Manisha Chaudhry, Head of content development- Pratham Books, writes about her visit to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre in Brussels.
Brussels, cold and blustery on a summer day and we were on the fag end of a glorious holiday in Europe.
It seemed grey and drab after the sunny, pasta-filled delights of Italy. Amid the overkill of hellenistic busts, roman antiquities and renaissance art in museums and soaring churches, this was a bright squiggle that invited and intrigued- The Belgian Comic Strip Centre in Brussels. There had been enough teasers strewn all around Brussels where you could round a corner and find a wall fully painted with a comic-book frame. A lovely way to enliven a city which is otherwise placid and somewhat serious.You could be surprised anytime when out on a stroll.The one near the truly diminutive manneken pis (In India, SIZE matters:-)) actually makes the walk worthwhile!
The Comic Strip Centre is housed in an Art Nouveau building by Victor Horta which was built in 1906 and served as a textile warehouse for the longest time but had been lying neglected since 1970. Tastefully restored now, it is full of light and space for a foyer which houses Herbie, known for going bananas, and Tintin’s famous lunar expedition rocket. The staircase is the model for the much loved Marlinspike Hall staircase where we have seen Captain Haddock miss a step many times.
The Centre is a wonderful exposition of the tradition of the comic strip in Europe. Belgium is said to have more than 700 comic strip artists and given its size, this would be a pretty dense population of practitioners of the Ninth Art. You can watch a utterly charming pre-disney animated cartoon of Gertie, the dinosaur done by Winsor McCay on friendly touch screens. You can read well mounted pages of comics of all vintages. If you wish to explore based on your preference of artists, you could read their potted biographies and even see some of their research materials and favoured art materials. The biographies of most of the greats are as interesting as their work. Artists such as Bob De Moor, Marten Toonder give you a real sense of the passion that they felt for this medium and how tenaciously they built it up. It is the centenary year of Marten Toonder (the creator of Tom Puss, loved by children and adults alike) and the special exhibition on him was fascinating with details of his family of artists where his seafarer father, brother, wife and son were all involved in similar work.
Tintin, of course is the superstar among a galaxy of rather distinguished heroes. You can stick your head in and get photographed in a cut out, you can see the sceptre used as a reference for King Ottokar’s Sceptre, you can see the different hats used by Thomson and Thompson, you can see how Tintin’s very simple face takes on different expressions with deft use of minimal lines whereas Captain Haddock’s face registers excessive contortions. You can pore over the timeline of different comics and read Georges Remi biography alongside and ponder over the colonial stereotypes as well…If Tintin lives in heaven after he passed from the earth, it would probably look like this section in the Comic Strip Centre.
Permanent and temporary exhibitions add to the variety of all that you can see. Another exhibition on British artist Posy Simmonds landed you smack in England in the liberal landscape of adult graphic novels.Her graphic novels Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe were presented along with hitherto unseen exhibits from her teenage years, audio recordings of her interviews of her growth as a story teller and artist. She has also done Fred for children which was adapted in 1996 as an animation short and received an Oscar nomination. Her journey exemplifies how the visual narrative has tremendous appeal in the age of television and its evolution as a sophisticated art form.
The appeal of graphics to tell a story is as old as cave paintings but it is in the comic strip museum that you appreciate the sweep of the medium across age groups, languages and themes.