XIII – Belgians Do it Better

Japanese comics have always served as a source of inspiration and imitation for American and British comic creators. But America and Japan are hardly the only cultures with a history of innovative comics. I want to focus on a culture that has had a big influence on me, but doesn’t get its fair share of attention in America – the Belgians.

Perhaps my earliest introduction to comics came through the incredible Belgian series Tintin. Sadly, Tintin is about the only Belgian comic most comic shops carry. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a rich culture of storytelling that has developed its own lexicon and grammar without much apparent influence from either American or Japanese creators.

My reintroduction to Belgian comics came when I stumbled upon 3 volumes of a series called XIII. The series, by writer Jeanne Van Hamme and illustrator William Vance, borrows a lot from the Bourne franchise (amnesiac killer) but goes in its own crazy direction. It’s been popular, spawning both a video game and 2 TV series, yet it remains largely unknown in American comic circles.

There were a lot of things eye-opening about the book. It’s an action comic without supernatural elements, which is rarer than it should be in comics.  The characters are human and at the forefront – dialogue isn’t filler between action scenes.  And the format, those slim 48 page squarebound booklets, seem to be the perfect comic delivery method.

But what really makes these books stand out is the storytelling.  Take a look at the first action sequence in the series:

Each of these pages tell a full story.  This page introduces a villain, and he’s dead by the end of the page.  Due to the horizontal nature of Belgian storytelling, width has everything to do with time.  In the first row, our introduction to the villain is short.  Then we have a long beat as Alan prepares to make his move, and an equally long beat as he jumps up and throws the knife – we’re invited to take in this moment.

Then we have an entire staccato row.  The villain, Chuck, fires twice and gets hit with the knife.  Then things start happening faster – Chuck stumbles, drops the gun, stumbles further, and then goes over the edge.

This row is fascinating because the first panel is super compressed – Chuck is firing twice AND getting hit with the knife, all in one tine panel!  But then, his collapse is drawn out across 4 panels.  This emphasizes Alan’s speed, and draws out the significance of his killing for the first time.

Again, this page tells a complete story.  It also shows the power of the horizontal strip – a feature common in Belgian comics, but infrequent in American comics.  This has partly to do with the format – Belgian comics are wider and allow for more horizontal storytelling than their American and Japanese counterparts, which trend toward a more vertical storytelling.

And look at the mastery that Van Hamme has of the format – each row shifts our expectations, and each ends with a cliffhanger. In the first row, the villain is searching, and then spots Alan. In the second strip, the villain makes his move, firing at Alan – but we don’t see the results.  Row 3 is the big reveal, where the trap, set in the first row, plays out, and the page climaxes with Alan taking the upper hand.

Again, every row presents a mini story.  In the first row of this page, we see horizontal timing come into play.  The long shot, combined with the width of the panel, draws out their initial struggle.  In a quick beat, the villain reaches for the gun – but equally as quick, Alan stops him.  At the end of this row, Alan has the upper hand.

In the next strip, we have the reversal, where in a quick motion (narrow panel again!) the villain takes the upper hand.  And in the third strip, if the action wasn’t enough, we get a character moment, where Alan is unable to kill the villain.  The page, and sequence, goes out on a shot of the car that seems to have driven into another landscape, another color palette – entirely out of Alan’s reach.

If you’re a creator, there’s a ton to learn from Belgian storytelling, and if you’re a reader, there’s a plethora of material out there, especially if you’re looking to get away from the cape and cowl thing.  Cinebook has been doing a great job reprinting Belgian comics in English in the UK.

Sadly, it’s trickier to get them in the States. It’s usually worth a few extra bucks to import them, but purchasing digitally is also a great option.  But if you’ve got a minute, why not let these publishers know we’d like to see some of these books in our shops over here?

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