French Graphic Novels

Jonathan McCalmont is a film, book, comics, and games critic. He blogs at Ruthless Culture.

Every generation contains a finite amount of creative talent and when that generation reaches adulthood, that talent decants itself into the creative scenes that appear most attractive at that particular point in time. Sometimes that talent flows into music, sometimes it flows into painting and sometimes it flows into writing an endless stream of articles about productivity. I mention this because, while French-speaking Europe has a fine tradition of literary science fiction, recent generations have tended to channel their creative energies into producing SF comics rather than SF novels or short stories. As a result, if you wander into a French bookshop you will struggle to find anything except American or British science fiction. However, wander into a French comic shop and you will encounter one of the richest and most singular science fiction traditions on Earth.

Part of the richness of French SF comes from the fact that comic writers don’t need to worry about explaining their worlds to you in language developed for describing our world. They can just show you the weird alien worlds and leave it up to you to make sense of them. This approach to SF is particularly evident in the series of known and published collectively as The Incal. Written by the surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and initially drawn by the late Moebius, The Incal tells of a low-rent private eye who somehow finds himself entangled in a power struggle involving grotesquely dystopian cities, terrifying alien overlords and corrupt interstellar churches. Like all of Jodorowsky’s films, The Incal is best understood not as a conventional narrative but as a series of carefully arranged images designed to be interpreted either as mystical allegory or childish humour. Though at times almost impenetrably weird, The Incal’s colourful and surreal take on traditional space opera is a design classic whose influence can be detected in almost every work of contemporary cinematic science fiction.

A good deal less influential and yet to be widely translated into English are the works of Christophe Pelinq a.k.a. Arleston. Arleston is one of the most commercially successful French comic writers working today. His best-known series Lanfeust de Troy (briefly published in South Africa under the name Lanfeust of Troy) is a raunchy action adventure story set in a fantasy world where everyone is born with a single magical power. Hugely successful right from the start, this series spans not just multiple volumes but multiple series forcing Arleston to expand his setting to the point where it now encompasses multiple planets, multiple timeframes and characters who can travel in both time and space. However, while the Troy books showcase Arleston’s talent for telling big dumb crowd-pleasing stories, the less widely read (and unlikely to be translated) Maitres Cartographes series showcases a darker set of concerns.

Set on a planet covered by a single medieval-style town, the series follows a cartographer as he delves into the mysteries of his world and uncovers a hidden science-fictional reality beneath. Initially quite fun, the series gets darker and darker the more the cartographer becomes aware of the secret forces that swirl around him. Imagine a thriller set in the world of Gene Wolfe’s Book of The New Sun and you will get a hint of the richly complex flavour that makes Les Maitres Cartographes such an enjoyable and nourishing dish.

11 thoughts on “French Graphic Novels

  • July 2, 2012 at 6:05 am

    As to comics in the British and American sense of the word, I began reading Atome Kid and the other SF and fantasy series back in the 1950s. From there, it was only a short step to the bandes dessinées which have maintained a pleasingly European take, often satirical, on American culture. For those who want to explore, I suggest Les Cités Obscures series. The first has been translated as The Great Walls of Samaris and provides both beautiful artwork and a great story.

  • July 3, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Oh my!

    “As a result, if you wander into a French bookshop you will struggle to find anything except American or British science fiction.”

    You obviously looked in the wrong place. There are many French-speaking author in SF genre. And yes, alive and writing ones! 🙂

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  • July 9, 2012 at 7:46 am

    French written SF does exist and it has had its historical successes. I would not deny that for a second. However, the fact remains that when you walk into a French book shop, you will struggle to find a work of native French SF amongst the books that are translated from English. This suggests that most French-speaking SF fans find their jollies in non-French SF.

    Conversely, walk across the street and into a BD shop and you will find a veritable cornucopia of original works of science fiction and fantasy that are created by and for native French-speakers.

    I won’t deny that written French SF exists, but I absolutely reject the idea that these works have much impact or influence beyond their tiny sub-cultural niche. Conversely, SFnal Bande Dessinees have had an enormous influence on the ways in which we think about science fiction. I would even argue that it is impossible to talk about contemporary cinematic SF without first talking about Metal Hurlant and L’Incal.

    You are, of course, free to disagree with me 🙂 Write a blog post response and link back here to join in the conversation.

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  • July 13, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Jonathan, French SF is alive and well, last I checked, or at least no worse off than other non-Anglophone countries overwhelmed by a glut of translations from English (though I’ll note that French SF publishers translate plenty of books from other languages than English).
    But I think you didn’t dwell on a key factor that explains why bandes dessinées are so vibrant in France and why they have so much impact: bandes dessinées, even the SF ones, are considered mainstream, and have been mainstream for as long as I can remember.
    This means I can buy one and give it as a gift to a friend regardless of their interests, and they won’t consider it tacky or inappropriate. Whereas I most certainly wouldn’t buy an SF book for someone unless I were absolutely convinced that said person enjoyed SF. This means the audience for BDs is significantly higher than that for SF (I don’t have the numbers in mind, but there’s a huge difference in terms of sales, by several orders of magnitude).

  • July 14, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Also, if I may–the Incal might be widely influential, but it’s a bande dessinée that is really dated (to the point where both my husband and I had to go google it to make sure we knew what we were talking about). Here are a couple more recent SF offerings that have been wildly successful.

    Universal War One: one of the best bandes dessinées about time travel that I’ve read, and the way the plot falls together is masterful. In the near-future, the appearance of the “Wall”, a mysterious artefact that cuts the solar system in half, throws Earth into disarray. A squadron of misfits is assembled and sent to investigate, with unexpected consequences…
    Le Chant des Stryges: modern-day story halfway between SF and horror, about the Stryges, a group of mysterious creatures that have been living among humanity and using it for their own purposes. The theme is horror, but the tone is very SFnal.
    Aldebaran, worlds of Aldebaran and Golden City: both of these are quite a bit older, but they’re still ongoing. In particular, Aldebaran has been a smashing success due to its graphics (in particular, its depiction of alien creatures) and has given rise to its own lines of bandes dessinées.
    Sillage: set aboard a “caravan” of spaceships that tour worlds in search of planets to make landfall on, and following the adventures of Navis, the only human aboard the fleet, and her friends.

    That’s not counting the many bandes desssinées we classify as SF but that by would be borderlline by US/UK standards since they include horror and/or fantasy element (Sanctuaire, Je Suis Légion, Les Naufragés d’Ythaq)

    If you’re curious, here’s a list of all “hard” SF bandes dessinées according to bdtheque, the encyclopedia of bandes dessinées:

  • July 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    There are a few good french sf writers today:
    Maurice Dantec (only bablylone babies has been translated)
    Alain Damasio (no translations)
    Antoine Volodine (not exactly sf but not far from sf and there may be some translations)
    Tristan Garcia (i have bnot read yet but that should be good)
    Fabrice Colin
    Jerome Noirez
    Roland Wagner
    The main issue is that there are no translations. For exemple, Gabriel Matzneff, Marc Edouard Nabe, Phillip Muray and Maurice Dantec are considered among the most brillant living french writers (Muray died a few years ago) but there are only one or two books of Dantec translated today. I am not saying that you have sf writers as creative as in the US in the 60’s but the main issue is that there are almost no translations of contemporary french literature.

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