Mass media may often associate comics with blockbuster-movie superheroes and kids’ cartoons, but as evidenced by the diverse works from comics and graphic novel publisher Fantagraphics Books, this visual medium wields the power to make hard-hitting political and social commentary or explore the quirkier or quieter side of everyday life. From Joe Sacco’s award-winning Palestine, a groundbreaking work of graphic novel journalism on the faces behind the Middle East conflict, to Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, an iconic portrayal of teenage life, Fantagraphics has made it its mission to showcase the breadth of range, innovation and literary talent in comics art and literature.
Hence, for the past few decades, Kim Thompson, a comic book editor, translator, and publisher at Fantagraphics Books, has been a driving force behind the movement in bringing more alternative and international comics to the American and mainstream scene. Having grown up in Europe with quite a few languages at his disposal, Thompson has parlayed a voracious appetite for comics into a long and memorable career in impacting the development of the medium in the United States and fostering the release of unique and critically lauded graphic novels that would otherwise have not appeared in English or been published at all.
One of Fantagraphics’ recent projects involves the English-language debut of Franco-Belgian kids comics, an oeuvre Thompson himself enjoyed as a child. One of the highlights, The Littlest Pirate King, constitutes comics artist David B.’s first full-color graphic novel to be released in English and involves a ship full of undead pirates in a tale more David Cronenberg than Pirates of the Caribbean.
Below, Thompson delves into the details behind the classic Franco-Belgian comics scene.
How many languages can you speak or read? And when did you realize that knowing all those languages would allow you to consume a colossal amount of comics?
Three and a half (German being the “half”—I can sort of stumble my way through that), and nine, give or take.
Setting aside English, my mother and half my family are Danish, and I grew up in various countries in Europe so my parents put me through the French school system; I was English/Danish/French trilingual essentially from kindergarten on. I spent long enough in Holland and Germany as a teen to pick up Dutch and German, and because the French school system insists you learn at least one foreign language when you hit 7th grade, I picked Spanish. So that's six. (I didn't spend enough time in Thailand to pick up Thai, unfortunately.) The next two are a bit of a cheat: Swedish and Norwegian are basically dialects of Danish (or vice versa), so #7 and #8 are freebies in a way. A few years ago, I decided I needed to learn Italian because it was the last main European language I needed for my collection, which was fairly easy, since I already knew French and Spanish.
As for realizing that knowing the languages would allow me to consume comics, I guess I wasn't aware of it per se in the sense that a fish isn't really aware of water. I read Danish, French, and English language comics interchangeably (sometimes the same one: I read Disney comics in all languages, interchangeably, according to what was available).
By the way, the number of languages I can speak and read isn't particularly extravagant by Northern European standards. Any decently-educated Dane or Swede under fifty (and most over fifty) can speak three or four languages and read a few more. When I visit my family in Denmark with my non–Danish-speaking wife, it's sort of amazing to see an entire multi-generational roomful of Danes switch seamlessly from speaking Danish to speaking flawless English in deference to the non-native. It's only in monolingual America that I look like some sort of freak.
I think the average monolingual American is probably envious of your ability to converse in multiple languages. So tell me a bit about reading Franco-Belgian kids comics as a child.
I read Franco-Belgian comics from the time I could read: I learned to read, among other things, on Tintin. Comics were so omnipresent in French kid culture that asking how you “discovered” them is like asking an American kid how he “discovered” TV: They were just there. Tintin was the first big favorite. Then I became enamored of the whole Spirou group of cartoonists (Franquin, Peyo, Tillieux, Morris, etc.), and then when a little older, it was the Pilote magazine stuff (Asterix, Blueberry, Valerian, Gotlib, Bretécher, Fred). Then when European comics hit their adult/underground phase, I was myself at the right age for that and kept on going. As I sit here, I have a set of shelves with over a thousand Franco-Belgian comics albums (and another several hundred in the garage), and probably two-thirds of those I'd collected by the time I was fifteen. [Editor’s note: Tintinand Spirou were weekly Belgian comics magazines from the second half of the twentieth century that had a big influence on the Franco-Belgian comics scene and introduced many of its major comics artists.]
Care to share how you transported all those comics to the States?
Easy enough—I was still living with my parents at the time I made the jump Stateside, so they got thrown in the same moving container as all my parents' stuff– and believe me, my parents had a lot more books than I did.
Are there American kids comics comparable to the Franco-Belgian ones?
Currently? No. But I'm not sure there are many Franco-Belgian kids comics comparable to the classics now, in the same sense that there are not a lot of American comics comparable to, say, 1960s Marvel and DC. Sergio Aragonés's Groo is actually pretty close. But there are, so far as I know, no cartoonists of the caliber of the Golden Age Franco-Belgians working anymore; mostly the new kids work on “legacy” strips, cranking out more facsimile Lucky Luke or Smurfs books after the original creators died. Almost all the excitement is in adult comics now. Which is true in the U.S., too, I think. I mean, even Jeff Smith (Bone) is doing a grown-up comic. If you ask me to list great American cartoonists working on kids comics, my list goes Stan Sakai, Aaron Renier, er, um… (There are probably more, in fairness.)
What were some of your favorite Franco-Belgian comics?
Let me stick with the kids' stuff to keep it manageable and start over with a list:
Hergé's Tintin, Franquin's Spirou and Gaston Lagaffe, Tillieux's Gil Jourdan, Macherot's Sibyllline and other strips, E.P. Jacobs' Blake and Mortimer, Peyo's Smurfs, Morris's Lucky Luke, Goscinny and Uderzo's Astérix, Will's Tif et Tondu, Wasterlain's Docteur Poche, Fred's Philémon, Mézières and Christin's Valerian, Giraud and Charlies's Blueberry … There’s also a few I really dug as a kid that didn't quite hold up as I got older which we'll pass under silence, but I can still re-read them with pleasure if I'm in the mood.
To anticipate your next question, do I intend or hope to translate any of the ones that aren't being done yet (Cinebook out of U.K. has been doing a good job with some of these)? Yeah, I'd like to.
Which ones would you recommend to newer readers?
It depends very much on the individual reader's taste. That said, you really can't go wrong with Tintin and Astérix for starters. For a more modern approach, anything by Lewis Trondheim, starting with the Dungeon series. If you like Westerns, try a Lucky Luke, and if you enjoy the first one there are literally dozens more.
What is coming up next in the Franco-Belgian kids comic series for Fantagraphics?
The next two we're doing this summer are Maurice Tillieux'sGil Jordan (a detective series) and Raymond Macherot's Sibyl-Anne (a Wind in the Willows-type talking-animal series), both from mid-century Spirou magazine. Both are among my very favorites. As I've said before in other contexts, if Hergé (Tintin) and Franquin (Spirou) are the two greatest Franco-Belgians, then these two guys are tied for #3. I don't know how they'll be greeted by American audiences, but I'm in a position now where I can force them down people's throats. The fact that I seem to have succeeded with Tardi (It Was the War of the Trenches) where everyone else failed has made me a bit cocky, I'm afraid.
On that note, you have been a pioneer in bringing international comics to the States—has that endeavor changed or gotten easier in the past several years?
Resistance seems to be eroding, possibly just because we—Fantagraphics, as well as other pioneers such as NBM (whose new Smurfs series is excellent) and Catalan Communications—have been relentlessly pounding our heads against the same wall for a quarter century.
And what “wall” is that?
“Comics readers can be really parochial” would be the mean way of putting it, but the fact is, comics are such a complex set of subtle visual and verbal codes that it's easy to get thrown off by quirks in each continent's approach to the medium, the same way that manga rubs a lot of Western (as in hemisphere, not genre) readers the wrong way. And there's a resistance to the “album” format which I think to Americans' eyes looks too much like a children's book. But look, getting anything that's both new and good to an existing public is always an uphill battle.
What do you think Franco-Belgian comics bring to the American comic scene that would otherwise be missing or less well represented?
All-ages genre entertainment that isn't stupid. Also, there's simply a style and level of craftsmanship in the best of the Franco-Belgian classics that is nowhere to be found nowadays. If you look at a page of Macherot, for instance, there is literally no one in American comics who has that pure, simple, straightforward ability to tell an exciting and funny story. Franquin draws better than anyone before or since: He's literally the greatest comics draftsman in the history of comics, and I say this without a shred of exaggeration. So this is stuff comics readers need to see, in the same way that cinephiles need to see Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies.