History and memory: French comic books and graphic novels at Cambridge University Library

Comic books (bandes dessinées or BDs) and graphic novels (romans graphiques) are a very important and successful part of French and Francophone publications. A report on the Bande Dessinée was commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture and published in January 2019, ahead of BD 2020, l’année de la bande dessinée. It contained several proposals for better symbolic and institutional recognition for the “9th art”: a stronger local, national and international dissemination and promotion, and an ambitious education policy. 2020 is thus officially « L’année de la bande-dessinée à la BnF »: the French national Library has engaged in a series of printed and online publications as well as events on the topic (prolonged up to 31st June 2021 because of the coronavirus crisis) and has even developed an app, “BDnF, la Fabrique à BD“, for you to try and create your own comic book. The app is accompanied by tutorials, and examples of creations in different sub-genres (including comic strip, manga, webtoon…), based on a selection of digital images from archival BnF documents. You can also read entire comic books online: during the lockdown, publishers such as La Boite à Bulles or Dargaud opened up some of their collections; every month, you can access a free volume on the website of Les Humanoïdes Associés. You can also read online comic books on the Institut Français digital library Culturethèque (sign up for free with your email address), or browse the digitised collections of the Cité internationale de la bande dessinée et de l’image, based in Angoulème, where takes place a major annual International Comics Festival.

Cambridge University Library currently holds more than 300 French and Francophone comic books and graphic novels in its collections. Comic books (with a succession of drawings accompanied by text, telling a story) took off in the 1930s-1950s, mainly for a juvenile audience. Interestingly, quite a few of the earlier titles in the library, produced at the end of World War II, are part of the Chadwyck-Healey Liberation collection (1944-46). Others belong to another special collection, the Waddleton illustrated books collection (which includes popular titles, such as Asterix). Graphic novels were developed in the US in the 1970s and have been flourishing in Europe from the 2000s onwards.

Un héros qui s’ignore / J. Souriau, Paris, 1945, Liberation.c.2340

The collecting of this genre of publications for Francophone material at Cambridge UL took off in the early 2010s. There is a wide range of publications in the field, but they only constitute a very small part of our core Francophone selection of mainly editions of primary sources and academic works. Among the comic books or graphic novels that we have focused on are prize-winning titles and adaptions of literary works (such as L’étranger by Albert Camus, C200.a.5697 or Le chant du monde, by Jean Giono, C202.b.4567, both adapted by Jacques Ferrandez and published in 2019 in the Gallimard Bande Dessinée “Fétiche” collection). Autobiographical or personal works with a historical dimension are key to this kind of publication and give a voice to authors and artists who, for social and cultural reasons, would not use traditional literary forms. Comic books and graphic novels have certainly become a subject of scholarly research in their own right.

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Immigration narratives, sometimes produced in collaboration with an illustrator or a journalist, are an important part of the genre, which provides a wealth of sources for the study of the creation and dissemination of individual and collective memory (see Isabelle Delorme, Quand la bande dessinée fait mémoire du XXe siècle : les récits mémoriels historiques en bande dessinée, Les presses du réel, 2019, C216.c.3010).

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Comic books and graphic novels reveal the social and cultural legacy of the French colonial empire, featuring the personal and family histories of individuals from the Caribbean (Martinique in Péyi an nou : notre pays / Jessica Oublié, Marie-Ange Rousseau, 2017, C214.c.5176), Asia (Vietnam in Mémoires de Viet Kieu / Clément Baloup, 2012-2013C202.b.4316-4318) and Africa (Un maillot pour l’Algérie / Javi Rey, 2016, about the political meaning of the creation of an Algerian football team, with players trained in France, before the independence; available for free on Culturethèque).

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These publications also tell us about other countries affected by wars and revolutions:

  • Iran in Persepolis / Marjane Satrapi, 2007, F7.SATR.1
  • L’année du lièvre / Tian, 2011-, C214.c.5737-5739 on the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia
  • Coquelicots d’Irak / Brigitte Findakly & Lewis Trondheim, 2016, C211.c.9306
  • Centrafrique in Tempête sur Bangui / Didier Kassaï, 2015, C201.b.8549-C202.b.3297 etc.

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See L’entrance des auteurs africains dans le champ de la bande dessinée européenne de langue française (1978-2016) / Sandra Federici, 2019, C216.c.3857.

In a more abstract or allegorical way, they also explore trauma and its psychological effects, as a legacy of the most difficult periods of history (Les vêpres algériennes / Louerrad, Nawel, 2012, 2019.9.1670, on the Algerian civil war, “la décennie noire”).

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Historical graphic novels often constitute a kind of commemoration, often associated with a duty of memory (Au loin, une montagne… / Chongrui Nie C200.a.5695 on his discovery of the mountains of the Shanxi province during the Chinese cultural revolution; Jacques Tardi’s account of the war experience of his father: Moi, René Tardi, prisonnier de guerre au Stalag II B, 2012-2018, C200.a.5691-5693 or Nous n’irons pas voir Auschwitz / Jérémie Dres, 2011, on the author’s Jewish and Polish roots, available in translation from the Library Storage Facility).

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The genre can also feature a civic or political engagement, such as Demain, demain, 1: Nanterre, bidonville de la folie, 1962-1966; 2: Gennevilliers, cité de transit, 1973 / Laurent Maffre, 2012-2019, C202.b.3880-3881, on the dire housing conditions of North-African workers settling in France after WW2; or L’odyssée d’Hakim / Fabien Toulmé, 2018-2020, C216.c.2743-2744 on the experience of a Syrian refugee and his convoluted and hard journey to France.

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Between past and present, the graphic novel is also a form used by investigative journalists (La fantaisie des dieux : Rwanda 1994 / Hippolyte, Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, 2014, C200.a.3825, denouncing French complicity in the genocide, or Algues vertes, l’histoire interdite / une enquête d’Inès Léraud, dessinée par Pierre Van Hove, 2019, C202.b.3770, about seaweed and pollution on the Atlantic coast).

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Comic books and graphic novels can tell us about a wide range of personal and social experiences, from lesbian love, explored in Le bleu est une couleur chaude / Julie Maroh, 2010, 2014.12.82, of which the film adaptation as La Vie d’Adèle by Abdellatif Kechiche received the Palme d’Or at the Festival de Cannes in 2013, to that of abortion in Il fallait que je vous le dise / Aude Mermilliod, 2019, C202.b.3944.

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The genre is thus becoming a powerful didactic and reflective (deconstructive, post-colonial) tool to address underlying questions regarding the (mostly male, Western-centred and imperialist) writing of history. Histoire dessinée de la guerre d’Algérie / Benjamin Stora, Sébastien Vassant, 2016, C202.b.583, resulting from the collaboration between a historian and a comic book author and artist interlaces the historical narrative with interviews of a variety of participants on different sides of the conflict.

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The use of graphic novels as a pedagogical tool is even more advanced in the anglophone world. The ‘Graphic History Series’ published by Oxford University Press, combines a graphic novel with a wide range of source documents and discussions of theory and methodology, as well as bibliographies. It includes titles such as Mendoza the Jew : boxing, manliness, and nationalism / Ronald Schechter, Liz Clarke, 2014, 2015.10.1572 or The great Hanoi rat hunt : empire, disease, and modernity in French colonial Vietnam / Michael G. Vann, Liz Clarke, 2019, 2019.10.50.

These are only a few examples of the number of historical events and social and political issues tackled by comic books and graphic novels in Cambridge University Library collections. You can search in the library catalogue for Francophone comic books and graphic novels and critical studies on the topic with the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Comic books, strips, etc”.

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi

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