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Review of Laurence Grove’s Comics in French: The European Bande Dessinée in Context

By Alice Claire Burrows

Grove, Laurence. Comics in French: The European Bande Dessinée in Context. New York, NY; Oxford, UK: Berghahn Books, 2010. Print.

Laurence Grove’s book Comics in French: The European Bande Dessinée in Context is a dense historical and cultural study of French comics, known as bandes dessinées, or BD. This book is a valuable resource for future research and reference. However, despite its impressive content, there are some problems related to the book’s logistic flow. Issues are present that expose some of the deeper fissures in comics studies, including the origin and definition of comics and the national traditions of comics. For example, the reader is reminded of the question familiar to any comics connoisseur: who drew the first comic, Rodolphe Töpffer or Richard Outcault? Grove provides an extensive historical background to support the former, but overlooks the possibility that answering the question may no longer be the goal as the study of comics advances.

Similarly, Comics in French opens with a familiar though problematic premise. Grove writes, “Whereas in English-speaking countries comics are for kids or adults who should know better, in France and Belgium the form is recognized as the Ninth Art and follows in the path of poetry, architecture, painting and sculpture” (Foreword). While this is not entirely untrue, it’s also a broad generalization that is increasingly becoming irrelevant. This assertion establishes a framework that comes off as defensive. Throughout the book, Grove references the desire to appeal to an English-speaking audience: “Were this a book primarily for a French or Belgian audience—in fact its originality lies in the fact that it is precisely not that—there would be less need to justify, or maybe even situate, the form’s place as a valid cultural entity.” He goes on to say, “Such is not automatically the case for the English-language reader, who, armed with a broad knowledge of Snoopy and Spiderman, will not necessarily take the BD’s Ninth Art status for granted” (208). On top of the fact that this generalization is condescending and dismissive, it is incorrect. English-speaking audiences have become increasingly aware of both popular and underground comics artists, such as Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, Robert Crumb, and many more.

I would assume that anyone reading Grove’s Comics in French already accepts comics as an art form, even if they are not familiar with the details of French comics history. Ideally, Grove would have maintained the focus on history and cataloguing, rather than distracting with generalizations and justifications for his study. The book’s worth lies in the truly encyclopedic background of the Franco-Belgian graphic narrative tradition that it provides.

Grove divides his book into three sub-categories: “What is a Bande Dessinée,” “The Chronological Approach,” and “The Cultural Phenomenon.” In the first section, he fastidiously breaks down the BD into components. The second section discusses early engravings through modern comics in the twentieth century, including a discussion of Nazi influence on contemporary BD. Finally, the last section locates comics within French culture. All of these sub-sections comprise a very ambitious text.

Due to the fact that this may be an overly-ambitious project, I have two other criticisms, both of which Grove addresses within the text. First, he neglects French-language comics from other Francophone traditions, including Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie’s Aya, from the Ivory Coast. While the title is Comics in French, he only discusses comics from France and Belgium. He says, “it is for reasons of concision and unity that this current study concentrates on the French and Belgian BD traditions” (267). This excludes bande dessinée québécoise, such as Albert Chartier’s Onésime, as well as BD from Francophone Africa and the Caribbean. While I would not expect Grove to include an exhaustive survey of worldwide French-language comics, the European bande dessinée is not necessarily lacking for attention within comics studies. The premise of Grove’s book is that this is a work for English audiences, primarily in the U.K. and America. Ann Miller’s Reading Bande Dessinée: Critical Approaches to French-language Comic Strip (2008) targets an English-speaking audience, but rather than build upon what Miller has already accomplished, Grove assumes responsibility for covering every aspect of BD.

My second criticism is that Grove attempts to cover too much material. He gives not only a history of bande dessinée, but a history of images and text together in French culture. From the Bayeux Tapestry on, he argues for a long history of graphic narrative in French culture. After presenting an inclusive history, Grove glosses over too many critical approaches, while not fully fleshing out any. Between cultural studies, semiotics, and art history, there is a plethora of names and titles filling the pages of this book, which is why I consider this book to be an invaluable bibliography, rather than a theoretical or analytical work. With the text moving in so many directions, it loses linearity and focus. Unfortunately, I finish the book with the impression that the point of its existence is merely to justify the study of comics.

The conclusion of Comics in French: The European Bande Dessinée in Context explains Grove’s defensive stance. Citing a Sunday Times (Scottish edition) article that critiques the frivolous nature of many college degrees, the article specifically cites Grove as an instigator of the changes in academia. The Sunday Times seems to have a low opinion of French culture: “Surely everything is a mirror of the culture from which it hailed. But this is to miss the pertinent phrase in Grove’s claim: ‘in France.’ Of course the French consider comic books to be golden repositories of meaning. The French are funny that way” (295). This ridiculous observation by the Scottish newspaper has clearly colored Grove’s entire study. Be assured, Professor Grove, the entire English-speaking world does not view comics as a funny French pastime. Those readers who would commit themselves to Grove’s academic text want to learn about the history, complexities, and culture of bandes dessinées, and do not need to be convinced of comics’ worth. However, despite the unnecessarily defensive stance Grove takes, Comics in French is a well-researched work that introduces many BD ideas worthy of further scholarly thought.

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