From France to Japan
Whether they’re aware of it or not, American science fiction and fantasy fans are intimately familiar with the legacy of Franco-Belgian comics. From Blade Runner’s futuristic art-deco cityscapes to the desolate badlands of Star Wars’ Tatooine and the post-apocalyptic vistas of the Mad Max series, these pulpy yet lavish environments first manifested in the pages of Métal Hurlant. Founded in 1975 by French comics juggernauts Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Philippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet, and financial director Bernard Farkas, this genre anthology showcased some of the era’s most experimental work and helped thrust the comics medium, or bandes dessinées, into the artistic stratum reserved for pursuits such as opera, classical music, and ballet...
At least in France and Belgium.
Though Ridley Scott and George Lucas were clearly taken by Métal Hurlant’s oeuvre, comics in America haven’t received the clout or cultural import that they have across the Atlantic—not that this reality deterred Stateside comic readers and creators from pursuing a mutual love affair with bandes dessinées. And for their part, artists featured in Métal Hurlant also sourced inspiration from their American counterparts, with Giraud’s Western Blueberry drawing heavily from Old West pulps and Druillet’s Lone Sloane character exploring H.P. Lovecraft’s theories of cosmicism.
Meanwhile, the globe’s other major comics market, Japan, also shared in this circular exchange of images and ideas, not only as a progenitor of French classics such as Tintin and Astérix, but by adopting visual cues from Métal Hurlant. Katsuhiro Otomo cited the anthology as an inspiration on his inimitable manga and film, Akira, and Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki was a close friend and collaborator of Moebius.
While these cultural influences have been both fruitful and provocative, they have largely remained parallel to one another. Time, distance, and culturally adverse marketing practices have enforced a lateral—but rarely synergistic—relationship between America, France/Belgium, and Japan. This trend, however, is slowly changing as more American comics are not merely influenced by European artists, but are actually drawn by them as well.
One such artist gaining traction in the United States is Bengal, a French illustrator whose work embodies the globalized nature of comics today. “I've always been in favor of an exchange between the major markets of comics,” he says. “I myself am the product of being able to read all of those while growing up. I've been influenced from everywhere, and it gave me so many more tools to develop my drawing skills, my sense of storytelling and framing, my understanding of colors.”
Bengal currently sits at the artistic helm of Death or Glory, writer Rick Remender’s latest outing for Image. For this explosive cross-country heist set in the American West, Bengal deviates from the gritty realism seen in similar American comics by animating each panel and action sequence with an uncanny kineticism that is both fresh and surreal. This interpretation of Remender’s script comes in part, he says, from being a foreigner.
“I'm pretty much like an American artist who went to France once or twice and has to draw a story taking place in France and then chooses to draw berets, baguettes, and striped shirts,” he jokes. “Now, of course, I didn't want to be caricatural at all, and I tried my best to capture the real, grounded essence of the region and its people—thanks also to the many discussions I've had with Rick—but I could never do it as realistically as an artist born in America. So this somewhat surreal aesthetic layer you feel over this typical American Western story comes simply from the fact that it's my imagination at work here.”
Bengal’s penchant for hyper-expressive characters, animated linework, and overt sexual expression is emblematic of an emerging European comic tradition—one that blends the Métal Hurlant school with kitschy American iconography and Japanese cinematographic technique. Though he cites Hermann Huppen’s Belgian sci-fi saga Jeremiah as a favorite since childhood, he acknowledges that Japanese comics are his greatest influence.
“My way of narrating and framing comes mostly from manga, there's no doubt about that,” Bengal explains. “Compared to U.S. and European comics, I've mostly read manga throughout my life, and that's where I get most of my influences.” He adds that he enjoys manga’s “dynamism” compared to the more “slow-paced, traditional French comics.”
Italian comic creator Mirka Andolfo shares many of Bengal’s sentiments when reflecting on her position as a European artist.
“In Italy, all the artists of my generation grew up with Disney and manga,” she explains, referring to the resulting aesthetic as “Euromanga.” In her erotic fantasy, Unnatural, she channels both Disney and manga aesthetics but also draws heavily from Italian auteurs such as Alessandro Barbucci and Barbara Canepa, who incidentally both worked for Disney. The duo’s comic book series, Sky Doll, combines effervescent—almost cute—imagery with “mature” content that challenges religious authority and contemplates erotic and violent themes.
Likewise, Andolfo’s anthropomorphic characters in Unnatural negotiate life under a repressive and bigoted regime with equal parts doe-eyed sincerity and a sensual yearning for freedom. And while she recognizes the impact Barbucci and Canepa have had on her overall artistic expression, Andolfo says that the most prevalent influences in Unnatural hail from Disney and manga, with a dose of American pacing for storytelling. “I think that the most important difference is in storytelling and the narrative rhythm,” she says. “In Europe, both in France and in Italy, we're used to having a much more dilated amount of time for stories to foliate.”
This observation rings true for Bengal as well. “When I moved to the U.S. market about three years ago, I felt even more in my element,” he says. “American comics are fast-paced, full of action, of energy, of superpowers and special effects, and all my drawing tools work perfectly for that!”
Likely because the Franco-Belgian market is more open to international exposure and exchange than other European comic markets, it serves to both draw successful artists from other European nations and act as a launching pad for artists who enter America, such as Andolfo, Federico Bertolucci, and Lorenzo De Felici, who entered the Image pantheon in March with Oblivion Song #1.
“We like our comics in black and white, for some reason,” says Rome-based artist De Felici of Italy’s comic book culture. “My artistic sensibility and style are not really Italian oriented. I recognize the value of this tradition, but I don’t really identify with it.”
Before working on Oblivion Song, a science-fiction horror story written by Robert Kirkman, De Felici previously worked on seminal Italian series including Dylan Dog and Drakka, but says he’s always looked outside of Italy to work.
“Italian comics have a strong tradition from the ’50s and ’60s—this realistic, old-style way of telling the stories with a character that kind of explains a lot of stuff in balloons. There’s not much action,” De Felici says. “The French market, on the other hand, is very influenced by manga and Japanese art in general. It’s difficult to put a finger on what the specific cause of these similarities is, but I just think there’s something cultural in both France and Japan. Comics are really rooted in the society. Everybody reads comics in both France and Japan, from old ladies to little children, so comics are really addressed to everyone.”
This could be one reason why American readers notice more overt, explicit sexuality in both bandes dessinées and manga than what’s found in mainstream American comics. After all, comics in the United States haven’t always been marketed as “mature,” and those readers who grew up exclusively with superhero comics are unaccustomed to seeing overt sex acts performed by their caped crusaders.
“In France, I suppose depicting sexuality or violence, or both, whether just in suggestions or plain visuals, has always been much less of a problem than in American comics, and it probably triggers the curiosity from readers abroad,” Bengal speculates.
Serialization, however, is one tradition shared between manga and American comics but practiced less frequently in Europe. “I grew up with American comics, so I have to say I really like the serialization,” De Felici says. “The thing where every month you wait for the story to go further and you have a cliffhanger on each issue—I really like it. You build some kind of addiction to the comic stories and the characters, and it’s a really cool sensation that we don’t really have [in Europe]. We focus more on the self-contained story every time.”
De Felici does lament that America hasn’t adopted one visual characteristic that’s notable among bandes dessinées: their physical size. Franco-Belgian comics are usually printed in a “comics album” format, which consists of a hard cover, color throughout, and page sizes that mimic the A4 standard. “Maybe you should print bigger comics,” he suggests. “The French ones are bigger, and the art really takes from that.”
As comic markets continue to globalize, more traditions and characteristics will likely continue to be shared and evolve across countries. Either way, as De Felici points out, active participation from international artists is only a good thing for American comics and for the European artists working within its market.
“I’m very lucky because I can work in each and every market and every market has really different traditions, so sometimes I feel dizzy,” he says. “Art is always evolving, so this is just the most natural thing. And everyone is enjoying this change because it’s always enriching in a way.”
Andolfo concedes a similar view. “[With the internet] distance is no longer a problem, this favors a circulation of materials and ideas that allows artists to discover new worlds and unknown styles. I've drawn hundreds of pages written by American writers who I met only years later. That means more opportunities for everyone.”