By Luke & Rhian Williams
As may have been mentioned a few times, Europe has a different attitude toward comics. Comics, or bande dessinee, are accepted as a legitimate art form, commentary on high profile comics isn’t reduced to the level of the occasional Guardian piece claiming “Kapow! – comics aren’t for kids anymore”.
No. What they do on the continent is that they celebrate their creators and their creations on a large scale. With this in mind, then, there is strong argument to support Brussels claim to being the capital of the comic strip.
The city already hosts the Comics Art Museum, but it is also home to the Parcours BD Striproute, or comic book route. Walls around the city host images of famous European comic creations, and Brussels actively invites tenants to join the initiative.
The associated website allows visitors to plot a route around the city to catch sight of more than 50 murals of characters from the Ninth Art. There are recommended routes for pedestrians, cyclists and even runners.
My wife, Rhian, bought me a trip to Bruges for my last birthday, but, having only half a brain and never really carrying out any serious research on my destination, I hadn’t considered a side excursion to Brussels, only an hour away. Thoughtful and indulging spouse that she is, Rhian suggested that as we had a bit of time to kill waiting for our Eurostar connection in Brussels on the way home, that we could walk at least part of the comic trail.
We arrived in Brussels just after 10.00am on a Tuesday. For the return journey to St Pancras, we would have to check in to Eurostar around 2.30pm, leaving us four and a half hours to leg it around Brussels, see as much as we could, maybe squeeze in the Cartoon Museum and get back to the train.
In retrospect, perhaps we were a little ambitious.
There are three recommended comic strip routes each with a different theme: Centre Route, Laeken Route or Marolles Route. Not being one for convention, I decided we’d ignore those and head in the direction of the Museum, picking off the ones that were on the way, a very haphazard and flawed way of fulfilling the twin objectives.
First, we discovered that we had missed the Brussels Comic Con, which was fine – this little expedition was a bonus after all. Rhian is not a comic fan as such, but will read them, enjoy them, willingly accompany me to conventions (she particularly likes John Wagner) and generally take an interest when I witter about my latest acquisition, but this was above and beyond the call of wifely duty. She’d got us there, and now it was my turn to get us around Brussels.
Arriving at Brussels Midi / Zuid Train station, two large Tintin Murals give a flavour for what was to come. Foolishly, I decided that I’d use a combination of Comic Strip website map and Google maps and head north (?) toward the nearest murals. Almost immediately, we were confronted with the less salubrious end of town, parts of it smelling like a stairwell of a multi storey car park (if you get what I mean, lots of ammonia), and not particularly welcoming extensive roadworks. Criss crossing under the elevated train track and swapping back and fore between Google maps and the comic strip route map, I was getting us nowhere.
Patiently, Rhian sighed and took charge of our quest, with only the meekest protest from me. Give me a paper map, I can find anything: digital maps on a tiny phone screen – not a chance. They are too small and the constant need to scroll and zoom in and out throws me completely : at least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Meekly, but a little more relaxed considering the ticking clock and that we were making progress I followed directions from my wife. The murals closest to the station were possibly the hardest to find, having to negotiate what was the construction site that had been “Rue De Stalingrad”, we found the first two on the ceilings of arches tucked down side streets, “Le Petit Gilet” and “La Voie Lactee”. After our initial faltering, confused steps, Rhian’s map reading skills and our first discoveries gave us new confidence and we pressed on.
Rhian says she has no sense of direction, but she expertly guided us toward the centre of Brussels, next to “Les Ancetres Bienveillants”, so far the murals were lovely, but not very “comicy”. But as we headed nearer to the city centre the murals became more recognisable. Each mural now has a QR code for “routers” to display more details about the work.
Brussels city centre is lovely, made up of a few large boulevards with an ordered network of alleyways and side roads leading off each. It’s down these that most of the art can be found, at least by someone who can read a map. We took a meandering route in the general direction of the museum down the occasional “stab” alley (a family term coined by my son, after I took the family down a particularly shady side street one holiday) but we, by which of course I mean Rhian, was getting the hang of finding the way around.
Our biggest problem – other than time constraint- was that I didn’t recognise some of the characters, which made me feel a little foolish. I hadn’t realised quite how ignorant I was of the continental scene other than Pat Mills’ French strips, Don Lawrence’s Storm and the works of Morris, Goscinny & Uderzo and Peyo.
But really, it didn’t matter. That is the purpose of these murals; celebrating and drawing attention to the wonderful work of these super talented creators, work such as Le Jeune Albert (The Young Albert), Victor Sackville, XIII, Ric Hochet.
The murals are very large, beautiful representations completely covering the side of buildings, some such as Caroline Baldwin have a strip rather than a single image. We came across personal favourites, Asterix on the wall of a primary school playground, viewing restricted by locked gates, high fencing and a tree. Lucky Luke’s was far more accessible – and one of the largest.
The rate of detection was increasing. Some of the murals are clustered, the map deceptive in that they look farther apart than they are, but time was running out. We stopped for a bite to eat at a cafe on a crossroads, around ten minutes walk from the Museum, munching on a selection of cheese and variety of hummus, we decided we’d better make a break for station.
The route back was more direct; a slight deviation from the main road “we” found Monsieur Jean and Kinky & Cosy. Returning to our planned route to the station, we sighted Thorgal and Froud & Stouf, off Boulevard Maurice Lemonnier.
We’d made good progress. We’d actually found 22 examples in the three hours we’d been walking, initially aimlessly, around the city. It seemed we’d failed to find a TinTin mural, but then, as we were returning to the station, there he was, revolving atop a large tower block.
Our whistle stop foray around Brussels didn’t really do the Parcours BD Striproute justice, but I’m glad, and forever grateful to Rhian, that we did it. We’d been lucky with the weather for a start.
Scoffing our last Belgian waffle in the station, I mulled over our hike around Brussels. It’s a wonderful concept and a terrific celebration of the medium. I’d add that there’s plenty of “non comic” related street art as well, but you need a day to do it properly.
We’re already a planning a return visit.
Brought up on a diet of Commando, British Boys Annuals and Asterix, Lucas Williams’s day job limits his reading time. Luckily for everyone else this also restricts his writing time.