Vessels, Joel E. Drawing France: French Comics and the Republic. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.
As a scholar interested in studying comics, I am always fascinated by the traditions of sequential art outside the United States. Unfortunately, the academy appears to be playing catch-up when it comes to publishing scholarship dedicated to historical perspectives on the traditions of comics outside the United States. The recent appearance of such excellent titles as José Alaniz’s Komiks: Comic Art in Russia, Simone Castaldi’s Drawn and Dangerous: Italian Comics of the 1970s and 1980s, and Karline McClain’s India’s Immortal Comic Books, has begun to change this unfortunate state of affairs. With the recent University Press of Mississippi book, Drawing France: French Comics and the Republic, author Joel Vessels has provided an excellent starting point for comics scholars who want to explore the historical and political significance of the Franco-Belgian tradition of comics (bande desinée, abbreviated by Vessels as BD) within France. Vessel’s particular focus, as intimated by the book’s subtitle, is the connection between the social importance and formal construction of BDs in France. He deftly moves between how BDs both shaped and were shaped by political and cultural realities, particularly regarding whether or not a cultural product is truly “French.”
Drawing France is a thorough undertaking. While “French Comics” usually brings to mind either the classic Tintin and Asterix series or the more recent publications of L’Association by artists such as Marjane Satrapi and David B., Vessels begins with the very origins of BD in France. He begins long before Tintin solves his first mystery, by examining the images d’epinal and broadsheets of the nineteenth century. The first chapter, “Stirring Up Passions: Politics, Bandes Desinée, and Images in the Nineteenth Century and the Late Third Republic,” provides an excellent example, situating Charles Phillipon’s infamous caricature of King Louis-Phillipe, Comte de Paris, “Les Poires,” in this tradition. Vessels continues through the political wars played out between the Catholics and Communists in children’s BD journals during the interwar period, the Vichy regime’s censoring of any non-French BD journals or artists in its attempts to establish an unadulterated “Frenchness,” and the establishment of the Oversight Committee under de Gaulle. He ends with the eventual acceptance of BDs as a legitimate French art form through the formation of organizations such as the National Center of Comics and the Image (Centre National de la Bande Desinée et de l’Image), and the Angoulême International Comics Festival.
While Vessels’ book is generally clear and concise, there are moments when it becomes difficult to determine whether his goal is to explore French history as reflected in BDs or to situate BDs politically and historically. Considering the subtitle of the book is “French Comics and the Republic,” I expected comics to be the main focus of the text. For the most part, this is true. However, in chapter three, “Notre Grand-Papa Pétain: The National Revolution and Bande Desinée in Vichy,” Vessels’ book hiccups. This chapter focuses on the changes to the journal publishing industry and arts during the Vichy regime. The events of the Nazi occupation of France during World War II are complex enough to warrant their own book—not being a scholar of French history, I was frequently overwhelmed by the dizzying details. Understandably, the BDs themselves get lost in the shuffle. For the first twenty or so pages of the chapter, I kept wondering when Vessels would return to comics. When Vessels’ focus finally returns to BDs, this difficulty disappears.
Overall, these issues do not reduce the quality of the work. After the understandably difficult third chapter, Vessels again hits his stride. I was particularly impressed with the final chapter, “Culture Becomes Policy: Bande Desinée as Monumental Architecture,” which traces the rebirth of BD’s political importance from the “L’Age d’Or” of the 1940s and 1950s to the 1990s. In a few pages, Vessels manages to deftly connect the rise of BDs to the recognizable humanity of Honoré de Balzac’s characters in La Comédie Humaine, to post-structural theories of 1960s French philosophers like Roland Barthes, and to the tense political period of decolonization. Here, Vessels’ movements are sophisticated and complex, this time avoiding the Vichy chapter’s issues.
Vessels’ epilogue, “A Sous-Produit Littéraire No Longer,” provides an appropriately thoughtful (and optimistic) coda for his book. Throughout Drawing France, Vessels exposes the use of BDs for both emancipatory and oppressive political purposes. However, Vessels intimates the BD’s imbrications with both the best and worst of French history, and its eventual acceptance—not only as an art form but as a French art form—provides an important cultural touchstone that may help France address the issues it faces today. Eerily mirroring the Vichy regime’s Semitism, recent laws (such as the banning of headscarves) have made life difficult for Muslims living in France, even if those Muslims are French citizens. While watching a recent documentary on being Muslim in France, though, Vessels noticed a reason for hope:
…when interviewing a young woman, who, despite being a star student, had been expelled from her school for wearing a scarf, a near indelible mark of her own Frenchness was revealed: as they were talking with her in the family home, the camera panned around her room, and on her desk, beside her devotional copy of the Qu’ran, was a stack of Tintin albums. The significance of BD, it would seem, is something that all the French can agree on. (235)
Somewhere in Paris, a lawmaker may ban headscarves and question the ability of Muslims to be truly French, but his child may very well fall asleep reading the same BD adventure as the young Muslim girl whose faith and Frenchness he questions.
As evidenced by this passage, throughout the whole book, Vessels’ language is clear and concise. It is never weighed down by the “academese” so often utilized by scholars to hide simpler arguments behind overly complex language and difficult to read syntax. The clarity of the language is not the result of simple ideas. Despite occasional bumps, Vessels’ book presents a nuanced depiction of BDs and their role in French history. As a result of his careful approach, clear writing, and an interesting (and indispensable) topic, Drawing France: French Comics and the Republic is an absolute pleasure to read. I highly recommend this work for anyone interested in studying the political and historical significance of comics in France.