French funnies are big business, sans superhero silliness
''Holy paintbrush, Batman! What's this?'' ''Looks like a fancy Parisian art gallery, Robin.'' ''Boy, it sure seems chic! But Batman, aren't those comic strips hanging on the wall?''
''Robin, I think you're right.''
''Gosh, Batman, what will the French dream up next?''
Your astonishment is understandable, dynamic duo.
French artists will have nothing to do with superhero foolishness. In recent years, they have raised an army of adult characters to fight traditional American predominance in the field. Their efforts have produced a home-grown comics boom - and new respect for the funnies.
''Batman is amusing, but his adventures do not constitute a real comic strip, '' asserts Patrick Anglesio, owner of La Galerie de la Perche.
His gallery looks like any stylish art center. It is a clean white space with spotlights hanging from the ceiling on the handsomely framed canvases. None of this care for comics seems excessive to Mr. Anglesio.
''We think comics are an extension of literature and cinema,'' he explains. ''The generation of the 1950s had Sartre and we have comics. For many of us, it's the only art.''
He has a point. In French, comics are known as ''bandes desinees,'' or BDs for short, a phrase that has nothing to do with humor. Literally, it is translated as designed strips. BDs are rapidly being enshrined in the nation's cultural life. The 11th international BD festival took place earlier this year in the town of Angouleme, in southwestern France. It drew some 150,000 visitors, scores of publishers, and hundreds of artists.
BDs are discussed in schools, played out in the theater and cinema, even printed in serious literary magazines. One publisher is forging ahead with a multivolume encyclopedia, all in comics form, and the ruling Socialist Party has published a BD ''history of socialism.''
Even the Ministry of Culture has joined the fray. It spends nearly $2 million annually promoting schools for BD artists, and each year it awards a ''grand prix'' to the deserving strip.
''We aid all other types of artists, so why shouldn't we aid BD designers?'' asks an official at the Culture Ministry. ''Moreover, it's one of the things we are good at here in France'' - an important consideration for a prideful people who fear that their literature and cinema are having less and less impact on the world cultural scene.
The French have a long comic strip tradition. According to Yves Fremion, author of a history of BDs, as early as the 18th century provincial artists were producing popular posters that prefigured present strips.
''They were usually single images, but little by little one or two bands would be put together into a mini-strip,'' he explains.
Modern-style comics, however, first took hold in the United States. William Randolph Hearst was a fan of the primitive designs, and he put them in his newspapers. Their success was immediate.
''Dialogue was introduced, character developed, true daily strips created,'' Mr. Fremion says. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were soon to come. So were Flash Gordon and Superman.
By the 1920s, the American heroes were making their way across the Atlantic. Home-grown European work was rare, Fremion says: The few European comics artists offered mostly pale imitations of Disney.
Tiny Belgium changed all this. In 1932, a silver-haired artist-cartoonist named Georges Remi created Tintin, an intrepid, clean-living reporter. Tintin's adventures were an immediate hit with teen-agers and even adults. They have been translated from French into 33 other languages and have sold some 70 million albums.
So popular was Tintin that French President Charles de Gaulle once joked, ''My only international rival is Tintin.''
Remi's example forged a strong Belgian school of design. Drawing on the tradition of Flemish tapestry production, master artists formed into studios, producing a stream of strips with the help of numerous assistants.
In the 1970s, though, the Belgian comics factories began to lose momentum. The chief designers aged - Remi himself passed on last year - and their assistants lacked the same creativity. The focus moved to France. Here, a series of young artists, all members of the generation that took to the streets in the May 1968 student demonstrations, turned to designing as an expression of revolt.
''The May uprising produced a break,'' Fremion explains. ''The young couldn't relate to the traditional literature or film, and BDs gave them their only chance to express themselves.''
Young artists talk to the young generation. Although some sketch harmless Westerns and crime material, most take R-rated looks at modern life. There's Rochette, the rock hero, and her fast life style. And there's Sylvie, who is trying to escape her petty bourgeois existence.
Politics is not avoided, either. Although no film or novel has been written about Afghanistan, a recent album tries to fill the gap with the story of a young woman, Jeannette Pointu, who goes off to help the Afghan guerrillas. There's also Malfado, who preaches on third-world debt and Latin American torture.
Despite the heavy intellectual flavor, such scripts have turned BDs into big business. Four monthly magazines specializing in it sell more than 50,000 copies each, a large circulation for France.
Much more money comes from album sales. These are not flimsy magazines, but glossy, hard-cover albums that cost as much as new hard-cover books. Sales often are as large as fiction best sellers. In all, according to the Culture Ministry, some 22 million albums were sold last year, accounting for revenues of some $50 million.
The market is booming. Etienne Rovial, president of a BD publisher called Futuropolis, says his firm has achieved an average growth of 50 to 60 percent over the last five years, average for the industry. Overall, some 650 new titles appeared last year, twice as many as five years ago, and nearly 450 artists are practicing the trade. The best earn salaries high in six figures.
The French are also making big export gains. The adult comic has proved to be a hit throughout the continent, but most of all in such countries as Italy and Spain.
''It's gotten so that a young BD artist is 10 times more successful than a young novelist,'' says Rovial. ''He is translated right away all throughout Europe.''
Yet to the great annoyance of the French artists, Americans continue to resist their charms. In the New World, comics remain fare for children, not adults.
''We've tried almost everything to open up Americans' eyes, holding conventions, putting out a magazine with French BDs, personal lobbying,'' says Claude Moliteri, director of Dargaud Publishers. ''But nothing seems to work. It's sad. Americans who were long the leaders in this field have missed out on the evolution during the past 20 years.''
But the French are not giving up. Publishers such as Rovial and Moliteri are continuing to push for linkups with US comics companies, and Moliteri said he recently signed an agreement with Hanna-Barbera to make TV cartoons and publish a series of albums chronicling the adventures of Lucky Luke, a Gallic-style cowboy.
Even Anglesio of the comics gallery thinks Americans might be interested in buying original designs. He is planning two showings for the end of the year, one in New York and one on the West Coast.
''If Americans see this stuff, they'll like it,'' he predicts. ''It's like good painting.''
So holy paintbrush, indeed, Batman. You better take the Boy Wonder's warning about the French seriously.