I’m from Montréal, Québec. It’s that weird part of Canada where lots of people speak French. My childhood heroes included Batman and Spider-Man, but somehow Asterix and Tintin were much more prevalent. This is not so much a “French comics for beginners” article as much as me taking the opportunity to present some of my favorite French comics among the very few that were translated in English and are available through Amazon.
From epic sci-fi to intimate love stories, here are five French comics I love — available in English!
Cities of the Fantastic: The Leaning Girl (Benoit Peeters, François Schuiten)
This is the sixth book in the Cities of the Fantastic series. The main character is a young woman named Mary who cannot stop leaning, despite efforts made by doctors to “put her right.” Feeling more and more isolated as her point of view slowly breaks away from the norm, she somehow finds her way into the underworld of some obscure cities. This volume was translated thanks to an amazing Kickstarter project, which gives me hope that somehow, someday, all French comics will be available for the whole world to read.
The real star here is Schuiten’s gorgeous illustrations, which take full advantage of the wide page size of the “bande dessinée,” showing amazing urban landscapes in minute levels of detail. This is an art of subtleties and nuances, playing much more to lights than shadows. The frames are very wide, picturing characters in a vast, overwhelming environment which almost always seems hostile, or at least alienating.
Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story (Frederick Peeters)
I first came in contact with Frederick Peeters’ unique writing style through Lupus, a currently untranslated, very sweet science fiction story about a couple fucking around in space. This is Peeters’ best known work, and while it did not include drunken fishing on extraterrestrial planets, it still presents a very nice love story between a man and a woman who discovers one of her exes has AIDS.
Peeter’s artwork is miles away from Schuiten. Using strong ink brushes, he paints a much more intimate portrait of the couple and their interactions. It reminds me more of American graphic novels than most European comics, in the style of Hope Larson or Craig Thompson.
The Hunting Party (Enki Bilal, Pierre Christin)
While there is (comparatively) a lot of Bilal’s work translated into English thanks to his unique and wonderful artwork, I do agree with most critics that his books have always seemed to be much more surface than substance, playing with grand themes (from Balkan Wars to anti-art and futurism), yet mostly falling flat in service of aesthetics. However, this self-contained story written by Pierre Christin is a phenomenal case where both artwork and storytelling match perfectly.
As the Soviet Union slowly crumbles apart, ten members of the politburo (important politicians) unite in a country house to host a hunting party while discussing affairs of state. Bilal is able to capture both the relentlessly hostile nature of the Russian wilderness and the complex emotional strains that politics leaves on the faces of men in power. This is a fascinating portrait of not only the end of an era, but also the cruel nature of human life.
The Song of Roland (Michel Rabagliati)
Originally titled Paul à Québec (Paul in Québec City), the title seems to have changed in avoidance of political backlash. At its heart, Song of Roland is an amazing and powerful story about facing death and the passage of time. As Paul, the hero of many other Rabagliati books, reaches his forties, he seems to have a pretty good life with his wife Lucy, a young child named Rose, and a solid job. As the family goes on a trip from Montréal to Québec City to visit Lucy’s family, they find out her father Roland is dying.
It’s a simple concept which masterfully encapsulates years of political struggle in Québec’s very conflictual history, as Roland is an old school federalist (considers himself Canadian first), while his offspring lean much more to the independent side of the spectrum. Here, Rabagliati’s work as an illustrator shines, but only in service of the story, which is one of the truest and most human works of fiction about death, succession, and our relationship to the land we live in.
The Incal (Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius)
Now this is a star-studded cast. For the uninitiated, Alexandro Jodorowsky is the mad and wonderful director behind The Holy Mountain. He is an artist and a renaissance man; he has written plays, acted, directed movies, played music, and written comic books. Oh, and he also is a self-proclaimed guru. Seriously, if you haven’t at least checked out the first ten minutes of The Holy Mountain, you are missing one of the best examples of seventies weird art cinema. It sits right alongside other fucked up oddities like Zardoz, Easy Rider, and Fitscarraldo.
Moebius, also known as Jean Giraud, is not only one of France’s greatest comic book artists, but has also worked on storyboards and concept design for many of sci-fi movies, including Alien, Tron, Willow, The Fifth Element, and the failed Jodorowsky Dune movie starring Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. He uses the traditional Franco-Belgian style of the clear line (no shadows, no line variations — think Tintin) to create phenomenal, psychedelic fantasy worlds.
The Incal is the amazing, epic combination of both Jodorowsky’s mysticism and Moebius’ fascination with the unknown, the foreign, and the weird. The artwork is fantastic, the world is well constructed and vibrant with life, and the script is tight and marvelous, but the best part is that it’s really funny. This is Guardians of the Galaxy on a much wider scale, dealing with deep philosophical themes in a very accessible format. It’s actually the result of the two of them trying very hard to put together a Dune movie before Star Wars. After the failure of the project as told in the fascinating Jodorowsky’s Dune documentary, they used a lot of the material in The Incal.
This is a long voyage for our hero John Difool, whose life changes drastically once his pet bird swallows a white glowing McGuffin by the name of Incal. This gives the bird the ability to talk, and sends them in the middle of a huge adventure along with an assassin, a dog-man, two sexy women, and a small child.
And I mean, look at this art. You know you wanna go there!
Article by contributor Charles-Andre Lavallee.