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Home to Tintin and Smurfs, Belgium looks to reinvigorate comic industry

The 'home of the comic book,' Belgium wielded outsized influence in the comics industry until the 1980s. Now it's trying to regain that sway via government-supported innovation.

By Don DuncanContributor / October 29, 2012

A giant balloon of Le Chat (The Cat) floats during the Balloon Day Parade in central Brussels last month. Giant figures representing well-known comic strip and Belgian characters paraded along the city's downtown boulevards as part of the "Belgium Comic Strip Festival."

Yves Herman/Reuters/File

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Brussels

It may now be dominated by American superheros and Japanese manga, but the comic book industry was once associated with no country more than Belgium. Through much of the last century, this small, Western European nation played an outsized role in shaping comics through iconic characters like Tintin and the Smurfs.

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But over the past few decades, the industry has fallen on hard times. Now, Belgium is fighting to regain its influence by positioning itself as a center of innovation and excellence for the rest of the industry.

“There is no reason why we won’t have more great authors, because we have very good [comic book art] schools, and these schools discover much new and interesting talent,” says Thierry Bellefroid, a comic book critic and historian.

“On the creative level, the innovations that have been started here aren’t yet finished yet, but they are in the process of changing the comic book market.”

'Home of the comic book'

In the industry, Belgium is referred to as the “home of the comic book.” The title has its roots in the 1920s, when Belgian artists started to blaze a trail of innovation in comic book art. They invented the speech bubble, for example, as well as the drawing technique called “Ligne Claire” (or “clear line”), which moved comic books from cartoonish blobs of color to a sharper kind of realism. They debuted the weekly comic strip magazine format with titles like Spirou and Tintin, selling, at one point, as many as 250,000 copies each week.

“The Belgian comic book became so famous and established because of the success of Tintin,” says Mr. Bellefroid.

Tintin, which still sells more than 1 million comic books a year worldwide, was the industry leader between the 1920s and the 1970s. It helped position Belgium as No. 1 in comic books, a country producing about 80 percent of all comics in Europe by the 1970s. But by the 1980s, Belgium had become a victim of its own initial successes.

Tintin and other big Belgian comics couldn’t reinvent themselves because they had developed a very clear, loyal fan base and they were also trapped in a very Catholic Belgium at the time,” says Bellefroid. “This is how Belgium got its market share eaten up, initially by new, edgier French comics.”

It was not only French comic strip magazines like “Pilote” that began to nudge Belgium aside, but American comic-book publishing giants like DC and Marvel also began to impinge on Belgium’s European market share. More recently, new centers of comic art innovation, like Japan and Argentina, have emerged.

In parallel, as Western economies globalized, most of the Belgian publishing houses were bought up by multinationals, so that today, the business side of the comic book industry is mainly controlled from Paris or London.

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