Commonly called the “ninth art”, comic strips are considered as an art in their own right in Belgium, and particularly in Brussels, where it became an establishment. The comic strip market is very large, and every year over 40 million books are published. In the Belgian capital, you can find dozens of specialized shops, statues, wall paintings, bars and museums dedicated to the art - comic strips are ubiquitous!
Belgian comic strip history
The first large-scale production of comics in Belgium started in the second half of the 1920s. During this period, Belgium saw the creation of many youth magazines like Zonneland / Petits Belges. Among all of the young writers who were starting out at the time, Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, stood out amongst his peers. Hergé created The Adventures of Tintin in January 1929, completely revolutionizing how comics were perceived and consumed. This is considered the beginning of the Belgian comic strip tradition.
Very quickly, Hergé developed his unique style and Tintin became very popular. Tintin and Hergé became the prototype for many Belgian comics strips in terms of style, use of speech bubbles, publication frequency (which is often weekly), and the method of using a first appearance in a magazine or newspaper and subsequently moving to albums, also known as comic books).
After WWII, the market was dominated by youth publications like “Le Journal de Tintin” and “Le Journal de Spirou”.
It was in this post-war period that comic strips started gaining worldwide attention, first by reaching the French market and gaining acceptance and then by reducing references to Belgian culture.
Today’s Belgian comic strips
The public interest in Belgian comic strips peaked long ago. However, authors and publishers have adapted their works so they remain relevant to this day.
The recent revival of some old comic strips like Blake & Mortimer have broken all sales records. Some classics like Spirou and Fantasio, The Smurfs and Lucky Luke are still published today, but written by new authors (as their creators have all passed away). Some new authors have also appeared and have been to able to combine efficiency and profitability in an admirable way: Jean Van Hamme with Thorgal, XIII and Largo Winch, and François Schuiten with “Les cités obscures” or “Métamorphoses”. Children also have comic strips targeted to them, like Jojo, Kid Paddle, Cédric and Le Petit Spirou. All of which have also been able to achieve great success on paper and as cartoons on TV.
More than ever, Belgian comic strips are working hard to gain foreign recognition. This is why the country's cultural and political authorities work on the promotion and the teaching of the ninth art. Some schools have opened to teach potential new authors the Belgian comic strip style, and large cities have invested in the creation or renovation of wall frescoes illustrating comic trip heroes.
Brussels, and perhaps the entire country seems to be comic-strip mad. The country has 650 professional comic artists, which is the largest concentration of comic strip authors per square kilometre in the world. Belgium is the country where comic strips have grown from a popular medium into an art in its own right. Comics are a part of every Belgian's life, both physically and psychologically.
But why are comic strips so popular in Belgium? Probably because this is where everything started. Due to its abundant history regarding comic strips, new authors tend to go to Belgium to write and work; Belgian people, who have grown up with this culture, naturally share it. Their parents and grandparents grew up with Tintin, Lucky Luke and Gaston Lagaffe comic books. Like any other tradition, comic books have been passed down from one generation to the next.
Feeling like learning more?
To learn more about Belgian comic strips, their history, culture and heroes, the Belgian Comic Strip Center (CBBD) is the place to go. Since its creation in 1989, it has become the number one reference for comic strip lovers, and attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year. Located in a building designed by the famous architect Victor Horta, this museum offers 4,200 m² of permanent and temporary exhibitions. The aim of the center is to promote comic strips by displaying them as an integral part of the Belgian culture and by gathering more than 40,000 comic books and theoretical works in over 20 languages.
By working on the promotion, revival and teaching of its ninth art, Belgium has so far succeed in ensuring that this tradition has a bright future ahead of it. One thing is for sure - Belgium still has many speech bubbles to fill.