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Review of Selected BD Scholarship

By Anne Cirella-Urrutia
Forsdick, Charles, Laurence Grove, and Libbie McQuillan, eds. The Francophone Bande Dessinée. Amsterdam, NL; New York, NY: Rodopi, 2005. Print.
Miller, Ann. Reading Bande Dessinée: Critical Approaches to French-Language Comic Strip. Bristol, UK; Chicago, IL: Intellect Books, 2007. Print.

The study of the Francophone bande dessinée, or so-called BD, is relatively new in Great Britain, Ireland and the United States. Published respectively in 2005 and 2007, both Reading Bande Dessinée and The Francophone Bande Dessinée are welcome additions to the growing body of academic research about French comics in the English-speaking world. Both books provide a unique space of inquiry into what has been called the Ninth Art (le 9ème Art) in France and Belgium. They are also points of intersection for students of French-language comic strips and students who study popular culture. Although very different in their scope, I highly recommend reading both books in tandem because they introduce readers to both explicit and implicit frameworks of BD scholarship. Miller's book may be read as an extension of Forsdick, Grove and McQuillan's edited collection because, since 2000, BD has emerged as a new object of study within French language departments abroad, and this idea is central to both books. Although Forsdick, Grove and McQuillan do not intend to present the evolution of French comics in The Francophone Bande Dessinée, their collection nonetheless gathers several key essays that account for material spanning a significant period of BD history and correlates well with Miller's historical overview of the medium. In this comparative review, I will point to several significant essays in Forsdick, Grove and McQuillan's collection that I deem essential to understanding further the historical, analytical and cultural sections of Miller's study.

In Reading Bande Dessinée, Miller targets students studying the medium. Her book mostly deals with the many formal aspects of bande dessinée and how to apply modern critical theory to this form. Miller's intentions are pragmatic in that she intends to reach readers with no prior knowledge of BD terminology. She thus develops a very detailed, effective range of critical frameworks applied to a broad range of case studies and, in doing so, she succeeds in highlighting the complexity of this rather challenging genre. Each chapter (there are thirteen in all) explicitly points to a methodology through which to analyze critically one or at times a series of case studies. Miller divides her book into three major parts: historical, analytical and cultural. In part I, she proceeds to explain how bande dessinée has acquired a status far surpassing that of the equivalent English-language comic strip. Miller introduces bande dessinée historically from its early inception to its present form. This first section is the most comprehensive in its range of sources. In it, Miller explores the shifting political and cultural place of BD in French society through discussions of governmental policy, social discourse and popular culture.

I would like to juxtapose this first section with Forsdick's essay, "Exorcising the Domestique: Bécassine, Brittany and the Beauty of the Dead" (Forsdick et al. 23-37). Forsdick's essay is essential to understanding fully the formation of such national comic heroines in France. Bécassine was born out of a weekly illustrated magazine for Catholic girls and developed into full-sized albums throughout the twentieth century. Forsdick stresses its evolution into a now canonized series and discusses how these albums may reflect a "crise identitaire" (identity crisis) in France since the 1990s.[1] Laurence Grove's essay "BD Theory before the Term BD existed" (Forsdick et al. 39-49) would also complement Miller's historical section, as it further expounds on the evolution of BD in France from the so-called "magazines illustrés," weeklies for children, into their present form. Grove outlines the shifting of readership from children to mostly adults and adolescents. Finally, and of uttermost importance to a historical overview of BD, is Judi Loach's essay, "De nouvelles formes naissent: Le Corbusier and the bande dessinée" (Forsdick et al. 51-71), which discusses the so-called formation of the French "esprit nouveau." At the core of Loach's argument are several theoretical issues that Miller discusses in her book, including the reception of the early proto-BD prior to its development into its contemporary form and in conjunction with the evolution of BD. Specifically, Loach's case study of architect Le Corbusier and his use of comical sequences in architectural designs stresses the importance of "l'esprit nouveau" in the 1920s and how BD techniques crossed over and impacted other important fields. These three essays would greatly complement Miller's book's historical section because they shed light on the evolution of the BD form through case studies which further elucidate Miller's ideas.

Part II of Miller's book deals with the many theoretical frameworks one might use to interpret BD. Thus, each chapter in her book takes the form of a case study, and the student of comic strips is confronted with a number of theoretical terms. Miller's individual case studies demonstrate in-depth analyses of the medium, allowing the student reader to grasp how particular examples fit into BD history specifically and, more generally, into French and Francophone cultural studies. Of particular note are Miller's "The Codes and Formal Resources of Bande Dessinée" in her book (75-102) and her contribution to The Francophone Bande Dessinée, "Narratives of Adolescence, Ethnicity and Masculinity in the Work of Baru" (Forsdick et al. 137-148). Both of these essays introduce students and scholars to the theories of semiologists Saussure and Barthes, as Miller analyzes the various cultural signifying systems in the formal and cultural aspects of Baru's themes. In both essays, Miller discusses the many patterns of sequential links as they portray specific economic classes in France—classes that are familiar to Baru as a child of an Italian family who migrated to France. Miller's essays should be read in tandem because they underline the many recurrent themes in Baru's work, particularly ethnicity and masculinity. Both of her articles discuss Baru's artistic style as a whole, as well as the underlying sociolinguistic discourses that manipulate time and voice.[2]

In Part III, Miller further discusses how culture is reflected through BD. By looking at issues of nationality, she investigates BD's treatment of such issues as ethnicity, class and gender. Whilst broaching issues such as feminism, masculinity, social class, AIDS, exoticism and futurism, she discusses some of the most cutting-edge artists in the field today: Sempé & Goscinny, Moebius, Juillard, Binet and Bilal. Of particular interest is her treatment of masculine anti-heroes and how they contribute to the many discourses of national identity. Among such heroes who embody resistance, Miller's discussion of Astérix is significant in that she demonstrates how Astérix embodies episodes of French history, the building of a nation and a version of masculine identity. Similarly, James Steel's "Let's Party! Astérix and the World Cup (France 1998)" (Forsdick et al. 201-218), proves to be a fertile source of material for readers investigating the so-called "mythology of Frenchness" in Sempé and Goscinny's familiar Astérix. Steel parallels Miller's critique on identity formation, but Miller delves further into issues of social class and masculinity in contemporary France. Her keen description of the petite bourgeoisie is exemplified in her analysis of Binet's Les Bidochon. It is a joy to see that Libbie McQuinlan also discusses this BD couple in depth in her essay "Les Bidochon assujettis académiques" (Forsdick et al. 159-174) as the series is relatively unknown outside of France.

In Part IV, Miller looks at the treatment of subjectivity with three chapters that bring forth essentially psychoanalytical approaches to Hergé's Tintin, the development of autobiography and diary writing in BD, and the connection between gender and autobiography. Of particular interest is Murray Pratt's The Dance of the Visible and the Invisible': AIDS and the Bande Dessinée" (Forsdick et al. 189-200), in which he discusses the connections between the epidemic with the greatest impact this century that calls into question medical, social and political organization and an art form often trivialized as a humorous diversion. With the use of the medium as a way to prevent the spread of AIDS, Fabrice Neaud's innovative black and white BD subverts the visual images of the everyday subjected to the autobiographical gaze of the social outsider. His comics are unique and stand out from the more conventional ways BD approach the issue, as well as how they typically present the gay community. Similarly, autobiography is the very backbone of the work of several women writers; through autobiography, the BD genre becomes associated with liberation from religion and female emancipation. Miller's discusses the Iranian born Marjane Satrapi and asserts that her BD Persepolis epitomizes the idea that BD can be a site of female subjectivity and power formation. In her three volume story, Satrapi traces back to her usurped Iranian national identity and how she came to fully embrace western cultural practices and finally, liberation in the act of drawing her subjectivity in the form of comic strips. This type of narration is a powerful response to Bilal's creation of an all too erotic and objectified woman which Dominique Le Duc presents in his essay, "Femmes en Images et Images de Femmes: L'Héro´ne de La Femme Piège d'Enki Bilal" (Forsdick et al. 149-158).

Both of these books offer a comprehensive discussion of the medium, combining rich theoretical complexity in the analysis of several canonical works in the field. Although the studies diverge in the way the subject matter is presented, each succeeds in engaging readers into very detailed aesthetic, formal and socio linguistic practices. All of the authors featured in Forsdick, Grove and McQuillan's collection (including Miller) clearly aim to emphasize the value of BD and to provide a point of intersection between French-language comics students and students of cultures across the disciplines. In addition to BD's cultural implications, both studies succeed to reinforce the notion that the form is closely tied to issues of national formation, postcolonial and gender issues and elicit questions regarding BD history, context and bibliography. Furthermore, both volumes lay a scholarly foundation for the growing interest in this unique art form in academia and are therefore invaluable to BD study as a discipline. Reading these two studies side by side might point to new directions in the intellectualization and institutionalization of BD in English-speaking academia and provoke new discourses on the infinite value of BD as art.

Notes

[1] For a detailed discussion on the importance of Bécassine on the evolution of the BD form and on the issue of national formation, I recommend Couderc, Marie-Anne. Bécassine Inconnue. Jean Perrot, préface. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2000. Print.

[2] For more on Baru, see McKinney's "The Algerian War in Road to America (Baru, Thévenet, and Ledran)" and Baru's own "The Working Class and Comics: A French Cartoonist's Perspective." Both essays are published in McKinney, Mark, ed. History and Politics in French-Language Comics and Graphic Novels. Jackson, MS: UP Mississippi, 2008. Print. 139-165, 239-255. See also McKinney's "Métissages in Post-Colonial Comics" in Hargreaves, Alec G. and Mark McKinney, eds. Post-Colonial Cultures in France. New York, NY: Routledge, 1997. Print. 169-188 (esp. 179-80).

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