Happy Memorial Day!!
While in the US we enjoy a rich tradition and history of comics, we should all keep in mind that comics develop in other styles in different geographical areas of the world. The implications of this sometimes escapes us: Other cultures create comics nurturing different styles, inventing or re-inventing new ways of graphical storytelling, creating new opportunities and developing new concepts. Two of these types of comics that come to mind are Manga (From Japan) and European comics.
For most casual comic book reader in the US (KEYWORD here being “casual”) there are two important factors that will determine your current knowledge of European comics:
1. The lack of resources for importing comics.
By this I mean that in the US we have a very closed market which on top of that is usually saturated and filled to the max. The target audience for comics in the US has been, historically and statistically speaking, children and young adults. Only in the later part of the XXth century did comics started to gain status as a reputable art form where adults can find solace and enjoyment. Well, when you are selling comics for profit, the market (or the perception of what your market is) trumps everything else.
There is also the factor that we lacked good translations of these foreign materials, as well as the lack of scouts that recommend European comics to the US editors.
C’mon, the US was the support (economical, political and moral) of Europe, after WWII, and the US felt that it had no reason to break their isolationist disposition. The US was a world onto itself, and foreigners and foreign trends came into our country, we never sent out curriers to bring them in!!!
This also ties in with the lack of exchange programs between publishing houses, where they could keep the channels open to explore the benefits of exchanging artists and writers.
This is good and bad. Good because it keeps work in the US. Bad because there are good/ amazing pieces of work in the European comic books scene that either never get here or even if they do, they are seldom given the treatment they deserve, and the publishers cheap out with shabby press-work, or by incredibly literal (and dumb) translations that makes the US audiences go: SAYWHOMEANWHATUUUUH???
2. Whether the reader is receptive to European influences.
This factor was amazingly simple to spot back in the 70’s and the 80’s because the few friends I had in the US who enjoyed comics where always asking me bring them back specific comics from my trips overseas, till I gave up and just started giving them the address of the publisher and the number to their Catalog department. (It felt weird going through customs with a luggage full of European comics one too many times). In the 90’s with the advent of the Internet it got slightly easier to RESEARCH where to buy them (E-comerce wouldn’t go in full swing till early 2000) but these people are still far and in between.
US Audiences tend to think that European comics are complex, and very graphic, either on violence or regarding sex, and usually very long-winded and brainy.
Well, that is not usually so.
In the European market you have every kind of publication: Children’s comics, Sexy comics, Philosophical Comics, Violent Comics, Humor comics, Pornographic comics, full-of-themselves comics, color, black&white, fanzines, magazines formats, crime, romance, etc etc.
Another big difference between US Comics and European Comics (and this one is very hard to quantify) is the audiences and their life experiences.
We Americans are simple people, with great hearts and great dreams, but as the descendants of immigrants we are a very practical lot and have little patience for abstractions. Thus, we always dealt with things better when we label them or pigeon-hole them. That, and the fact that our backgrounds are full of puritanical-christian concepts may account for why since very early on, we strive to keep comics as a form of entertainment for kids. Remember, dad has to make a living, and put food on the table, so those yonder books with them funny pictures must be for the young’uns. Don’t get me wrong, illustrations in newspapers and high-brow publications were very well regarded in the 19th and 20th century. But the medium that we know as comics, the one that descended from pulps and that was formed in the early 1900’s (although the more purists will argue that the western civilization saw the birth of comics towards the end of the 19th century) that always remained in the eyes of the US reader, a thing for kids, until the later part of the 20th century.
Meanwhile, back at the other side of the pond, we have those wild and craaaazy Europeans that are experimenting with the things that we don’t take seriously here in the states, such as Blues, Jazz and comics, and their bona-fide artists have no qualms about establishing themselves as “artists” in those mediums, and taking their craft seriously. And while us in the good old states have had only 4 centuries of christianism in one form or other denomination, in Europe they had a few millennia of back and forth love/hate relationship with religious states and various forms of theocracies, so they have less qualms about dealing with sex and erotic themes in their arts, and that trickles down into arts, and by proximity, comics.
Well, now that we have reviewed a bit of history explaining why things become the way they did, now let’s focus on more modern times, so we can start comparing the two. America, in its love for labeling, had to come up with a self-censoring entity called the Comics Code Authority, after the McArthism period, and the government embarked in a witch hunt to find blame on what they considered a corruption of the youth. Since it was unlikely that they would place blame on poor parenting, they shifted blame to the comics.
After closing down EC comics most publishing houses adhered to the Comic Code Authority, resulting in interesting books that were forbidden to approach “touchy” subjects. Now you may think “Well, children shouldn’t be exposed to grisly murders in comics” and I would agree with you, stating that’s why they have parents that should monitor what they read and don’t read. Not create a department of censorship that affects a whole industry! We will leave the issue of the CCA here and maybe dedicate it a whole post on itself at a later time.
Fastforward to 1970’s and enter Jim Warren into the publishing scene. He wants to create comics that are for adults; he wants to bring to the public what he thinks his story needs, without censorship or imposed restrains. What to do about the CCA albatross? He said let’s publish these comics on larger paper format, and call them Magazines. And magazines can’t be considered comics, can they? Voila’!! For the first time in a long time in the US we get a series of comics for adults, with adult themes that are not “pornographic” in nature. But what did Jim Warren do in order to obtain stories and artists? He taps foreign publishers and using his contacts at the Spanish publisher Ediciones Ilustradas subcontracts artists and stories from Europe and Asia.
It is from the house that Warren built (Warren Publishing) that we get Esteban Maroto, Jose Ortiz, Fernando Fernandez (credited with the creation of Vampirella) working from the publisher in Spain, and from the Filipines we get to enjoy the majesty of Alex Niño, and Alfredo Alcala among others, at least for a few years, before Warren closes shop, partially due to low sales created by the economic crisis (Oil crisis, paired with the Watergate scandal, in case you are too young to remember or have flunked US recent history in school).
But the flood gates have just opened to the European influence, and if flows both ways. Later, the French publisher Humanoides Associetes in France concedes the rights to a publisher in the US to start publishing under the imprint Heavy Metal, and even Marvel decides to initiate an imprint with adult themes, called Curtis, and following on the Jim Warren Premise, they also called their books Magazines and not comics. And in a funny turn of events, amazing artists such as Richard Corben who started working in Europe and develop a huge following there despite being virtually ignore in the states, now are published in the states, and come home to some recognition.
While in the late 1980’s Moore and Gibbons are busy creating Watchmen, David Lloyd is giving form to the script of Alan Moore V for Vendetta, and Frank Miller is readying his Dark Knight Returns, in Europe we had the concept of albums (the European designation for Graphic Novel) floating around for decades prior. Herge has the adventures of Tintin already collected in album format in the 1950’s and they continue to this day to be reprinted in that luxury format. We are talking glossy hardcover, with glossy pages in full color.
One of the glaring differences that Europeans (versus the US publishers AND audiences) is that they seem to master the art of making comic albums for all ages without having to relay too much on gimmicks such as superheroes or heroic fantasy. Exhibit A would be Tintin, while exhibit B would be Asterix and Obelix.
Secondly, in Europe we find the parents going to a books store and letting the kid pick his comics while the parent head over to the section of graphic novels, and picks up Jacks Tardi, or Moebius, and lets the kid go home with something suitable for his age, like Spiderman or Superman.
Thirdly, Europeans have no problems getting Marvel and DC titles imported into most modern countries. They may suffer from continuity, meaning that unlike us in the US, they can’t go to a comic shop and pick up old issues of Daredevil in the comic bin, the ones from 1978 that they are missing from their collection, and the European publishers usually only publish archs, like the Frank Miller’s saga of Daredevil, or the John Byrne relaunching of superman, or the Thor period that Kirby did, or the Green Goblin and Gwen’s death, for Spiderman, and then they may stop publishing that hero, or discontinue the whole line altogether. But Europeans tend to shop on both sides of the isle, while the audiences in the US (up until recently) had to relay only on HEAVY METAL, or some isolated magazine like that to enjoy the art of Milo Manara, or the stories of Enki Bilal. They barely had options, nor barely could should outside the Bit Two (Marvel or DC). Europeans did favor European titles, but they also take home some DC/Marvel title as light reading in between.
Fourthly, they are a more educated country in general. I know, I know, it hurts to say it, and it bothers me to no end, but I’ve seen their curriculums for grade schools and high schools and their public schools can kick our public schools (in average) any time in questions of general world knowledge, history, math, physics, world literature and geography. We do tend to excel in American History and American Geography, mind you. So they tend to prefer more brainy subjects in their topics and themes, and they also have a more mature preference on their subject matters.
Our saving grace is the dozens of smaller publishers that have appeared on the landscape in the last decade. They have shaken things up for the Big Two, and are keeping things interesting, so much, that I’ve seen some IDW and Image titles appear already in some European countries. And the Europeans love it!
I truly believe that the European comic-book lover and its American counterpart are similar at heart, the only thing that makes a big difference is that we in the US are not challenged enough, neither on our educational system nor in our cultural environment, and thus we tend to be a bit more “immature” in our tastes, while in Europe you are dealing with Latin and Philosophy in high school, (not college, mind you) and that forces you to realize that the world is much bigger than where you live and were born, and also makes you pause before you scream a “pride filled slogan” such as “MY COUNTRY IS NUMBER ONE” when you haven’t lived in any other country, and are totally unqualified to make that statement. Patriotism is nice, but ignorance doesn’t look well under any disguise.
But the huge divide in taste that existed in 1980’s and prior is narrowing.
Most of the latest successful titles I’ve seen published in the last 20 years have that degree of maturity and adult sensitivity that usually make them successes in Europe also. And those Europeans seem to be always receptive to the freshness (immaturity?) that we bring into our masterpieces, and they seem to love us for it (Hey, don’t the French love Jerry Lewis??)
Let me clarify on one thing: I am not portraying EVERYTHING European in comics in a rosy light. There are way too many voices overseas that refuse to take seriously American comics, and too many snobbish critics who insist that our artists are mostly subpar. And I haven’t even mention the trashy and low-brow porn they produce over there, that sometimes is not even worth the pulp spent on printing it (Ergo the term “Euro-trash”).
But I wanted to focus on the positive differences that European comics have to offer in order to help you, faithful readers, expand your comic horizons. After all it is easy for us in the United States to already appreciate all the good things we already have here, so you don’t need me to toot our own horn!
Now I hope I have motivated you to start searching for some European authors and check them out.
To show my love, I will compile a list of “sene qua non” (Latin for Indispensables… and yep! That’s me showing off again my worldly knowledge while coming across like a snob) that may help you, fearless reader, hone in your skills and catch up with our European counterparts and the good stuff they have to offer.
You may not like everything you read, but for sure it will be a “different” experience.
The ComicWatcher’s European Comic book List (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
Forgive me if there are some inconsistencies with how the graphics display. The Gods of WordPress are not on my side despite retrying and trying for at least 20 times!
Lieutenant Blueberry by Jean Michel Charlier and Jean “Moebius” Giraud.
A Western saga about a sourthern Officer at the end of the Civil War (The US, not the Marvel one). Amazing historical detail on the art, with scripts full of twists and turns and great characters.
PUBLISHED IN THE US: It was published in the US a while back in TPB by Epic Comics and Dark Horse Comics.
Torpedo 1936 by Bernet and Abuli.
Short stories about a hitman in New York and Chicago in 1936. Very graphic, very raw, very shocking, with great stories and very grimm art.
US PUBLISHER: IDW Publishing.
The Nikopol Trilogy by Enki Bilal.
Scy-fy romp regarding a resurrected soldier who gets used by the “gods” to bring to fruition their masterplan. Amazing Art.
No known US PUBLISHER (What a shame!)
Adventures of Tintin by Herge.
Fun and family friendly adventures of a young reporter, globe-trotting and solving mysteries. A classic in every sense of the word.
US Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Adventures of Asterix and Obelix by Uderzo and Gosciny.
This French humor classic narrates the adventures of a small Gaul town that is resisting the Roman colonization thanks to a magic potion, and a set of hilarious characters.
Great for the whole family, adults and kids alike (and I am not kidding when I include the adults here!).
US PUBLISHER: ORION
Vito Nervio by Alberto Breccia.
Argentinian master storyteller had a foray into the action-hero genre, and Vito is a now recognized worldwide as a seminal influence in the Noir detective genre. Technically, we should consider it American comic since it was produced in the South AMERICAN continent. But the Europeans spent more time singing praises and publishing it than we did, sadly.
No known US PUBLISHER (Another crying a shame!)
Alvar Mayor by Enrique Breccia.
And now for another member of the Breccia family, Enrique. This masterpiece in story telling narrates the dreamlike adventures of a Spaniard conquistador witnessing life in SouthAmerica during the years of the “discovery” (the quotes is cause the natives had already discovered it, but who am I to argue with History books) and colonization.
US Publisher: Doedytores
Hombre series by Jose Ortiz and Antonio Segura.
Jose Ortiz is one of those seriously underatted artists, who came onto his own working for the Warren Publishing family in the 70’s. Here, with scripts of Antonio Segura, they created a post-apocalyptic world where the life of a man is worth less than a bullet, and rat-stew is a delicacy in the menu. Gut wrenching, very mature, and should be read with that disclaimer “May hurt readers sensibilities” etc…
NO US PUBLISHER, and this one kills me!!!
The Professionals by Carlos Gimenez.
The artists compiles in these albums his amazing memories of working for Ediciones Ilustradas in Spain, (and producing stories for Warren Publishing) while living in Barcelona, and dealing with the comics scene of the time.
Hilarious and eye-opening. Lots of situations “for adults only”, but more hilarious than offensive.
No US PUBLISHER (AAARGGG!)
Jaques Tardi C’était la guerre des tranchées
Just one of the most representative Works of this artist, the other being the adventures of Adele. Raw, gritty and existential.
US PUBLISHER: Fantagraphics Books
Indian Summer or Click Series by Milo Manara.
This amazing artist received some deserved exposure in the American market with Indian Summer, since it had a western context, and it seemed more easily digestable for American Audiences, but the story (ByHugo Pratt, another master comic storyteller) is a classic by its own merits. The other series, CLICK, is a showcase of erotica, and letting Mr. Manara do what he does best, drawing amazingly sexy women!
US PUBLISHER: Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing (June 1994)
Largo Winch by Philippe Francq and Jean Van Hamme.
Can you make a good thriller using elements on international high finance world? After you read Largo Winch you will say “How come no one did this before???” is that good.
NO US PUBLISHER but you can get it via UK publisher Cinebook, Ltd
Corto Maltesse by Hugo Pratt
This recently deceased master storyteller lived all over the world a life that is as exotic as the characters he created. This dashing sailor was his most famous creation and gave audiences adventures that were borderline with fantasy, historical fact, and the most dreamlike narrative you can find in comics.
US PUBLISHER: Harvill
Blake and Mortimer by Edgar P. Jacobs
Two globe trotting crime sleuths made this fine Belgian series (like their chocolates) into a classic. Penned by Edgar P. Jacobs, centering on sci-fy themes and spionage.
NO US PUBLISHER but you can get it via UK publisher Cinebook, Ltd
Mortadelo Y Filemon, by Francisco Ibañez
These two Secret Agents penned by Spain’s F. Ibañez have been making Europeans laugh for more than 50 years now!
They have been translated to A LOT of other languages with other names German, Norwegian, Czech (Clever & Smart), Dutch (Paling & Ko), Portuguese (Mortadelo e Salaminho/Salamão e Mortadela), Swedish (Flink och Fummel), Danish (Flip & Flop), French (Mortadel et Filémon;, also Futt et Fil), Italian (Fortune & Fortuni, also Mortadella e Filemone), Greek (Antirix kai Symphonix), Finnish (Älli ja Tälli)
How come they never made it to the US is a mystery to me. Maybe they are too violent (No more than Tom and Jerry were)? Too prone to injury and the creator is afraid that parents may sue him for kids wanting to imitate the pair (albeit who may want to imitate their mis-adventures… I can’t fathom)
NO US PUBLISHER
This list doesn’t cover (Not even close) all the European titles worth mentioning. Already in the erotic arena, there are hundreds of publications worth noting, but I am trying to keep this blog as PG as i can, so I won’t go there.
I hope this list keeps you busy for a while.
Did I miss your favorite European collection/author?
C’mon, leave me a comment and let me know!!
That’s what the long holiday weekends are for! To leave comments on your favorite blogs!!!