The Comic Discovers Its Heritage by Christian Gasser

One more time, Corto Maltese, the sea captain with no home port and the anarchist without championing the cause of anarchy, rushes into his exhilarating adventures, taking him from the South Seas to Brazil, and via Africa to the Far East. In a smart five-volume hardback edition published by German publisher Schuber, Gaston Lagaffe supplies material for well over 1,000 gags and minor daily disasters at the office. For the first time in decades Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane returns to print in lavishly illustrated psychedelic-interstellar trips. And after an equally long time, Valentina, Guido Crepax’ erotic 1970s icon, strips off before our eyes in extravagantly styled black and white pages that still have a touch of the avant-garde. But there are also collected and single editions of Spirou, Michel Vaillant and even Petzi – not to mention the 25 bumper volumes of the collected works of Peanuts.

The comic book is discovering its heritage. Classical and less classical, popular and forgotten works are being unearthed and more or less carefully edited afresh. Often, a foreword or afterword has been added as well as an appendix, or sometimes not. In 2014, 1,058 re-printed editions appeared in France in the form of single volumes or collected works editions. That equates to almost 20 % of comic production and the trend is rapidly rising. Also in European countries without a comic culture to write home about – so in most countries except France, Belgium and Italy – the share of re-prints is growing.

Of course, there are economic reasons for this: works that have already paid their way are being converted into more cash without any risks. But apart from this, it’s a positive trend that suggests a normalization in attitudes towards comics.

Most comics previously existed for the duration of one or two print runs; once they sold out, they weren’t re-printed. Since scarcely any libraries were consciously collecting comics – the comic was regarded as not credible archive material – no genuine consciousness emerged for the historic dimension of the comic. For researchers it wasn’t easy compiling an overview, and in German-speaking secondary literature this constantly led to baffling (mis-) assessments.

Re-prints, collected works and single editions, retrospectives, new translations etc. are nonetheless an important aspect of reception in all art genres whether these concern literature, the fine arts, film or music. They permit a reflection of history, new interpretations of the literary canon and a continual discourse about trends that at best provides inspiration for the present.

However, many comic collected works do not really correspond to the level of academic calibre. This business is still organized by fans and publishers. Not to say that this is necessarily negative, but a little more courage to include well-informed annotations would be desirable.

Then again, the figures highlight some questions. Can it be true that one-fifth of all comics is ‘old hat’? Does that at most say something about current creativity? Is that possibly an admission of a certain disorientation after a lengthy and highly fascinating phase? Is there a lack of strong trends to focus minds on contemporary work? You will have to wait to read more about this in the next blog…

Until then, I’m only too happy to be entertained with Gaston Lagaffe and Valentina, or I’ll immerse myself in the fascinating world of Corto Maltese. In particular, I can only recommend Under the Sign of Capricorn, set in Brazil in 1916: it’s a furious and feverish story about the search for a lost half-sister, about magical Candomblé ceremonies, scary hallucinations, eternal friendship and unrequited love, about spying and smuggling, philosophy, anarchy and freedom. In short: it’s a great and tremendous adventure in which fiction, historical anecdotes, mythology and imagination enter into a harmonious marriage. Just wonderful!

By Christian Gasser

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 4 January 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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