The Comics in the City

Among the great tourist destinations in Brussels are Atomium, the Town Square and the Comics in the City – a series of murals throughout the city center depicting famous Belgian comic book characters. We’d heard about this before we left the States, but we were unable to find a reliable map online. When we were in Multi BD, we stumbled across a small book that was basically a mural-by-mural guide, complete with detailed street maps and photo of the piece.

On our last day in the city, we made a point of including several of these in our itinerary as we went shopping. That afternoon, we hit most of the murals around St. Katherine’s, although a group of the murals near the canal are in a pretty sketchy neighborhood. Luckily, it was cold, so there was only one group of lingering youths that didn’t seem happy with our chatter. Brussels is so small that getting away from a bad corner only takes a street or two.

One of the things that the murals accomplish very well is revealing a complete lack of knowledge on the part of the viewer. I recognized some characters (Tintin, Asterix), but most of the others I had no idea about. Blake and Mortimer? Titeuf? Lucky Luke? Gaston? Who?

Angouleme had several murals on the walls in their town as well and the first time I saw one, I thought of Brussels. I’m not sure which location thought of it first, but it was a very striking effect in both places.

Also, these public art displays really demonstrate the cultural attitude towards comic books and their creators. From what I understand, the Belgian murals were part of a celebration of comics in that country. In Angouleme, comic books constitute a large portion of the local economy. Either way, the medium is considered to be both an art form and a reputable commercial enterprise without concern about mutual exclusivity. Or, really, much concern at all. It’s simply the ninth art.

And, in a nutshell, that blasé attitude towards something that constitutes a significant thread of their cultural makeup is what makes walking around in Francophone comic book shops so enjoyable. It’s not a big deal to enjoy comics. Everyone reads them because there is, by design, something for everyone.

Reading comics is simply something that everyone does, like drinking beer or watching football on television. Compared to that level of acceptance, watching the Hatfield and McCoy antics of the Big Two back in America is severely demoralizing. Given the choice of comic book cultures, I would chose the one where articles about comic books aren’t obligated to start with “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore.” In the Francophone countries, people would laugh at such a statement; they’ve known that for forty years.

Come back next week for part five of this twelve part series, where we are off to Paris.