If you’re trying to learn French or consolidate your skills in the language of Molière, don’t forget that traditional books (novels, poetry anthologies, autobiographies and so on) are not the only resources that can help you study this modern language. Alternative learning tools include comics. The illustrations facilitate understanding and the speech bubbles (bulles, or to use the technical term, phylactères, in French) make for a lively read. Which comics should you try? And why is this a good way of learning a language?
It’s difficult to give just a few examples of French comic books, since there’s such a wide selection! I’m sure you’re familiar with Les Aventures de Tintin (The Adventures of Tintin), the expeditions of Astérix et Obélix (Asterix and Obelix), the workplace trials and tribulations of Gaston Lagaffe and the mischievous humour of Titeuf (sometimes known as Tootuff in English). Other titles not to be missed include Spirou et Fantasio (Spirou & Fantasio), Thorgal, Lucky Luke and Gai-Luron. These well-known comics bring joy to young and old alike, and have enthralled generations of readers. France, Belgium and Switzerland all have a historical attachment to this art form. French comic strip authors such as Claire Bretécher (Agrippina, Tourista) and Joann Sfar from Nice (Professeur Bell [Professor Bell], Le Chat du Rabbin [The Rabbi’s Cat]) have earned a well-deserved popular following. If you enjoy darker worlds and science fiction, check out the comic books by Enki Bilal (Les Phalanges de l'Ordre Noir [The Black Order Brigade], Nikopol, Monstre [Monster], and many more). And the Belgian authors are no less talented! Once you’ve read the works of André Franquin, Hergé, and Philippe Geluck (Le Chat [The Cat], Les Aventures de Scott Leblanc [The Adventures of Scott Leblanc]), you’ll see that their art sits somewhere between drawing and literature. If festivals are your thing, you should definitely head to Angoulême in Nouvelle-Aquitaine for the unmissable International Comics Festival held every year.
Did you know that comics can be valuable allies in your quest to learn French? First of all, comics are authentic documents in that they have not been changed or simplified for educational purposes. Admittedly, these kinds of texts can be harder to understand, but it’s always good to get out of your routine and engage with everyday language. Another advantage of comics is that they combine words and pictures, facilitating overall comprehension and making their content more accessible to beginners. Added to that, the humorous aspect of many comics creates a relaxed atmosphere and means that learning is more fun. Reading comics can also help learners to get a better sense of a country’s unique sense of humour, so there is a sociocultural benefit too. For example, the famous Plantu cartoons which appear on the first page of the daily newspaper Le Monde will give you an insight into the news as seen by someone who lives in France. Finally, there’s such a wide selection of comics in France, catering to all tastes, all ages and all levels! You can find historical tales, detective series, adaptations of novels, science fiction stories, parodies... There will definitely be something to suit your preferences!
Comic strips reflect society, both present and past. A cartoonist like Manu Larcenet (Le Combat ordinaire [Ordinary Victories], Blast, Thérapie de groupe [Group Therapy], and others) demonstrates clear insight into today’s society and is skilled at depicting the weaknesses of ordinary men. Other comics opt for a more humorous approach. “The year is 50 B.C. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely... One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders.” I’m sure you recognise these as the first lines of Asterix the Gaul! Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix (who is known as Idéfix in French) resist the Roman Empire thanks to their courage and the magic potion prepared by the druid Getafix (Panoramix). It is likely that the authors wanted to create a link with all of the peoples who have been oppressed or in the minority throughout history. Another example is the Iznogoud (or “Is no good”) series, created by René Goscinny (one of the authors behind Asterix) and Jean Tabary. Iznogoud is an ambitious and cruel vizier, whose sole aim is to take power by force, overthrowing the Caliph of Baghdad. Behind this chronicle of someone who wants to “be Caliph in place of the Caliph” hides a desire to mock all authoritarian political regimes. Finally, if you want to see whether the traditional stereotypes about French people are true, dive headfirst into Les Bidochon by Christian Binet. The two main characters, Robert and Raymonde, are utterly irresistible and offer a humorous take on the ins and outs of a couple’s life (travel, marriage, motherhood, etc.).
Reading comic books is an enjoyable activity through which we meet strong characters who quickly become endearing. Many cartoonists also display humour and self-mockery. Gotlib’s character Superdupont is a perfect example – a kind of anti-hero who wears a beret, a vest, a cape and traditional Charentaise slippers. He’s a chauvinistic superhero who’s always eating Camembert and speaks terrible English. Another feature of this comic is that it depicts animals with affectionate and funny characteristics. The dog, Gai Luron, is shown to be an apathetic but loving creature. White with a large black nose and a small pot belly, he is reminiscent of the famous Droopy. Even insects are included! Gotlib has fun with a small, likeable ladybird which spends its time commenting on what’s going on. Imagination has no limits!