Bande Dessinée: A Physical Culture? MUSCUDERZO!

26 Sep

by Philippe Capart

Translated by Annick Pellegrin

Edited by Lise Tannahill

Original publication: Capart, Philippe. “La Culture de la bande dessinée, une culture physique ? MUSCUDERZO !” TONIQUE avril 2017. Print.[1]



A School for Unlearning

Bande dessinée gives one the impression of reading without thinking. Like a laxative that transforms the literate person into a savage and the illiterate person into a criminal. After the industrial and methodical pulverisation of millions of people—World War II—Western educators, be they Communist, secular or Christian, agreed on the source of juvenile delinquency: THE ILLUSTRATED PRESS FOR CHILDREN.[2] They worked hand in hand, fighting to control, restrain or ban the series of little figures on paper. For many of those literate men and women, only single-panel illustrations, the statue-like figure firmly attached to its textual pedestal allowed one to preserve the model, the exemplary and the ideal. But a sequence of images was the victory of the trivial over the sacred. Thus, in their eyes, bande dessinée became a manual leading the pseudo-reader to mimic a series of figures. When they were noble actions, no problem, but when they were burlesque exaggerations, violent actions, sex, they were veritable manuals for troublemaking, guides to lust and crime.

“En ce temps, la bédé était un divertissement pour minus !” [At the time, comics were a form of entertainment for wimps!] Morris[3]

A Tonico-Emotional Dialogue

The fears of these educators would be laughable if they weren’t still widely accepted to this day. Why would it be more intelligent to concatenate the letters of an alphabet rather than to articulate strips, in series of figures? Why would the body of the letter, by literally regaining its corporality, disappear from the domain of literature? A rational element remained in these tutors’ irrationality: the activation by the beholder of a veritable physical excitement. An excitement that was obvious to all in the register of pornography, did not seem, strangely enough, to be so for the rest of visual narration. Yet, neurosciences have proven that when we watch someone in action, our muscles are activated below the threshold of conscious movement.[4]

In everyday life, we project ourselves on to others simply by staring. If our eyes follow a stranger walking on the other side of the street and he slams into a lamppost, we close our eyes at the moment of the impact and initiate a defensive physical movement. When we discover that we are not the ones being hurt, we are relieved and we laugh. If the person is seriously hurt, we go back into empathy and check if he or she is “okay”.

The neurons in charge of this state were named mirror neurons, empathetic neurons or even Gandhi’s neurons. If bande dessinée is so FRIENDLY[5], perhaps it is due to its “penchant naturel, spontané et chaleureux allant d’une personne à une autre personne, de sa participation à la joie, à la peine d’autrui ou encore de la bienveillance, disposition favorable envers quelque chose qu’elle inspire” [natural, spontaneous and warm penchant between two people, its taking part in another’s joy or pain, or even its goodwill, favourable disposition towards something that it inspires.][6]


The Tonic Function

In 1946, Albert Uderzo,[7] aged 18, already had under his belt a long manual training as lettering artist (at the Société Parisienne d’Édition), as peasant-nursery worker (with his big brother in Brittany), as blacksmith (through a position in autogenous welding in the context of the Service du Travail Obligatoire) and as cabinetmaker (in his father’s workshop).[8] He had just left a position as an inbetweener in an animation workshop. Underwhelming beginnings as the animation done by the boss, Renan de Vela, was slow and soft, of the rubber hose animation type, very far removed from the ellipses found in Tex Avery’s work.[9] In order to compensate for those lean years—as much visual as alimentary—Albert’s big brother, Bruno, dragged him to a gym, and on the menu: the DESBONNET METHOD.

We owe the marriage of the terms CULTURE and PHYSIQUE to the athlete and aesthete Edmond Desbonnet (1867-1953), through his “Gymnastique des Organes” [gymnastics of the organs]. Desbonnet was convinced that it was not possible to discover the secret of life by studying at the morgue. To develop an organ, one must put it to work. He collaborated with the physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey and followed in George Demenÿ’s footsteps, all three actively worked towards the regeneration of French physical (and moral) education. Thus physiologists and chronophotographers,[10] animation and bande dessinée artists have this work of disarticulation of action in common.

Putting together a graphic representation of a figure in movement requires, on the part of the artist, a cognitive effort. Whether (s)he has made this gesture previously or simply observed it. By disarticulating and rearticulating his/her figures, the author acquires a deeper understanding of the tonic function, (s)he can thus transform, in turn, his/her readers into actors.[11] For Uderzo, the physical work accomplished amongst the athletes at the gym, in front of the mirrors, continued at home, alone, on paper. He worked for O.K.: hebdomadaire de la jeunesse. And it was through its pages that, week after week, young whippersnappers of the immediate postwar period became revitalised, with the help of their dynamic artistic instructor, Uderzo himself.

“L’esprit guide le muscle, le muscle protège l’esprit.” [The mind guides the body, the body protects the spirit],[12] Belloy L’invincible

Albert Uderzo: “Quand j’ai commencé, tous mes personnages étaient des cabanes, des monstres, un Schwarzenegger avant la lettre, avec une tête qui était toute petite par rapport au corps… on disait que notre personnage était microcéphale… donc un imbécile […] après je me suis calmé, je me suis dit: « je ne vais quand même pas toute ma vie faire des espèces d’abrutis gonflés à l’hélium ». Quand on en est venu à faire Astérix, j’avais quand même dans mon idée l’archétype du gaulois [sic], Vercingétorix comme on le voit dans la statuaire, un grand bonhomme costaud.” [When I started out, all my characters were huts, monsters, Schwarzeneggers before their time,[13] with a head that was tiny in comparison to the body… people said our character was microcephalous… and therefore an idiot […] then I calmed down, I thought to myself: ‘I’m not gonna spend my whole life making idiots pumped up with helium.’ When we came to make Astérix,[14] I still had in mind the Gaulish archetype, Vercingétorix as we see him in statues; a great big strong guy…][15]

René Goscinny: “Non. On va en faire un anti-héros, tu vas me le faire laid et petit mais il s’en sortira parce qu’il est malin” [No. We will make an anti-hero out of him, you’ll make him ugly and small for me but he will make it through because he is clever.][16]


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 style and context.

[2] Cinema was also under attack.

[3] Source: Luc Honorez, interview with Morris, quoted in Robert Rouyet “L’Ultime galop de Morris : Nous sommes tous de pauvres cow-boys solitaires”, Le Soir, 20 July 2001

[4] We owe the identification of mirror neurons to the team to which Giacomo Rizzolatti, director of the department of neurosciences of the faculty of medicine in Parma, belonged.

[5] Translator’s note: the term used in the original text is “sympathique”, a cognate of “sympathetic”. However, in common usage, aside from meaning “friendly”, “sympathique” is closer to “empathetic” (sharing in someone’s—positive—feelings) than to “sympathetic” (feeling someone’s loss).

[6] Terms taken from the definition of “sympathie” in the online version of the Larousse dictionary.

[7] Albert Uderzo created, with René Goscinny, Astérix in the weekly Pilote. It rapidly became a French national mascot.

[8] The Service du Travail Obligatoire (Compulsory Work Service) saw the forced employment of many French workers in Nazi Germany.

[9] Avery made movement ultra dynamic in his cartoons by breaking it into antics where all positions are over the top and are on hold, shaking in mid-air, and energising to the viewer. Avery wanted to be a fixed panel comic strip artist before joining animation studios, which probably had an impact on his animating techniques.

[10] Chronophotography is the beginning of cinematography.

[11] See Capart, Philippe, and Erwin Dejasse. Morris, Franquin, Peyo et le dessin animé. Angoulême: Ed. de l’An 2, 2005. Print.

[12] Subtitle of the series Belloy l’invincible [Belloy the Invincible] in the issue of O.K. dated 9 December 1948 to 20 January 1949.

[13] Offspring of sorts of Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller, who is linked with the vocation of the famous Arnold.

[14] Almost improvised creation in 1959 for the launch of Pilote. The mission of this magazine was, according to Uderzo, “de piloter la jeunesse française !” [to guide the French youth like a pilot would!].

[15] As were his heroes up to the series Oumpah-Pah, co-created with René Goscinny for the magazine Tintin.

[16] Interview with the author on 11 October 2001.


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: