The brief is your canvas

A French strip cartoon museum reminds David Bernstein that art is created when you work within constraints.

What is the ninth art? Last month I found out in a museum dedicated to it, the Centre de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image in the Rue de Bordeaux, Angoulême. It’s the strip cartoon. The town promotes the museum handsomely by featuring the work of cartoonists on any available building and by turning every street name sign into a speech bubble. Enter the museum and you soon encounter your cartoon heroes. The accompanying text asserts that they hardly age, never die, wear the same clothes eternally and ideally have no profession and so ‘are always available for adventure’.

With typical Gallic intellectual thoroughness the museum classifies six categories of cartoon hero.

1. Day to day: Ordinary people, not especially heroic, such as the fittingly named Gaston Lagaffe.

2. Anti-hero: Americans may claim Howdy Doody (New York Post, 1930s) as the progenitor, but the type seems to suit the satirical French temperament. In the words of the curator, these are ‘average French people displaying timeless mediocrity’.

3. Child hero: Here are Linus and friends, plus the front page of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat on the day of Charles Schultz’s funeral, headlined ‘Farewell to our hometown hero’.

4. Adventurer: Barbarella features, but pride of place goes to one Carlo Maltese, the Gentleman of Fortune, who looks exactly as you imagine.

5. Mythical: led by Flash Gordon.

6. Super hero: including Superman, Batman and Zorro – who all lead a double life.

If the categorisation seems arbitrary, be reassured that your particular favourite will make an appearance somewhere or other if you only care to look. Goofy appears in L’évolution Canine under Canis Cogitans, dogs who think and/or talk and/or walk on two feet and/or dress as humans. Mickey and Popeye turn up as examples of the Big Foot cartoon style, ‘a way to deform characters by enlarging their extremities (head, nose, hand or foot)’. Tintin’s style is different. He appeared first in 1929 when the weekly supplement of a Belgian Catholic magazine published ‘Tintin in the Land of the Soviets’ by Georges Rémi (aka Hergé). Hergé’s ‘clear line’ style was influenced by Art Deco and the American cartoonist McManus (Bringing up Father).

Other influences on European cartoonists are detailed – an eclectic lot including our own HM Bateman and Francis Bacon, illustrators of children’s books, Renaissance artists, Kokoschka, Matisse and so on. The first ever strip cartoon appeared in a Swiss newspaper in 1833, drawn by a Swiss artist Rudolph Töpffer: ‘L’Histoire de Monsieur Jabot.

Despite the haphazard nature of the current transitional presentation – the museum is being rebuilt – a historical context is maintained. We see the earliest strip cartoons as illustrated texts rather than stories told in pictures and it is not until the early 20th century that the speech bubble takes precedence over lines of type. World War II is a virtual blank. The only French strips appeared in an anti-semitic and collaborationist publication.

Just as French art critics have regarded the poster as worthy of serious thought and commercial art as legitimate, so they respect the provenance of the strip cartoon. For example, the museum notes the influence of Töppfer on the pictorial narratives of Daumier and reminds us that by the end of the 19th century satirical magazines and broadsheets carried cartoons, most famously the influential Charivari and Le Chat Noir. The artistic and social importance of the ninth art can surely be nowhere as comprehensively addressed as in Angoulême. The museum (and the town) is worth a detour on your way south. There is a well-stocked international library, a large bookshop and a bank of computers allowing access to innumerable esoteric websites.

The ninth art is a relatively recent term. It had been called ‘the cinema of paper’ and ‘the cinema of the poor’, terms which reflected the strip’s absence of movement and sound. But, as André Gide and others remind us, ‘art is always the result of a constraint’ and cartoonists learned to adapt the techniques of film for the printed page – framing, juxtaposition, intercutting different sizes of shot. And they created a lingua franca of words designed to shout – AARRGH! POW! WHAM! HAANGGG!

Strip cartoon an art? So the French would have us believe. It was, after all, Marcel Duchamp who proclaimed that the enemy of art is good taste. There’s little of that in the Centre de la Bande Dessinée.

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