Pronto Abroad

I spent the first week of June in Belgium, on a foodie press trip, courtesy of one of my “real” jobs, and planned by the organizations Visit Belgium (www.visitbelgium.com), Visit Flanders (www.visitflanders.us), and Visit Brussels (www.visitbrussels.be).

While I was really excited for all the cheese, chocolate, and beer I planned to consume, I was also really excited to see the comics museum and comics murals in the city of Brussels. Belgium will forever be tied to comics thanks to the fact that it’s the home country of Hergé, the creator of a little comic you may know by the name of TinTin. But I had no idea to the full extent the country embraces and respects the medium of comics until I got there.

Comics receive a totally different treatment in Belgium (and France too, where I’ve traveled more extensively) than the US. For one thing, comics are not treated by non-fans as something “just for kids.” It’s treated as a medium for all ages. Even the titles geared toward children are read by adults, with no shame.

An early, original sketch of The Smurfs in the Comic Strip Center museum in Brussels.

Further, comics receive just as much space in bookstores as other sub-genres. (If you’re ever in France or Belgium, I highly recommend that you seek out a “Fnac” bookstore for an excellent selection.)

Comics are treated as an important cultural legacy in Belgium. Sure, in New York City we have the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, but Brussels has the Comic Strip Center, the Marc Sleen Museum, Hergé Museum, the Maison de la Bande Dessinée (“Comics House”), the Maison Autrique (another gallery that exhibits comics art), and the Museum of Original Figurines, showcasing toys and figures based on comic characters.

And let’s not forget about the comics murals all over the city. Brussels is covered in these things—more than 30 in all. There are also a few statues scattered around too. They’re not all in the center of the tourist area, either. I spent hours walking through residential neighborhoods in an effort to see and photograph every single one, but just couldn’t get to them all.

Many of the murals were almost hidden, like a natural fixture that just happens to be there. This one (Hec Leemans’ F.C. De Kampioenen), for example, was located on the backside of an apartment building, facing its parking lot:

The murals just seem to blend in with the rest of the city. Many, like this one (Verron and Yann’s Odilon Verjus), are painted to fit seamlessly into the surroundings:

And I would be remiss if I left out the country’s star character, TinTin:

There are also murals in the cities of Antwerp and Turnhout.

But it’s not just Belgian artists that the country embraces. American, Japanese, and other countries are equally read, if not equally celebrated. One of the first items you see in the Comic Strip Center museum is a life-size replica of the walking bed from early American newspaper strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, followed by a written history of comics that starts with the American newspaper strip, The Yellow Kid.

There were also life-size statues of Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso and Goku from Dragon Ball. (By the way, if there’s ever a manga title you’re desperate to read that isn’t available in English, and you understand French, check France’s Amazon.fr, as far more titles are translated to French than English).

If you’re looking for a comics-focused vacation, Belgium is definitely the place to go!

-Leah Hansen, Associate Editor