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Review of Redrawing French Empire in Comics

By Anne Cirella-Urrutia

McKinney, Mark. Redrawing French Empire in Comics. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2013. Print.

Mark McKinney’s second book deals with representations of the French Empire in French comics or bande dessinée (BD), specifically the conquest and colonization of Algeria (from 1830), the French War in Indochina (1946-1954), and the Algerian War (1954-1962). Although colonial representations were featured prominently in 19th-century French-language comics by cartoonists Töpffer, Cham, and Petit, this new study investigates how French imperialism is recaptured in BDs that emerged during the 20th century and after the independence of both Algeria and Indochina. The increasingly explicit and spectacular treatment by French cartoonists of the violent and lurid aspects of colonial history is at the core of McKinney’s book. These aspects emerged after 1962 with the growth of an adult comics market that led to the emergence of the 9th art in 1964 in Belgium and in France.1 McKinney attempts to adddress the question, “how do French cartoonists redraw French empire in comics?” by examining a range of primary sources on the French colonial era.

McKinney’s first chapter discusses the complexity of his self-fashioned concept of the “affrontier […] a faultline across and through which national and trans-national identities are constantly being reconstituted” (7). Deconstructing the frontier (a hard historical reality and a figure for dividing and connecting entities of all kinds), McKinney convincingly demonstrates how some cartoonists reconstruct the “affrontier” in comics where national and trans-national identities are manipulated. McKinney contends that one of the trends of postcolonial French comics consists in staging individual stories in their relation with historical events. He distinguishes five types of imperialist genealogies: familial, ethnic, national, artistic, and critical (12). The author makes a rough distinction between comics published before and after 1962 to demonstrate how they persist in retelling French colonialism from the standpoint of the colonizers. According to him, both “genealogical activity” (following Balibar and Foucault’s own definitions) and “historical inquiry” have led contemporary cartoonists such as Alagbé, Baloup, Boudjellal, Ferrandez, Sfar and the Algerian Masmoudi to have different, sometimes conflicting positions on French colonial history (16-17). He shows how these cartoonists have reinforced, contested or otherwise reworked the colonial heritage of French comics.2 McKinney discusses how the notion of the story as a topos around which aesthetic issues are mnemonically tied to the collective memory, produces a “counter-memory” in graphic narratives in the form of personal and ethnic “genealogical inquiries”(14).

Chapters 2-4 deal with French Empire in Algeria and Indochina and address the graphic representations of the French colonization by French cartoonists who engage in “personal and ethnic genealogical inquiries” (14). McKinney traces these cartoonists’ family history, thereby (re)locating the roots of colonialism in their stories and their effects on France and Algeria. McKinney’s second chapter discusses the use of various artistic sources by these cartoonists who focus on colonial Algeria (1830- 1962). He also traces how his key concept of the “affrontier” is negotiated in one major contemporary BD series: “Carnets d’Orient” (10 volumes, 1994-2009) by Jacques Ferrandez. Indeed, Jacques Ferrandez draws on the reproduction and publication of research done by experts on colonialism to produce his own fiction about colonialism (19). For example, source materials such as 19th century European orientalist paintings and colonial postcards are seminal to the refashioning of this era in comics. These genealogies are indeed of high relevance to understanding Fernandez’s use of artistic source materials such as Delacroix’s paintings, engravings and lithographs to create a neo-orientalist representation of this era in “Carnets d’Orient.” McKinney discusses the artistic links between Ferrandez’s comics and earlier representations of the French colonial settlers about the empire. He then extends his analysis to two other contemporary cartoonists who rely on similar source materials. Joann Sfar takes Delacroix’s North African notebooks and paintings to foreground the Jewishness of many of Delacroix’s human subjects (80). The Algerian artist Masmoudi uses Alphonse-Etienne Dinet’s paintings as a model repository of cultural authenticity and a point of reference for depicting his Algerian South.

McKinney’s third chapter expands the concept of the “affrontier” to colonial-era French comics, focusing on its manipulation by cartoonists during the Indochinese War (1946-1954). He analyzes the depiction of the colonial French Empire in four major serialized works that appeared during the conflict: “Colonel X en Extrême Orient” by Marijac and Gloesner (serialized in the magazine Coq hardi in 1952-53); “Bernard Chamblet: En mission au pays jaune” by Le Rallic (in Wrill in 1949); “Parachutés au Laos” by Verdon and Perrin-Houdon (in Bayard in 1951-52); and “Valérie André” (in the women’s magazine Bonnes soirées by Uderzo; 1954; 1985). Indeed, all of them condemn and caricature the Communist nationalists among the indigenous peoples of French Indochina. All comics support France’s army and its colonial project in Indochina. These colonial-era French comics exemplify well the radical division between colonized and colonizer characteristics of the colonial “affrontier”: all of them vaunt the exploits of French military men, and French Indochina is depicted as a source of masculine adventure (94).

McKinney devotes a particularly relevant section to the discussion of generic tropes conveyed in some “geographical romances” in these comics, such as the feminization of Indochina (with its recuperation and the reconstruction of an exotic locale set in the jungle), the colonial Manicheism evidenced in Le dragon de bamboo by Truong and Leroi (1991), Trafic en Indochine (1991) and La route de Cao Bang (1992) by Stanislas and Rullier; these comics offer striking instances of tropes paralleling French colonial cinema. McKinney discusses stereotypical comic figures such as the adventurer; colonial and anti-colonial soldiers; the figure of the métis/se; the reporter; the expatriated emigrant and their descendants.3 He contends that since the 1980s, an increasing number of French cartoonists of both Southeast Asian heritage and mainstream French heritage provide a rich and fascinating reevaluation of that cultural and historical era and a revision of these tropes. For example, Les oubliés d’Annam by Giroux and Lax (1990; 1991) makes a sharp critique of French colonialism. McKinney concludes this section by analyzing recent BDs where métissage (racial mix) is a recurring theme, such as Clément Baloup and Mathieu Jiro’s Le chemin de Tuan (2005) and Le choix de Hais (2007). According to him, these artists foreground their efforts to spread the anti-imperialist history of the Indochina conflict (85). The way in which these cartoonists redraw the French Empire in Indochina helps produce a “counter-memory” which works against colonialist nostalgia.

McKinney’s fourth chapter proceeds to analyze how the “affrontier” is evidenced in BDs that deal with the Algerian War. He examines several comics published from 1962 to the present with a focus on how they redraw empire critically and dialogically (151). First, he evaluates comics by wartime combatants such as Georges Wolinski, Jacques Lob and Lauzier. He then analyzes comics that depict French combatants. McKinney devotes a large space to the two-volume Azrayen (1998, 1999) by Lax and Giroud. The most noteworthy section of the chapter is the one devoted to Pied-Noir’s perspectives on the war which are explored in Ferrandez’s “Carnets d’Orient” and in Morvandiau’s D’ Algérie (2007). Taken together, these Pied-Noir comics represent positions ranging from a defensive justification of the Pied-Noir community as victims of history to a radical critique of French colonial injustices in Algeria. McKinney also addresses more recent representations of Harki characters (Algerian soldiers who fought on the French side during the War of Independence) in Boudjellal’s compelling complex comics Amour d’Alger (1984), Petit Polio (1998) and Le cousin harki (2012) that wedge together several stories of victimhood and betrayal. Boudjellal uses mixed couples in all three stories to characterize the breakdown of French and Algerian communities in Algeria (201). These comics also highlight the French abandonment of most of the Harkis in Algeria, their massacre, and the prison-camps where they were confined for years before escaping to France.

Finally, McKinney turns to other cartoonists who were affected by the war either in France or Algeria. French-Italian cartoonist Baru (Hervé Baruela) witnessed such war-related attacks. The punishment and executions of Algerian emigrants in Vive la classe! (1987) and the massive French police repression in Paris on October 17, 1961 (also called Octobre noir) in Le chemin de l’Amérique (1998) are two of Baru’s most accurate portrayals of these events. McKinney cleverly concludes his study with a brief fifth chapter on Edward Said’s concept of “the voyage in” (the arrival of exiles and immigrants in former colonial and imperialist countries) in works by Giroux, Lax, Baloup, Jiro, Baru and Boudjellal, in opposition to the pre-1962 French comics by Marijac, Gloesner, Le Rallic, Verdon, Perrin-Houdon and Uderzo in which French characters made “the voyage out” (France’s civilizing mission).

Overall, McKinney’s comprehensive study combines rich theoretical complexity with the textual analysis of many canonical historical BDs. The book provides a very detailed aesthetic, formal, and sociopolitical analysis of comics, which is complemented by forty-four illustrations from various works. McKinney’s formulation of the “affrontier” is a very useful one, and he effectively analyzes the ways in which this concept is negotiated by French cartoonists at different time periods, and how it is informed by their personal connections to the war. McKinney’s study is a tour de force which delineates the political, ethnic and historical claims of colonialism and empire that cartoonists have staked out in French comics, especially at a time when some of these comics were censored in France. Stressing the idea that the form is closely tied to issues of national formation and post-colonialism, McKinney purposefully elicits questions regarding BD history, context and bibliography. The book bridges the gap between the study of historical BD and post-colonial studies (McKinney’s forthcoming book is on other existing communities in France and the French Caribbean). The references to critical frameworks by French historian Stora, the philosopher Balibar, and post-colonial studies scholars such as Edward Said are illuminating in understanding the complexity inherent in investigating representations of colonialism. McKinney’s work is invaluable to researchers in French studies and Francophone studies. It will also appeal to general readers with a lively interest in international comics, popular culture, post-colonial studies and historiography.


[1] See Joël Vessels. Drawing France: French Comics and the Republic, 2010.

[2] See Mark McKinney. The Colonial Heritage of French Comics, 2011. This study examines the presence of colonialism within the canon of French comics over the preceding five decades. Both books point to new directions in the intellectualization and institutionalization of BD in France.

[3] See a recent study on exoticism in French cinema by Colleen Kennedy-Karpat. Rogues, Romance, and Exoticism in French Cinema of the 1930s, 2013.

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