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A Comics Pilgrimage to Brussels

In celebration of our 5th year anniversary, Dan & I decided to make a special, comics-themed, trip to Brussels, Belgium. This year Belgium is having a series of comics related events, many of which are located in Brussels, but we didn’t expect to see as much as we did. It turns out that Brussels is something of a European comics mecca. They call comics the 9th Art here. Finally some recognition.

We visited a comics museum, a special exhibit on the Grote Markt, discovered about half of the comic murals, and visited a couple of the many comic shops that dot the city. The city was fun and interesting, but somewhat confusing to get around in and the public transportation map was the most complex one I’ve ever seen.

Another summer benefit, the Brussels International is offering a really good deal. When you reserve your hotel via their website, you get a voucher that you can turn in for a 24 hour Brussels Card. While the voucher technically says you only get one card, we were given two at the tourist office. The card gets you into a number of museums for free, gives you included public transportation for two days, and a bunch of coupons (none of which what expiration dates).

Willy Vandersteen Special Exhibit
Willy Vandersteen Banners
Tucked next to the tourism office on the opulent Grote Markt, a special exhibit of original pages by Willy Vandersteen is on display until September 27th. Vandersteen, a Belgian artist, is known for his Suske & Wiske series and this exhibit was dedicated mostly to images from his 8 “Blue Books”. The art was fun to look at, but since this was our first encounter with the work, we didn’t have much context to appreciate it.

Belgian Centre of Comic Strip Art
Big Books
The central museum of our trip, the Comic Strip Center lived up to its reputation as on of the best comics museums in Europe and provided a great introduction to many European artists and writers we’d never encountered before in the spandex-clad American comics market. Sure, we knew Tintin, Asterix, and the Smurfs, but placing those comics in the full context of their peers was exciting. The museum also discussed the changes in comic creation and focus in the 1970s and 80s, and the story telling focus almost never strayed to superheros. Of course there were many beautifully inked and hand-painted pages too. While most of the displays were only in French & Dutch, the museum does provide a free book with English translations that made the museum very accessible.

We were a little disappointed that the museum did not address modern comics creation (such as digital methods) or webcomics. I expect that will come in time. The only comics they were selling in English were Tintin, which frankly I’ve read, so you probably won’t want to buy comics at the Center unless you can read French.

Brussels Comics 2009 Series
Mural: La Chat
In honor of their celebration of the 9th Art this summer, Brussels has had several comic murals created throughout the central ring of the city. I found a map of the mural locations online and we set out with the intent to photograph them all. We found about half (and some of the areas were a bit sketchy) but it was a unique way to see the city. Before we left the city we discovered a book called De Strip in de Stad (Comics in the City) which is a more detailed guide to these murals and more murals and statues throughout Brussels. We’ll use it on a future trip to finish photographing the murals.

Expect to see more about these murals. In the mean time you can see my photos here.

Food in Brussels
Mussels & fries
A break from our comics pilgrimage, we had a lot of good food in Brussels. The best was the traditional Mussels & Fries at an old fashioned looking restaurant with a very modern name, H20. For a snack while mural hunting, we bought escargot from a street vendor. They were spicy and tender. We also bought some Godiva chocolate to bring home for much less than we could get it in the USA.

It rained on Sunday, keeping us away from the murals, so we took in some more traditional forms of culture instead. First we visited the extensive Museum & Archaeology site of the Coudenberg Palace. Located underneath the modern day Palace Royale, Coudenberg was one of the main residences of Charles the Fifth. The site was preserved after a devastating fire by new construction. Construction techniques of the day required that the new palace be built on a flat surface. Since Coudenburg was on an incline, a lot of the lower part of the structure was preserved.

Following a little archaeology (and the 45 minute wait in line) we visited the brand new Magritte Museum. Magritte was a well-known surrealist artist and the museum is dedicated mostly to his paintings but also included a few statues and films. I was a little disappointed that this new museum did not include much English language signage (newer museums usually do these days). It was worth seeing but not deeply informative and I don’t know anything about surrealism.

The Comic Strip House
After a late lunch (pizza), but before we left, we investigated the Comic Strip House, a museum and comic shop near the Central Station in Brussels. We decided to save the museum for another day, but we did take some time to browse the store (mostly in French) and this is where we found De Strips in de Stad. I believe that this book will be a great tool when we go back to finish photographing the murals.

Not the Comic Strip House

Not the Comic Strip House

Comics to Read
We came away from this trip with a few comics we’d like to find in English (or Dutch in a pinch).
- Lanfeust of Troy & its accompanying series: This is a long running French series that simply looks beautiful. They are “manga-izing” it for the new generation of comics readers which I think is really sad.
- Blacksad: A noir anthropomorphic comic published by a French company (but created by a Spanish artist). The art is simply beautiful.
- Suske & Wiske: A Belgian comic contemporary to Tintin. I’m just curious and think if we picked this up in Dutch it could help us with reading comprehension.
- XX* Ciel: I’ve only seen the mural for this comic, but the art style appeals to me.
- Odilon Verjus: Another one we discovered from a mural. Frankly, I want to know what would bring a monk and a woman with a pet cheetah together in the same image.

This trip was so rich, you can expect to see more from me about it. In pariicuarly I hope to create a slideshow and maybe a map of the murals to share with you the experience. Click here for photos of our Brussels visit.

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