PM Pick

Batman, Africans, and the Pope's Superheroics

Miles Marshall Lewis

Bandes Dessinées (BDs, or drawn strips, bound in hardcover 'albums'), a Franco-Belgian cross between comics and graphic novels, are crazily popular in Paris.

A small blue awning hanging over the store's heavy metal double doors reads ALBUM, yet Album doesn't sell albums. Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood" greets clientèle as they enter. Inside, rap lyrics pierce one's aural canals. The labyrinthine space is dedicated to images of sci-fi, superheroes, and Star Wars memorabilia (read: toys). This Friday afternoon in the fifth arrondissment, a line of customers-mostly adult, exclusively male-snakes through racks of action figures and comic books. The line leads to a clean-shaven, young white guy with bed head. He's signing autographs and doodling artwork. Most in this line clutch copies of Batman: Year 100 in hand, the comic written and drawn by the man of the hour, Paul Pope.

Comics traditionally tell the adventures of costumed superheroes; graphic novels contain more adult-themed illustrated stories of heroes and antiheroes, sometimes superpowered, sometimes not. BDs (bandes dessinées, or drawn strips, bound in hardcover "albums") are a Franco-Belgian cross between the two, and they are crazily popular here in Paris. Pope's next project, La Chica Bionica, is an upcoming BD for local comics publisher Les Éditions Dargaud, hence the French fanboy turnout at Album.

"American comics are more popular here than European comics are in America," Pope says, in-between sketching a cartoonish manga character for a young girl. It's true that Album features mostly English-language comics, which score a healthy business both here and at its Belle-Épine mall location in the nearby suburb of Thiais. (Pope makes an in-store appearance there tomorrow.) Pope's Batman: Year 100 is the tale of a newfangled Batman preying on Gotham City criminals in the year 2039, a century after the dark knight detective's debut back in 1939, and his four-issue series has its fair share of French followers. Having personally chosen to leave America because of Bush policies such as the Patriot Act, I find Pope's plot interesting: the Batman of 2039 is essentially a terrorist, as secret identities are outlawed in America's Orwellian police-state future government.

"I was thinking about paranoid projections of the Patriot Act, and that's definitely addressed," he admits. "I think as a science-fiction writer, it's material that is interesting. It's an anxiety a lot of people think about." Pope's La Chica Bionica BD is another future adventure, albeit a 1960's Barbarella/CQ-type future; the bionic chick in question is a killing machine slowly coming into her own self-consciousness. However, the bill for Pope's international promotional jaunt isn't footed by French La Chica Bionica publisher Dargaud or Batman's DC Comics. The writer-artist simply enjoys visiting Paris -- this is his third stay on his own dime -- and says he's made a few friends here.

Looking around at the varied illustrations and figurines in Album, it comes to light that France has no superheroes of its own. I took Spider-Man crawling across Manhattan's Flatiron Building for granted as a kid, but it seems that French children have to live out their vicarious heroic fantasies via our American icons (Superman, etc). In 1982, Marvel Comics once briefly introduced Peregrine: mild-mannered writer Alain Racine of Moulins who donned an ugly purple "powersuit" to operate as a flying, kickboxing crime-fighter. But Peregrine's career was extremely short-lived, and all other French comic characters-Batroc, the Grey Gargoyle-are villains. The closest thing to a French superhero is the journalist/adventurer Tintin, one of the original inspirations for director Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones franchise.

The most famous BD series, translated into nearly 60 languages, is The Adventures of Tintin. The 1920s creation of Belgian writer-artist Hergé, Tintin is a young Belgian reporter who gets into various investigative misadventures around the world with his faithful fox terrier, Milou. My afternoon at Album turned particularly noir when my fiancée Christine led me over to this collection and pointed out her childhood favorite, Tintin au Congo (Casterman Editions, July 1999). Thoughts of color had been far from my mind in the comic shop's politically neutral environment. (And yet, is any environment really politically neutral?).

"[I]n some circles Tintin is accused of more or less overt colonialism: he is the European who teaches the savages their business," said author Paul La Farge last spring in The Believer magazine. "[Early] Tintin stories…tend to the racist and the caricatural." Published in 1931, the cover of Tintin au Congo shows Tintin driving a jalopy through the grassland of central Africa with his Congolese guide, a Sambo figure with buck eyes and lips almost as red as his shirt. At three different points in Hergé's story, Africans with shields and spears literally bow down to Tintin in appreciation for his daring deeds of rescue. He saves one sick African by feeding him an aspirin from the Western world (indigenous Congolese healing herbs being far inferior to Tylenol, of course). By the last panel, Hergé has the Babaoru'm Kingdom worshipping a graven idol of Tintin in his absence. So much for French equalité.

Glancing through other popular BD titles like Asterix, Titeuf, and Le Chat, I come across a colorful hardcover featuring a naked African boy named Kirikou. Kirikou et la Sorcière (Hachette Jeunesse, August 2001) is writer-artist Michel Ocelot's update of a West African folktale. A child confronts a beautiful, wicked sorceress named Karaba in order to understand the source of her wickedness. A fiercely independent thinker, Kirikou refuses to believe the presumed motivations behind Karaba's behavior that the elders have long since accepted as given. The story also exists as a successful animated film-with a soundtrack by Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour backed exclusively by traditional African instruments-and spawned a sequel, last year's Kirikou et Les Bêtes Sauvages. It's good to know something exists to counter the stereotypically offensive Tintin.

Leaving Paul Pope to his autographing, we exit Album and walk down the rue Dante. The street is loaded with several bandes dessinées shops, including another Album devoted to DVDs like Asterix et Cleopatra. Entering Librarie Gaël, we notice a stack of flyers designed as wedding announcements: Black Panther is marrying Storm of the X-Men this summer. ("The Royal Family of Wakanda requests your presence as His Highness, King T'Challa, is joined in matrimony…") Created in 1966 by Marvel Comics as the first major black superhero, Black Panther hails from the fictional African nation of Wakanda. (Storm's mother was a princess from Kenya.) I laugh with my fiancée over the faux announcement. Marvel has never revealed if France colonized Wakanda.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.