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The golden age of Belgian comics at the Fine Arts Museum of Liège

The golden age of Belgian comics at the Fine Arts Museum of Liège

The collection of comics at the Fine Arts Museum of Liège contains one hundred original storyboards by great illustrators and scriptwriters, such as Edgar-P. Jacobs, Hergé, Sirius, Jacques Martin, Maurice Tillieux, Jean Graton, Morris, André Franquin, Raymond Macherot, François Craenhals, Peyo, Yvan Delporte, Michel Greg, Hermann or Didier Comès, to mention but a few. These drawings date from the post-war period to the end of the 1970’s, an era considered as the golden age of Belgian comics. Driven by the economic recovery, the competition between the Spirou and Tintin journals led to a revolution that opened the road to modern comics with a high quality of illustration, story-telling and printing. The best productions in this domain of what were referred to as the Brussels and Marcinelle schools have been brought together in this first Belgian public collection of comics, one of the largest of its kind.

At the end of the 1970’s, a group of knowledgeable enthusiasts, grouped together within the non-profit making association Signes & Lettres, gave the initial impetus to form the collection. Among the members of this association were a Minister for Culture in the French-speaking Community, Jean-Maurice Dehousse, university professors, members of parliament, magistrates and art critics. Together they undertook purchases, on behalf of the City of Liège, of original storyboards with the objective of creating a Comics Museum in the Ardent City. Their project was ambitious, because comics were still too often discredited and considered as a simple means for entertaining children and adolescents.

The association was founded in 1973. By means of writing a monthly column in the daily newspaper La Wallonie and organising several exhibitions, the association established excellent contacts in the domain, which recognised the significance of its activities and its efforts to raise comics to the status of art form in their own right.


The creation of the comics collection

In 1975, the first contacts were made between Signes & Lettres and the City of Liège concerning the creation of a Comics Museum in the Ardent City. In a letter sent in July 1976 by Jean-Maurice Dehousse to Robert Maréchal, the Director of Cultural Affairs and Fine Arts for the City of Liège, he reminded the director of the project to “create a comics fund that would enable the purchase of original storyboards, as long as they are still affordable, and their permanent exhibition. […] I am all the more eager to begin taking action in light of the fact that negotiations are underway to create (in Brussels, of course) a centre and museum for comics: it seems ridiculous that Wallonia, which has done so much in this domain, would let itself be stripped of such a privilege,” before adding: “Our committee is at your disposal to establish, on behalf of the City of Liège, the preliminary contacts necessary for any purchases”.

This planned fund, the idea of which emerged from the association, was probably inspired by the Museum of Decorative Art's grand exhibition Bande dessinée et Figuration narrative (comics and narrative portrayal) at the Louvre in 1967. This first major event based on the 9th Art gave its first letters of nobility to comics. However, the creation of a museum dedicated to this art was a further and especially innovative step at a time when there was still no public collection of comics in Belgium.

In 1977, the association was invited to sit on the new advisory committee for the comics collection. Having obtained the trust of publishers and their main collaborators, Signes & Lettres approached renowned French authors or promising young talents with the proposal of acquiring one or sometimes several carefully chosen nuggets from the works of the artist. This is how emblematic storyboards from the albums Explorers on the Moon by Hergé, The Yellow “M” by E.-P. Jacobs or also Tortillas for the Daltons by Morris and René Gosciny found their way to the Liège Chambers of Engravings and Drawings.

In order to fuel the content of the museum, the acquisitions were extended to a series of more than five hundred original editions of albums, periodicals and magazines, one hundred black and white reproductions of original storyboards that had disappeared and interviews with authors such as William Vance, Hermann, Jacques Martin, Jean Graton and Eddy Paape.


The original storyboards: characteristics and eccentricities

The few archives indicate that the first storyboards were acquired as early as in 1977. It was at the end of this year that Jean-Maurice Dehousse contacted André Franquin to purchase one of his storyboards. In a letter addressed to the author, the minister suggested choosing from several proposals. Franquin eventually set his sights on a storyboard of Gaston Lagaffe, from the album Un gaffeur sachant gaffer (the title of which is a neat play on words on a French tongue twister). It became the very first storyboard of the collection, acquired for the tidy sum of 15,000 Belgian Francs at the time.

The last acquisition probably dates from January 1979. Following the purchase by the City of Liège of storyboard number one from the album Le Scrameustache – L’héritier de l’Inca (heir of the Inca), the illustrator Gos donated a second storyboard from the album La fugue du Scrameustache (the Scrameustache flees).

The wise choices made from the selection of drawings by Signes & Lettres is evident for many storyboards. In this way, the storyboard of Blake & Mortimer in The Yellow “M” is none other than the first appearance of the emblematic figure of Olrik in the series. The storyboard from the Tintin album shows the legendary rocket flying towards the moon. On the storyboard of Johan & Pirlouit, the Smurfs can be seen, just as the one from Lucky Luke brings together on the same page the cowboy, Jolly Jumper, Rantanplan and the Dalton brothers. For the specialists, the storyboards from The Two-Wheeled Chinaman by Tillieux and The Yellow “M” by Jacobs are among the finest of the collection.

The original storyboards are mostly in A2 format, meaning that they are much bigger than the final result, printed on A4. The majority of illustrators prefer Schoeller Parole paper, which is of very high technical quality but which, to their great displeasure, is no longer manufactured today. Its high capacity to absorb ink without crinkling under the influence of humidity conferred upon this paper a comfort when drawing and painting as well as easy inking. Its thickness enabled scraping of the ink with a blade.

The drawings are particularly enlightening due to their “repentances”: when the author was not satisfied with his drawing in black ink, he applied alterations using white gouache or covered the mistake with paper to re-draw a detail or the entire box. As for Hausman, he preferred the technique of scraping to lighten his drawings.

To avoid mistakes in the page order on printing, each illustrator numbered his storyboards in the last box in their own specific way: as such, Franquin, instead of numbering the storyboards of Gaston Lagaffe within a single story, numbered them from one album to another without interruption.

In the margins, sometimes the title of the story from which the storyboard originated can be seen, or the issue number of the magazine for which it was intended. Certain authors left indications for the printer, or sometimes a stamp requesting the return of the storyboard after printing. On many specimens, the annotations “as soon as possible” or “urgent” can be found, demonstrating the pressure of printing dead-lines to be met by the authors in order to be able to publish the continuation of their story each week. The creation of Emaat le bossu (Emaat the hunchback) by Alexis published in the first issue of Trombone illustré, the supplement of Spirou, is a perfect example. For this storyboard, not only the preparatory drawings have been preserved, but also a letter addressed to Alexis by Yvan Delporte, presenting first and foremost his excuses for the (too) short deadline to continue the scenario, embellished by a small drawing by Franquin.

It was for the sixth number of the now iconic Trombone illustré that René Hausman drew the storyboard for Zunie, a more adult adaptation of the female character from his series Zaki & Zunie. There were only thirty editions of the “secret” supplement of the Spirou magazine, from March to October 1977. It came into being on the initiative of Franquin and Yvan Delporte, who sought to develop a different notion of comics for adults, in a rebellious spirit independent to that of Spirou.

It occurred that some speech bubbles were not yet filled in, as is the case for the storyboards of Jacobs, Martin or Hergé, veritable images without sound. However, the majority of authors carried out the lettering of their storyboards themselves; such is the case of Franquin, whose characteristic penmanship of the onomatopoeias is an integral part of his drawings. The storyboards of Noël Bissot, written in French, are accompanied by a reproduction that contains the text and dialogues in Dutch. The storyboard of the The Four Sons of Aymon by Jacques Laudy, in black ink and washing, originates from a story that appeared in the first number of the Tintin magazine in 1946. And yet the texts are written in Dutch, because a Flemish version was published in the weekly journal Ons Volk.

Most of the storyboards are in black and white, but certain pages such as the cover of Le Chat by Denys, storyboards by Bissot, Tillieux and Hausman are covered with tracing paper including colour indications for the printed drawing. A second technique is notably used for the storyboards of Morris and Sirius: on the rear of the paper, the author has coloured the boxes to serve as a guide for colourisation of the drawings. These instructions only become visible by holding the paper up to the light. The only directly coloured storyboard is that of David Balfour, water-coloured by Laudy.

Michel Regnier is the artist most present in the collection, not only as an illustrator under his two pseudonyms Michel Denys and Greg, but also as a scriptwriter for Hermann (Bernard Prince, Comanche) and Maurice Maréchal (Prudence Petitpas).

The oldest drawings are probably the three storyboards by René Giffey, who died in 1965. Exactly who authored them remained unknown for a long time, but they were eventually able to be identified thanks to comparison with a black and white album published by the publishing house Regards. This small firm run by the French comic historian Jean-Paul Tiberi (alias Janoti) has specialised in the limited edition re-publication of rare pearls in the domain of comics that are often old and little known. Such is the case for La vie héroïque de Charles Nungesser (the heroic exploits of Charles Nungesser) by Giffey, which recounts the adventures of the French aviator during the First World War, which was finally published for the first time as an album in 2000.

The storyboard by P. Leïka (whose real name is Pierre Kosc) is currently the only one that it has been impossible to identify and situate within the works of its author. It is probably a hitherto unseen drawing.


The future of the collection

After an abrupt interruption of acquisitions in 1979, the collection lay dormant for almost twenty years in the museum’s reserves before being presented to the public for the first time in its entirety in 1996, then again in 2011. It was eventually at the beginning of 2015 that the publishing house Les Impressions nouvelles published L'Âge d'or de la Bande dessinée belge (The Golden Age of Belgian Comics), whose contents are organised around this collection of original storyboards, still unjustly unsung up to that point.

After the abundant and intensive activity of the late 1970’s, the collection was broadened on several rare occasions. Just before the first exhibition of the collection, in 1996, a colour storyboard, accompanied by its two preparatory drawings, of the Bouquet d’Outremeuse (a bouquet form Outremeuse) from the Tchanchtès series, the fruit of collaboration between Didier Casten, Michel Dusart and François Walthéry, was added to the collection. The Liège contemporary school of comics is represented since the second exhibition in 2011, in the form of ten educational storyboards by the students of the Ecole supérieure des Arts Saint-Luc (Saint-Luc Higher College of Arts). New acquisitions are to be planned following the first exhibition of the collection outside Liège, at the Wallonia-Brussels Centre in Paris in 2015.


Carmen Genten
Curator at Bal (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège)


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