In one of the comments on Wednesday’s chat about Civil War and DC Rebirth, James Whitbrook asked for recommendations for international comics. Sadly, nobody seems to have answered his question. Until now! Here’s a list of some comic books that I enjoy.
Before I get started, a few notes. Most comics on this list will be of the Franco-Belgian school because I’m Belgian and most of the comics that I read are Belgian or French. That’s not to say that there aren’t any good comics in other parts of the world, though! I highly encourage everybody to share their recommendations in the comments. Secondly, I’m skipping Asterix and Obelix, Tintin (and The Smurfs) not because I don’t like them but because I believe that they are already quite well known and don’t need another introduction. Thirdly, please note that the American publishing rhythm with a new issue every month or two weeks is virtually unheard of over here. One of the series that I’ll talk about has had 55 albums over the course of 73 years. On the other hand, most albums are longer than your average superhero comic.
And finally I’ll try to limit myself to comics that have been published at least partially in English for your convenience. Now, without further ado, here we go.
Spirou & Fantasio
What it’s about: an elevator operator turned journalist, his photographer buddy and their pet squirrel who constantly breaks the fourth wall and may or may not have caused World War II according to a one-shot that is sadly not yet translated as far as I know. Anyway, these two have all kinds of adventures. There are often two mad scientists involved, one friendly and the other less friendly (it’s complicated), so every now and then they enter science fiction territory or travel through time for a bit.
Creators: Rob-Vel (came up with the characters), Jijé (writer/artist), André Franquin (writer/artist), most recently: Fabine Vehlmann (writer) and Yoann (artist)
Why I recommend it: it’s one of the longest running titles I know(started in 1943 and still going strong) and there are very few bad issues. The series was brought to fame by Franquin who was sort of Hergé’s rival, business-wise as well as in terms of drawing style. Whereas Hergé became famous for his clear line style, Franquin’s drawings are more dynamic and messy, which I personally prefer. Since then, several writer/artist duos have taken over but it’s difficult to declare one superior over the others.
Availability: sadly, only 10 albums have been published in English by Cinebook so far: a few early ones and some more recent, but not the last ones. Digital versions can be purchased on Izneo. I recommend the two-parter Running Scared and Valley of the Exiles. Apparently albums 1 through 11 and 14 have been published in English in India by Egmont as well, but I don’t know how difficult they are to get.
Blake and Mortimer
What it’s about: the very British professor Mortimer and his very British friend captain Blake get caught up in the evil machinations of their arch nemesis colonel Olrik. Their adventures often involve the supernatural or science fictional. The first story involves World War III, the second deals with Egyptian pharaoh Echnaton’s curse and the third one with mass mind control. It only gets crazier from there, including an H.G. Wells inspired visit to the 51st century and a trip to Atlantis (not at the same time).
Creator: Edgar P. Jacobs
Why I recommend it: like Franquin (see above) Jacobs is a legend among Belgian comic authors. He introduced cinematic elements in his drawings that were previously unseen in comics and have been copied countless times ever since. The album The Yellow Mark has been elected as the most influential album of all time (by Belgian comic readers (we’re a chauvinistic lot)).
In case I didn’t make this clear before: the plots of these comics are completely ridiculous. Absolutely nothing is too crazy for this series. But at the same time everything is presented completely straight faced and the heroes are as British as they come. If this combination sounds like readable gold to you, you should definitely give Blake & Mortimer a try.
Things to know: after Jacobs’s death other writers/artists took over, but their work can’t quite match either the quality or the style of the original. Even though they have made other phenomenal comics of their own. Jacobs loves dialogue to the point that some panels are literally only a speech bubble with a wall of text. His other panels more than make up, though. Though influenced by Hergé, his characters are drawn with more detail than Tintin.
When the Germans prohibited the publication of American Comics in Belgium during World War II, Jacobs was asked by Hergé to finish the current storyline of Flash Gordon, which was being published in the Tintin magazine. This would later inspire him to write The U Ray and continued to be an inspiration throughout his career.
Availability: most albums have been published by Cinebooks over the past 10 years, though not in the original order of publication. Find them on Izneo if you like. There’s also a board game called Blake and Mortimer: The Witness which is just as bonkers as the comics are.
What it’s about: the eponymous dungeon is a heroes-attracting business full of monsters and loot. The series follows a wide array of employees, like Herbert (a duck without a heart), Marvin (a heroic Dragon warrior) or the Dungeon Keeper (a chicken). This ambitious series by has three main sub-series chronicling the early years, the glory days (Zenith) and the inevitable decay (Twilight) of the Dungeon. Various characters return throughout the three main series. Aside from the main series, there are spin-offs like Dungeon Monsters, in which every album centers around one of the Dungeon’s monsters.
Creators: Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim (both writers and artists) and various guest artists.
Why I recommend it: this is really everything you could possibly wish for in a heroic fantasy. While the first two albums in the Zenith series (which were the first ones written) are largely humoristic (often even slapstick), more and more melancholic bits get thrown in and if you like truly epic battles you’ll find those as well. You also get to know the same characters in very different moments of their lives which is cool because you can find out how a good mannered duck becomes the evil overlord who literally blows the planet to pieces. The art by Sfar, Trondheim and various guest artists really does de story justice.
Availability: almost all albums have been published by NBM and are available through their website. As far as I know no digital editions exist. I suggest starting with the first few Zenith stories, followed by some Twilight and then reading whatever else you want to.
The Quest for the Time Bird
What it’s about: the world of Akbar is in grave danger. The cursed god Ramor is about to be set free. The witch Mara sends her daughter Pelisse on a quest for the legendary Time Bird which she needs to bind Ramor to his prison. Together with the ageing warrior Bragon, Pelisse sets out on a quest to save the world. But Bragon is Mara’s old lover and Pelisse has never met her father…
Creators: Serge Le Tendre (writer) and Régis Loisel (artist)
Why I recommend it: if Dungeon is a modern take on heroic fantasy, Time Bird is its elder sibling. The eighties are strong in this one: big muscled men and voluptuous women abound. Seriously, if you think that there’s a problem with how female superheroes are drawn, you obviously haven’t met Pelisse yet. That being said, the characters are interesting, with both protagonists never being entirely sure whether they are father and daughter or not.
Availability: the four issues have been translated separately in the late eighties by NBM, but Titan Comics has released a hardcover collected edition in December 2015. No digital edition exists. A prequel series with different artists has not yet been translated.
The Obscure Cities
What it’s about: on a vaguely science-fictional Counter Earth, humans live in independent city-states characterized by a distinctive architectural style. There’s no ongoing story or recurring main characters; each book is a self-contained story (though some two-parters exist), often focusing on one of the titular cities.
Creators: Benoît Peeters (writer) and François Schuiten (artist)
Why I recommend it: the art, first and foremost. While the stories are interesting, verging on the surreal, reminiscent of Franz Kafka, Jules Verne and others, the series exists solely because artist Schuiten (coming from a family of architects) was disappointed with what he calls Bruxellisation: the destruction of historic Brussels in favor of anonymous, low-quality office and business buildings (thank you, Wikipedia, for saying it better than I could). The Obscure Cities is full of mind blowing architecture, mostly inspired by Art Nouveau.
Availability: The first five books of the series have been published in English by NBM Publishing as Cities of the Fantastic, but this line has been discontinued and the editions have gone out of print. Since 2013, Alaxis Press and IDW are collaborating on translating and publishing new books. The Leaning Girl is available, with The Theory of the Grain of Sand scheduled to appear in November 2016 and The Shadow of a Man in March 2017.
What it’s about: a noir story set in late 1950s America following hardboiled private investigator John Blacksad. All of the characters are anthropomorphic animals.
Creators: Juan Díaz Canales (writer) and Juanjo Guarnido (artist)
Why I recommend it: again, the art. Guarnido’s detailed watercolor drawings really are a thing of beauty. The stories are solid and tackle a number of different aspects of the Cold War, such as the Red Scare, fear of nuclear weapons and white supremacy.
Availability: there are only five albums (for now), all of which are available from Dark Horse. The first three are released in one collection titled simply Blacksad.
Digital versions are available as well.
What it’s about: an electrical engineer and her friends Vic and Pol. Most, but not all albums are science fiction, with robot dragons, time travel and especially an alien species called the Vineans popping up regularly.
Creator: Roger Leloup.
Why I recommend it: I admit, this might mostly be nostalgia driven. I devoured these comics as a kid but I have to say that not all plots are fantastic. Especially later albums would benefit from a higher page count. That being said, the series’ main selling point is that it’s realistic on the personal level—the trio’s friendship feels real even though they’re 2.500.000 lightyears away from earth.
Availability: Ten albums (out of 27) have been translated into English and published by Cinebook. Not yet available digitally.