Belgium may be a small country – its 30,278 km² places it in 140th place of the largest countries on earth, and its population of less than 12 million ranks 80th in the world – but there are some areas in which Belgium can compete with the biggest and best. Beer and waffles are a given, the national football team is pretty decent, while its record for longest period without a government (589 days) is truly world beating.
It’s in the somewhat surreal world of comic strips that Belgium truly excels though. When someone told me that to understand Belgium and Belgians I would need to understand the nation’s love affair with comics, I thought they were exaggerating. Only a few months after arriving, I’m no longer certain of that, and Brussels is a city that has fully embraced the comic strip as both popular culture and high art.
It’s hard to imagine there’s a Belgian, living or dead, real or fictional, who is more famous around the world than Hergé’s creation, the boy-adventurer, Tintin. Together with his dog Snowy and a cast of characters, good and bad, Tintin has captured the imaginations of children, and adult children, since 1929. French President, Charles de Gaulle, is said to have considered Tintin his only international rival.
Tintin though is just one of hundreds of Belgian comic strip characters that have given the country a huge comic book industry, one that can rival France, Japan and the United States. Many of these characters have burst out of the pages where they normally live, and now their colourful tales brighten the sides of buildings all over central Brussels.
I’ve been spotting them for weeks, but on a recent weekend we followed a route of comic strip street art from the Brussels Canal, through the historic centre, until we reached the epicentre of comic strip chic, the Belgian Comic Strip Center. We started the ‘tour’ close to our apartment on the canal, where a warehouse is the vast canvas for a comic strip series based on the adventures of Corto Maltese.
Corto Maltese is the 1967 creation of Venetian illustrator Hugo Pratt, his many adventures are told in graphic novels. I hadn’t realised just how famous and loved this comic strip is until a French friend came to visit. As we walked past the warehouse he and his wife went into raptures over it. Corto Maltese isn’t the only non-Belgian on the walls of Brussels, Astérix and Obélix are also to be found marauding around the city.
We strolled along the route, unearthing snapshots of comic characters as we went. It’s a little like flipping through an album of Belgium’s favourite comic strips. The first walls were painted in the early 1990s and new ones have been added over the intervening decades. Now they feature an array of some of the most beloved fictional characters in Belgium: Boule and Bill, Yoko Tsuno, Lucky Luke, Broussaille and, of course, Tintin.
We finished our exploration at the wonderful Belgian Comic Strip Center. It’s a homage to Belgium’s obsession with comic strips, but it is also housed in an Art Nouveau beauty designed by famed Belgian architect, Victor Horta. The building makes a visit extra special, and it’s a fabulous location for a museum that tells the history of comic strips and their cultural and societal importance.
The museum charts the origins of comic strips, before leaping into their Golden Age in the 20th century when they appeared in newspapers to audiences of millions in Asia, Europe and North America. It’s fascinating, and showcases a lot of artists I wasn’t aware of. Best of all, there’s a section dedicated to The Smurfs, the bright blue creations of Belgian artist Peyo that were ever-present during my childhood.