Damonkey Business: The French invaded first?? Now THERE’s a switch!

Before Cowboy Bebop‘s Spike, there was another crack-shot lonesome cowboy hunting bad guys and riding into the sunset. Years prior to Rei Ayanami dying her hair blue, a gaggle of little guys had already given themselves the full-body treatment.

Yes – once upon a time, before Animanga Fever stomped all over North America Godzilla-style, there were the BDs.Before Cowboy Bebop‘s Spike, there was another crack-shot lonesome cowboy hunting bad guys and riding into the sunset. Years prior to Rei Ayanami dying her hair blue, a gaggle of little guys had already given themselves the full-body treatment.

Yes – once upon a time, before Animanga Fever stomped all over North America Godzilla-style, there were the BDs.

You remember them, right – the Bandes Dessinnées? The Tintins, the Lucky Lukes, the Buck Dannys, the Asterixes, the Smurfs, and the rest? LONG before anyone had even heard of a mecha, or seen Battle of the Planets or Starblazers on TV, decades before Robotech and Voltron first got American kids looking across the ocean for cartoon diversion and into the department stores for transmogrifying toys, and way before any of you wanted to catch ’em all or sport a moon tiara, the Europeans had us hooked on comics like nobody’s business.

We shouldn’t be surprised, really. I mean, the modern comic strip pretty much started over there – in Geneva, to be more precise. There is no doubt that Rodolphe Topffer‘s work, predating The Yellow Kid by more than sixty years, certainly served to spark a worldly love for images and words sequenced symbiotically. The guy not only spawned the form, but he was also the first to critique and theorize about it (his 1845 "Essay on Physiognomy" being a key example), too… talk about your one-man-art-movement band!

North Americans seem to have forgotten already, though, how much influence the European BD movements had on our short comic book and comic strip evolutionary age to date. If you ask your average kid (or kid-trapped-inside-an-adult’s-body) on the street today about American comics, he’ll probably go "Superheroes! Archie! Calvin and Hobbes!". Ask him about Japanese comics, and he might respond, "Pokemon! Panty shots! Pretty girls! Sailor suits! Super robots!" Ask about European comics, and you’ll likely hear, "Huh?"

The 70s, 80s, and early 90s saw the rise and fall of Euro comics (many of them being of French or Belgian origin) in North America. Peyo’s Smurfs may have been the biggest mainstream hit, becoming a huge fad all over the world in the 80s, and inspiring other Euro comic artists to push for their own animation series. Asterix, Lucky Luke, and Tintin all had brief English-language cartoon careers. Nowadays, French Canada still enjoys the classics, but even they’ve seen a drop in both sales and awareness of contemporary current comickers from across the Atlantic.

Once the word leaked out that the Japanese were overflowing with a bajillion cartoon productions, and that our people got a taste of all these seemingly new images and storytelling/layout techniques, it was all but over for the European invasion. That universal iconography we see so much of in Animanga (like the spontaneously erupting nosebleed for lust, the little red crosses popping on foreheads to symbolize anger and rage, and that classic gigantic sweat drop used to convey annoyance, frustration, or all-around creep-out-edness [you could provide enough drink to a third world country with those!]) caught our fancies quick and hard…

… and all the magic potions, smurfberry juice, or straight-shootin’ in the world couldn’t distract the newly-enamoured American hordes from their new sequential obsession.

Europeans still impact the North American market, however; three of today’s most influential American comic book writers hail from overseas – Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis. Popular Brit comic 2000AD continues to inspire sci-fi and fantasy creators around the world – sure, many of you many not know of this 26 year-old anthology comic, but likely you’ve all heard of Judge Dredd, right?

A little-known fact for you: the Japanese manga scene owes a fair deal of its popularity and life to both the American and the European scene. Disney, American strips, and the European serial comics – and let’s not forget influential individual artists like Moebius and Hergé – are what spurred many Japanese artists to delve into the world of sequential art. They melded this influence with their own rich cultural art heritage, and what we now call ‘manga’ sprouted from there.

If you think about it, what we’re seeing here is a global village of influence that predates telecommunication, and that has been constantly flowing back and forth between three major cultural sets since the dawn of the 20th century. The Europeans got us started with Topffer. The Americans liked the concept, and went comic strip crazy. The Europeans liked the newspulp comic strip idea, and action serials and collections were born from there. The Japanese thought, "WOW, look at all these great ideas that the Americans and the Europeans had with pictures and words," and they started experimenting, seeing just how far they could go, both style and content-wise.

Now the Japanese are proving, thanks in part to the help and inspiration from across two other continents, that comics can be for EVERYONE, young and old, and about ANYTHING. They don’t even have to be drawn in any particular style; you don’t need to frame a fantasy story by imitating Takahashi Rumiko or Watsuki Nobuhiro, for example – look at what Carson Fire and Indigo Kelleigh are doing for the genre (and look at Reinder Dijkhuis‘s ability to remain faithful to his European BD roots!)!

Some very interesting new webcomics out there are likewise looking back to our American and European predecessors, rather than follow the current manga-dominant trends; pop a peek at newcomer comic Anne Frank Conquers the Moon Nazis or creator Cat Garza’s stuff – you can see the obvious influence of a familiar classic past creeping back onto the modern ‘tooning palette.

It’s clear that the artists from all three cultures agree on this combined conclusion – that each culture has contributed its fair share to the development and evolution of the medium. That comics can offer much MORE than just simple yuk yuk entertainment for our kids.

Now if only the general populace would, too.


  1. The fortunate few of us that live in Quebec have beautifully unfettered access to the only place in North America that Eurocomics still thrive. I’ve become a huge fan of the “Donjon” series and all of Louis Trondheim and Joann Sfar’s other works, as well as the adventure series “La Troixième Testament” and “Décalogue.”

    There’s also a huge following of the MetaBarons saga both in the original languages and English translations.

    NBM is probably the “purest” distributer of translated Eurocomics in North America right now — they do a decent (not great) translation of “Donjon” as (hold your breath) “Dungeon,” as well as some other Trondheim work. Dark Horse and Fantagraphix also translate and publish Eurocomics.

  2. I’ve HEARD of Donjon! But I’ve never seen any! More reason for me to try to make it up there at the end of this month! ^_^

    Two Euro-BDs I didn’t mention in my column, but that I always loved when I was a kid: Achille Talon, and Iznogoud. Damn, but those two were great.

    Even if Iznogoud HAS been seen as being pretty darned racial stereotypish.

    Heh. And I also remember having a schoolboy crush on Natasha, the airline stewardess… ^^

    Heehee! Writing this column really got me all nostalgic for Euro BDs, consarnit!

  3. growing up in Australia, i spent a lot of time in my high school library reading Tintin and Asterix books. I’m actually working on a comic idea now that hopefully will have the kind of adventure that you’d find in your average Tinitin book. I think we need to see more of that. More of the subtle humour of Asterix. Hell, the characterization of both of them are just astounding imo.

    And Anne Frank Conquers the Moon Nazi’s is just brilliant. That’s all there is too it

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