Visiting the Belgian Comic Strip Center

The very first thing we did when we landed in Brussels was find our hotel. Once we were situated and had showered the plane funk off, we set out to find the Bande Desinee (BD) Museum (aka the Belgian Comic Strip Center), which the map told us was only six blocks away.

The map was right. (In fact, all of the maps in Brussels were very deceptive. The streets looked longer than they were and several trips that looked significant on the map were a lot shorter than we thought they’d be. This theme came up especially when we went looking for the comic book murals throughout the city, which is the subject of a later post.)

The BD Museum occupies an old art-deco department store that was designed by Victor Horta in the 1930s. It’s a beautiful space and is worth the visit all on its own. The fact that it houses some very interesting comic book exhibits made it that much more enjoyable.

The guy behind the counter gave us an English guide to most of the exhibits, which we stopped flipping through when we got to their “original art pages” gallery. According to the literature, the pages in the gallery are rotated on a constant basis, so what was out when we were there may not be there now. The art on display was beautiful, from a variety of series – most of which I had never heard of. It was also interesting to see how some pages were physically cut and pasted together to get an effect that looks seamless on the page.

Upstairs from that was a permanent collection about the Belgian comic book magazines – Tintin and Spirou. Several of the more prominent cartoonists from those magazines were profiled, along with examples of their work. Herge and Peyo had special sections dedicated to them, obviously.

The top floor holds special exhibitions that are rotated regularly. When we were there, a leading comic critic was asked to identify 20 titles from a 20 year period – the best comic from each year. The comics identified were very interesting – V for Vendetta, Black Hole, Sin City and a smattering of Manga interspersed with some very unusual European comics. The descriptions of the comics were in French and English, along with an indication listing if the comic had been translated into English; many had not been.

When we got to the gift shop, we found that the section containing comics translated into English was very small. However, there also seemed to be no single section dedicated to superheroes. There were sections dedicated to conspiracy comics, historical comics, westerns, aviator comics, children’s comics, humor comics and a section of titles by author. It was a very different way of looking at the content available, mostly because it was a completely different kind of content than I’m used to getting in American comic book shops.

Although most of the books were in French, I bought a few books that looked very interesting – including one that was in the top floor exhibit about the best comics of the past 20 years. I figured that it was worth figuring out if I was able to read French before the real comic shopping began.

That night, I found that two years of high school French was able to get me about 30% of the content on the books that I had bought. I had no dictionary with me, so I wasn’t sure about a lot of the words, but the grammar and pronouns looked familiar. I figured that language is mostly a combination of vocabulary and context. Vocabulary can be solved with a dictionary and reading comics helps establish the context – enough so that some ESOL classes have taught English with comics books in the past.

Having been to a few more comic book shops, I can confidently say that the gift shop in the BD Museum was pretty much like the kind of comic shop you can expect to find in Brussels. Considering that I really enjoyed the shopping in Brussels, this is high praise. I’d say that it was also head and shoulders above the gift shop in Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, but just about everything is better than Geppi’s gift shop.

The one area of the Museum that we really didn’t get to was the reading room. This was basically a library on the bottom floor that contains copies of most of the Francophone comics in print or 44,000 comics (according to the website), whichever is the larger number. At that point, I was not confident enough in my reading comprehension to attempt a library of that magnitude, so we decided not to browse. Maybe some other time.

Next week, I’ll talk about the rest of the places I bought comics in Brussels – part 3 of a 12 part series.

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