France’s Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image isn’t literally a city, but it’s getting there. It started as a single building, named after the French comic book artist Moebius:
Le vaisseau moebius currently houses (in addition to a cinema and cafe) a public library devoted entirely to BDs (AKA comics):
It also used to hold the research librarie (distinct from the above bibliothéque) and the Musée de la Bande Dessinée, but those moved across the Charente river. Just take the footbridge:
And you’re there:
You’ll pass a former paper mill renovated into the Musée de Papier, a tribute to Angouleme’s past as a paper manufacturing hub. Some of that paper is preserved in the librarie’s comic book collection. The BD Musée was a cognac warehouse in its former life, not that you would guess from its interior:
A tourist website likens it to the set of 2001: A Space Oddysey, presumably the spacecraft headed to Jupiter–though that was built on a rotating ferris wheel. The allusion still works though, because the film’s soundtrack features Richard Strauss’ Thus spake Zarathustra, a symphonic adaptation of the book that gave us the Superman.
One of the displays includes a facsimile of Action Comics No. 1, but the curators begin the history of “drawn strips” a century earlier, with a Swiss work I’d never heard of, Rodolphe Töpffer’s 1837 Histoire de M. Vieux Bois:
Photography isn’t allowed, but because I had scheduled a research consultation, they made a kind exception. They didn’t charge me the museum entry fee either. There’s a massive BD book store too, but I spent most of my time in a back room:
My French is shockingly non-existent, and the documentaliste I emailed with relied on Google Translate, and yet there was the stack of rare collection boxes waiting for me when I arrived. The conseiller scientifique (a job title I choose to translate as “Science Officer” to continue the scifi theme) was overwhelmingly helpful too, fielding my minutia-minded questions both before and after my visit.
I’d read that France’s BD-censoring law had passed in 1949 in part because of the violence of American superhero comics. The censors wanted to end the damaging influence. American superhero comics were indeed violent, but I wanted to test the claim by looking at some of their French counterparts, most specifically Pierre Mouchot’s Fantax, a Batman-like adventurer stationed in New York. “It is no exaggeration,” I’d read on CoolFrenchComics.com, “to say that Fantax was single-handedly responsible for the adoption of the Law of July 1949 which thereafter heavily censored adventure comics.”
I untied the strings of the first rare collections box to find a stack of original Fantax magazines:
My favorite cover features the hero smoking a cigarette:
The inside pages were colorless, but alternated between black and blue ink, a format I’d never seen before:
I came prepared to count panels and incidents of violence on objective scales. I’d worked up a lexicon of graphic representations based mainly on Bob Kane’s Batman: sound effects (including letter size, thickness, and exclamation points), gun clouds, bullet whiz lines, motion lines, impact lines, impact bursts (attached, detached and background), stars (implying internal state of near unconsciousness), foregrounded panel breaks, encapsulated vs. implied gutter violence, content angle and distance, violent movement through representational objects (dropped gun, falling hat), physical contact (punch, kick, grab, throw, pierce, shoot), aftermath imagery (corpse, unconscious body, wounds).
With the exception of panel breaks, Chott (that’s how Pierre Mouchot signs his pen name) uses them all. Each issue includes ten pages (plus the partially used back cover) with an average of ten panels each. I’m still in the process of tallying and averaging the number of panels with violent content, but at first glance I wasn’t seeing much outside the Kane’s Batman range.
Chott does substitute an occasional blood splatter for an impact burst:
And, more artfully, some of his panels offer a rare, first-person POV:
But it looked like Fantax, though lethally violent, was operating at the upper end of American superhero norms.
Until I looked at the cover of No. 6:
And this beheading in No. 8:
And I realized the French superhero had stepped beyond the influence of his American inspirations.
Fantax No. 8 was published in January 1947, while in the U.S. the notoriously violent EC was still publishing Pictures Stories from the Bible. EC owner Bill Gaines would later face a panel of offended senators while defending the artwork of Johnny Craig on a 1954 cover of Crime SuspenStories:
SENATOR KEFAUVER: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
GAINES: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
Gaines’ description of “bad taste” describes the Fantax beheading panel, published as the American superhero market was in collapse and the American horror market had barely launched with the first comic book horror title, Spooks Comics No. 1 (undated, c. 1946).
It’s no surprise Chott cancelled Fantax before France’s censorship law took effect. But the perception that the magazine mirrored American superheroes is wrong. Many of the hero’s adventures are set in New York, but they are a funhouse reflection of the U.S. as gleaned through U.S. comics. Chott is drawing a comic book version of a comic book.
His New York is a Comic Book City.