As the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote in 1939, “where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear guard.” He also noted that while the avant-garde is the focus of much attention, the huge bulk of commercial rear guard is usually taken for granted. When comics, mangas or BDs are translated and exported to other countries, this is even truer: only the best and the most original works get translated. Since each country has its own run-of-the-mill entertainment, there is no need to import redundant cultural products if they don’t stand out in some way or another (thus, super-heroes still get imported in France, because of their exoticism). Thus, if you ask the educated French BD reader about American comics, they will probably mention Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, and, in some cases, Watchmen or Ellis’ Authority. Great authors and great works, mind you, but not exactly representative of the American comics production. Similarly, BD may be represented by Moebius, Satrapi or Sfar abroad, but while they sell well in France, they are definitely not the most commercially successful creators in the field.
Admittedly, Clement Greenberg was a cultural snob, and his point in the text quoted above was that commercial culture as well as the public tastes were worthless. It’s hard to subscribe fully to this opinion, yet, I have to admit I’ve also been called a snob more than once, because as a rule, I’m not thrilled about best-sellers. I’m even less thrilled about consensual best-sellers (yes, there are non-consensual best-sellers, take American Psycho, for instance), and the sad truth is that most best-selling albums in France are extremely and nauseatingly consensual. While some intelligent and even politically relevant BDs can succeed to a certain extent (more on this in a future column), controversial ones never seem to sell, even if, for some reason, they do get published by a major editor.
Why bother with the best-sellers, in this column, then?
The answer is simple: to get some background. Greenberg also understood that the avant-garde and commercial culture evolved together, defined each other by subtraction: Fantagraphics has a distinct identity because it coexists with Marvel and DC. Coming to terms with the most significant BDs and their creators is a lot more difficult if you do not know what they set themselves against. Without further ado, let me introduce you to BD’s rear guard, and some of its most recent top-sellers.
Titeuf, by Zep
Asterix still sells more albums than Titeuf, the little kid with the yellow tuft, but that may not last long. In addition to its staggering sales (1,5 million copies of the last album), Zep, his creator, was awarded the Grand Prix in Angoulêmes two years ago, and every possible patented product based on the character has been tried over the last few years. Yet I honestly have no idea why the series achieved this kind of success.
Titeuf is essentially your basic kid comics, relying on the knowledge gap between children and adults. Everything is seen from Titeuf’s point of view, his parents try hopelessly to control him, while he devises childish, impractical, but somewhat cute, plans to reach typical child goals… There is but one twist to the formula: Titeuf’s claim to originality is that it forgets to be polite. Zep once explained that he enjoyed kid comics but found that the language used was overly stiff and old-fashioned, so he tried to improve on that. He did. The kids in the strip are obsessed, cruel, and fairly stupid but they do have a certain lifelikeness. They make up words, they mix baby talk with the adult discourse they try to decipher, and when they are not busy humiliating each other, they urinate on the school superintendent’s motorcycle, blow up dog shit on stranger’s doormats or try to peek under the girls’ skirts. Good clean fun for the whole family.
Titeuf is scared by his neighbour’s dog, Terminator, and especially by the way he drools. When his friend explains that the dog drools because he doesn’t sweat, Titeuf starts pitying him. He gives the dog some washing powder to eat, in order to improve his odour. Unfortunately, the neighbour concludes that the dog has rabies, and has him put down.
Titeuf is not without charm. The lack of taboo is refreshing, since it means that topics such as death, child exploitation, AIDS or Jehovah’s witnesses are broached. The characters also manage to retain a certain cuteness, a certain naivety, while the same ingredients could have led to charmless and vulgar BDs. I was ready to dismiss it in a few words, but after re-reading a little, I have to admit that it works better than I thought.
Yet, for all its merits, Titeuf is not a great BD. While some stories manage to be mildly provocative, or even subversive (Titeuf convinces his friend to abandon a cap made by exploited children, when he takes the cap for himself, he explains that it’s all right, since he did not buy it), most of them rely on basic misunderstandings or overused visual gags. That could work if Zep was a great cartoonist, à la Bill Watterson, but his characters and settings seem to have been borrowed from a whole range of classical BDs (from Boule et Bill to Achille Talon to Modeste et Pompon) to create a rather bland and functional graphic style. The colours are cleverly used to add a certain depth to the pages, but that’s about it.
The most surprising thing about Titeuf is that it managed to become such a tremendous success. It is competently made, provocative at times, but also utterly forgettable. I start shaking in despair whenever I realise that the latest album in the series probably sold more copies than the whole French edition of Calvin and Hobbes.
XIII, by Vance (pencils and inks) and Van Hamme
As I understand it, XIII is not exactly unknown in the United States. However, a measure of its enduring popularity in France can be found in the fact that its seventeenth (!) volume was the second best selling BD last year. Far behind the latest Asterix, but still a very strong performance, considering that it is next to impossible to read one volume without a complete knowledge of previous developments (and if you’re curious, no, there was no new Titeuf last year, but previous albums still sold well).
What is it about then? Picture yourself in one of these gritty Hollywood thrillers from the seventies. Don’t forget to add some sexy girls, irresistibly drawn to the hero, a fair portion of violence and a touch of technological wonders, to spice things up. Add some of the most elementary ingredients of popular fiction since the 19th century, from the hidden daughter to the mistaken identity to the vengeful hero. The main plot is straight from your average popular paperback: an ex-secret agent tries to understand who he was and what he has done after a bullet in his brain caused complete amnesia. He also appears to have shot the President of the United States. His only clue towards his identity at first is a tattoo on his shoulder, the Latin numeral XIII, the main function of which seems to be to provide the series with an intriguing title. Finally, throw in an efficient penciler, inspired by Gijé and Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius) but never good enough to distract the reader from the story. William Vance is a perfect fit for this role. While he manages to create striking images from time to time, he is hopelessly lacking when it comes to action scenes (or movement in general) and expressive faces (although he uses movie stars as models, on several occasions).
There you are: an enduring success, and a story that has become so entangled and complex that it is bound to go on forever, since any resolution would be a major disappointment at this stage. Each new volume just brings in a few new subplots leading to some new clues that will either be red herrings set up by XIII’s enemies or lead into more subplots, which will eventually lead to more clues, and so on, over seventeen volumes in twenty-two years.
XIII is not that bad. I hate to admit it, but just as with Titeuf, I found myself re-evaluating it while writing this article. Van Hamme can tell a story, and in spite of the growing complexity of the plot, everything remains understandable, thanks notably to numerous and explicit dialogues. This clarity unfortunately entails a certain stiffness: neither Van Hamme nor Vance seem to like ellipses, and scenes will drag on tediously until everything has been made clear and unequivocal. That would not be a problem if the story needed these explanations, but there lies its most blatant defect: it recycles aspects of the American popular culture without even a hint of irony or reformulation. Thus, you get a Kennedy-clone filmed by a Zapruder wannabee, a Southern plantation complete with its family intrigue, a tough but fatherly general, a sexy and threatening black girl, a secret-service manipulator straight out of North by Northwest… all this in the first two volumes! This being said, it works. You will not find anything even remotely original in there, but XIII is well-crafted and even entertaining. The paradox here is the same as in Lost (or X-Files before that): people know they’re not going to get any answer as long as the show is a success, but they watch it nevertheless and thus delay the answers even further. Imagine what Lost season 17 would feel like, and you will get a pretty accurate idea of how old and outmoded XIII reads right now, in spite of its qualities.
Yet, it sells.
Lanfeust de Troy, by Arleston and Tarquin
Lanfeust de Troy is actually over, after eight volumes, published between 1996 and 2000. It has, however, generated three spin-offs, Lanfeust des étoiles and Troll de Troy, and Les Conquérants de Troy. The first two were among the top 10 best-selling BDs last year, while Conquérants has just started but should sell as well. The original series, however, was the real success.
A proper American equivalent to Lanfeust might be Danger Girl. It’s fun, it’s entirely made of clichés, but it moves fast, it’s funny at times, and even though you know you should not be enjoying it, it remains extremely entertaining. There are huge differences between the two series however, the most notable being that while Danger Girl used the spy genre purely for its camp value, Lanfeust has a lot more respect for its own genre, heroic fantasy.
Typically, it’s a genre where the story matters less than the setting; Arleston and Tarquin certainly subscribe to this theory. Thus, you get a magical world, where one character, Lanfeust, suddenly realises that he has the absolute power. He will be surrounded by two sexy girls, a chaste blonde and a sexy brunette, plus a tamed troll, for comic relief. From the monster in the lake to the besieged fortress to the lord of chaos wearing a scary but unpractical helmet to the formal joust to the grandiose final duel between the hero and his arch-enemy (Thanos!), no prerequisite of the genre is missing. You’ll even get a talking dragon, an oriental civilisation and clever references to such obscure films as Star Wars, Alien and King Kong, for good measure.
[Quick aside: I'm browsing through the eight volumes as I'm writing this, and I realise that I had absolutely no memory of the general story besides its main conflict between Lanfeust and Thanos. I've asked my girlfriend as well, and she can't remember anything besides that either. See, I told you the story did not matter.]
Oh, do not forget, this is modern heroic fantasy, so you’re bound to get some ironical comments on the hero’s impotence, his fear of women, and his handling of phallic weapons to compensate for both. A recurrent scene in the series has the brunette teasing Lanfeust in the most blatant ways, while he tries to focus on his blonde fiancée. Eventually, though, he’ll marry the most sexy one since, after all, he is not chivalresque hero.
The one novelty in the way the story is told is the abundance of anachronistic puns, obviously untranslatable here. Instead of uttering one-liners related to the action, as proper fantasy heroes will do, characters in Lanfeust will just pun whenever they get an occasion. A narrative breakthrough indeed.
While the art (and especially the inks) greatly improved between the first and the last volume of the series, it remains unimpressive throughout. It’s really not bad, and the sequences are aptly constructed, but the layout leaves a lot to be desired, with cluttered pages and way too many unjustified inserted frames within other frames. Characters, on the other hand, are expressive; their exaggerated but ample moves perfectly fit the mood of the book. Starting with the third volume, the colours also get a lot better than they were initially. Once again, though, the book doesn’t look very good, with no style as such, no striking feature and Tarquin comes far short from the masters of the genre.
Yet, Lanfeust is responsible for giving heroic fantasy the extremely high status it has today. Soleil, the young publishing house behind the series, built its reputation solely on heroic fantasy or its close cousin, space opera, and most of its concurrent have since been trying to replicate that success. Last year, a publisher considered promoting his catalogue by mentioning that, at least, there were no trolls in it.
Rounding up the usual suspects…
There have been many more best-selling series besides Titeuf, XIII and Lanfeust over the last few years, but they share most of the qualities and defects of those three. Thus, you will find a fair number of kid strips (Petit Spirou, Cedric, Kid Paddle, the much older Boule et Bill), all playing on the misunderstandings between children and adults. While Petit Spirou and Kid Paddle appeal to me a lot more than Titeuf does, they sell a lot less, and eventually, they are just variations within a well-established genre.
XIII, on the other hand, is not so much a representative of a genre, but an illustration of Jean Van Hamme’s impressive success in mainstream BD. He also scripts Largo Winch, an economical thriller, relying on the usual triad of sex-violence-technology, and Thorgal, a great science fantasy series. All three have turned into long-going influential sagas, up to the point where Thorgal (28 volumes) now deals with Thorgal’s children. While I dislike Largo Winch intensely, I have to admit that Van Hamme is a very competent storyteller. With the exception of the early Thorgals, his stories are desperately classical and, on the whole, unimaginative, but they are well-crafted, usually coherent and entertaining. While most successful BD creators also draw their stories (or part of them), he has managed to become a one-man genre, which is, in itself, an impressive feat.
Of these three series, Lanfeust is the most exemplary representative of a new generation of best-sellers: sloppy, unsatisfying, derivative but entertaining. Heroic fantasy is a perfect genre for this kind of book, since it leaves a great room for imperfectly crafted stories, power fantasies and socially acceptable half-naked girls. There have, of course, been great works published within the genre (La Quête de l’Oiseau du Temps, for instance, I’ll come back to it), but that’s not exactly what editors want right now. From my direct experience, they tend to put the emphasis on splashy pages, a minimal scenario (who cares about the story, anyway?) and a sexy heroine. The formula doesn’t even work that well, since no other title has been able to match Lanfeust‘s success, but the fact remains that the genre is conceived with a genuine rear-guard mentality, where personal touches are actually discouraged.
Coming to the end of this brief panorama, I have to admit that things are not as bad as I had thought. None of the three series mentioned above are great, but they’re not awful either. One of their most striking common points is their extreme graphical poverty, which actually makes a lot of sense. For a series to be as popular as these are, they have to be widely acceptable and make their codes as transparent as possible, and if possible, add a linear story in a well-known genre, to be sure not to confuse potential readers when they browse through the new volumes in their book store.
The rear guard may not as ugly as I remembered it to be, but it does conform to Greenberg’s analysis, to which I was referring earlier. To the uneducated eye, Vance’s work on XIII certainly looks good; it takes some familiarity with the authors he borrows from to realise that it is actually fairly limited. Borrow from greater but less accessible works, make a professional and consensual job of it, and you’ve got yourself a potential best-seller. It does not even have to be a conscious process, and I am not even implying that these authors are trying to create second rate BDs. Yet, they are part a rear guard, replicating old formulas, exhausted genres or overused situations, while taking care not to explore the possibilities of the medium, especially regarding its graphical aspect. What’s worse is that a series such as XIII would be considered as poor pulp fiction if the same plot was used in a novel. That would not be a problem were the specifically BD-ish elements sufficient to make up for this lack of ambition, but as we have seen, these are merely functional. Thus, there is clearly a two-tier scale of valuation here, where things that would not be accepted, even in popular literature, are commendable in mainstream BDs.
XIII, Titeuf and Lanfeust should also be regarded as standardized products when it comes to their format: hardback, 48 colour pages, all (roughly) of the same size, even though they are published by three different companies (Dargaud, Glénat and Soleil, respectively). There are obviously commercial imperatives behind this choice, but that should not prevent us from realising that these commercial motives go against the best interest of the series. XIII, to use the example once more, would probably work a lot better in huge volumes, allowing the story to unfold at a least ridiculous pace. Similarly, most Titeuf strips appear overly long and would probably work better on a half-page format. Yet, all three of them share this same format as do the overwhelming majority of mainstream BDs.
There are, of course, many, many BDs a lot worse than these, usually with the same absence of ambition but a less successful execution. These are at least entertaining. Which should not obscure the fact that they are quite literally worth-less.
Join me next month as we will start, at last, to focus on real great works and a self-defined avant-garde.
 Apparently, the next album in the series is supposed to be the last one. I have serious doubts about this.