The graphic novel craze is taking over the world. Christopher Panzner investigates the European scene to see what the hottest properties are.
The Ninth Art. Thats how continental Europe sees comics. If you ask me, it should be the Eighth Art after drawing, painting, sculpture, music, literature, the performing arts and printmaking because it preceded cinema by several hundred, if not thousands, of years. But the tyranny of celluloid has bucked it in the pecking order (and printing, to proclaim itself the Seventh Art), even though sequential art, as its known to the elite, dates back to cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Parthenon and even the Sistine Chapel. (The origin of the word cartoon, in fact, dates from the Renaissance, what the Old Masters called full-size drawings on paper; typically, studies for frescoes which allowed them to link the elements of a composition painted onto fresh plaster over several days time.)
In an ironic twist, Marvels mad rush to the box office may mean that the lowly comicbook, known as the graphic novel in Europe, may finally get the respect its due and a legitimate place among the high arts. Especially if the American interpretation of graphic novel (i.e., sophisticated, adult-oriented) sees the dark of day.
Meanwhile, back on the shelves... European national treasures are making their way to the big screen, too.
If Nine was Eight
The graphic novel, the hardback book, oversized European version of American comicbooks, is venerated as an art form in Europe. Its a long tradition, dating back to 1837, when The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, created by Switzerlands Rudolphe Töpffer, was originally published in several languages in Europe (and, ironically, the first comicbook printed in America.)Pioneers of the graphic novel include not only Töpffer, but German Wilhelm Bush, Frenchman Georges (Christophe) Colomb and Brazilian Angelo Agostini. The origin of our comicbook, however, is usually associated with Richard Fenton Outcalts The Yellow Kid, which made its debut in 1896. (Outcalt not only synthesized the form, he invented the dialogue balloon with the pointed tail leading to the characters mouth.) Although the modern comicbook as we know it, small, cheap and paperback, was invented by a Hungarian named Paul Winkler, who made a deal with King Features Syndicate to do an eight-page weekly version of Disneys trademark Mickey Mouse called Journal de Mickey. And, well, 1938s Superman by artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel sealed our north American fate where content is concerned.
In its contemporary incarnation, the graphic novel is just that a long-form comic (or even manga), an illustrated prose novel or novella, often published as a series of comics or works in a book format. Usually between 48 and 100 pages, it can run to thousands. The term graphic novel, popularized by Will Eisner after describing his 1978s A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories as such, implies more serious, adult-oriented content as distinguished from the superhero-in-tights and animals-in-pants comicbook. But in Europe, the majority of comics are slick, hard bound graphic novels and, like manga, encompasses the more mature as well as the typical juvenile fare.
The sophistication of graphic novels has been slowly creeping, subliminally, into the American psyche. Most Americans are probably more familiar with graphic novel sensibilities through American movies such as Tron, Willow, Alien, The Abyss and The Fifth Element whose production designs and/or conceptual art were all done by the granddaddy of the modern era himself, Jean Moebius Giraud than such famous works as his Blueberry or LIncal. Among the pantheon of graphic novel gods, household names in Europe (although Im taking my life in my hands by only naming a few): Georges Hergé Remi(Tintin), AlbertUderzo (Asterix), Moebius, Philippe Druillet (Lone Sloane), Hugo Pratt (Corto Maltese), André Franquin (Marsupalami and Gaston Lagaffe), Maurice Morris de Bévère(Lucky Luke), Pierre Peyo Culliford(The Smurfs), Edgar P. Jacobs (Blake and Mortimer), Marcel Marlier (Martine), Jean-Jacques a.k.a. Sempé (Le Petit Nicolas), Grzegorz Rosinski (Thorgal), Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeline) and writers René Goscinny (Asterix, Lucky Luke and scores of others) and Enki Bilal (who also illustrates some of his work.) Apart from the Italian Hugo Pratt, all are pure products of the Franco-Belgian school of bande déssinée or BD (pronounced bayday).
With few exceptions, nearly all of the works cited have been turned into animated series and several into films. And, in some cases, live-action feature films. Those which havent been adapted are almost certainly on the drawing board as series or films.
The majority of the European studios making feature films from graphic novels are either French or Belgian, as are the properties (and are often Franco-Belgian-Canadian co-productions.) The biggest source of successful comics franchises comes from these two territories. Some, like Tintin, The Smurfs (Les Stroumpfs), Madeline, Martine and Asterix, are internationally renowned and beloved. Like most extremely successful European media franchises, they have been around for a very long time.
The hipper, edgier, nastier stuff is relatively recent, of course. Among the most famous pioneers were Les Humanoides Associés, the French collective of Moebius, Phillipe Druillet, Jean Pierre Dionnet and Bernard Farkas. Created in 1974, their Métal Hurlant magazine, which the U.S. embraced in 1977 under the banner Heavy Metal, featured fantasy, science fiction, sexndrugsnrocknroll and awesome artistic innovation that gave new meaning to the genre and invigorated the European scene. Gotlibs Lécho des Savannes (Echo of the Savannah),Claire Bretéchers Les Frustrés (The Frustrated) and Le Canard Sauvage (The Mad Duck), an art-zine, were also influential.
Like their Hollywood counterparts, European producers like a sure bet. As a result, the road to adapting popular and successful graphic novels to television is well traveled. Especially now, in this era of fickle and gun-shy broadcasters. The publishers, too, understood it was in their interest and often co-produced, usually through their production arms, but the trend has been to return to their core activity of publishing and to scale back, sell off, consolidate, distribute existing catalog and to co-produce less or not at all. (An example is the French publisher Dargaud, which recently bought Belgian publisher Dupuis and French production house Ellipsanime.) Although there have been quite a few animated feature films produced in Europe, very few have been adaptations of graphic novels, but we are likely to see more and more in the current climate of corporate caution. And, with some famous exceptions like Asterix, its a fairly recent phenomenon.
Heavy Metal 2000, based on the graphic novel The Melting Pot by Simon Bisley and inspired by the magazines classic style and the earlier, groundbreaking Heavy Metal (1981), was one of the first to give impetus to this movement. Followed by Joseph-Porphyre Pinchons 100-year-old franchise Becassine in 2001, Corto Maltese: La Cour Secrète des Arcane in 2002, Children of the Rain in 2003 (with designs by graphic novel legend Philippe Caza), Thierry Courtins Charley and Mimmo in 2004and another animated Asterix, Asterix and the Vikings, is due for release in 2006, an initiative of French broadcaster M6. Moebius long-awaited Thru the Moebius Strip is due out soon, too. And the first in a trilogy of Smurf movies, from Paramount, is slated for 2008. Several quite successful live-action versions of Asterix have also been done in the past few years and, recently, a Bollywoodish live-action feature of Dargauds Iznogoud (2005).
Fortunately, the European publics thirst for novelty and new talent is driving the Old School to the doorstep of the New School and the cartoon publishing industry is thriving in Europe.
Relatively young publishing houses in France like LAssociation, Amok, Fréon and Delcourt are publishing more and better quality than ever before. The Angoulême International Comics Festival in the Cognac region of France, one of the biggest and best in Europe, is getting bigger every year and more and more producers are taking risks on new talent. In the U.S., the European graphic novel culture is being assimilated with open arms, but according to its own idiosyncratic rules, with a nod to R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Dan Griffin, Ralph Bakshi, Art Spiegleman and many others. In fact, some authors are having more success in Europe than in the US, although Neil Gaimans Sandman has been a huge success and Dan Clowes Ghost World and Harvey Pekars American Splendor have made it to the big screen.
Eddie Campbell, nobly, has issued a manifesto (2004) for Graphic Novelists, whose goal is to take the form of the comicbook, which has become an embarrassment, and raise it to a more ambitious and meaningful level. But with Marvel boasting 5,000 characters and with Ghost Rider, The Hands of Shang-Chi and Luke Cage to be released in 2005, Black Widow, Deathlok, Iron Fist, Iron Man, The Punisher 2 and X-Men 3 set for 2006 and Spiderman 3, Sub-Mariner and Thor, for the moment, for 2007 its not likely were going to be seeing any of these ambitious and meaningful comics on the screen any time soon.
Will any of these authors, European or otherwise, be any more successful in getting innovative films off the ground than the great Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Caste of the Metabarons, Technopriests, Incal, Megalex, etc.), who tried to adapt Frank Herberts Dune in 1975 with Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Pink Floyd, H.R. Giger and Moebius... unsuccessfully? (He also couldnt find investors for a sequel to his own cult classic El Topo, called The Sons of El Topo... starring Marilyn Manson and Johnny Depp!!!)
Jodorowsky is supposed to have said once, Most directors make films with their eyes. I make films with my testicles. The American definition of film is slightly different from the European, just like its definition of comics. And animation... the Tenth Art?
Chris Panzner rarely reveals his mysterious past, but he studied life drawing at NYU with Richard Rockwell, who penciled and inked Milton Caniffs Steve Canyon for 35 years. He recently created production and distribution company, Eye & Ear.