Marcinelle School

22 Sep

by Philippe Capart

Translated by Annick Pellegrin

Original publication: Capart, Philippe. “École de Marcinelle.” Capart, Philippe. “École de Marcinelle.” La Crypte tonique nov/déc 2012: 21-27. Print.[1]


In 1998, I was thousands of kilometres away from Belgium, poring over a light table in an animation studio under the Californian sun. I had brought with me issues of the magazine Spirou from the late 50s. The magazine contained in its pages some of the most beautiful creations by Franquin, Morris, Tillieux, Roba, Peyo, Jijé. I was trying to share my enthusiasm for these works with my US colleagues. Flipping through the pages of one issue, one of them had this naively violent reaction: ‘Did the same artist illustrate the whole issue?’. Appalled, I went through the magazine with him, trying to explain the profound originality of the authors of my childhood… only to gradually perceive, insidiously, the accuracy of his remark. The noses, the eyes, the ears, the attitudes, the mouths, the speech bubbles, the lettering, the framing, the colours all plotted to reinforce this appearance of uniformity. I was discovering the automatic graphic processes scattered in the pages of the magazine Spirou and that swarmed and gratified us with the famous ‘école de Marcinelle’ (Marcinelle School).[2]

Le Journal de Spirou was launched in 1938 by the printer-turned-publisher Jean Dupuis, located in Marcinelle, a commune in the city of Charleroi. André Franquin, a fourteen-year-old Bruxellois at the time, remembers it as a bland magazine with an outdated style, comprising various US comics, all of it, in Franquin’s words ‘badly drawn, too big, on unpleasant paper’.[3] It was not until the occupation and the arrival of the artist Joseph ‘Jijé’ Gillain from Dinant, that the magazine acquired a graphic coherence. Cut off from the imports from the US, this man drew almost all the comics during the war and took on its animation as well.[4]

This artist was a trained engraver, sculptor and painter and he attended Maredsous Abbey, École de la Cambre and the Université du travail in Charleroi. For the small, on-the-side jobs that children’s illustrated magazines represented for him, Jijé calqued Hergé’s first albums and the watering-hose style found in US animation cartoon factories. In children’s magazines, humoristic comics were the printed equivalent of animated cartoons while realistic comics echoed US cinematographic series. Jijé juggled between the two, from the exemplary to the joking comic, from Jesus Christ to Fantasio.[5]

In 1945, with the arrival of the young Morris and Franquin, both from an animation studio, a house style started taking shape.[6] Franquin would later clarify: ‘I openly copied Gillain at the very beginning, to make the transition from one artist to another, but it is safe to say, I think, that it was the only time in my life that I was fully aware that I was copying.’[7] In Waterloo, Jijé and his two protégés lived and worked together in an atelier, practised drawing on the spot and new stories and characters were born from their jokes. Unlike the US-oriented trio, Hergé, at the head of the new magazine Tintin, was hostile to the influence of US animation cartoons, that were perceived as a means of vulgarly and blatantly exaggerated propaganda.[8] In the early years, he kept his collaborators very close.[9]

Belgium recovered from the war more quickly than France. It became the stepping stone for US imports into Europe, embracing films, music, cars and white goods. At the epicentre of this mixed culture, Jijé, Franquin and Morris quickly inspired others: Will, Peyo, Remacle, Mitacq, Hubinon and Tillieux worked tirelessly to reach their quality of their masters’ work.

The liberation[10] saw the emergence of numerous publications for children; any Belgian adolescent capable of holding a pencil tried to make comics.[11] Spirou and Tintin, for their part became excellent export products, to the great dismay of the protectors of ‘French art’. The real rival of these two Belgian magazines was not French production, which was rather sickly in the immediate aftermath of war, but rather the magazine Mickey, signed by Walt Disney.[12]

Numerous young artists knocked on the doors of Belgian authors and editorial offices: Tibet, Craenhals, Macherot, Delporte, Rosy, Roba, Lambil, Jamic, Ryssack, Berck, Greg, Godard, Attanasio, Aidans, Mittéï, Jidéhem, Kosc, Beckers, Azara, Remacle, Bob Mau, Uderzo, Martial, Gotlib, Tabary, Chéry, Dunbard, Bissot, Anjo, Marcel Denis, Mallet, Mahaux, Beguin, Gos, Gir, Mézières… The logic of the studio was not quite set up yet. Aspiring comic artists were still directly in touch with professional authors in their homes, in their ateliers.[13]

But children’s magazines still had few pages. Beginners had to bite at the bit and stew in editorial offices, taking care of page layouts, lettering, tailpieces, crosswords, advertisements, technical diagrams, games, licensed products. Adapting to the styles of the star series of the magazine, a natural habit amongst many beginners, was then perceived as the best way of reaching the big pages of the magazine. The drawing was threatening to become stale: comics using comics as a mode of reference. Joël Azara still remembers the watchword in the editorial offices: ‘Do Franquin!’.[14] Gos, for his part, remembers Dupuis’ and above all the editor-in-chief Delporte’s advice: ‘Don’t try to do like the elders, but try to at least come up to their knees because coming up to their ankles is not enough!’.[15]

René Goscinny, Jean-Michel Charlier and Albert Uderzo, major actors in Belgian comics in the 50s, had a falling out with Georges Troisfontaines, provider to Dupuis publishers, and in favour of a ‘made in USA’ vision of copyright. In 1959, bolstered by the promotional support of Radio Luxembourg, they got involved in the founding of the magazine Pilote, replicating the formula of Belgian magazines and seeking to attract their star authors. Fearing they would anger their publishers, few Belgians crossed the border.[16] The Belgian label of comics was fashionable in French publications for children. Pilote was abandoned by those who had financed it and it was the French publisher of the magazine Tintin, Georges Dargaud, who inherited Pilote for a ridiculously low price.

In order to make these comics and feed presses aimed at young readers, a great number of independent authors set up ateliers or studios, halfway between replacement agencies,[17] animated cartoon studios[18] and advertising companies.[19] Young recruits like Jean-Marie Brouyère, Francis Bertrand, Raoul Cauvin, Luc Mazel, Charles Degotte, Jean-Pol, Jacques Devos, Louis Salvérius, Deliège, Poirier, Serge Gennaux, François Walthéry, Fournier, Bob De Groot, Turk, Roger Leloup, Lucien Meys, Pierre Seron, Dany, Hugo, Leo Loedts, Hubuc, Bédu, Dupa, Brasseur, Derib, Lagas, de Gieter, Desorgher, Leonardo, Mic Delinx, Kiko, Bertrand Maréchal, Jacques Sandron would comply with the discipline of assistantship. The elders’ shortcuts, that were the fruit of observation, were borrowed mechanically like printing leads. It was no longer drawing but a marked trail. Publishers, far from pushing for an original drawing, encouraged the logic of studios, substitutes, calques of the great authors of the publishing house. The abandonment of characters such as Modeste and Pompon,[20] Jacky and Célestin, Chlorophylle and Clifton on the part of authors reinforced the depersonalisation of a style that, at the hands of followers, turned into a font: one can pick ‘Franquin’ like one would pick ‘Arial’ or ‘Helvetica’. The dynamics became a cachet.[21]

If it, then, became legitimate to speak of a Marcinelle School, it is because artists stopped renewing their outlook on the world long enough for their drawing style to repeat itself, rehashing ad nauseam.[22] Encouraged by the publisher’s marketing team, old formulae crushed new attempts, counterfeits were promoted by the publisher of the original version, an approach hypocritically valued as ‘traditional’. As in education of the same name, the least micro-change was perceived as revolutionary. Artists transmitted an empty shell, a borrowed line, true to form, a lifeless logo. They were explorers in slippers, stuck to their drawing tables, who rehashed stereotypical images and clichés. The School of Marcinelle artist is the man who saw the man who saw the man who saw the bear… and who is not afraid to draw it!

In 1968, when Franquin opened his magazine, he was confronted with a wide array of his graphic mannerisms in the form of Les Petits Hommes by Seron, while Morris was confronted with Michaud’s Les Pépés flingueurs.[23] That year marked the breakup between these three great authors and the magazine: Jijé and Morris went to the rival Pilote and Franquin marked the occasion by scrapping the bellboy’s uniform.[24] Which would not stop young authors from inserting the needle in the same vein: Hachel, Roger Brunel, Blesteau, Kox, Benn, Desclez, Franz, Tome, Janry, Walli, Dupont, Stuf, Yann, Dimberton, Chaland, Groensteen, Dayez, Dubus, Christian Debarre, Simon Léturgie, Didgé, Fabrice Tarrin, Achdé…

Unlike the aforementioned stale forms, the 1960s saw the renaissance of newspaper cartooning coming from university campuses and militant presses. It offered a more spontaneous writing: free, direct, and reactive. We witnessed a democratic will, with authors’ meetings at the editorial offices and common closure sessions with Hara Kiri, L’Enragé and then Pilote. Jean-Marc Reiser saw his script sketches being filtered by artists who were more polished than him for a time and then suddenly being published ‘as is’. The new ideas could no longer fit into the old costumes. The underground proposed its ‘comix’. The Spirou or, worse, Tintin styles were perceived as conservative and childish amongst these new authors.[25] Artists tried to think outside the box, they loosened their ties and started, timidly, to let themselves go, as did Rob Peters, Antoinette Collin, Marc Wasterlain, F’murrr, Margerin, Marc Hardy, Godi, Daan Jippes, Luc Warnant, Didier Conrad, Colman, Bernard Hislaire, Frank Pé, André Geerts, Frank Legall, Bercovici, Fred Jannin. Artists who saw comics as a means of original expression. Comics were recognised and entered the higher education curriculum and the academic conversation.

Philippe CAPART was born in Brussels in 1973 to a physicist father and a ceramist mother. Fascinated with static and animated images, he creates animated cartoons and comics, and undertakes research on the animation studios C.B.A., T.V.A. and BELVISION; he has published widely on this theme. In 2011, he created the shop-magazine La Crypte tonique, which focuses on narration through images. Capart likes to mix the sacred and the profane, the old and the new, the dead and the living.


[1] The original text has been very lightly revised for inaccuracies and spelling mistakes.

[2] Also known as the ‘école de gros nez’ (big nose school), a term that I do not use here. The big nose is the clown’s and burlesque’s distinguishing feature. A revolving flashing light erected in the middle of the face, like a sexual organ between two chubby cheeks. Exaggeration being normal for caricatures, it is an age-old tendency common to comedians, be they made of flesh, wood or paper. The big nose is far from being the exclusive trademark of comics published in Marcinelle. The term ‘‘Franco-Belgian’’ is also common but it seems to me that the idea of putting the diverse production of two countries in the same box does not make sense.

[3] Sadoul, Numa. Et Franquin créa la Gaffe: Entretiens avec Numa Sadoul. Bruxelles: Distri BD/Schlirf Book, 1986. Print.

[4] Translator’s note: the author is referring to the second world war.

[5] Translator’s note: Fantasio is the sidekick of the title character of the magazine, Spirou.

[6] Paul Nagant’s studio: Compagnie Belge d’Actualité with, amongst others, Eddy Paape, Jack Eggermont, Geo Salmon and the young Peyo. The studio attempted to make up for, then to compete with, Hollywood’s animation cartoon production.

[7] Sadoul, Numa. Et Franquin créa la Gaffe : Entretiens avec Numa Sadoul. Bruxelles: Distri BD/Schlirf Book, 1986. Print.

[8] He was not wrong about the propaganda; from the time the US joined the war in 1942, comics, and even more animated cartoons, were put to the service of the US armed forces, with artists drawing in uniform in military structures.

[9] An aesthetic discourse on the ‘clear line’ and ‘atom style’ as well as a romantic literature on the rivalry between the magazine Tintin and the magazine Spirou going as far as contrasting their political ideology was grafted, years later, on this contrast in influence.

[10] Translator’s note: the author refers to the liberation of Belgium after being occupied during World War II.

[11] With Bimbo, Jeep, Blondine, Héroïc-albums, Bravo, Hello !, Franc-Jeu, Stop, Lutin, Feu sacré, Hurrah !, Wrill, Sabord, Story, Ons Volkske, Kleine Zondag Vriend… often very short-lived titles. A boom that may be linked with unused stocks of low quality paper, see thesis by Frans Lambeau (2000), Bravo ! Un hebdo des années 40, published by the C.B.E.B.D.

[12] The publication was banned in France after the war, but a Belgian version survived a number of years through the studio Tenas et Rali. A structure that accompanied Jean-Paul Duchâteau and Tibet during their first steps in comics.

[13] ‘Peyo atelier, it was a kid’s room repurposed into an atelier, it was a tiny thing that was 2 metres wide by 4 metres long, it was really hell in there. He told me “I’m having a beautiful atelier built, it will be better”’, Gos recounting his first encounter with Peyo (1960) (Personal interview with Philippe Capart).

[14] Personal interview with Philippe Capart.

[15] Personal interview with Philippe Capart.

[16] In 1956, Goscinny, Charlier and Uderzo attempted to launch the project ‘supplément illustré’ [illustrated supplement] with Will, Morris, Jijé, his son Benoi, Franquin, Peyo. The team met up halfway between Paris and Brussels. The supplement, that would not go beyond issue 0, was meant to be inserted into the Sunday pages of daily newspapers much like the Sunday pages in the US. In their minds, it might have been a project that sought to compete with their former employers’, Georges Troisfontaines and the Dupuis brothers, new magazine Risque tout.

[17] Calqued on US ‘syndicates’, the most famous of which is King Feature.

[18] The publishers Le Lombard and Dupuis made the most of the television boom to offer their comics there. Belvision (Belgique Television) and TVA(nimation)-Dupuis would feed the children’s programs. They set up drawing studios, often filled with aspiring comic authors. There we would find Cauvin, Degotte, Francis, Rosy, Ryssack, Hugo de Reymaeker (Hugo, Fonske and Hurey), Vivian Miessen, Broca, Lateste, Ploeg, Mazel, Carpentier; Dino Attanasio, Bob Vandersteen, Bara and Picha would later set up mini-structures.

[19] Some Belgian postwar studios: Studio Guy, IMAGIL, Studio de la rue Fossé-aux-loups, Atelier de Waterloo, Studio Peyo, Atelier Franquin, Studio Greg, Studio Vandersteen, Studio Hergé, Studio Attanasio, Atelier Mittéï, Studio Aidans, Bureau de dessin de Dupuis (Rosy), the offices of Troisfontaines’s and Chéron’s World Press and International Press, le bureau du dessin du Lombard (Evany (Will and Beckers)), the Belgian Bureau de dessin du Journal de Mickey (Tenas and Rali), Bureau PubliArt (Decissy). Not to mention the artists assisted by young recruits (Wance, Francis, Berck etc) without really having a ‘studio’.

[20] In that regard, Modeste et Pompon is a textbook case. Created urgently by Franquin, sustained by Peyo, Tibet, Goscinny and Greg, taken over by Dino Attanasio, assisted by Foal (Seron) and Hao (Mittéï) and Wasterlain, taken over by Mittéï, assisted by Dany, Hardy, Walthéry, scripted by Christian Godard, then Griffo and Noiret, Dupont, Degroot, Walli and Bom.

[21] Yves Chaland, outstanding visual typographer, paints a caricature of the situation: ‘‘Jijé and Hergé created something fifty years ago, then there was Franquin who is a sub-Jijé, Peyo who is a sub-Franquin, Dutruc who is a sub-Peyo, etc. The phenomenon grew in the 1960s and underwent an exponential growth in the 70s. The outcome? Hybrids with monstrous deformities.’ (Interview by Dominique Poncet and F. Blayo. PLG. January 1982. Print.)

[22] Which seems highly illegitimate, the authors integrated into this ‘School’ did not come from Marcinelle: Jijé was from Dinant, Morris was from Courtrai, Franquin and Peyo were from Brussels. Authors who never worked in Marcinelle.

[23] Dany, Seron’s classmate at École Saint-Luc, explained: ‘I am convinced that what Seron did was not plagiarism. It’s really a kind of adoration, of total admiration, he couldn’t see how else he could draw.’ To further elaborate on his perception, Dany went on with an example: ‘at one point I had to draw cows in a humoristic style, I had the bad idea, I never should have done it, to pick up a Spirou album – at the beginning of Le Prisonnier du bouddha there was an agricultural event where there were cows – so I opened these pages, and it was almost impossible to draw a cow any other way than Franquin’s. The cow that Franquin draws, I mean it’s more than a cow, it’s THE COW, it’s impossible to do it any other way (laughs) oh well I got caught in the trap and people could sense that I had gone and looked at Franquin.’ (Personal interview with Philippe Capart).

[24] For his last Spirou album, Panade à Champignac, Franquin was helped by the Studio Peyo team. He sometimes drew on the spot and stimulated Gos and Walthéry.

Translator’s note: Spirou, from the series Spirou et Fantasio – drawn by many men, including Jijé and Franquin, over some eight decades – was originally created as a bellboy.

[25] Guy Mouminoux: “Reiser was on a plane to the USA with Jijé, he was sitting next to Jijé who he didn’t even know, and he said to me ‘he didn’t say a word, he didn’t talk or said platitudes’ so it’s really funny because I knew both: Reiser, he was something! and Jijé!! And here we have total incomprehension… How do you explain that? Two incredible humorists are brought into contact with each other and both see the other as a police officer! (laughs)” (Personal interview with Philippe Capart).



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