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Comic Strips and Animation: The Belgian Tradition

Philippe Moins explores Belgium's long tradition of comics and animation.

Belgium possesses a rich and lively tradition in the field of comic strips. Some of the most popular comic heroes in Europe like Tintin (Hergé), The Smurfs (Peyo) and Lucky Luke (Morris), are the creations of Belgian cartoonists.

The Flute of Six Smurfs. © Belvision.

Immediately after World War II, Belgium developed a comic publishing industry, promoted by the creation of two major French-language comic magazines: the weekly Tintin published by Lombard beginning in 1946, and the weekly Spirou published by Dupuis since 1938. Originally intended for a Belgian audience, these publications subsequently won their core readership in France. In a great explosion of popularity, the successful authors at Lombard, Dupuis and Casterman (which did not publish a weekly magazine, but issued Tintin in book form) saw their work translated and published in a large number of other countries. Today, the printings of these authors have reached a considerable number. Hergé leads with several hundred million comic books despite the fact that the weeklies have run out of steam. In fact, Tintin magazine has disappeared altogether.

In this context, it was inevitable that the film industry would become interested in the success of these comic books. In the 1960s. Two live-action features based on The Adventures of Tintin were produced in France. Obviously, however, animation, both for television and cinema theaters, would claim the lion's share of audiovisual adaptations of the Belgian comic strips.

Tintin and the Temple of the Sun. © Belvision.

The Belgian animation studios created for this purpose, played an important and often misunderstood role. In the absence of a true film industry able to sustain these projects, a rather familial and paternalistic side to these studios existed. This undoubtedly explains why their productions were tinged with a type of congenial amateurism that led them to reinvent things that had been discovered long ago.

Today, numerous comic book publishers depend on animated versions as a basic business to help maintain and develop the fame of their characters. As a sign of the times, they aim only at television and have enlarged their horizons to the point of practically renouncing the work of the local professionals, despite how good their reputation might be.

The Precursors

Let's go back for a few moments and establish that even during the 1940s, several attempts had already been made to adapt comic strips to film.

Right after the Liberation, the first animation studio began at Liège. Thanks to the publisher Chagor, a very ambitious project saw the light of day. Chagor published a comic book called Wrill, named after an irreverent little fox created by Albert Fromenteau, and largely inspired by the French cartoonist Calvo. Both the comic book that published his adventures and the cartoon film series intended for theaters were called Wrill. The first episode, Wrill Listens to the BBC, clearly shows, in the spirit of the times, their satirical intentions; one thinks of the legendary 1943 Disney film Der Führer's Face. Of course, like most of the European cartoons of that period, the animation flowed and the roundness of the figures consistently gazed in the direction of the Disney productions.

Albert Fromenteau's studio merits our attention, despite the fact that it did not fulfill its promise. Though the comic books lasted a little longer, a fire, a faulty distribution scheme, and of course the extremely limited local popularity of the character account for Wrill's demise in the cinema. However, Wrill did contain the seed that would lead to the glory of Belgian animation: the adaptation of characters from comic strips into animated cartoons.

Some other attempts can be cited around that same time in Brussels. Paul Nagant's CBA Studio is where Pierre Culliford (future creator of The Smurfs), Maurice De Bevere (Lucky Luke) and Eddy Paape (Luke Orient) took their first steps, before they joined the staff at Spirou magazine.

One exception to this two-dimensional picture is Claude Misonne, a puppeteer. Between 1946 and 1955, she produced several ambitious short films, sometimes mixing live-action with animated puppets. In 1948 she made a feature based on the adventures of Tintin called The Crab with the Golden Claws. This film rather shockingly changed the graphic universe of Hergé into a realm closer to that of George Pal or Jiri Trnka!

Wrill Listens to the BBC. © Docu Folioscope.

The Golden Age Of Animated Features

In 1955 Raymond Leblanc, head of Lombard publisher of the Tintin comic books, founded the Belvision animation studio, which brought Belgian animation out of its provinciality by offering the first television version of The Adventures of Tintin. This was followed by semi-animated versions of Goscinny and Uderzo's Oumpah Pah,Dino Attanasio's Spaghetti, Tibet's Chick Bill and other heroes from the Tintin comic books.

In direct competition to Lombard, the Dupuis publishers established an animation studio called TVA Dupuis. TVA Dupuis essentially concentrated its efforts on television with, among other things, a black-and-white adaptation of The Smurfs, and several other films using the talents of Eddy Ryssack. However, Belvision would successfully attempt the transition to feature-length animated films for cinema theaters. They produced such films as Pinocchio in Outer Space (1964), Asterix the Gaul (1967), Asterix and Cleopatra (1968), Tintin and the Temple of the Sun (1969), Daisy Town [Lucky Luke] (1972), Tintin and the Lake of Sharks (1972), Gulliver (1975), and The Flute of Six Smurfs (1975). This demanding production schedule transformed Belvision into a veritable factory by European standards, in fact, it made some say at the time that Brussels had its own "Burbank." Indeed, Belvision was, along with London's Halas and Batchelor, one of the largest animation studios in Europe.

Compared to other commercial productions of that period, the Belvision films were well-made, even though they suffered from an uncertain artistic direction. The delicate transformation from the universe of the comic book to that of cinema was not always made without a clash. While they were too literal and graphically hybrid, these adaptations nonetheless had merit. They preserve a certain charm and garnered remarkable success. Aside from Gulliver (which mixes a live-action Gulliver played by Richard Harris with cartoon characters!) and Pinocchio in Outer Space (a strange sequel to Disney's Pinocchio, which is closer to Tezuka than Disney), all of these feature animations are adaptations of successful comic books.

If the first Asterix the Gaul was characterized by rather simple limited animation (it was originally planned for television), the studios following films display great care for the animation, with particular attention being paid to the elaboration of background details. As was typical, Hergé had a lack of interest in the two adaptations of Tintin. Therefore, he left the story and design of the films to Greg and his close collaborator Bob Demoor. Often the original cartoonists of the comic strips did not identify with the audiovisual counterparts. They regarded them as a simple means of augmenting the popularity of their comic books. Such an attitude obviously had incalculable consequences. At the beginning of the 1980s, Morris (Lucky Luke) and Peyo (The Smurfs) were both upset with their Belgian publisher Dupuis. They thought he lacked commercial aggressiveness in the international market so the creators allowed international businessmen to exploit their characters. Both creators had ended up with very limited control over the content of the adaptations. This explains why the comic book fans often scorn these derivative productions.

Only Goscinny, the French author of Asterix, and his collaborator, the cartoonist, Uderzo, really took a great interest in the filmic adaptations of their work - even to the point of breaking off with Belvision and creating their own Idéfix Studio in Paris with their French publisher Dargaud. The death of Goscinny ended Idéfix, but not a series of animated features produced in various European countries. Most recently, Asterix in America, was made in Germany in 1994 by Gerhard Hahn.

Mutations

As a consequence of such defections, by the end of the 1970s Belvision had to abandon its production of feature animation, and devote itself to making commercials and pilots for television series. Most recently they have produced, Cuvelier's Corentin and Goscinny and Tabary's Iznogoud. As for Lombard Publications, they were bought by Groupe Media Enterprises. Since Dupuis was purchased in 1985 by the Brussels Lambert company, the 1990s dawned with the two pinnacles of Belgian publishing ceasing to be family businesses; the strong local roots with all the inherent good qualities and faults were gone.

Quick and Flupke. © Casterman.

Today, other studios have filled the niche for creating classic animated cartoons for the general public. They advertise themselves as independent services for hire to the publishing companies and as a sign of the times, they work primarily for television. Such is the case with Graphoui in the mid-1980s (Quick and Flupke from Hergé) and today with Kid Cartoon (Carland Cross, Blake and Mortimer) or Sofidoc (Billy the Cat, The Cow). Most of these series are being co-produced with other European studios. For example, the regrouping of Eva Studios, in which Sofidoc took part, assembled the Welsh Siriol, the German Cologne Cartoon, and the French studio La Fabrique. This type of collaboration has been encouraged by the Media Program of the European Common Market (Cartoon). Also note that while Kid Cartoons goes with assured quality by using E.P. Jacobs' Blake and Mortimer, Sofidoc makes adaptations of less classic comic-book authors such as Stéphane Colman and Jonathan Demoor.

Dupuis publishers, whom the TVA studios abandoned some time ago, have reestablished an audiovisual department to produce a large series based on their characters Spiro and Fantasio (since his creation this little groom has been drawn by five successive cartoonists, which is quite rare in Europe!). Marsu Productions, the holding company for the rights of Marsupilami, another Dupuis deserter, signed with The Walt Disney Company. Here, we have an astonishing process. Franquin, after having taken over drawing the Spirou comic books, evolved the comic universe to the point where he could add new characters such as Marsupilami. Spirou did not belong to Franquin, so when he ceded the rights to his Marsupilami they went to Marsu Productions. Hence, we now have the heroes of a successful comic strip both doing very well, concurrently for different publishers.

As for the estate of Hergé, all the rights he controlled were ceded to Ellipse and Nelvana Studios, who are producing a series based on The Adventures of Tintin for Canal+ television. There is little chance though that Captain Haddock would be sold to one company and Milou to another, since the Hergé Foundation carefully preserves the integrity of his work, sometimes to the point of jealously, which, in Europe, gives rise to other kinds of controversy.

As you can see, an era is finished forever. Publishing houses like Lombard no longer have their own complete animation studio. One must say that they themselves have lost a part of their driving force in the market by becoming instruments of a more global strategy, led by those who will now forever hold the "portfolio of rights".

The Extraordinary Odyssey of Corentin Feldoë. © Cuvelier-Lombard.

Picha, Precursor Of The Politically-Incorrect Cartoon

Picha came from newspaper cartooning, where he excelled and attained international fame. Since 1975 he has devoted himself to the production of animated features. The story of The Shame of the Jungle perfectly reflects the irreverance of this master of causticity. "Tarzoon", the hero of the film, bears an especially post-1960s "liberal" attitude that prevailed in 1975, but which created some legal problems with the heirs of Tarzan. In fact, Picha's Tarzoon is a dull fellow, exclusively preoccupied with sex. For the entire length of the film, he submits to the whims of our facetious gagman. The student audience delighted at this film and made it a hit much as they did Ralph Bakshi's animated feature based on the great cartoonist R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat. In the same vein, Picha created his next film, Missing Link (1980). Much more sophisticated on a technical level, this feature is without question the best of the three produced by Picha. Some say that he had lost a little of his verve by his third feature The Big Bang (1986). However, the times had changed, and the humor of Picha could have just appeared to be too "simplistic." With only these three films, Picha reached a considerable international audience, and they still remain remarkable examples of the satirical genre. Today Picha carries on with a series of televised originals, like The Zoolympics and Bitch of Life which are produced in collaboration with the independent production company Y.C. Alligator.

Aside from the fact that he is a cartoonist and not a comic strip author, Picha is different from his parallel Belgian comic strip artists in another way as well: from the moment that he began working on his animated features, he completely stopped publishing in newspapers; going from one medium to another without retracing any of his steps. One should not speak of "adaptation" but rather of "reconversion." Picha became a true filmmaker, devoting all of his energy to his features, which perhaps explains the artistic success of the enterprise.

The revival of adult cartoons in the U.S. (like Klasky Csupo and Bill Plympton) might well validate Picha again in the genre in which he far exceled before anyone else.

Philippe Moins.

François Schuiten, The Outsider

François Schuiten (a cartoonist of well-known comic strips from which the series Dark Cities has been published in book form by Casterman, with story by Benôit Peeters) was always attracted to the cinema. Recently he collaborated with Suzanne Maes on the backgrounds for Taxandria, a feature by Raoul Servais. His series The Quarxs (Z.A. Productions), co-directed with Maurice Benayoun, is one of the too infrequent examples of computer graphics being easily worked into a story with finesse. This show's entomological catalogue of bizarre creatures, described in the jargon of the pseudo-scientific documentary, is without doubt the most original thing ever brought to the screen from the universe of a comic book cartoonist.

These two atypical examples, one achieving a certain public success, the other remaining less known, permits us to make an intelligent conclusion. Orphaned from their cartoonist parents, the audiovisual productions derived from comic strips in the last 20 years were created exclusively based on a commercial logic. In that context, they have successfully accomplished their goal, by pushing up the sales of comic books and the products derived from them. They have also paved a path for the next generation even as the Belgian tradition becomes a global one.

Translated from French by William Moritz.

Philippe Moins created the Brussels Animation Festival in 1982, and currently co-directs it with Doris Cleven.

Selective Bibliography

Francis Bolen, Histoire authentique, anecdotique, folklorique et critique du cinéma belge depuis ses plus lointaines origines, Bruxelles, Memo et Codec 1978.

Doris Cleven and Philippe Moins, le Cinéma d'animation en Wallonie et à Bruxelles, catalogue d'exposition, Bruxelles, Commissariat général aux relations internationales 1992

Hugues Dayez, le Duel Tintin-Spirou, Bruxelles, Luc Pire 1997

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