In France, Belgium, and other Francophone countries, the comic strip–called bande dessinée (BD) in French–has long been considered a major art form capable of addressing cultural issues. Graphic narratives were deemed worthy of canonization and critical study for decades before the academy and the press embraced comics in the United States.
The place that BD holds in the culture today, however, belies the contentious political route the art form has had in France. In Drawing France: French Comics and the Republic author Joel E. Vessels examines the trek of BD from its course of being considered a fomenter of rebellion, to an art suitable only for semi-literates, to an impediment to children’s education, and most recently to its use as a bellwether of social concerns in mainstream culture.
In the mid-1800s, alarmists feared political caricatures might incite the ire of an illiterate working class. To counter this notion, proponents yoked the art to a particular articulation of “Frenchness” based on literacy and reason. With the post-World War II economic upswing, French consumers saw BD as a way to navigate the changes brought by modernization.
After bande dessinée came to be understood as a compass for the masses, the government, especially François Mitterand’s administration, brought comics increasingly into “official” culture. In tracing this development, Vessels argues that BD are central to the formation of France’s self-image and a self-awareness of what it means to be French.
Drawing France, now available from UPM, is one of the first texts to directly examine the French government’s relationship to bande dessinée and popular visual culture to analyze the political identity of the modern nation-state.