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“How ‘ya gonna keep’em down at the farm now that they’ve seen Paree?”: France in Super Hero Comics

Nicolas Labarre

Résumés

La représentation de la France dans les bandes-dessinée de super-héros repose surtout sur des clichés touristiques, le pays étant utilisé comme un décor étranger et exotique, sans risquer pour autant de désorienter le lecteur. Le principe d’économie narrative et un affinage progressif ont ainsi conduit à la création d’une image codifiée, consensuelle et peu réaliste, centrée sur Paris et sur la Tour Eiffel. Cependant, cette représentation efficace n’est pas neutre. L’étude Justice League Europe, un des rares exemples de séries super-héroïques durablement situées en France, montre que le pays y est décrit comme un lieu d’histoire mais se voit dénier toute pertinence dans le monde contemporain. La France apparaît alors comme un voisin fascinant mais subordonné des Etats-Unis, et ce jugement se retrouve, de façon plus elliptique, dans nombre d’autres séries utilisant le pays comme décor. La grande réflexivité des bandes-dessinées de super-héros contemporaine appelle cependant à une certaine prudence quant à la notion de représentation.  Le type de descriptions de la France reflète pour partie la perception du pays aux Etats-Unis, mais découle aussi largement des transformations internes du genre.

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Texte intégral

1Super hero comics are a North-American narrative form. Although their ascendency points towards European ancestors, and although non-American heroes have been sharing their characteristics for a long time, among them Obelix, Diabolik and many manga characters, the cape and costume genre remains firmly grounded in the United States. It is thus unsurprising that, with a brief exception during the Second World War, super hero narratives should have taken place mostly in the United States (although Metropolis, Superman’s headquarter, was notoriously based on Toronto) or in outer space. In those cases when more exotic locations were needed, a convenient imaginary country could be created in Eastern Europe (see for instance Dr. Doom’s Latveria, which looks strikingly like Universal Studio’s “European Village”). There were exceptions, of course, such as a noteworthy French escapade by DC’s hero Metamorpho in the 60’s, but by and large, super-heroes did not venture much into French-speaking regions until the late seventies, with The X-Men’s international team standing as a symbol of the genre’s newfound multiculturalism. Although fantastic or American settings remained dominant, it was time for super-heroes to see the world.

Tourists in Paris

2Unlike science-fiction, a genre from which it borrows many traits, the super hero narrative sets more emphasis on character interactions than on its setting. Recurrent locations might get a detailed treatment, but the classical approach to places in super-hero comic is that of a backdrop, a convenient scenery in front of which the plot may unfold.

3Even though the standard length for a story has slowly moved away from eight pages (the typical anthology format of early comic books) to twenty-four (self-contained stories in one issue) to a hundred and thirty-six (six issues, then published as one trade paperback), the time spent outside recurring locations is typically very limited. Visits to France or any other non-American country are confined to one or two issues at the longest, providing little incentive for the writer and illustrator to get into a detailed or original description. In most cases, when France is visited or alluded to, the sense of place is conveyed by a series of clichés, which transform the super heroes’ visit to the country into a touristic escapade. Narrative economy justifies this choice: in those cases when France is just an excuse to introduce some exoticism in the narrative, it makes sense to emphasize this exoticism by using the most striking landmarks of the country. It also makes sense to use places which the reader will recognize instantly, so as to provide a change of scenery without having to put the emphasis on the discovery, which would turn the attention away from the plot, to the background. Hence the use of the best known touristic places, which will be identified as non-American and yet be famous enough for American readers to dispense with further explanation. Besides, super-hero comics published by the two giants of the sectors, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, have historically been conceived as ephemeral and cheap cultural products, often created under serious time constraints. These constraints explain in part the genre’s long focus on familiar American places or on abstract, unrealistic settings, they also explain to a large extent the need to find shortcuts to depict foreign settings with minimal research.

  • 1  For example, the cover and first panel of X-Statixn°24 represents the Eiffel Tower, while the acti (...)

4These narrative and pragmatic constraints explain why super heroes do not actually visit France, but only Paris. The city has a unique advantage over the rest of the country, in that it possesses that internationally famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower (leaving aside the red-and-white Tokyo copy). Paris represents metonymically France as a whole, and the Eiffel tower is but the ultimate stage in this synthetic representation of the country. It appears that no super-hero story set in France can dispense with a panel depicting the monument, even in those rare cases when the action does not take place in Paris.1

5This makes sense in scenes which require an efficient visual short-cut, and when French events are reported for a panel or two for instance, it could even be called a necessity. Besides, this use of a visual synecdoche is not specific to comic books, and similar examples could be found in most of popular culture. However, the effect creates strange distortions when the inclusion of the Eiffel tower is supposed to provide all the necessary French background for an extended number of pages. In the otherwise ambitious Animal Man n°16 (DC Comics, 1989), for instance, the heroes wander in a city that bear no other resemblance to Paris than the presence of a stout-looking Eiffel Tower. Even in a more recent example, Fantastic Four n°541 (, DC Comics and2005r:-ceossess monder>Fa th) tes when Frole, and the United Stance. Econtur au the g/dc/eltance,Tfel towe. In n firmbiographedurablemet">Sepictingsary Fciousness of tts settThusdmark, the Eiffel Tntry appears the necesedurableEven or the representation of France,they,plain to a large e,nding au an efficient vi lanl Tospan>

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Notes

1  For example, the cover and first panel of X-Statixn°24 represents the Eiffel Tower, while the action takes place outside Paris. The only exception seems to be issue 16 of The Authority, which uses the Arc de Triomphe instead for a brief scene in Paris. Peter Milligan, Mike Allred, X-Statix n°24 (Marvel Comics, august 2004). Mark Millar and Frank Quietly, The Authority n°16 (New York : DC/Wildstorm, August 2000) [all comic-book references will use this format : writer then penciller, followed by complete references, including the cover date for individual issues].

2  Thus, in Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s four-issue limited series Wolverine (New York : Marvel Comics, 1982), set in Japan, dialogues are set between < > for almost ninety pages, while captions are all in English without any typographical marks. This contrast is what enables the convention to retain some relevancy even over such a long page count.

3  Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil – a blind vigilante, with heightened senses, dressed in a devil-like costume – is  mostly associated with Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis, who emphasized the noirish elements in the series. Compared to most super-hero series, it aspires to relative realism and small scale, in a street-level urban environment.

4  Stan Lee, Jack Kirby (layouts) and Dick Ayers (pencils), “30 Minutes to Live”, Tales of Suspense n°75 and 76, (Marvel Comics, March and April, 1966).

5  Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, “In the Name of Batroc”, Captain America n°105, (Marvel Comics, September 1968).

6  A detail pointed out by Julien Bourget in his presentation The Woman on the Beach de Renoir: film de genre ou film d’auteur ?”, AFEA Congress “France in America” (Paris, May 25, 2007).

7  Captain America, for instance, was at war with Germany long before the United States, and famously abandoned his role as a national symbol in the early seventies, following the Watergate. Bradford Wright, Comic Book Nation, the Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 30-36 and 243-5.

8  Brian Aldiss, David Wingrove, The Trillion Year Spree (Thirsk: House of Stratus, 2001), 99-103. Wright, Comic Book Nation, op. cit., 5.

9  Grant Morrison, Igor Kordey, “New Worlds”, “Fantomex” and “Weapon Twelve”, New X-Men n°118-120 (Marvel Comics, June-August, 2002).

10  The title is originally that of a song from a Gene Kelly and Judy Garland musical, For Me and My Gal (Busby Berkeley, 1942). The film, set in First World War, features strong appeal to patriotism, intended for its contemporary audience.

11  This is all the more noticeable since the Justice League, a team of powerful heroes, lends itself well to a spectacular treatment. Later versions of the team, written by Grant Morrison or Mark Waid, put the emphasis strongly on this sense of wonder.

12  Published by Marvel Comics, the X-Men were created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In 1975, they were reinvented as an international team and the series became a central franchise for the publisher. While the series was not particularly subtle in its treatment of foreignness (its Russian member was a literal “man of steel”, for instance), it was well-suited to the presentation of non-American settings.

13  This opposition grounds popular comparisons between the two countries as well as academic comparative approaches, as exemplified by Wendy Pfeffer’s analysis of game shows in both countries. Wendy Pfeffer “Intellectual are more popular in France: The Case of French and American Game Shows” in Roger Rollin[ed.] The Americanization of the global village: essays in comparative popular culture (Madison, Bowling Green University Popular Press: 1989), 24-32.

14  According to French ambassador Jacques Leprettes : « On peut donc considérer qu’à Washington, la France a été mise en observation - pour ne pas dire entre parenthèses - à la suite de juin 1940 », quoted in Pierre Verluise, « Quelles sont les images de la France à l’étranger ? » Diploweb, la revue géopolitique (January 2001), http://www.diploweb.com/france/24.htm [Accessed in March 2010]

15  There is a fine line between this humorous reading of the Justice League and an acknowledged parody. When the two writers, Giffen and DeMatteis, later returned to these characters, under the telling titles Formerly known as the Justice League (2003) and I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League (2005), which presented them as B-list half-forgotten heroes, it seemed they had abandoned the element of seriousness which marked their previous works. However, in interviews, the authors have made it clear that they were no less serious in these recent efforts than in their late eighties work. Interview by Jonathan Encarnacion “Boom! Studios BIG Ones: Keith Giffen and JM DeMatteis Unexpurgated!” http://www.silverbulletcomics.com/news/story.php?a=488 (June 2005) [accessed October 2007].

16  Richard Reynolds, working on the mythological structure of super-hero narratives, remarks that super-heroes never win as easily as they should. The struggle only becomes interesting when they have to do something else than just using their powers: in order to win, they have to produce an “extra effort”, to work around apparently insurmountable difficulties. The JLE’s relationship with France falls under this description: they have to make that “extra effort” to be recognized, simply being super-heroes is not enough. Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes, A Modern Mythology (Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 1992).

17  André Kaspi  « L’image de la France et de l’Allemagne aux Etats-unis apres 1945 ». Themenportal Europäische Geschichte (2006), http://www.europa.clio-online.de/2006/Article=176. [accessed in March 2010]

18  Boris Le Chaffotec, « L’image de la France aux États-Unis durant la crise onusienne autour de la question de l’Irak, novembre 2002-octobre 2003 » Bulletin de l’institut Pierre Renouvin n°29 (April 25, 2009), http://ipr.univ-paris1.fr/spip.php?rubrique61

19 The Ultimates (2002) recreates a team of super-heroes which appeared in 1963, The Avengers. It is part of the “Ultimate” line of comic books, in which older heroes are recreated in a contemporary world, in an attempt to make them more relevant to modern readers.

20  Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, The Ultimates vol. 1 n°12 (Marvel Comics, November 2003).

21  For an overview of this bout of French bashing, and examples in different media, see for instance Clyde Haberman, “Lafayette, We Are Not Here for You” The New York Times (February 28 2003) http://www.nytimes.com [Accessed in March 2010]

22  In a nicer but equally significant episode, Stormwatch, an international organization of super-heroes manipulates the French government into prodviding fundings, by taking care discreetly of a staged terrorist attack on the atoll of Munuloa (!). Although the story is short, France is presented as helpless and secretly ashamed of its current geopolitical weight. Stormwatch's leader has to reassure them in a telling dialogue “I trust you’ll be voting with our funding requests for a change, at the next United Nation’s security council meeting? No one else needs to know about your little mishap here, after all.” “Oh, yes, absolutely. Thank you. Absolutely”. Warren Ellis and Oscar Jimenez, “Terminal Zone” [1998] in Stormwatch: Change or DieTPB (La Jolla: DC/Wildstorm, 1999).

23  According to a list elaborated by the US Embassy in France. http://french.france.usembassy.gov/root/pdfs/filmsfr.pdf

24  Michael Straczynski, Mike McKone, Fantastic Four n°541 (Marvel Comics, November 2006).

25  Altough arguably a movie such as G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (Sommers, 2009) has much in common with super-hero comics when it comes to representing France, in that its Parisian scenes are entirely computer-generated, riddled with incongruities, and destined to provide an exotic background to an action-driven narrative.

26  Such a drift is obviously hard to demonstrate. However, reading through Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation (op. cit.), a study of the interaction between comic-books and the cultural values of the United States since the thirties, tends to confirm this trend. Wright’s last chapters, dealing with the comic book scene since the eighties (“Direct to the Fans”, p.254-81) shows a remarkable absence of references to anything but comic book themselves, while the author shows that previous comic books were deeply imbedded in American culture. A change in readership along with a change in distribution strategies (from general press outlets to specialty stores) appears as the most likely explanation for this shift.

27 The Authority follows a group of stateless Nietzschean super-heroes who have decided to take the responsibilities their powers entail, by becoming a moral and military authority overt the Earth, going against established forms of government if necessary. The series is a follow up to Stormwatch (mentioned above), which depicted these super-heroes working within the confines of a UN sanctioned organization.

28  Mark Millar and Frank Quietly, The Authority n°16 (New York : DC/Wildstorm, 2000), op. cit.

29  In his criticisms of The Ultimates, noted comics commentator Tom Spurgeon identifies the nuanced treatment of Captain America as one of the strongest points of the series. He also describes the line about France as “the funniest joke” in the book, which of course does not imply that it should not be read as a cultural indicator. Tom Spurgeon “The Ultimates, Series Volume One“, The Comics Reporter(January 17, 2006)http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/briefings/cr_reviews/3813/ [Accessed in October 2007].

30  The term « surrender monkey » originates in a 1995 Simpsons episode, and was used notably in the context of post Irak French bashing.

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Nicolas Labarre, « “How ‘ya gonna keep’em down at the farm now that they’ve seen Paree?”: France in Super Hero Comics », Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2010, mis en ligne le 02 septembre 2010, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/4943

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