Growing up in Belgium, I had a comic book clutched in my hands every chance I got–in the car on long car rides, by flashlight under the covers late at night, or relaxing on the beach. I never realized that 1) most of them were written and illustrated by Belgians, 2) they were such a rich part of my cultural heritage. Moving to the U.S. as a kid, it quickly became clear that, other than the Smurfs and Tintin, American kids had never heard of any of them.
So here’s a brief primer to help you acclimate when you visit Belgium. Because you will see these characters EVERYWHERE!
Belgium is a relatively young country, having finally gained its independence in the 19th century. So while over the centuries, other countries reached prominence in various disciplines such as philosophy for England, literature for France, and music for Germany, Belgian developed and refined comic books as their own art form in the twentieth century.
The first comic strip is generally acknowledged to be The Yellow Kid, which was printed in the U.S. in 1895 in Joseph Pulitzer’s “The New York World.” Comics emerged in Belgium in the late 1920s in youth magazines, most notably Hergé’s Petit Vingtieme, and as newspaper supplements. By the 1960s, the vast majority of comic books were either Belgian or American.
Belgium recovered from WWII much faster than France and England and with very little debt. This meant they had a relatively big middle class with expendable income. Children were quickly seen as consumers of comic books and helped the art form flourish. Unlike so many art forms, authors and illustrators were able to make an actual living at it during their lifetime.
Soon, dozens of comic book characters gained a following. Ask any Belgian child aged eight to fifty and most have read and re-read the exploits of their favorite characters.
We’ve all heard of the Smurfs and Tintin but here are some lesser-known (at least outside of Belgium) but important characters in the Belgian comic book canon:
Gaston Lagaffe (Franquin) One of the most beloved of his comic book characters, Lagaffe is a lazy, accident-prone office worker who spends his days trying to avoid doing any work at his entry-level office job. Hugely popular in Belgium and France, his books have unfortunately not been translated into English.
Boule et Bill (Jean Roba) Follows the antics of a boy and his dog, and their stereotypical 1950s suburban parents.
Benoit Brisefer (by Peyo): Peyo is perhaps best known for the Smurfs, but Benoit Brisefer is endearing in his own way. Benoit is a beret-wearing little blonde boy who possesses super-human strength which he uses to get himself and those around him out of some hairy situations.
Gil Jourdan (by Maurice Tilleux): Recounts the stories of a young Paris-based detective whose cases often take him into crime’s unsavory underbelly. His best works include “La Voiture Immergee,” and “Tout pour un 33 tours.”
Blake and Mortimer (by Edward P. Jacobs): Mystery and science fiction stories which follow the adventures of Scotland Yard detective, Blake, and Professor Mortimer, scientist. Jacobs was also an actor and art collector. “The Yellow Mark” is his masterpiece and is available in English.