Chapter 1 — An Active Reader

Five-year-old Alain opens his first periodical, TARZAN, launched in Septembre 1946 at the same time as the TINTIN magazine. The first offers colorful stories imported from the U.S., the second, local stories with colors in good taste. One is decried by all pedagogues and teachers, the other woos them. All these magazines are cut from the same rolls of pulp paper supplied to printers and have adopted the hyper-addictive form of the serial. By going regularly to the nearby newsstand, Alain hopes to read “all the stories”. The albums are expensive and rare[1] and only collect a small percentage of the published narratives. If you happened to miss an issue, it could set you off on a hunt. If the distribution companies or the publisher did not keep backissues, you were left to the randomness of secondhand booksellers or the whims of the flea market. From carefree reader, you became—without warning—an active collector. By paying attention and becoming attached to these fleeting images and lines of figures, Alain quickly acquired the principles of reading.

… in 1st grade, I knew how to read!

— Alain Van Passen

 

Despite his punctuality, Alain missed a few issues of HÉROÏC-ALBUMS and MICKEY MAGAZINE[2]. Without missing a beat, he goes to the headquarters of these two Brussels publications. That a 10-year-old would break the wall between reader and publisher must have come as a surprise. But his parents, Robert, 56, and Mary, 45, are familiar with the world of the press. He wrote novels in Dutch for the Davidsfonds and stories for AVERBODE’S WEEKBLAD. She wrote romantic stories in French for the magazines BONNES SOIRÉES and LES BEAUX ROMANS. In 1937 they launched their own weekly magazine: TOPAZE. Marcel Pagnol had given them permission to use the title of his novel. The French texts had been entrusted to a printer in Leuven who peppered them with numerous grammatical errors. The legal and financial fiasco weighed on the couple for many years, but it nevertheless left a strong impact on their only son who would become attentive to the mention of the “responsible publisher.” The Van Passens were not afraid to write to publishers and… give orders.

In Paris, at the crossroad between Rue Mouffetard and Rue Saint-Médard, kneeling down on the cobblestones, a bunch of kids installed a spontaneous market to exchange their illustrés. The photographer and journalist Noël Bayon described this strange choreography in 1953: “dispersed for a moment, sellers and traders regroup soon after.” If French communists, and soon the Catholics, show a strong hostility towards these illustrated periodicals, propelling the law of 16 July 1949 on publications for the youth, the Belgian government did not take any legislative actions. Images were not as subordinated to text in Belgium[3], where the North-American influence was also more easily tolerated. In Brussels, to fill the gaps of his collection, Alain went to a second-hand bookshop in his neighborhood on Rue de l’Étang, where “there were no adults, only children!”.

Those who cannot crouch, ignore the law of the milieu [4]

— Noël Bayon

 

In between a private business and a public library[5], the place is run by an old lady. “If I paid 2 francs for a book and brought it back the following week, she offered 1 franc for a new purchase.”[6] She never takes money out of her cash register and only offers “children’s periodicals, what we call comics today.” This is where Alain completes his collection of HÉROÏC-ALBUMS. Under his father’s guidance, he makes his own bindings, firmly fastening with thread all the pamphlets that he had so patiently and diligently gathered. To decorate the protective cardboard covers, he sacrificed the covers of other issues. These volumes are the core of his collection, but he makes it clear: “as a child, I was not a collector!”.

Alain pursued his secondary education, studying classics at the Saint-Boniface Institute, the upper crust of the Belgian bourgeoise. Two influential figures of comics, Georges Remi and André Franquin, preceded him there. But unlike the latter, who had no interest in classical plaster sculptures, Alain had a passion for Antiquity. He began taking drawing classes with adults after school, at a stone’s throw from his home, near the Léopold Park, in the former Raoul Warocqué Institute of Anatomy which housed the Mundaneum. The bibliographer Paul Otlet wanted to gather together all of the world’s knowledge, mainly in its print form, by listing it in microfiches and keywords. Otlet’s ambitious project began in the Roaring Tenties and dwindled in intensity as the Mundaneum moved from one place to the other, until the death of its founder in 1944.[7] Strongly influenced by Jacques Martin’s Alix series published in TINTIN magazine and by the Italian-American peplums in the style of Quo Vadis, Alain creates his own comic: Ajax. The unique copy of this modern codex is noticed by the curator of the Mundaneum, who puts it on display in the front showcase. Every day, the latter opens the cabinet, turns one of the pages of the comic book, and closes it again to encourage visitors to return.

While we can see that Alain Van Passen wields “a nice pencil stroke”, it nevertheless seems that his true vocation is that of literature.

— Alain Van Passen, Héroïc-Albums No. 11, 7 March 1956.

Another local bookseller, who supplied Alain with the new collections of the SPIROU magazine, also advised him to abandon image-based narratives to take up what she called “true literature”, the kind reduced to the letters of the Roman alphabet. She prescribed Victor Hugo’s Les travailleurs de la Mer [Toilers of the Sea]. Like her, the pedagogues refused to admit that a comic strip could be addressed to adults[8], or even to teenagers. Cultural productions for teenagers, flourishing in the United States at the time, were slow to take hold in France and Belgium. Alain’s favorite magazine, HÉROÏC-ALBUMS, had been trying to break free from this infantilization since its earliest issues. Barred from the whole French territory, this Belgian comic book had to fold in December 1956. The tabloid RISQUE-TOUT, intended for the big brothers of SPIROU’s young readers, followed the same unfortunate course and stopped publication after one chaotic year. At 15, Alain distanced himself from comics, reduced to children’s publications[9], and began devouring films and novels in the genres of horror, fantasy[10] and speculative fiction. He absorbed these converging genres through the literary magazine FICTION. Alain discovered this paperback-sized title by chance at a sale and this, paradoxically, brought him back to comics… for good!

The transition from the bizarre to the marvelous is barely perceptible and the reader will find himself in the middle of fantasy before he realizes that the world is far behind him.

— Quotation from Prosper Mérimée’s essay on Nicolas Gogol used as an introduction for FICTION no. 92, July 1961.

¶ Text by Philippe Capart,

translated by Maaheen Ahmed

Notes

1 They are given as presents for the new year or St. Nicolas.

2 This Belgian magazine was published between 1950 and 1959, after which its readers are directed towards LE JOURNAL DE MICKEY, the French version edited by Paul Winkler.

3 In France, the admission criteria of the Commission Paritaire des Publications et des Agences de Presse (CPPAP; Joint Commission of Press Publications and Agencies) for “youth publications and comics” still demands 10% of editorial material, or text, see http://www.cppap.fr/

4 Comment from a photographic reportage by Noël Bayon for the article Les gamins de Paris ont créé la bourse aux illustrés in LE FACE À MAIN, 24 January 1953. The text cites a 1951 documentary shot on the same market, On tue à chaque page, made by four IDHEC (Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies) students. The film is sent to the French Union of Secular Work for Education by Image and Sound (UFOLEIS). Their film teacher is Georges Sadoul, editor-in-chief of the pre-war children’s periodical MON CAMARADE and author of the anti-comics pamphlet Ce que lisent vos enfants, Bureau d’éditions, 1938.

5 This logic recalls the kashi-hon ya, a book rental service popular for manga. The same model was popular in several South-East Asian countries such as Singapore or the Philippines.

6 Alain Van Passen adds other prices for comparison: a cinema ticket (cheap entertainment back then) cost 12 fr; a new SPIROU album, 50 fr; and a Coca-Cola bottle, 5 fr.

7 The remains of the Mundaneum are housed in Mons since 1993.

8 In the U.S., since the end of the 19th century, comics sections were published in the Sunday supplements of daily newspapers. Stories, such as Flash Gordon, drawn by Alex Raymond, also addressed adults through their entangled love triangles. During the 30s, these American supplements were marketed exclusively to children, especially boys, in France, Italy and Belgium.

9 « It is often bemoaned that, after the age for comics and before the age of novels for adults, and besides expensive book series, the youth does not find enough things to read that are fit for their age ». Excerpt from a promotional leaflet for the adolescent book series MARABOUT JUNIOR, edited by Jean-Jacques Schellens for Marabout, 1953.

10 Le fantastique chez les romanciers belges contemporains (The fantastic in the works of contemporary Belgian novelists) was the title of his final year project at the Saint-Thomas Institute for the academic year 1961-1962.