will be snatching up all 24 albums of TinTin comics. Recently, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson collaborated on the film adaptation of the comic. Spielberg directed the first installment, Jackson will direct the next and TinTin will pretty much be guaranteed world domination. Here’s the trailer:

Looks better than the recent Smurfs film, but the character of TinTin has been changed from Belgian to British. Eh, all Europeans are the same — now pass me a cold Budweiser so I can relax with my shotgun on the bed of my pickup truck in peace. U-S-A U-S-A. TOBY-KEITH TOBY-KEITH.

To be fair, as is often the case with my Comedy Tourism pieces, this really is only scratching the surface of the Belgian comics and their deep-running influence. Not all comic strips that came out of Belgium were necessarily humorous, and not all of them were for children. Animation World Magazine called comic artist Picha the “Precursor of the Politically-Incorrect Cartoon” — his animated feature The Shame of the Jungle was primarily a dark, gag-filled comedy about sex and idiocy. The teaser will give you a pretty good idea (and it’s been dubbed in English — score one for the comedy tourist!)

For me, researching Belgian humor was a reminder that the world of comedy is more than just stand-up, sketch and film. In fact, I didn’t even touch on Flemish cabaret. Sounds like bawdy performance art about my imminent Sinus infection from all this rain, right? It’s not.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.