Our Man In Paris: Every Frenchman loves a strip show

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The Independent Culture
An exhibition in Paris is pulling in the crowds. It's dedicated to a man hailed as "another Charlie Chaplin, or Jacques Tati", one of the "giants of humour of the 20th century". His name is Andre Franquin. Mean nothing? What about his most famous creations - Gaston Lagaffe, Marsupilami - do they still mean nothing to you?

There is no reason why they should. Franquin, who died in 1997, was a giant but - like many giants in his field - he never discovered a way to stride across the Channel.

Andre Franquin is one of the dominant figures of something claimed in France as the "ninth art": the cartoon strip or comic book. And, like most famous French people, he was Belgian.

The success of the exhibition dedicated to him, at the Paris science and industry museum in the 19th arrondissement, points to a continuing love affair in the French-speaking world with stories told by cartoons and bubbles. This is an infatuation shared by the Japanese and the Koreans and, to a lesser degree, the Americans. Give or take Desperate Dan and Battle Comics No 543 ("Take that one for Chalky, you Hun!"), it is an art form that has largely passed Britain by.

The international festival of bande dessinee (comic strips) attracted larger than ever crowds of "bedephiles" to Angouleme in south-west France last month. (Bande dessinee is known as "BD" for short, pronounced "bay- day"). The number of BD titles published in France in 2004 - 3,020 - set a new record. Sales of comic books are running at over 32,000,000 a year, in other words, one book sold to every second person in France. After dipping in the mid-1990s, interest in BD among the young has been refuelled by an invasion of Japanese comics (Mangas) and their Korean imitators (Manwhas).

The most popular, contemporary, Francophone exponent of the ninth art is a young Swiss man called "Zep". Sales of his latest album about Titeuf, a 10-year-old, girl-crazy underachiever, are expected to top 2,000,000, which is roughly 10 times as many as a bestselling novel in France.

Bandes Dessinees are even the subject of French and Belgian academic studies, like novels and films. Some deserve it, such as the recent autobiographical works of Marjane Satrapi. Her Persepolis I and Persepolis II are subtle novels told in pictures and still movies composed of apparently childlike cartoons. They tell the story of a young woman growing up in post-ayatollah Iran and in exile in Europe.

Other classic BDs leave me cold. My nearly 15-year-old son, in an academically pushy Parisian school, has just been given a new classic French text to read: La Frontiere de la Vie (The Frontier of Life) by the Belgian Roger Leloup. This work, published in 1977, is part of a popular series of comic strips about Yoko Tsumo, a female Japanese amateur detective and electronics expert. By studying this book, Charles and his class are learning, with great enthusiasm, about the history, narration techniques and visual grammar of BDs. He describes the book itself as "rubbish".

He is right. I read it (in 35 minutes). Classic or not, the plot and characterisation are below what would be passable in the most crass film or thriller novel. Andre Franquin, the subject of the retrospective exhibition, is in a different league. He was born in 1924 in Etterbeek, the district of Brussels that also produced, among others, my mother and Herge, the father of Tintin. Franquin's best-loved creation, Gaston Lagaffe, is an antidote to Herge's workaholic, robotic boy-reporter. Lagaffe is also a journalist but a good-hearted, lazy, incompetent idealist, a dotty inventor and animal-lover, a Good Soldier Schweik of the reporters' room. He is identifiable at every newspaper and recognisable in every journalist (OK, in some of us). He, rather than the priggish Tintin, deserves to be celebrated beyond the borders of francophone BD-dom.

Which is stranger? The French infatuation with cartoon strips or our relative immunity to them? It's all in the cultural genes, it seems. An exhibition of medieval and Renaissance French cathedral tapestries has just opened in Caen. They tell biblical stories and some have speech bubbles emerging from characters' mouths. So, there you have it. The French have been forever drawing bubbles.