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Review of History and Politics in French-Language Comics and Graphic Novels

By Anne Cirella-Urrutia

McKinney, Mark, ed. History and Politics in French-Language Comics and Graphic Novels. Jackson, MS: The University Press of Mississippi, 2008. Print.

McKinney’s anthology is a remarkable addition to the growing body of scholarly work on French language comics for English readers and for Francophone Studies. This volume addresses important issues when reading comics and elucidates vital questions of representation of history and politics within this medium. McKinney has collected an array of essays written by experts in the field: Bart Beaty, Cécile Vernier Danehy, Hugo Frey, Pascal Lefèvre, Amanda Macdonald, Fabrice Leroy, Ann Miller, Clare Tufts and cartoonist Baru. This volume presents a unique point of intersection of study and crosses the disciplines of visual arts, history and politics, gender studies and Francophone studies in colonial Algeria, the Congo, new Caledonia, Québec, the Reunion Island, and Vietnam.

In the introduction of this anthology, McKinney acknowledges the point of departure of what today is widely viewed as the classic age of Franco-Belgian comics (the 1950s-60s) and how these master works incarnate various aspects of French and Belgian national and regional identity. He also points to how the internationalization over the years of such works has challenged some canonical comics such as Hergé’s Tintin adventures, which went from being marketed as children’s literature to targeting adults. McKinney begins with a general survey of “French-language” comics and how the state (of France and/or Belgium) has in turn strengthened the domain of Bande dessinée, highlighting the importance of this sector from en economic standpoint: comics are the third largest part of the European francophone book market. He then shifts to discussing how comics have become a pressing point of study by academics and theorists and how national events such as the familiar festival d’Angoulême in France are vital for cartoonists and the comics industry from small alternative publishers to the largest mainstream one. Finally, and in tandem with the state support of the so-called “9ème (9th) art,” McKinney supports his view of the genre as a growing body of texts to investigate historical and political discourses, pointing to the BD criticism that dates back to the 1960s. By way of conclusion, McKinney offers the reader an overview of his book and its scope.

Although the division of the book into four major parts is uneven, it nonetheless follows strictly from the author’s intent to trace the birth of BD in France, Belgium, and Switzerland, and to account for its historical evolution both intellectually and institutionally. McKinney reevaluates the comics heritage in Part 3 by citing numerous works that demonstrate how French, Belgian, and American imperialism have been thematically represented by many contemporary cartoonists and various scholars in the field. According to McKinney, each part is interconnected because it moves the field of investigation toward what he logically and chronologically views as the periphery of French-language comics. For example, Part 3 focuses on how comics display allegories of colonialism from France and Belgium. Themes of power and identity formation are central to the plots that take place in non western countries such as Algeria, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, Vietnam and New Caledonia.

Part 1, “History, Politics, and the Bande dessinée Tradition,” reinvestigates the comics tradition, specifically, how cartoonists have ideologically and politically marked their narrations. This part consists of three succinct essays, the first two analyzing case studies during the Occupation. In Chapter 2, “Trapped in the Past: Anti-Semitism in Hergé’s Flight 714,” scholar Hugo Frey analyzes how Hergé’s interwar and Occupation-era comics use anti-Jewish stereotyping in postwar adventures that implicitly portray the author’s xenophobia and racism. In Chapter 3, “Re-Imaging Heroes/Rewriting History, Clare Tufts provides more examples of how weeklies were at the core of the pro-Vichy regime, resistance, and French pride messages. She analyzes the juvenile press in France between 1939 and 1945, specifically three weeklies that started under the Occupation: Le Journal de Mickey, Jumbo (from Italy), and Coeurs Vaillants. In tandem with Frey’s analysis of anti-Semitic ideology, Tufts shows how these weeklies helped carry ideologies of collaboration under Pétain’s Vichy regime. She ends her argument with the analysis of one weekly, Le téméraire, as a striking example of Nazi propaganda in the form of discourses that are pro-German, pro-fascist, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Russian, anti-British, and anti-American, spread throughout the rubrics of historical or “scientific” reports. Chapter 4 supports McKinney’s goals and bridges Part 1 to Part 2 with an analysis of ways in which a new generation of cartoonists views its predecessors.

In this transitory chapter entitled “The Concept of ‘Patrimoine’ in Contemporary Franco-Belgian Comics Production,” Bart Beaty traces the evolution of the genre, drawing attention to the fact that small-press publishers have now adopted different venues in order to “resurrect” the forgotten history of French-Language comics publishing.1 Beaty accounts for the transformations incurred in French comic-book publishing rooted in a series of oppositions whereby some contemporary avant-garde is seeking to distance itself from the dominant traditions of the field. His essay abounds with very instructive examples of this process of “resurrection,” particularly in the work of Gus Bofa, a figure that has been completely neglected from most histories of the comic book. In recuperating the works of Bofa, Beaty shows how some publishers aim at expanding the canons of comics history without necessarily overturning the whole structure. He ends his argument with the example of L’Association, the largest and best-established of the artist-run comic book cooperatives, which seeks to continue the resurrecting of great “minor” works into new aesthetic forms.

Part 2, “Political Reportage and Globalism in Bandes dessinées,” addresses recent works by cartoonists from France and Belgium. Both Chapters 5 and 6 explore the medium’s possibilities and reevaluate the comics heritage. The examples of BD analyzed therein interrogate how regional, national and European identities are closely interconnected. In Chapter 5, “Citizenship and City Spaces: Bande Dessinée as Reportage,” Ann Miller focuses on the rapid growth of BD reportage within the larger history of comics.2 She starts her essay with the example of the exhibit “BD Reporters” held in April 2007 in Centre Pompidou in Paris as the nest of twenty-three artists worldwide. Her essay shifts to the analysis of one case study, “La Présidente” by French cartoonists Blutch and Menu who document two days in the working life of a real politician, Marie-Christine Blandin, the first Green to hold office (elected in 1992). According to Miller, BD becomes a landmark for regional and national identity formation and urban transformation in a unique medium. Ann Miller ends her essay insistant that BD has resources that make it an effective medium for reportage and an excellent genre to read for discourse of political agenda.

In Chapter 6, “Games Without Frontiers: The Representation of Politics and the Politics of Representation in Schuiten and Peeter’s La frontière invisible,” Fabrice Leroy further analyzes the urban world, specifically the relationship between an official cartographer and his political leader. For him, BD becomes “a consistent network of meta-representational strategies and political themes” (118). Using Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the map, Leroy investigates how the series of graphic novels Les cités obscures reveals the arbitrary nature of the cartographic universe through an encounter between the protagonist De Cremer, héros célibataire, and a mysterious and enticing prostitute, Shkodrä. In the BD, the army takes control of the Cartography Center and both heroes travel back to Shkodrä’s’ hometown. The story ends in a new land, one that Leroy associates with the naked female body, in what he calls “an ironic inversion and commentary of the previous pages, where De Cremer’s vision had been shown to be an illusion, […] a fitting conclusion to the meta-representational maze of the Frontière invisible” (136). Although this essay contains no bibliographical references to similar comics, it presents readers with a very accurate and engaging analysis of the comic book.

Part 3, “Facing Colonialism and Imperialism in Bandes dessinées” brings together four chapters that analyze how the colonialism and imperialism of Belgium (Congo), France (Algeria and New Caledonia) and the United States (Vietnam) have been thematically represented in comics. In Chapter 7, “The Algerian War in Road to America (Baru, Thévenet, and Ledran),” Mark McKinney analyzes colonial violence by tracking the protagonist’s boxing career. McKinney shows how representations of the Algerian War strictly follow the protagonist’s life events. Set both in Algeria and Paris, the story culminates with the protagonist’s encounter with Frenchwoman Sarah Jerôme, who is secretly helping the FLN for the Algerian cause. McKinney points to a culminating event in the story: the bloody repression of October 17, 1961, carried out on the orders of Maurice Papon. This powerful event in the story is a milestone in French comics and graphic novels. McKinney’s article gives the reader new insights into the crimes of French colonialists with his analysis of the protagonist’s enigmatic disappearance at the end of the story.

In Chapter 8, “The Congo Drawn in Belgium,” Pascal Lefèvre accounts for the relations between Belgium and its (former) colonies drawing back to a 1939 comic series by Jigé: Blondin et Cirage (Blondy and Shoe-Black). In examining the evolution of this series, Lefèvre notes a radical departure from Hergé’s portrait of the black man as inferior in his Tintin au Congo. Instead, throughout his case study, Lefèvre acknowledges a much more complex, ambivalent experience of some colonial-era representations of the Belgian Congo. The 1940s comic series Le Nègre blanc, aimed at children, combines adventure and caricature in both black and white characters. Lefèvre’s essay is invaluable in that it revalues the production of comics and the representation of the former colonies in a light that is in contrast with Hergé’s portrait of colonial experience. Instead, Lefèvre urges us to reexamine such comics created before the French law of 1949 that rejected the production of such comics on the basis of overt racism.

In chapter 9, “Distractions from History: Redrawing Ethnic Trajectories in New Caledonia,” Amanda MacDonald examines how New Caledonia history is documented. In favor of developing what she names “an epistemology of distraction,” she looks at the role that Bande dessinée may play in providing distraction from photographic, racialized history, using as a point of departure Topfer’s conception of the medium. In her case study of 1878 by Bernard Berger, she examines how characterization may contribute to national character formation. MacDonald’s analysis sheds light on morphological traits, speech modes and even coloring. Chapter 10 closes Part 3 with an essay on Swiss cartoonist and innovator in the genre Bernard Cosendai (Cosey). “Textual Absence, Textual Color: A Journey through Memory—Cosey’s Saigon-Hanoi” investigates how the author portrays experiences of returning Vietnam veterans in his rather elliptic style, particularly in the use of silence and color to establish the atmosphere of the tale.

Part 4, “A French Cartoonist’s Perspective on the Working Class and Bandes dessinées” functions as conclusion to the anthology, and it consists of a chapter written by French cartoonist Baru and translated by McKinney. This chapter entitled “The Working Class and Comics: A French Cartoonist’s Perspective” is actually a meditation on Baru’s quest for a personal language. This chapter eloquently sums up all cartoonists’ endeavors when tackling representations of social issues, racism, immigration and national identity.3 Baru’s discourse aims to tell the reader why he chose comics as a medium as opposed to other forms of art and why this medium is the one that best reflects his intentions. This essay focuses on such comic works as Quéquette bluesLe chemin de l’Amérique (that has also been examined by McKinney in Chapter 7) and L’autoroute du soleil, to name just a few.

In conclusion, McKinney’s anthology is an extremely well-organized, fascinating book of high caliber with over sixty illustrations and an extensive bibliography. We can sense that McKinney places Baru as one of the greatest cartoonists because he has developed a chapter on Baru’s seminal Le chemin pour l’Amérique and because he includes a chapter translated from Baru’s own biography. All of these essays are tied together with a logic that backs up the goals of the editor, each one pointing to new directions in research. Each chapter presents innovative analyses on specific moments in the history of comics. This anthology answers important questions such as the relevance of comics as one site of investigation into representations of history and politics, finally giving due importance to comics within Francophone studies, and cross-cultural studies at large. McKinney provides the reader with excellent translations of French scholarship and a glossary of terminology on what defines this genre for the English reader who might be less familiar with BD scholarship. I highly recommend this volume for anyone willing to become immersed in a discipline of study that is rapidly changing in its orientations.


[1] See Beaty, Bart, ed. Unpopular Culture: Transforming The European Comic Book in The 1990s. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Print.

[2] For a larger spectrum of comics published in Belgium under the category of Reportage, see Miller’s Reading Bande Dessinée: Critical Approaches to French-Language Comic Strip. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. 57-59. Print.

[3] Ann Miller further explores Baru’s comic world in Lorraine, France in her “Narratives of Adolescence, Ethnicity and Masculinity in the Work of Baru.” The Francophone Bande Dessinée. Charles Forsdick, Laurence Grove, and Libbie McQuillan, eds. New York: Rodopi, 2005. 137-48. Print.

She also devotes a whole chapter to the analysis of L’Autoroute du soleil (1995), where the charismatic Karim undertakes a journey across post-industrial France: Miller, Ann. “The Codes and Formal Resources of Bande Dessinée.” Reading Bande Dessinée: Critical Approaches to French-Language Comic Strip. Ed. Ann Miller. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 75-102. Print.

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