PARIS — In France, a country that has won more Nobel Prizes in literature than any other, it is now chic for intellectuals to boast about their avid reading of comic books.
Almost every major bookstore in Paris has a comic book counter, and it is usually surrounded by educated, middle-class adults jostling one another to get at the latest publications.
Newspapers and magazines review comic books just as they review any other kind of book, publishers advertise them in the newspapers' book pages and critics praise the best authors with the kind of imagery that used to be reserved for the works of literary giants.
One comics artist and writer, Jacques Tardi, 39, has been made the subject of a biography. The literary magazine Lire, in its list of the 20 best books of 1983, had a comic book in 12th place. The French Institute of Architecture is mounting an exhibition this year on the way artists use architecture in their comic books.
Sign of Sophistication
The reading of comic books is regarded as a sure sign of sophistication. In a recent article, the French news magazine L'Express drew a composite portrait of the new, young political leaders of France, men like Laurent Fabius, 38, the premier, and Jean-Louis Bianco, 41, the chief of staff to the president. These young politicians, L'Express said, are music lovers, readers of foreign newspapers, world travelers, computer buffs, students of the English language--and comic book fans.
So seriously do French intellectuals take the comics that it has begun to worry some people in the comics industry.
"Kept for many years in the ghetto of children, the comic strip now risks being caught in the ghetto of intellectuals," comic book editor Claude Moliterni has complained.
The new and special place of comic books in French life was underscored in January when President Francois Mitterrand made an official visit to the 12th annual comic-book fair in the city of Angouleme. Le Monde, France's most prestigious newspaper, described the event as the consecration of the French comic book.
A critic for Lire wrote: "Among the heroes of comic books, right after Mickey Mouse, we now find President Mitterrand."
Mickey Mouse, however, is not what the French comic-book boom is all about. Comic books are still popular among children in France, but in the past 15 years or so, an adult comic-book industry has grown up in Belgium and France, with writers and artists developing mature picture stories that are published separately in books, just like novels. The books usually have hard covers and are sold at 50% to 75% of the price of a regular French novel.
The French do not use a term like "comic book" to describe these publications. They refer to " la bande dessinee ," literally, "the drawn strip," or "BD" for short. And they call the books albums.
The industry, made up of French and Belgian publishers selling mainly to the French market, produces more than 800 albums a year. Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, has estimated that 21 million albums were sold in France last year. Le Monde has estimated that comic books make up 7% of all the reading matter bought by the French.
According to a 1980 survey, 40% of the French people buy comic books, mostly in regular bookstores. Among those between the ages of 25 and 34, the proportion is almost 60%. The albums, according to the survey, are far more popular among professionals and middle-class French than among workers and farmers.
Many French obviously feel a sense of intellectual discovery in taking adult comic books seriously. In fact, they seem to think of themselves as cultural pioneers, like the critics who discovered years ago that jazz and the movies were serious art forms.
Pierre Pascal, a restaurant owner, organizes comic-book fairs in Angouleme, where publishers, critics and serious fans assemble once a year for an annual showing of the wares.
"The French intellectualize very quickly," he said recently. "There's snobbism in it. There's nostalgia. It's like the movies. When Charlot (Charlie Chaplin) made his films, he was popular. No one thought of him as intellectual. Now, you see him in the cinematheque , in the art houses. It's like that in the bande dessinee."
Pierre Bourdieu, a well-known sociologist at the College de France in Paris, said: "There are always intellectuals who are eager to discover new kinds of culture to make themselves chic. Today, two things are going on with comic books. First, intellectuals are concerning themselves with comic books and their artists and writers, and, second, these artists and writers are starting to regard themselves as intellectuals. The bande dessinee has become a rather sophisticated and snobbish art form."
Although it may be snobbish and sophisticated now, the French comic book industry, like all others in the world, traces its origins to the American comic strip.