World's best comic collection opens to public in France

John Lichfield
Thursday 18 June 2009 18:39 BST

From Saturday comic books will have their own Louvre, a museum devoted to the art of speech-bubbles, super-heroes, boy journalists, stubborn Gauls and facetious talking animals.

The Musée de la bande dessinée in Angoulème in south-west France claims to have the largest collection of comic books and original comic book artwork in Europe, and possibly the world.

More than 8,000 original drawings and more than 110,000 magazines and comic books have been assembled in a converted factory. All the great names of French and Belgian comic strip art are represented, from Hergé, father of Tintin, to André Franquin (creator of Gaston Lagaffe and the Marsupilami) and René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (Asterix). There are also sections devoted to American comic strips, from Peanuts to Superman and Marvel Comics.

The museum will have full status as a Musée de France, alongside such institutions as the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. Its opening marks the further consecration of the “bande dessinée” – a huge industry in France selling 33,600,000 comic books a year – as a separate art form in its own right.

The museum’s director, Ambroise Lassalle, said: “Partly, we celebrate the fun side of comic books, as a form of leisure activity which is very popular with the young and not just the young. But we also want to explain, and to celebrate, the rich history of comic books and show why they have been recognised in the last 20 years as a separate and legitimate art form, used by those who need to express themselves simultaneously in words and drawings.” The “ninth art”, as the comic book is sometimes called in France, has finally won recognition this year in the wider art world. The Louvre recently organised an exhibition of original comic book art which attempted to trace the influence of classical painters on famous bédéistes – the French generic word for the creators of bande dessinées or BDs.

The glossy French magazine Beaux Arts, mostly preoccupied by painting and sculpture, has just published a special edition entirely devoted to the bande dessinée. Fabrice Bousteau, editor of the magazine, said: “There is no distinction worth making between art and comic books. Both have a rightful place in museums and bookshops.”

A museum devoted to Hergé, the creator of Tintin, opened last month in Belgium. The French museum replaces a much smaller one which closed 11 years ago. Angoulème hosts an annual comic book festival each January and has established itself as Europe’s cartoon strip capital. The new museum will be the official depository of every comic book published in France, in the same way that the Bibliothèque National in Paris receives a free copy of other types of new book.

M. Lassalle, the director, said that the museum’s collection was heavily dominated by French and Belgian work but also had a “very good” selection of American, Swiss, Italian, German and even British comic strip art. Britain, for reasons that escape BD fans in France, has always been a difficult market for comic books (Beano and Dandy apart).

Japanese manga are also represented in Angouleme but mostly by copies of magazines, rather than original work.

Does the museum have a pièce de résistance –amaster work to which the crowds will flock in the way that tourists surge to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre?

“Yes,” said M. Lassalle.

“At least, in my opinion, there are two or three planches [original pieces of artwork] here which represent the very best of what bande dessinée can do. They are wonderful drawings in the Gaston Lagaffe series by André Franquin (the great Belgian comic strip creator, 1924-97). They are packed with subtlety and humour but they are also full of great movement.”

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