Articles

A Comical History of Brussels

by Nicholas J. Klenske

Europe has a lengthy history of literary prominence and stature. Paris has the Hunchback of Notre Dame, England its Sherlock Holmes and Prague the literary legend of Kafka.  But Brussels’ literary scene, on the other hand, is a complete joke.

No really- it’s literally quite funny. What Brussels lacks in Shakespeare, Joyce or Pope, it makes up in floppy-eared dogs, mustachioed Vikings, shadow chasing cowboys, an adventurous boy with an easily excitable sailor sidekick and, well lots of little blue Smurfs.

The History of Comics in Brussels

From a country roughly the size of New Jersey comes an unprecedented amount of comic creativity–a level that has defined the genre from the industry’s golden age to its present day renaissance. At the center of the Belgian comic culture is Brussels, the self-proclaimed comic strip capital of the world. From such international icons as Herge’s Tintin and Peyo’s Smurfs to the multitude of modern titles currently cluttering the comic store shelves, according to legendary comic writer and organizer of the annual Comics Fest Alain de Kuyssche, one thing remains the same: “Every one of them gets their start in Brussels.”

Alain is the authority on the Brussels’ comic book culture. Not only is he the former editor-in-chief of Spirou, a leading comic journal, over the past thirty years he has worked as a writer for such comics as Jacques Martin and Mickey Mouse. Six years ago he founded the Brussels Comic Fest as a way of “celebrating the great authors and the great comic culture that has flourished here in Brussels.”

The emergence of Brussels’ comic culture coincided with World War II, when a suffering population turned towards the allure of escapism–found in the fantasies of the comic strip.  Following the war, comic’s early readers began developing their own characters and, as they came of age in the 1960s, produced a plethora of talent for a market eager for more comics.

“It’s a matter of national pride that such a tiny country as Belgium has had such a profound impact and influence on the international comic scene,” says Alain.  Much of this international influence can be traced to the coinciding popularization of television cartoons, which allowed Brussels to export its golden-age characters to the world. “There isn’t a minute that goes by where somewhere in the world there’s not a TV showing a Smurfs cartoon.”

Today Brussels’ comic culture is experiencing a resurgence as new artists continue to create cutting edge, experimental strips that compliment the nostalgia of its golden age classics.  “That’s why we started the Comic Fest”, Alain comments. “To bridge the gap between the classics and modern talent, creating opportunities and inspiration for aspiring artists and writers and ensuring that our literary tradition will continue for generations to come.”

One of these aspiring artists is 24-year-old Pelli, whose favorite comics include the American Spiderman and Batman characters. The shaggy haired and slightly shy Pelli is recognized for his unique style that takes American superheroes and recasts them in the Belgian tradition.  Currently he spends his time working on Bedecoone, his self-published comic journal. “Someday I hope to get my comics published in one of the big journals, such as Spirou or Tintin,” he says.  “You know, maybe even get one of my characters painted on the side of a building,” he states in reference to Brussels’ Comic Book Route, a trail of comic-related murals painted on buildings located throughout the city.  “Yea, that’d be pretty cool,” he says with just a hint of a prolonged daydream.

The Comic Book Route

Brussels’ extensive Comic Book Route, an initiative launched by the Belgian Comic Strip Center, is comprised of over thirty murals located on buildings and walls scattered across the city. Each mural acts as a single frame depicting a Belgian comic character within a unique Brussels’ scene. From Captain Haddock, Snowy and Tintin running down a fire escape near the Grand Place to Cubitis taking over the iconic Manneken Pis’ position, the Comic Book Route is the ideal way to discover the city’s main attractions and hidden gems–along with meeting the diverse characters that comprise the comic cannon of Brussels.

The route begins just down the road from the Manneken Pis, a mischievous naked boy who has become the icon of Brussels. One legend has it he saved the city of Brussels by putting out a potentially destructive flame by peeing on it. Another legend says a war was diffused when the two rival sides came across the comical site of a naked boy peeing with a silly grin spread across his face.

Along a wall near the Manneken Pis is a mural featuring Brussels’ other iconic character: Tintin.  The blue toned mural seems to echo with such classic Tintin phrases as, “Billions of blue blistering barnacles!!” Tintin, who will soon be the subject of three Steven Spielberg produced feature films, is a journalist version of Indiana Jones. Accompanied by his canine sidekick Snowy, Tintin travels around the world, finding himself involved in numerous mishaps and cliff-hanging adventures.

The Adventures of Tintin was the creation of Georges Remni, better known by the penname Herge.  From 1929 to 1983 Herge wrote and illustrated all of the Tintin adventures and is highly regarded in the comic world for his humanism and realistic portrayal of the stories. Between the years 1929 and up to his death in 1983, Herge wrote and illustrated 24 Tintin adventures, including the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art. Herge’s lifetime commitment to the art of the comic book earned him the honor of being inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2003.

Down Kolenmarkt and across Rue du Lombard towers a foggy 1940s detective scene portraying the always-suave Victor Sackville. Just up the street, next to the tucked away gothic edifice of Rue du Marche au Charbon, is the just-in-the-nick-of-time Ric Hochet mural.  This mural is of particular interest in that the scene is painted to create an illusion that the action is actually taking place in and on the house.

North of the Place Fontaina, at the end of Boulevard Anspach, is one of Brussels most dynamic ethnic neighborhoods. Here one is greeted with quiet parks, neighborhood kids playing in streets, and a treasure chest of out-of-the-way cafes. The St. Gery neighborhood is also home to two murals highlighting several of Brussels’ most famous and favorite comic characters.

Serving as a bright backdrop to an otherwise drab concrete and brick schoolyard soccer pitch is a colorful chase scene from the Astrix comics. The Adventures of Asterixchronicles the comical resistance to Roman occupation maintained by an ancient village of witty and sometimes troublesomely magical Gauls. This mural and its crowd of characters also demonstrates the unique European style of comics, which tends to be more cartoonish than its American counterpart.

Just next door to Asterix and company is the floundering cowboy Lucky Luke, known around the world for his ability to shoot faster than his always-lurking shadow. The mural also features the strip’s progressively shrinking villains, the Dalton Brothers, along with Jolly Jumper, “The smartest horse in the world” and Rantanplan, “The stupidest dog in the universe.”

St. Catherine Church and the surrounding Saint Catherine Place is one of Brussels’ most scenic neighborhoods. Anchored by the black-moss cloaked stone cathedral, the surrounding square is the place to go for authentic Belgian seafood. During the summer months restaurants fill up the off-kilter cobblestone with alfresco dining and fill the air with the scent of freshly boiled mussels.

Perhaps it is this aroma of food that has attracted Cubitus, the mischievous shaggy canine best known for his one-liner gags, to crawl up into a nearby mural. Staying true to his reputation for practical jokes, the mural shows Cubitus taking the privilege of replacing a furious Manneken Pis in performing the important task of peeing into the fountain.

Another area adorned with murals is the Marolles neighborhood, a former working class neighborhood situated just below the daunting Place de Justice. Today Marolles is alive with boutique furniture shops, dusty antique stores and some of Brussels’ best-kept secrets for cafes and pubs. Within the alleys of this dynamic neighborhood, often lurking behind markets and unaware diners, are such comic favorites as Blondin and Cirage, Boule and Bill, and Odilon Verjus

A Museum and a Shrine

On the way back towards the Old City Center, a stop at the Belgian Comic Strip Center is in call.

Located in a renovated and salvaged Art Nouveau building, the comic museum is to the comic book world what the Louvre is to the art world. This comprehensive museum is located through a grand corridor cluttered with Tintin’s rocket, a smiling Asterix and a very blue Smurf. Here one is treated to not only a testament to the many characters and creators of this literary culture, but also to an interesting insight into the art of the comic.

Being a comic book museum, the displays tend to show instead of tell. Thus, the process of creating a comic book, from drafting text to filling in the ink to creative mass-marketing, is all told through comic strips drawn by some of the nation’s leading artists. The museum also has displays on the animation of comics, features on the golden ages’ characters and creators, and a tracing of the art form’s development into its modern day rendition.

Yet no trip to Brussels is complete without a visit to its Grand Place, a fairytale cobblestone square of cafes, classic museums and an assortment of street performers all neatly confined by slightly off centered, baroque-era guild houses. This is the place to sample Belgium’s divine line up of beers and chocolates- and to stock up on Tintin memorabilia.

The Tintin Boutique is both a collector’s haven and an opportunity to venture into the pages of a Tintin adventure. With t-shirts, original posters and everything Tintin, it’s the perfect place to end a perfectly comedic day.

Brussels: The Comic Capital of the World

The cannon of comic characters found in the ink-filled pages of the comic book stores, painted in the nooks and crannies of Brussels’ diverse neighborhoods, and celebrated in its museums and festivals are a testament to both a national heritage and to a unique literary tradition.  From the originals of the 1940s to the classics of the golden age and on to the modern features that hint at a form of comic noir, Brussels has inked itself a unique position within the world’s literary cannon–designating itself as, according to Alain de Kuyssche, “The Comic Book Capital of the World.”

More information

Comics Fest: Early October in St. Gilles Town Hall. www.comicsfestivalbelgium.com

Belgium Center of the Comic Strip: Rue des Sables 20, 02 219 19 80, www.comicscenter.net. Open 10am –  6pm Tuesday-Sunday. Adm. 7.00 euro.  (Ask for an English guide at the admissions desk)

Comic Route:  The Brussels Tourism Office has a free online map of the route plus a full length guide to purchase at their main office, located in the Grand Place.  www.brusselsinternational.be

Tintin Boutique: Rue de la Colline 13, 02 514 51 52

Nicholas J. Klenske is a freelance writer living in Brussels.  His work has appeared in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, New Haven Advocate and PreView Magazine.  Contact him through www.KlenskeInk.com.