The Trip in Context

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t reading comic books. I’ve tried to remember what my first comics were and I can’t think of anything specific. I’ve always been a reader – I think I learned to read at four or five. I was certainly a voracious reader of everything by the time I was in elementary school. Comics, happily, have always fallen under the category of “things I like to read.”

My first comics were probably the comics in the newspaper. Broom Hilda, the Wizard of ID, Far Side, Family Circus, Shoe, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, Gasoline Alley and at least half a dozen others. I’m old enough to remember when Calvin and Hobbes started and when Bloom County was really good.

In terms of mainstream comic books, one of my first comics was G.I. Joe #10. I think. I also had a copy of X-Men #169 and remember being surprised a dozen issues later when Storm cut her hair.

My father also had a subscription to Heavy Metal, from issue two or three. Issues of the magazine were always around the house. I certainly wasn’t reading it until I was in my early teens, but I did get around to reading every issue he had by the time I was seventeen.

These days, I read all manner of comic books. I have collected volumes of Buck Rogers, Terry and the Pirates, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Doonesbury, Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes. I also have Elfquest, Watchmen, Box Office Poison, Phonogram, The Rabbi’s Cat, Locas, Preacher, Leviathan, Crecy, Y the Last Man, Fables, Umbrella Academy, Asterios Polyp, Age of Bronze, Alice in Sunderland and many, many more on my shelves.

I have attended Small Press Expo for the past seven years. For the first few years, I worked as press, covering the show for a local magazine (that has since folded). I volunteered for a year and have vended for the past three years. Clearly, I am a supporter of (and contributor to) the independent comics movement.

What I like about Anglo-Saxon indie comics is the sense of possibility. I have seen some very creative, amazing presentations. People are really tackling design questions in the sequential medium. There is a lot of raw love for the medium and creative energy dedicated to making something for the sake of making it. There is a financial aspect to it as well, but the people who have the most fun are those who have come to terms with the marginal nature of the market.

I also find it interesting that anything that is not Superheroes or Horror doesn’t really qualify as a full genre in the mainstream comic book market. Which means that anyone who creates something in a different genre is automatically relegated to the indie comic market. As a result, the creative weirdos are intermingling with the people trying to tell regular stories and the medium is far richer for the intersection.

However, there has always been a special place in my heart for French/European comics (known as bande dessinée or BD, an abbreviation you will see throughout these essays). My original impressions were generated by my early exposure to Heavy Metal and it was only recently expanded upon.

One of the things I enjoyed about the French comics that I remembered from Heavy Metal was the sense that comics could be about anything. Certainly, there were the inevitable erotic comics, but I also read comics about historical settings, social commentary, science fiction, weird fantasy and heavily symbolic and/or abstract pieces. The message that I received was that comics can be anything they want to be – something that I took to heart when I first started making my own.

I did some research over the past few years, reading Bart Beaty’s Unpopular Culture, which gave a very good overview of how comics had progressed from the late 70s (which was where my view was fixed, thanks to the likes of Manara, Moebius, Bilal, Boucq and Druillet). Aesthetically, it’s like hearing disco a few times and deciding that you like American music.

My wife, who loves me very much, made a suggestion in August of 2009 that we should take a trip to Brussels and Paris, perhaps with a side trip to Angouleme during the festival. Brussels and Paris are the epicenter of French comics and a trip to the Angouleme festival would have been a trifecta for the serious comics nerd. So I said yes.

We spent a week wandering the three capitals of French comics. We visited two comic book museums, half a dozen comic shops and I bought far more comics than I should have – especially considering the fact that I only speak un peu Francais and nearly every book I bought is en Francais.

I have written subsequent posts about shopping in French comic book stores, my impressions of Angouleme, wandering the streets of Brussels in search of comic book murals and other adventures. But first, I wanted to provide a little context about comics and why this trip was important to me.

Come back next week for my impressions of the BD Museum in Brussels, part 2 of this 12 part series.