The early days of Belgian comic strips
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1996.  Hither and thither, the world of comic strips celebrated its centenary, taking as a common reference point the publication of The Yellow Kid,  a comic strip signed by the American author Richard F. Outcault, a hundred years earlier in 1896. In the face of this event, whose legitimacy has often been contested, must we thus exclude from the comic strip category the totality of previous productions? Frédéric Paques responds in the negative to this question. In a thesis which crystallises a whole period placed on the extreme margins of the history of francophone Belgian comic strips, the researcher, recently awarded a doctorate, paints a general panorama of the medium such as it appeared in different forms, in Wallonia and the Brussels region between 1830 and 1914.

YellowKidThe beginnings of comic strips are surrounded by a historical blur – due to the lack of consensus about the birth art of the medium – which can make the categorisation of old works not an easy affair. Some agree that the first production worthy of this name is that of the American Richard F. Outcault, The Yellow Kid, published in 1896; others see in the Swiss author Rodolphe Töppfer – who in 1827 structured text and images assembled in sequence – the father figure of the ninth art. In Belgium comic strips are not really spoken of before the father of Tintin and the clear line, Hergé. The discipline was nonetheless practiced, already in the nineteenth century, by a handful of people who have left us work which is interesting in several respects. Within the context of a doctoral thesis in the History of Art, Frédéric Paques has unearthed and paid tribute to a part of this mass of Belgian works, almost forgotten, produced between 1830 and 1914 and belonging to the field of comic strip production. ‘Whether it be in Germany or in France, there exist the traces of the production of comic strips in the nineteenth century,’ observes Frédéric Paques. ‘Why is nothing said about this period in Belgium? I decided to explore this research field by restricting my analysis to francophone Belgian comic strips published in Wallonia and Brussels. I sifted through 156 Belgian newspapers and also took an interest in the popular imagery of this period. All in all, my corpus mustered together between 1500 and 2000 panels.’

We might almost forget that at the time these productions had no specific terminology. Engravings and illustrations were spoken of, but not comic strips – the term did not appear, it seems, before the beginning of the 1940s at the earliest. ‘I thus had to myself decide, on the basis of a more or less subjective interpretation, what was or was not a comic strip by referring to a personal definition of the object. To be retained in the corpus, the product had to be presented in the form of a sequence of images which maintained a narrative link between them. If, on occasion, I headed towards products with a less obvious narrative line, it is without a doubt due to the spirit of contemporary comic strips, which are constantly pushing back the boundaries of the classic comic strip.’ It is thus above all with a perspective marked by his own era that Frédéric Paques has looked into the early days of Belgian comic strips. This kind of return to the most buried roots is in effect pretty much current practice. More or less abandoned, these old works have seen a resurgence of interest in them grow over recent years: here someone brings out an anthology of Lyonel Feininger, a painter and sometime comic strip artist at the beginning of the 20th century; there someone creates a series inspired by Winsor McCay, the American author of Little Nemo in Slumberland, published in 1905.

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