When someone says they have been to Belgium, the first thing people ask is ‘Where are the chocolates?’ Or ‘So, did you try Belgian beer?’ More often than not a culture that lends unique flavour to the country is forgotten. It is the comics strip culture.
Belgium is a birthplace of famous comics we enjoyed during childhood and some we find it hard to outgrow like TinTin. It is sad that comics culture is morphed by the glory of its exotic cousins. If you care enough to explore the indigenous comics culture, over the period of two days like me, I assure you that it will be one of your most memorable experiences.
It all started with my visit to Comics strip museum in Brussels. Being a comic lover, the museum was on my must visit list. The museum has three levels, first one gives you a glimpse into evolution of comics the way it is today, the next level talks about graphic novels and the final one, what I consider a treasure trove, is a whole new world in panels. Works of great artists Etienne Davodeau, Frank Pe and Herge (of TinTin fame) were displayed on the third level. I went through each panel, trying to comprehend the world that was profound yet tied to reality. It could be the journey of 44-year-old Lulu suffering from midlife crisis; it might be Zoo or Broussaille inspired by setting, shapes and colours of the city as Pe sees them; it could be lending insight into how TinTin evolved. Honestly, I felt three hours were not enough.
As someone from India, where comics are perceived as works intended for children, the fact that they portray changing social paradigms was interesting. The way authors interact with subjects and surrounding was akin to those of literary works that run several pages. This probably was what led me on a comic strip trail in Brussels.
The comic strip route in Brussels was an initiative of local authorities in Brussels in partnership with Belgian Comics Strip Centre. The project, began in 1991, painted motifs of famous Belgian comics like Adventures of TinTin on walls across Brussels, Laeken and Auderghem. Though it was meant to embellish empty walls, it paved way for people to remember artists through comics that brought them to fame.
It was also the best way to discover many less known comics that otherwise go unnoticed. The comics strip route is easily available on the internet even though they are not as easy to trace just with them. You can get lost easily, take a wrong turn and waste hell a lot of time in getting to the right trail. During my expedition I spent more time figuring out the route and pouring over maps than stand and admire murals that decorated the walls. I encountered many colourful paintings and few comics and graffiti, when I get lost. It all made the walking worthwhile for me.
The very first painting I encountered was Victor Sackville on Charbon street. That was easy for it was in the vicinity of the Brussels market centre. From there I was able to plot Olivier Rameau near Manneken Pis, one of the famous tourist destinations in Brussels. It was bustling as expected with people taking pictures, making noises and cracking jokes. They hardly took notice of the mural close by. Unless you are particular about comics, I figured it is easy to be distracted by waffle stalls and souvenir shops nearby.
Aroma of waffles drifted along the streets thanks to these waffle shops that lined the stretch with sign that says ‘Waffle for 1 euro’. Fragrance of freshly made waffles tempts your taste buds. I gave in to the temptation and stopped by one to munch on hot heavenly waffles with fresh cream. Even as I was looking for a cover from the sudden rain, painting of TinTin and Thompson brothers painted in blue backdrop started at me.
The joy of finding TinTin and ecstasy of eating waffles was soon overshadowed by incessant rain, which not only made eating waffles difficult but made walking across streets impossible with rain sodden shoes and wet clothes. As the skies gained the colour of deary gray, my enthusiasm to cover more waned. After passing by the same street three times and shopkeepers giving me weird looks, I decided wrap the day and head home.
Next day I got an early start. But took a wrong bus and ended up waiting for another one hour and wasted 5 Euro, before I could take-off from where I stopped. It was in a way fortunate because I was able to see Le Scorpion (a famous comic by Enrico Martini) painting. That became the starting point of my second comic strip route. Again, it was not easy and the familiarity does not really matter. If finding streets with comics sketches were difficult, mapping depictions of comics you do not even know was even more so. The map was of no help here.
Few hours into it, I gave up the map and started wandering around the streets on my whim. It proved to be useful and stress free, for I got time to look at streets and take in the scenery rather than having my nose in the maps all the time. I took my time moving from one street to another, at the same time checking the list online, matching street names with the artwork for my own understanding. (Being totally aimless spoils the point of comic trail walk.)
I must have covered only 13 murals around Brussels in the span of 4-5 hours but it helped me familiarise with new genre of literature to which I did not pay any attention. Favourable weather gave me an opportunity to explore parts of Brussels which I would hardly visit had it not been for comic strips.
I became aware of subtle life in European streets. Despite the fact that architecture remains the same, you would be surprised by how different streets could be if you care to spend some time observing them. It could be small shops that the locals frequent or a fountain where elderly relax or park in the middle of the main street with a basket ball court. The way the people interact and diversity in each of these streets made it unique.
Though I wished I could have spent more time exploring, shimmering heat and aching limbs made it impossible for me to prolong the walk. So I returned home, not before catching a glimpse of men playing basketball, shirtless, in a park and looking at shops where I can get a copy of English translation of Lulu: Anew, one of recent works of Davodeau.