Beyond Superheroes: A Journey Through the Rich Tapestry of European Comics

In comparison to American and Japanese comics imbued with a pronounced commercial essence, European comics distinguish themselves with a refined, literary temperament, intimately entwined with their discerning audience. As elucidated by Mr. Lu Xun in “Reflections on Comics,” within Europe, “although comics are subject to exposure, ridicule, and even censure, as the majority of readers comprise individuals of refinement, the cartoonists’ pen tends to target solely those lacking the fortitude and veracity to speak the truth, satirizing their absurdity to elevate the nobility of the refined, all in pursuit of a share in the cigar trade.” The sanguine and fervent disposition of Europeans, coupled with their penchant for self-deprecation and irony, delineates the stylistic essence of comics, endowing them with ample substance and avenues for creative expression.

As a medium for delving into history, comics transcend linguistic, racial, and class constraints, mitigating the perils that oral discourse may entail. Historian Edward Fox’s treatise on the History of European Comics scrutinizes comics as a cultural phenomenon and unveils their quintessence: “The essence of comics shall endure ad infinitum: as consolers, admonishers, and champions—forever ascending the path to the future.” It shall illuminate the arduous voyage humanity continues to undertake, perpetually accompanying mankind with unwavering hands, dismantling impediments rooted in medieval worldviews that obstruct progress, thus asserting itself as a proud harbinger of perpetual advancement and enlightenment, guiding humanity toward benevolence and aesthetic splendor. This constitutes its moral proclamation in the annals of history.

A Century of Adventure, Chronicles of an Era

In 1929, the Belgian caricaturist Hergé executed a stroke of his quill, summoning forth a traveler with a countenance both rotund and bespectacled, crowned with a cascade of golden locks upon his brow. This seemingly unassuming figure not only traversed the pages for over half a century but also ascended to the pantheon of iconic characters in global comic lore. Hergé christened him “Tintin,” a mellifluous appellation devoid of semantic weight in French, yet it is precisely through its unassuming nature that it acquires universality.

Humor serves as the clandestine antidote for those disinclined to be ensnared by the vicissitudes of life, and comics, akin to effervescent tablets, infuse the mundane with effervescence, as the jests waft like ethereal bubbles, momentarily puncturing the veil of enigma.

Tintin made his debut in the pages of the French periodical Le Vingtième Siècle, where the self-taught Hergé garnered acclaim for his narrative prowess. In the wake of World War I, Europe found itself waning from its 19th-century zenith, enveloped in a pall of crisis and disillusionment; Tintin’s globetrotting escapades rekindled readers’ fascination with distant lands. Following World War II, European cartoonists eschewed the mimicry of American comics, instead drawing inspiration from their own milieu. The fantastical realms traversed in The Adventures of Tintin sprang from Hergé’s improvisations during the German occupation of Brussels in World War I. From the innocent anti-war sentiments of youth to the inspiration gleaned from the circumnavigation of the globe by aviator Charles Lindbergh, Tintin’s whimsical adventures matured into allegorical narratives. To this day, it enjoys global acclaim and cinematic adaptations, while scholarly exegesis underpins “Tintin Studies,” solidifying Hergé’s status as the progenitor of modern European comics.

As a fledgling journalist, Tintin, accompanied by his steadfast canine companion Snowy, embarked on innumerable perilous exploits: eluding pursuit en route to Africa for an interview, venturing to South America in pursuit of a pilfered wooden idol, unraveling a counterfeit operation within the enigmatic precincts of a Scottish castle, and combating a narcotics syndicate on behalf of the Moroccan government, culminating in a lunar odyssey… His idealized persona, dedicated to vanquishing malevolence and championing virtue, captivated successive generations, inspiring them to explore the world. In moments of adversity, the rallying cry of Captain Haddock resounds: Fight for your convictions, even if faced with insurmountable barriers!

Tintin also embarked on ventures to China; in “The Blue Lotus,” he receives a cryptic missive prompting a sojourn to Shanghai in search of one Hirano Matsusei. Amidst the concessions, he bears witness to the machinations of foreign powers. With the aid of civic organizations, Tintin unmasks Hirano’s espionage and exposes the conspiracies of the Japanese government. Hergé endeavored to anchor his narratives in historical veracity, forging acquaintanceships, such as that with Zhang Chongren, a Chinese international student, who subsequently appeared in the comics as “Chang Chong-Chen.” The documentary portrayal within this work served to ameliorate prevailing stereotypes of Chinese in Europe. The collaboration between Hergé and Zhang Chongren not only fostered mutual amity but also left an indelible imprint on the annals of European comics.

A Tender Confession Amidst Harsh Vicissitudes

Paternal love, oftentimes ineffable, runs deep as the mountain’s core. This sentiment finds resonance in the globally acclaimed comic “Father and Son,” devoid of dialogue yet rife with the nuances of familial camaraderie. Crafted by the German cartoonist E. O. Plauen, the cherubic, bald patriarch and his idiosyncratic, spiky-haired progeny epitomize the essence of honesty and mischief, endearing themselves to audiences worldwide. Their endearing interactions, born from the author’s life experiences and genuine portrayal of his son Christian, evoke a poignant charm.

Serialized in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung in the 1930s, “Father and Son” burgeoned into the most widely circulated family comic globally, reigning supreme in an industry boasting sales exceeding 100 million. The erudite Plauen, renowned for his political caricatures, weathered personal strife upon Hitler’s ascent to power, yet resurfaced under a pseudonym, spurred by necessity. To this day, statues in Braun’s native city of Plauen, Germany, commemorate the characters from “Father and Son,” transforming the locale into a pilgrimage site celebrating this intergenerational masterpiece, whilst immortalizing Plauen’s unwavering commitment to artistic integrity amidst adversity.

The simplicity of emotion and effervescent atmosphere permeating “Father and Son” resonate with the wisdom and philosophical musings on life, as the endearing juxtaposition between father and son elicits laughter. Fathers ascend trees and engage in playful pastimes with their sons, subtly imparting lessons of kindness, optimism, and resilience. Leading by example, fathers teach their sons to tender sincere apologies for inconveniencing others, yet refrain from self-flagellation for the errors of others, advocating instead for extending a helping hand when needed, whilst avoiding the folly of the “farmer and snake” metaphor.

It’s remarkable to fathom that amidst the suffocating grip of oppression, a lighthearted German sketch emerged. Similar to the father playfully jesting with his son in the film “Life is Beautiful” before facing execution, the serialization of “Father and Son” provided solace amidst dire circumstances under tyrannical rule, elevating Braun and his hometown to greater prominence. Sadly, Braun fell victim to the clutches of fascism, meeting a tragic demise in prison at the zenith of his career. His final wish, to paint for Germany and nurture children, remained unfulfilled. While the saga of “Father and Son” endures through generations, the profound and genuine love in reality met an untimely end, a poignant lament.

Following Christian’s passing, he found eternal rest beside his father, the father and son reunited in another realm. Braun seemingly anticipated this denouement, akin to the conclusion of “Father and Son,” where father and son vanish hand in hand into the distance, transformed into the moon and stars.

The Extravagant Realms of Technological Imagination and Social Conundrums

In its nascent stages, European comics adopted three predominant styles: simplistic schematic renderings, realistic portrayals, and dynamic sports themes. However, by the 1960s, European comics diversified into more eclectic themes, notably embracing science fiction. Notably, French artist Marion Fayole pushed the boundaries of European adult comics with her ethereal sensibility, employing absurd brushstrokes to confront contemporary gender relations’ unspoken taboos. In her paper dramas, protagonists mime within narrative spaces, elucidating the dichotomy of human nature’s morality and the vicissitudes of love. Echoing her experimental manifesto, “My role remains silent. They are objects. They can shatter like glass, extinguish like a candle, linger in suspense like a puzzle, slice like a cake, nourish like a potted plant… They are humble puppets embodying ideas and concepts. Devoid of voice, name, or past, they converse through their bodies, concocting whimsical theories about existence.”

Today, statues of “Father and Son” adorn the streets of Braun, evolving into popular landmarks for contemporary internet culture.

Renowned French luminary Maestro Mobius, hailed as the “Giant of the Golden Age,” revolutionized traditional comic styles. Under his deft hand, comics shed their juvenile veneer, embracing surreal concepts like towering skyscrapers and fantastical industrial machinations, envisioning cities of futuristic technology. His iconic Western comic series “Captain Blueberry,” “Enclosed Garage,” “Eden World,” and others, epitomize cinematic realism in both narrative depth and character development, cementing their status as enduring classics. Mobius’s oeuvre profoundly influenced subsequent artists, including luminaries like George Lucas and Luc Besson.

Mobius’s artistic ethos reverberated across the globe, notably impacting Japanese anime. Revered as the deity of lines in numerous Japanese comic circles, Mobius’s penchant for replacing dots with short strokes to create textured surfaces left an indelible mark. Osamu Tezuka christened his technique of employing dotted lines for shading as “Mobius lines,” with intersecting lines forming “Mobius clouds.” Hayao Miyazaki drew inspiration from Mobius’s ability to evoke a sense of solitude and grandeur through minimalist lines, with the conceptual genesis of “Valley of the Wind” rooted in Mobius’s dreamlike visions.

Today, as a microcosm of society, comics mirror the tumultuous currents of the world. As the flames of conflict wane and stability ensues, artists grapple with finding creative footholds amidst the technological era’s advent. Does artificial intelligence bolster artistic endeavors, or does it signify the final blow to artists’ imaginative faculties? The blurred lines of influence persist, confounding inquiry into the origins of creative inspiration.

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