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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.

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