Thursday, 28 November 2013

Comics in Brussels

Changing gears from the usual articles/reviews to a travelogue entry now, I thought I’d give a little run down on a trip to Brussels I had recently.  Why?  COMICS! (Humour me. I don’t leave the house much, let alone go anywhere interesting!)

I went to Paris a couple of years ago and thought the comic supply was plentiful enough… I knew nothing.  Brussels is truly the city of comics where they are regarded as a respected and celebrated art form.  Dedicated shops are numerous and themed murals decorate the sides of buildings throughout the capital.  Bring a decent amount of spending money, a strong bag and a French dictionary and there will be much to tempt you from the usual superheroes and manga, to more Franco-Belgian-specific titles.  You’re not on home turf, so it makes sense to get into the local culture.  Off to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre with you!

A giant version of Spirou's hat.
Dat rocket.
It might be worth doing a little research before visiting a place like this.  I’m no expert by any stretch, but I felt being able to recognise the likes of Lucky Luke, Gaston and Spirou on sight helped keep my bearings in a land where virtually everything else is being seen for the first time.  The Centre’s art nouveau building (designed by Victor Horta, architect fans!) is free to enter on the ground floor and holds a comic shop and small restaurant.  There is also a substantial reading library that requires a small fee for access.  Guarding the middle stairs is Tintin’s space rocket, up which is the entrance to the main attraction.

Lucky Luke's shadow.
The Belgian Comic Strip Centre is a museum that describes the history of comics, how they are made, and celebrates its continuing evolution.  A large range of original artwork is on display and is divided between writing, pencilling, inking and colouring.  Styles in this area range from the cartoony to the realistic and both classic and recent work is covered.  Other areas on this level provide showcases for more famous Belgian titles like Spirou, Marsupilami, The Smurfs and Lucky Luke (it’s perhaps worth noting that a French title like Asterix is conspicuously absent).  Tintin of course gets a special mention and has a major dedicated section.  The higher tiers of the museum are for temporary exhibits, providing more detailed focus on a particular series or artist (at the time of writing there are two.  One for Olivier Grenson and the other American artist Will Eisner).

Porco Rosso for no reason.
The Centre is a great place to get a good idea of how bandes desinées are regarded.  It’s also good for getting ideas on what kinds of titles you may want to check out for yourself once you hit the high street afterwards.  Tourist site reviews may complain that they didn’t know any of the characters on display, but to be honest if you’re going to an educational facility and don’t try to learn something new, you’re frankly doing it wrong.  If you have an attraction to the medium and what to discover something new, this place is a good way to go.

A few other general notes/observations on comic-related things in Brussels:

  •  Comic shops are pretty easy to find.  If there are humans and shops about, keep your eyes peeled for your next random encounter.  Mainstream bookshops and newsagents should also stock several major titles.
  •  Most comic shops will be selling the latest releases at discounts that rival online prices.  Older titles seemed to be at full price and availability of specific volumes is a bit more hit and miss.
  •  All shops seem to adopt a different method for organising their stock, which makes looking for particular titles very difficult.  They could be arranged by title, publisher, genre or writer/artist depending on where you’re at.  Be ready to either browse deep or unleash your mad language skillz and ask for help.  You can descend to using English in a pinch, but attempting French initially will allow local shop workers to warm to your plight.
  •  If you really don’t want to leave your safe zone small English-language sections can often found in larger book and comics shops (you will find Cinebook ranges that shame most UK shops).
  •  There often seems to be something going on in terms of conventions, signings or limited edition prints.  For a taste on this kind of info try visiting: and
  • Many comic shops have dedicated second-hand sections with titles at reduced prices but still good condition.  Some shops are completely second-hand.  Bargains are to be found!
  • Don’t go too nuts when shopping. BDs are large, hardback and heavy.  This is a major consideration particularly if you’re flying, but if you’re travelling via Eurostar your only limit is your physical power!  Take your time and get something that’s really good.  Impulse-buy sparingly or risk regretting it later (my poor back…). 
  • Check out the manga section.  The range and quality of work that’s translated into French but isn’t available in English will break your soul. 
  • Specialist figurines are in good supply, and prices vary to extremes.  To be honest I have no idea in this field.  I’d stick to obviously mainstream stores for risk of paying 300+ Euros on some poorly moulded tat. 

Smurf statue found outside the Moof museum.
That’s a very basic roundup of comics in Brussels.  It’s a must for any comic fan in the UK who wants to see something new, but America and Japan seem too far away.  It’s also a cool place to do touristy things.  Someday I would like to return!