La bande dessinée en France à la Belle époque. 1880-1914
Les Impressions Nouvelles, Brussels, BE, 2022
192 p., illus. Trade, 36€
It is difficult to believe that a book like this has been written single-handedly, unless one would take it as the result of a lifelong commitment to an immense and largely uncharted territory. Yet La bande dessinée en France à la Belle époque. 1880-1914 is but the most recent of the more than 30 monographs by Thierry Groensteen, one of the leading voices in French as well as international comics scholarship since the early 1980s, and there is no reason to doubt that this recent publication owns everything to his own endless curiosity and flawless and dramatically efficient connoisseurship, which makes the accomplishment only more impressive.
The major aim of this work is not to propose a new theory of comics, even if the book is firmly rooted in Groensteen’s previous work on the semiotics and stylistics of visual narrative of the medium as exposed in System of Comics and Comics and Narration, both translated with Mississippi UP, but to fill in an important lacuna in our current historical knowledge of French comics. It is vital to stress from the very beginning that for Groensteen the notion of history also includes that of media archeology and cultural history, as shown by the careful contextualization of the material under scrutiny. Even in the continental reading of the history of comics, which has enlarged and nuanced the Anglo-Saxon emphasis on the distinctive role of the turn of century newspaper comics and their revolutionary use of the speech balloon, it has longtime been accepted that the years between Töpffer and Cham, roughly speaking the decades between 1830 and 1870, and the post-War Franco-Belgian continuations of the US models, had been period where comics had more or less disappeared. It was generally believed that during the Belle Epoque years, starting one decade after the Franco-Prussian war and suddenly ended by the outbreak of World War One, the dominating genre of drawing in print was not comics but caricature and illustration. More generally, the Belle Epoque was seen as poor in comics but incredibly rich in other new and immediately popular visual media like cinema, vaudeville, world exhibitions, lantern slide shows, amateur photography, etc.
Groensteen’s study shatters this stereotypical view of a comicsless era. It unearths and lavishly shows the richness and variety of the comics medium, mainly through its use in magazine and newspaper culture–an important difference with the initial publication format of comics which was the expensive album format privileged by Töpffer, for whom comics was a new form of serious literature rather than a new type of mass communication for all kind of audiences, including children (the reader targeted by Töpffer was the highly literate, well-educated adult). The archival effort undertaken by Groensteen is breathtaking. His research relies on the identification, localization, description and interpretation of several hundreds of newspapers, magazines, broadsheets, posters, and albums published in a span of more or less 35 years, as well as the meticulous analysis of the life and work of the countless artists that have been working for the industry, sometimes almost exclusively but in many cases only sporadically and for shorter periods. Moreover, Groensteen’s research had to confront the vagueness of a field where the concept of “comics” as a genre label had not yet been institutionalized (the French term “bande dessinée”, meaning “drawn strips”, will only appear after the Great War, and even then its acceptation will take some time), while in addition the boundaries between genres and drawing types were close to nonexisting.
The mapping of comics in this new, highly popular and democratic visual culture, is an exceptional achievement and the detailed indexes of this book make it the perfect instrument for all those eager to further explore the world of post-Töpffer and pre-bande dessinée comics in France (the book also ends with an inspiring chapter on the interaction between other traditions, continental as well as British and American). Yet Groensteen’s work is not only showing new ground, it is also telling it. The book is divided in 20 chapters covering three key perspectives, cleverly alternated and permanently interconnected. First, the study of comics as a realistic medium, that is a medium that in spite of its links with entertainment, fantasy, and evasion is also a certain mirror of its times and a certain reflection of a Zeitgeist. Comics share the same space as journalism and actualities, and the blind spots of the medium––its stock characters for instance, who leave little room for certain social realities––are no less revealing than its direct traces of the cultural, political, social, and ideological background of the Belle Epoque. Second, the study of comics as a professional and industrial activity, both seen from the point of view of the publishers and that of the artists. Hence for instance, Groensteen’s careful analysis of the commercial strategies of the former and the economic position of the latter. In both cases, the book provides us with comprehensive information on the income of the artists but also on the stiff competition between the periodicals. Third, the study of comics in relationship with the publication outlets of the medium as well as the biography of the contributing artists. Here, as well, Groensteen has done a masterly job, since not all magazines could be found in official archives but had to be accessed in sometimes well-hidden private collections, while in certain cases the comics appeared anonymously or they were signed by authors whose name and biography had remained totally unknown. The archivist thus had to become also a detective and the results are stunning, with Groensteen succeeding in many cases to cast new light on old mysteries.
This remarkable work is no less remarkably illustrated, with several hundreds of full color comics plates. The author has wisely chosen to show full plates rather than isolated panels, all of them perfectly readable, even those that are reproduced in a smaller scale. Showing and telling are always in perfect balance, and the beautiful iconography of the publication makes it a feast for the eye as for the mind.