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The Conquest of Space: Evolution of Panel

­Arrangements and Page Layouts in Early ­


Comics Published in Belgium (1880–1929)
Pascal Lefèvre

Abstract
This article focuses on panel arrangements and page layouts of early comics published
in Belgium in the five decades before the start of Tintin in 1929. It investigates the
degree of standardisation in this pivotal period, in which the old system of graphic
narratives with captions evolved to comics with balloons. The years between 1880 and
1929 boasted a variety of publication formats (broadsheets, illustrated magazines for
adults and for children, comic strips, artists’ books), within which one can see both
similar and different conventions at work.

Given that drawn representations of a fictive world need to be arranged on a


page or succession of pages, the development of graphic narratives is partly the
story of how flat surfaces are occupied and shaped.1 In contrast to a film projec-
tion on a screen, all the scenes on a page are simultaneously present, so chron-
ological order has to be suggested, otherwise the process of narration cannot
begin. Each publication format contains an aesthetic system with norms that
offers a bounded set of alternatives to the individual creator of comics.2 Today’s
publication formats, such as the daily strip, the Sunday page, the comic book,
the European album or the mangazine use conventions not only regarding the

1 In a digital environment other ordering has become possible, for instance by clicking on an
individual panel another can open, or one can zoom in on a panel and discover another scene
within this scene. Thus a webcomic can offer new navigating and reading possibilities that were
impossible before the digital revolution (with the possible exception of a system of paper flaps).
  The author wishes to thank the various institutions that provided help for this research: the
Research Council of Saint-Lukas University College of Art and Design, Brussels, for providing
financial support; the Het Huis van Alijn Museum; the Écomusée de l’Imagerie d’Epinal; the
Stadsbibliotheek library in Antwerpen; the Royal Library of Belgium; the libraries of the Univer-
sities of Ghent and Leuven; comics specialists Michel Kempeneers and Steve Holland; collector
Jozef Peeters, who donated the first issue of Het Lacherke [‘Mockery’].
2 I have drawn upon the film scholars David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The
Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (London: Routledge, 1988),
4–7.

European Comic Art 2.2 (2009)  doi:10.3828/eca.2009.4

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3
dimensions of the publication, but also the arrangement of the panels.
Since conventions can evolve over time, this article investigates the degree
of standardisation in early comics between 1880 and 1929, a pivotal period
in which the old system of graphic narratives with captions evolved towards
comics with balloons. Already at that time an intense interchange between
productions from various countries was instrumental in the development
of graphic storytelling. This study will limit itself to comics published and
­distributed in Belgium, both domestic and imported, between 1880 and 1929.
In fact a large majority of graphic narratives before the birth of Tintin (1929) in
Belgium came from abroad. After a theoretical sketch of the parameters that
play a role in the page layout, each of the dominant Belgian publication formats
will be described in brief, before their conventions regarding page layout are
discussed.

Some Theoretical Historical Notions on Page Layout


Two-dimensional space deals with height and width, which can be further
subdivided into various parts.4 Except for a specific subsection of comics in
which the complete page is occupied by drawings, in general the content (the
panels) will not invade the negative space at the borders of the format edge. In
the case of printed texts, such margins facilitate the reader’s visual grip on a
text, but the layout of a comic may facilitate the occupation of this periphery of
the page.5 Far more often than a verbal text, which is often only aligned at the
right, comics pages are almost on principle justified left and right, and at the
top and bottom, so that they form a perfect rectangle within the page.
Just as spaces between words facilitate their identification as separate
elements, the individual drawn scenes will generally be separated from each
other by some kind of negative space (see Table 1).6 There is also an empty
space between the tiers, which is akin to an interline between the sentences;
in principle this space is slightly bigger than the space between the panels in a
tier, since this helps create the perception of each tier as a closely-related unit
and thereby directs the reader firstly in a horizontal reading direction. This

3 See Pascal Lefèvre, ‘The Importance of Being Published: A Comparative Study of Comics
Formats’, Comics & Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics, eds. Anne Magnussen
and Hans-Christian Christiansen (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000), 91–105.
4 The theoretical framework for this section is based on chapter IV of my dissertation: Pascal
Lefèvre, Willy Vandersteens Suske en Wiske in de Krant (1945–1971): Een Theoretisch Kader voor
een Vormelijke Analyse van Strips [‘Willy Vandersteen’s Spike and Suzy in the Dailies (1945–1971):
A Theoretical Framework for the Formal Analysis of Comics’], Doctorate Sociale Wetenschappen,
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2003, 99–112.
5 But even when such is the case, seldom will the main elements of a scene be placed close to the
border of a page.
6 This was, of course, not always the case: the Romans wrote their text without spaces between the
words; consequently such texts were already, on a visual level, more difficult to read.

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The Conquest of Space 229

compartmentalisation is usually stressed by the use of a drawn frame around


each scene. On the basis of such formal aspects – the distance between panels
and the presence or absence of panel frames – a first glimpse at the history of
comics can be proposed.

Table 1: Arrangement of the various panels on a page


Clear border and negative Little or no border or
space negative space
Framing of panel Dominant system in Dominant system in comic
by a line twentieth century. books since the 1980s.

Little or no Dominant system in Dominant system in shojo


framing by line nineteenth century. manga since the late 1960s.

Margins and panel frames are, of course, not the only parameters that define
page composition. Another crucial aspect is the relative proportion of the
various panels (see Table 2), for which there are two base permutations: firstly,
all the panels are of equal shape and dimension (e.g., a strip of Peanuts), or,
alternatively, they can be of variable proportions and shape (but even this varia-
bility can have some rigorous underlying system, as in the case of Watchmen).7
The content of a scene can indeed incite the artist to use a particular shape or
dimension: a high tower will by nature call for a high, vertical frame; a coast-
line, by contrast, will demand a large, extended panoramic frame.8 However,
the dominant frame model in Western art is a rectangle whose base is greater
than its height, but various other shapes can be used (triangle, circle, oval…).
Deviation from the rectangular model can thus be motivated by the content,
but also by some aesthetic principle.9 Furthermore, the differences in dimen-

7 For an analysis of the Watchmen layouts, see Jan Baetens and Pascal Lefèvre, Pour une lecture
moderne de la bande dessinée [‘For a Modern Reading of Bande dessinée’] (Brussels: Centre Belge de
la Bande Dessinée, 1993), 60.
8 Some theorists (e.g., Gustav Theodor Fechner, ‘Various Attempts to Establish a Basic Form of
Beauty: Experimental Aesthetics, Golden Section, and Square’, Empirical Studies of the Arts 15.2
(1997), 115–130) have nevertheless stated that there exists an ideal proportion format, the so-called
Golden Ratio: humankind would have a natural predisposition for the divine proportion 34/21.
Though the Golden Ratio was for centuries the norm, empirical research has revoked the claims
of the old myth of the Golden Ratio. See Frans Boselie, ‘The Golden Section has no Special
Aesthetic Attractivity!’, Empirical Studies of the Arts 10.2 (1992), 1–18; Frans Boselie, ‘The Golden
Section and the Shape of Objects’, Empirical Studies of the Arts 15.2 (1997), 131–141; John Benjafield
and Keith McFarlane, ‘Preference for Proportions as a Function of Context’, Empirical Studies
of the Arts 15.2 (1997), 143–151; Holger Höge, ‘The Golden Section Hypothesis: Its Last Funeral’,
Empirical Studies of the Arts, 15.2 (1997), 233–255.
9 In Des-agréments d’un Voyage d’Agrément [‘Dis-pleasures of a Pleasure Trip’] (1851), Gustave Doré
uses 17 circles to suggest the view through a telescope. On plate 23 of L’Homme de Pskov (1977),
Guido Crepax uses only triangles, with the effect that the panels seem to cut into each other. This

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sions between the panels of the same comic are usually limited, but sometimes
they can also be quite extreme (e.g., 300 by Frank Miller).

Table 2: Differences in formats (in cm2) between the largest and the smallest
panel of a comic.
Smallest Largest
Schulz, Peanuts One One All panels have the same
(comic strips) format format proportion.
Hermann, Jeremiah, 11 cm2 317 cm2 The largest is 27 times bigger
Mercenaires (1997) than the smallest.
Frank Miller, 300 1.6 cm2 796.8 cm2 The largest panel is almost 500
(1998) times bigger than the smallest.

A frame can serve various functions.10 Firstly, it is a visual device that figura-
tively and literally brings closure to the panel and gives it a particular shape.
The reader understands that the border has a different status from the lines
used for rendering figures in the scene: only in very specific cases can the
border become part of the diegesis (e.g., characters standing on it as a floor or
leaning against it as a wall). A rectangular shape facilitates ranging the panels
in tiers. Except for split panels, the frame generally singles out every scene as
having an individual identity. A frame signals that there is something to see
or to read. The succession of frames can deliver a particular visual rhythm.
Finally, as noted above, the form of a frame can suggest symbolic, rhetoric or
expressive ideas and associations.11
On a higher level than the individual panel, the total page layout can also
serve various functions: suggesting a particular navigation, giving a rhythm
to a page (e.g., by repeating the same layout), accentuating some scenes by
isolating a panel (e.g., putting only one panel on a page), or decorating the page
(e.g., in shojo manga). Moreover, in a single comic various types of layouts can
be combined, but every break from a dominant rule will attract attention and
suggest that there is something special about these panels or scenes.
There already exists an extensive literature on page compositions in comics,
but the interplay between an empty page layout and scenes in the panels remains

a­ lternate framing is motivated by the theme of the scene: someone is cut down by a sword, thus
the sharpness of the panels can be associated with the sharpness of the sword. See Pascal Lefèvre,
‘Het Kader in de Strip’ [‘The Frame in Comics’] Communicatie 16 (1986), 16–21.
10 Jacques Aumont, L’Image (Paris: Nathan, 1990), 109–111; Thierry Groensteen, Système de la bande
dessinée [‘The System of Comics’] (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999), 49–68.
11 A scene with explosions can be placed in exploding frames, as in Au Dolle Mol (Brussels: Michel
Deligne, 1982) by Jacques Santi and Jan Bucquoy. The border can be decorated as Cosey did for
part of his Jonathan series (Brussels: Lombard, since 1977).

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The Conquest of Space 231
12
difficult to formulate in a simple scheme. Neil Cohn set up an experiment
with empty page composition, in order to determine how readers navigate such
layouts: he demonstrated that readers indeed apply a system that goes beyond
the traditional z-path and common Gestalt groupings such as proximity, and
that the system is influenced by levels of expertise.13
Since the medium of comics as a commercial form of entertainment only
emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century in Europe, most of today’s
conventions and codes were not yet in place, which allowed a freedom for artists
to conceive the ways in which they would combine their panels into sequences.
Töpffer’s linear, horizontal order of panels fits the oblong format of his comics
publications. Gustave Doré, working in a larger format (26 cm × 35 cm), placed
his images in a much freer way, with virtually all of his pages displaying a
different composition.14 Wilhelm Busch’s comics could be published in various
ways, according to the publication format: in two vertically organised columns
in a quarto magazine; with a horizontal arrangement of panels in a broadsheet;
and panels were arranged on a page by twos or even alone (printed only on the
front side) in an oblong octavo book format.15 Since there was not yet a norma-
tive reading direction, artists and publisher often added numbers so that their
order was clearly indicated.
This freedom of sequential organisation was already to be found in the visual
sequences of earlier centuries. Although the linear horizontal chronological
set-up was, for instance, used in Trajan’s column, the Bayeux Tapestry or The
Popish Plot, other organisational forms were equally possible: for instance, on
a French ivory diptych of the fourteenth century (Fig. 1), two story lines are
intermingled as we see the first years of Christ’s life (in the smaller panels in
the middle of each part) and the Passion (in the larger panels on the borders of
each part).16 Whereas the chronological order of the panels of the Passion are
12 Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, Récits et discours par la bande: Essais sur les comics (Paris: Hachette,
1977); Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, ‘L’Image et la page’, L’Aventure des écritures: La Page, ed. Anne
Zali (Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1999), 138–147; Benoît Peeters, Case, planche, récit.
Comment lire une bande dessinée [‘Frame, Page, Narrative: How to Read a Bande dessinée’] (Tournai:
Casterman, 1991); Jan Baetens and Pascal Lefèvre, Pour une lecture moderne de la bande dessinée
(Brussels: Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée, 1993); Thierry Groensteen, Système de la bande
dessinée (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999); Neil Cohn, ‘Navigating Comics: Reading
Strategies of Page Layouts’, 2008, http://www.emaki.net/readings.html, retrieved 13 August,
2009; Joseph Witek, ‘The Arrow and the Grid’, A Comics Studies Reader, ed. Jeet Heer and Kent
Worcester (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009), 149–156.
13 Neil Cohn, ‘Navigating Comics: Reading Strategies of Page Layouts’.
14 See Annie Renonciat’s introduction to her reprint edition of Gustave Doré’s Des-agréments d’un
voyage d’agrément (Lectoure: Éditions Le Capucin, 2001).
15 Hans Ries, ‘Comic Strips in the Work of Wilhelm Busch’, Forging a New Medium: The Comic Strip
in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Pascal Lefèvre and Charles Dierick (Brussels: VUB University Press,
1998), 117–128.
16 The diptych Scènes de la vie du Christ et de la Vierge [‘Scenes of the Life of Christ and of the Virgin’]
in the Louvre (22cm x 20cm, about 1370–1380) is reproduced in Danielle Gaborit-Chopin, ‘L’Ivoire
au Moyen Âge’ [‘Ivory in the Middle Ages’], Le Moyen Âge, ed. Georges Duby (Paris: Seuil, 1995),
168–175.

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Figure 1: French ivory diptych of the fourteenth-century, Scènes de la vie du Christ et de


la Vierge [‘Scenes of the Life of Christ and the Virgin’] (22 cm × 20 cm, c. 1370–1380),
Paris: Louvre.

arranged in the traditional Western reading direction (from left to right, tier
after tier) over the double spread, the other story is organised in a completely
different way: it starts at the bottom on the right part, works its way up verti-
cally, then jumps back to the bottom of the first part and goes up again. This
was not just a clever experiment, it was equally a self-representational system
of expression via a visual and symbolic circle: the end of the Passion story –
the resurrected Jesus in Heaven – is near the beginning of the other storyline,
starting with the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary on earth.
This freedom of sequential organisation would nevertheless become more
restrained by the early twentieth century, when the dominant organisation in
America and Europe would be the usual reading direction of texts, from left
to right, line after line.17 Nevertheless, artists could still experiment with their
page compositions. How this transformation took place can be recognised in
the evolution of published visual sequences in Belgium between 1880 and
1929.
17 In the late 1990s a new navigating system became fashionable in translated manga editions,
whereby readers in Europe and America readily accepted the Japanese direction of reading a
comic, namely from right to left.

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The Conquest of Space 233

Conventions of Panel Arrangement in Publication Formats in


Belgium (1880–1929)
In the 50 years before the birth of Tintin, five main types of publication
formats can be found in Belgium: firstly, the popular print or broadsheet;
secondly, the illustrated magazine for adults; thirdly, the illustrated journal for
children; fourthly, the newspaper; and, finally, the artists’ book. These publi-
cation formats follow each other more or less chronologically, but for a brief
period, in the 1920s, they were all active at the same time. In the last decades
of the nineteenth century, industrial prints and illustrated magazines were the
foremost publishers of comics. It is only later on, in the early twentieth century,
that illustrated magazines for children were put on the market. Remarkably, it
was not until the 1920s that one could find comic strips in newspapers, and
even then it was rare; there was not a true daily comic strip in the Belgian
dailies until the 1930s.18 Furthermore, the 1920s saw a new approach to visual
sequences in artists’ books. The album, the most current publication format
of today, was extremely rare before Tintin.19 It is true that popular prints had
long since been collected in albums, but with the exception of the occasional
thematic link, the grouped prints were not really connected. This would change
after the success of Tintin in Le Petit Vingtième and its republication in book
form. In the 1930s, comics became more prominent: a growing number of
dailies featured comics, new weeklies for children, such as Bravo and Spirou,
were launched, and major publishers, such as Casterman and Gordinne,
started publishing comic books.

(i) Popular Prints


The oldest publication format, the popular print or broadsheet, is also known
under various other names: in French as imagerie populaire, feuilles volantes
[‘loose leaves’], images d’enfants [‘pictures for children’] and images d’Épinal;
in Dutch as volksprent [‘popular illustration’], kinderprent [‘children’s illustra-
tion’] and mannekensblad [‘manneken’s journal’]; and in German as bilderbogen
[‘popular illustration’] and fliegende blätter [‘loose leaves’]. These are prints with
one illustration or a series of images. Broadsheets in their heyday were not only
sold by shopkeepers in the cities, but also by itinerant vendors who flooded out
into the countryside. In contrast to earlier broadsheets or the new illustrated
magazines, which were first and foremost targeted at adults, the popular prints
of the late nineteenth century were aimed primarily at children. These were the
first large-scale, mass-produced and eye-catching multicoloured images made

18 For instance, a reworked version of Mickey Mouse in Flemish dailies, in which the balloons were
erased and replaced by texts under the panels. Tintin was only given daily publication in the Fran-
cophone newspaper Le Soir from 1941 on.
19 I do not take into account illustrated books where the visual part remains subordinated to the text.

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for a broad public. Gradually, religious and didactic aims gave way to more
entertaining purposes: by 1900, growing numbers of humorous prints were
being produced.
Broadsheets thus offered a broad spectrum of content, ranging from
­entertainment (humour, suspense, fantasy) to news, education, religion and
propaganda, but in the first decades of the twentieth century other media
took over these functions and prints gradually lost their appeal. Neverthe-
less, the sheer number of titles produced in Western Europe is astonishing,
with thousands of titles coming from Germany and France.20 In comparison
with the big publishers in France or Germany, Belgian publishers were much
smaller, with Belgium’s biggest publisher, Brepols from Turnhout, producing
some 620 different titles.21 The other active firms of this period are Dessain
and Gordinne in Liège, and Phobel in Brussels.
The Belgian market for broadsheets was not only occupied by Belgian
publishers, but also by foreign ones: for example, a series of Pellerin prints from
Épinal was translated for the Dutch market. Interaction with other countries
went even further: various Belgian publishers reprinted work from foreign
ones, imitated foreign prints, or contracted foreign artists to create prints for
them. The Liège publishers Dessain and Gordinne, for example, worked exten-
sively with French artists.22 Brepols prints prior to 1918 are seldom signed, so
we can only guess as to about their creators. After the war new local artists,
including Georges de Laet or Marcel Jaspar, started working for Brepols. The
industrial print in Belgium had a final creative peak after World War I, and
from the 1920s onwards interest in this type of publication diminished, as the
new children’s magazines attracted younger readers
The present analysis of popular prints is based upon the collection of about
3,000 prints held in the Huis van Alijn museum in Ghent. The large majority
(86 per cent) of these prints contain series of images, and only 14 per cent have
a single, usually full-page, illustration. The series of images could be arranged
in various ways: the classic and oldest technique can be described as the ‘waffle
iron’-composition, because all the equal frames stand in identical tiers, stacked
vertically. The number and arrangement of the panels is usually limited to a

20 Nicole Garnier-Pelle and Maxime Préaud, L’Imagerie populaire française 2: Images d’Épinal gravées
sur bois [‘French Popular Imagery 2: Woodblock Images d’Épinal’] (Paris: Musée National des
Arts et Traditions Populaires/Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1991); Ulrike Eichler, Munchener
Bilderbogen [‘Popular Illustration from Munich’] (Munich: Historischen Verein von Oberbayern,
1974); Theodor Kohlmann, ‘Zur Geschichte des Bilderbogens’ [‘On the History of Popular Illu-
stration’], Die Grosse Welt in Kleinen Bildern: Berliner Bilderbogen aus zwei Jahrhunderten [‘The Big
Wide World in Tiny Pictures: Two Centuries of Popular Illustration from Berlin’] (Berlin: Stiftung
Stadtmuseum Berlin, 1999), 11–21.
21 Patricia Vansummeren, Kinderprenten van Brepols [‘Children’s Cartoons from Brepols’] (Turnhout:
Brepols, 1996).
22 Dessain’s artists included Galco, Mauryce Motet and Georges Omry. Gordinne published the
work of Louis-Christian Doës and Oscar Lamouche.

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few standard formats. Since the French catalogues of Pinot (August 1876) and
Pellerin (July 1889) categorise the narrative prints (contes et histoires) into two
large series, those of 16 and those of 20 panels per page, there would appear to
have been a directive from publishers with which the artists had to comply. 23
In the May 1908 Pellerin catalogue an additional third series, Images en disposi-
tions diverses [‘Images in Various Dispositions’], is mentioned. It would seem,
therefore, that in the 1870s and 1880s the 20- or 16-panel page was obligatory
for narrative prints, but by the turn of the century artists no longer had to
comply with these former layouts and could consider freer compositions.
The same was true for the Belgian publishers of broadsheets. The dominant
layouts in the late-nineteenth century Brepols prints are 5 × 4, 4 × 4, and 4 ×
3. By the twentieth century some of these older systems are still in use, but by
then most broadsheets offer panels of variable width, although they still respect
the three or four tiers convention, which will continue on into the modern
balloon comics of the twentieth century.24 Gordinne, one of several publishers
in Liège, also used both dominant schemes (the 4 × 4 and the 4 × 3 grid) and
the variable system (though still respecting the three- or four-tier layout).
In the early twentieth century, Belgian artists also found more freedom in
the composition of their layouts, one of the most remarkable artists in this
respect being Marcel Jaspar (1886–1952), a painter from Liège. In the years
after World War I his page designs were often inspired by the theme of the
story: a story set in the Middle Ages was placed amidst panels with romanesque
(Aimery van Narbonne [‘Aimery of Narbonne’], Fig. 2), or gothic arches.25 Almost
every title had its own special page composition, sometimes with small decora-
tive elements, but these could also be more demonstrative. Sometimes Jaspar
added loose elements between the panels, as in Koken moet kosten [‘Cooking
Should Be Expensive’] (Fig. 3), but which were in one way or another related to
the diegesis of the story told in the ‘normal’ panels.
Jaspar mostly respected the symmetry of the pages. In Godfried van Bouillon
[‘Godfrey of Bouillon’] (Fig. 4) colour plays an even greater role, with the rosy
shades of the panels in the middle accentuating the shape of the cross they
form together. Moreover, the big cross shape is repeated twice at the bottom left
and right. The usual reading direction is nevertheless respected. Jasper offers

23 The composition of five tiers made of four panels each has, in fact, an ages-long tradition: see for
instance David Kunzle, The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European
Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
24 In Belgian comics the four-tier system was the dominant layout until the 1970s, when the three-
tier system became popular in francophone comics; nevertheless most mainstream Flemish
comics continued with the four-tier system. Vandersteen’s Suske en Wiske started in 1945 as the
first popular Flemish daily strip in newspapers, with two tiers each day (until 1966, when it was
published as one long tier over the complete width of the page). All the other mainstream Flemish
comic strips went on to adopt this system.
25 These examples are drawn from the Haus van Alijn collection, which holds 33 prints by Jaspar
(seven for Brepols, 25 for Phobel).

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Figure 2: Marcel Jaspar, Aimery van Narbonne [‘Aimery of Narbonne’] (38.5 × 27 cm,
Brussels: Phobel, c. 1923), courtesy of the Huis van Alijn, Ghent.

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The Conquest of Space 237

Figure 3: Marcel Jaspar, Koken moet kosten [‘Cooking Should Be Expensive’] (38.5 × 27
cm, Brussels: Phobel, c. 1923), courtesy of the Huis van Alijn, Ghent.

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Figure 4: Marcel Jaspar, Godfried van Bouillon [‘Godfrey of Bouillon’] (38.5 × 27 cm,
Brussels: Phobel, c. 1923), courtesy of the Huis van Alijn, Ghent.

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Figure 5: Marcel Jaspar, Droomen is bedrog [‘Dreaming is Deceitful’] (38.5 × 27 cm,


Brussels: Phobel, c. 1923), courtesy of the Huis van Alijn, Ghent.

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240 pascal lefèvre
a more subtle layout in Droomen is bedrog [‘Dreaming is Deceitful’] (Fig. 5),
whose subject is a boy who dreams of becoming a painter: the painting motif
is integrated into the layout by giving the shape of a painter’s palette to four
panels. The first panel clearly shows a palette with paint and a child; the third
one also has the shape of a palette, but the paints become more ambivalent,
and they could also be interpreted as colourful clouds.

(ii) Illustrated Magazines


Belgian illustrated weeklies of the last decades of the nineteenth century
are absent from almost every historical work on Belgian comics, in contrast
to the crucial role of illustrated magazines in countries as France, England
or the USA, which has already been demonstrated in various publications.26
The oldest illustrated magazines in Belgium are – as far as we know today –
Belgische Illustratie and Le Journal illustré belge, which started in 1868, followed
by Le Rasoir [‘The Razor’] in 1869 and L’Illustration européenne in 1870. The
largest group among the illustrated magazines were those based on infor-
mational content, which were oriented towards a broad public, published on
good quality paper, and bound in leather covers. Titles include De (Nieuwe)
Belgische Illustratie, L’Illustration européenne, Le Globe illustré, L’Omnibus illustré
and Le Patriote illustré. Their main focus was news, education and entertain-
ment via short stories, serials and cartoons. A smaller group, with a more
limited lifespan, were the humorous or politically satirical magazines, such as
La Bombe. Finally, the smallest group was that of sensationalist papers, which
included Le Tribunal belge, De Zweep [‘The Whip’] and La Feuille illustrée [‘The
Illustrated Sheet’] and focused on violent crimes, horrific accidents and the
like. They were usually printed on low quality paper.
At first the number of strips was still limited, but by the 1880s comics and
cartoons, often featured on the back page, had become an integral part. Though
Belgische Illustratie and Le Journal illustré belge had been published since 1868,
De Zweep since 1869 and L’Illustration européenne since 1870, it was not until
1877 that the first narrative comic was published in such a magazine. Subse-
quently, more and more weeklies appeared carrying comics, with the result
that by the end of the 1880s they were a typical feature of illustrated magazines.
The most important weeklies regarding the quantity of published comics
were without doubt L’Illustration européenne and Le Patriote illustré. For at least
three decades they published a comic almost every week. The bulk of the
published material in Belgian illustrated magazines was, however, of foreign
origin: among the sources most drawn upon were the French Le Charivari,
the American Life, Judge, Puck, St. Nicholas Magazine and New York World, the

26 See for, instance, David Kunzle, The Early Comic Strip: The Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: Univer-
sity of California Press, 1990).

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The Conquest of Space 241

Figure 6: Vues de Naples in L’Illustration européenne (15 September, 1877), 356.

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Figure 7: Vie de Charlemagne [‘The Life of Charlemagne’] in L’Illustration européenne


(11 August, 1877), 316.

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The Conquest of Space 243

Figure 8: La Fabrication du sel à Syracuse [‘The Fabrication of Salt in Syracuse’], in


­L’Illustration européenne (24 July, 1887), 669 (cover).

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Figure 9: Charles van den Eycken, Le Chat et le papillon [‘The Cat and the Butterfly’], in
L’Illustration européenne (17 July, 1887), 652.

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The Conquest of Space 245

Figure 10: L’Incendie des docks-entrepôts d’Anvers [‘Fire in the Warehouses at the Docks of
Antwerp’], in L’Illustration européenne (16 June, 1901), 372.

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246 pascal lefèvre
Spanish Blanco y Negro [‘White and Black’], and the German Lustige Blätter
[‘Merry Sheets’].27
On the whole, graphic style varied greatly, but – contrary to the popular
prints – they were always in black and white, even if the original material was
published in colour. Only exceptionally were colour comics to be found, such as
L’Illustration européenne’s special issue, published twice a year (in the summer
and the winter), which included a selection of colour pages. In contrast to the
moralistic popular prints, the comics in the illustrated magazines were more
overtly humorous in tone.
Le Patriote illustré was exceptional, in that it was able to survive for many
decades into the twentieth century, but most of the illustrated weeklies ended
before World War I. It would appear that, by and large, the standard formula of
the nineteenth century was not modern enough for post-war readers.
Although the pages of the illustrated magazines (36 × 26 cm) were generally
only a bit smaller than the popular prints (40 × 30 cm or 38.5 × 27 cm), they
seldom included a single graphic narrative per page, as the popular prints had
done. This can mainly be explained by the fact that comics in these magazines
were usually much shorter: they used fewer panels than the popular prints,
which were sold as individual pieces (and consequently required unity). A page
of an illustrated magazine could combine various cartoons and comics, as unity
was seemingly less of a necessity than for the popular prints. The cartoons
and comics that appeared together on one page were generally unrelated, and
they usually differed in both drawing style and theme. Although the illustrated
magazines sometimes reprinted a comic from the popular prints and kept the
same layout, on the whole the layouts were much more freely conceived than
they had been previously. Even before narrative comics became fashionable in
the illustrated press, their pages regularly published decorative juxtapositions
of images: often these were multiple views of a location (e.g., views of Naples
from 1877, Fig. 6), with the dimensions and shapes of the images varied but
organised with the overall layout in mind (often a symmetrical composition),
and with the borders decorated.
A similar single-page organisation could also be used for a narrative, such as
a short visual biography of historical figures: for example, the depiction of five
key episodes in the life of Charlemagne (Fig. 7). The panel borders were heavily
decorated, and smaller, non-narrative, panels with symbols and objects, such
as flags or swords, were inserted. In an educational context, such as a series
on the production of salt in Syracuse (Fig. 8), the arrangement of panels could
be more freely organised, with numbers not only guiding the viewer through
the layout, but also referring to the separate captions at the bottom of the page.
By contrast a short narrative gag could be organised without any numbering

27 Other titles credited but drawn upon less frequently are Tid Bits, Figaro, Punch, Harper’s Weekly,
Golden Penny and (Frank) Leslie’s Weekly.

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The Conquest of Space 247

Figure 11: Frank Ladendorf, Les Espiègleries de Bébé: Comment le grand’papa faillit passer
pour un voleur [‘Baby’s Tricks: How Granddad Was Almost Taken for a Thief’], in
L’Illustration européenne (17 June, 1900), 380.

or panel borders, as in the case of a cat funny (Fig. 9), arguably inspired by
the silent cat comics of Steinlen in Le Chat noir. Meanwhile, series of related
photographs – for instance, a report on a fire (Fig. 10) – could be arranged in a
more traditional grid of three tiers.
Since Belgian illustrated magazines took most of their material from abroad,
there were cases when the original arrangement of the panels could not be
respected. An American comic of four panels that was originally published in
vertical order was rearranged in two columns of two panels each (Fig. 11). Since
the overall layout had to combine various cartoons and comics, with variable
dimensions and lengths, the arrangement could take surprising forms, as in
an L-shaped example (Fig. 12), in which we go from a vertical organisation to a
horizontal reading, although on the whole such hybrids were unusual.

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Figure 12: L-shaped panel arrangement Une Couvée extraordinaire [‘An Extraordinary
Brood’], in two francophone Belgian illustrated weeklies: L’Illustration européenne (20
May, 1900), 316; and Le Patriote illustré (20 May, 1900), 236.

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The Conquest of Space 249

(iii) Children’s Magazines


Contrary to illustrated magazines for adults, which are preserved today in
various libraries, very few traces of the illustrated magazines for children can
be found in public archives.28 Whilst illustrated magazines of the nineteenth
century were often collected and bound in thick volumes, illustrated magazines
for children were printed on low quality paper and probably not kept.29 The
few surviving copies are mostly in the hands of collectors, who are not always
willing to open their collections for academic research.30 A further complica-
tion is that such weeklies seldom carry any date.
Nonetheless, there is evidence to suggest that already in the years prior to
the First World War various illustrated magazines for children existed on the
Flemish market, examples including Het Mannekensblad [‘The Little People’s
Paper’], De Kindervriend [‘The Children’s Friend’], Het Lacherke [‘Mockery’]
and De Groote Avonturen [‘Great Adventures’].31 Unlike the more visual or
even wordless comics in the illustrated magazines of the nineteenth century,
in children’s magazines captions were increasingly present. On the other
hand, children’s weeklies offered more comics in colour than did the illus-
trated magazines. Remarkably, no home-grown titles were produced in French-
speaking Belgium, perhaps because youth magazines from France such as
L’Épatant [‘Astonishing’] or La Semaine de Suzette [‘Suzette’s Week’] circulated
widely.32
This does not mean that the influence of the French magazines was only
limited to the French speakers of Belgium, because Flemish magazines also
translated many French series. For instance, Louis Forton’s famous French
characters Les Pieds nickelés [‘The Leadfoot Gang’] (from 1908) were presented
in the Flemish weekly Het Lacherke as typical figures from Flanders’s biggest
city, Antwerp. Contrary to illustrated magazines for adults, youth magazines
seldom referred to the original source – most comics were seemingly taken
from French and English magazines – but they did everything possible to make
them look Flemish.33 Children’s magazines put fewer different comics on a
28 The available sample of children’s magazines for this study was limited, unfortunately: 56 pages
with comics from ten issues of De Kindervriend (number 1, unknown, numbers 214–217, 219 and
221–223), four pages with comics of Het Lacherke (vol. 1.1), and nine pages from Het Mannekens­
blad (vol. 1.1 and vol. 1. [unknown]).
29 Until now I have traced only a few copies of these magazines, and the sample has not been repre-
sentative enough for me to draw firm conclusions regarding their evolution in time.
30 However, there are exceptions, including Jozef Peeters, who donated the first copy of Het Lacherke
to me.
31 Danny De Laet, Het Beeldverhaal in Vlaanderen [‘Cartoons in Flanders’] (Breda: Brabantia Nostra,
1977), 65.
32 Danny De Laet and Yves Varende (Thierry Martens), Au-delà du septième art: Histoire de la bande
dessinée belge [‘Beyond the Seventh Art: History of Belgian Bande dessinée’] (Brussels: Ministère
des Affaires Étrangères, 1979).
33 De Kindervriend featured English characters, including Weary Willie and Tired Tim (number 220)
and The Bunsey Boys (number 221).

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Figure 13: Double spread for the two middle pages of Flemish children’s magazine De
Kindervriend (number 223).

single page than did the illustrated weeklies for adults, because the comics
themselves were generally longer and their pages were smaller (Het Lacherke
30 × 22 cm) than those of the illustrated magazines for adults (generally 36 ×
26 cm). The arrangement used most was the traditional z-path, with only a
short comic (of four panels) placed in vertical order. These magazines offered
a further novelty, namely the use of the double spread in the two middle pages
(Fig. 13). Most comics not only used a frame border for their panels, but were
also surrounded by geometrical motifs.

(iv) Newspaper Comic Strips


The fourth publication format is the newspaper comic strip. On the basis of
random tests in Belgian dailies, only a few examples of comics were detected
in the decades before the 1920s.34 The first comic strip that was published on
a regular basis was F.  Wicheler’s Le Dernier Film [‘The Last Film’] (Fig. 14).
Between 1921 and 1926 the francophone Brussels daily Le Soir published 196
gag strips, at a rate of approximately one gag a week, but not always on the same

34 I consider Nic et Nac (also in Le Soir) to be an illustrated picture story and not a comic. Moreover, I
do not include a comic strip drawn by a Flemish artist but published in the Netherlands: Georges
Van Raemdonck collaborated with the Dutch script writer A. M. de Jong for the series Bulletje en
Bonestaak [‘Belly-Boy and Beanstalk’] in the Dutch daily Het Volk [‘The People’] (1922–1937).

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The Conquest of Space 251

Figure 14: The very first tier of Fernand Wicheler’s comic strip series Le Dernier Film
[‘The Last Film’] in the francophone daily Le Soir (18 July, 1921).

day of the week. This series was humorous and often political: various gags
make fun of Germans, Bolshevists and also of Flemish nationalists. Wicheler
was, moreover, very critical of new trends, be they modern dances, feminists
or the behaviour of car drivers. Each of the 196 gags of F. Wicheler’s Le Dernier
Film had the same layout: each gag included seven drawings, with text in the
form of drawn celluloid, and was published over the complete width of the
page. It could be of various heights, but was generally placed at the bottom of
the page.
Contrary to the United States or England, where comic strips flourished in
newspapers from the start of the twentieth century, in Belgium it was not until
the 1930s that a daily strip was published in a newspaper. After Word War II,
and especially in Flemish dailies, comic strips blossomed and created a new,
long-standing tradition.

(v) Artists’ Books


Johanna Drucker explains that the livre d’artiste or the artists’ book came
into being as a publishing enterprise initiated by Parisian art dealers such as
Ambroise Vollard or Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.35 The trend caught on amongst
other publishers, who saw the opportunity to market deluxe editions bearing
the name of a rising or established star in the world of visual arts or poetry (for
instance, Kahnweiler was associated with Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso
and other Cubists). The artists’ book took advantage of the expanded market for
visual art, one that had grown in the nineteenth century. The accumulation of
capital, and an educated upper middle class with an appetite for fine consumer
goods, helped to foster the genre.
The number of graphic narrative artists’ books appears extremely limited
in Belgium, because it seems that in this period only the woodcut artist Frans
Masereel was making wordless visual narratives.36 Since the page format is
the smallest of the five publication formats (cf. 16 × 12 cm for Histoires sans
paroles [‘Story without Words’], Éditions du Sablier, 1920; 17 × 11 cm for Mon livre
d’heures [‘My Book of Hours’]; and 16 × 11.7 cm for Le Soleil [‘The Sun’] 1919),
only one image appeared per page. Masereel’s approach did not directly inspire

35 Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1990).
36 David A. Beronä, Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novel (New York: Abrams, 2008).

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the artists who were making comics for the press at the time, but he would later
become a model for other artists.

Conclusions
The years between 1880 and 1929 already boasted a variety of publication
formats, within which one can see both similar and different conventions
at work: one of the most fundamental conventions, which has continued up
to today, is the four- and three-tier grid – the uniform waffle-iron composi-
tion still thrives. Moreover, evolution can be noted within some publication
formats themselves: the popular print moved from strict grids to a consider-
ably freer page arrangement, as Belgian artists such as Marcel Jaspar, in the
wake of World War I, created inventive layouts, which nonetheless referred
back to the older tradition of the single-page decorated sequence of images to
be found in nineteenth-century illustrated magazines. Illustrated magazines
often combined more than one comic on a page, but these were generally short
gags, which could be published in various formats and without one dominant
system. The panel arrangement for comics in children’s magazines became
more defined, namely the traditional z-path, or the one vertical column. The
only comic strip before Tintin, Le Dernier Film, was to appear in the manner of
American dailies, with a single long strip over the complete page. Finally, the
smallest format of them all, the artists’ books of Masereel, usually printed a
single panel per page.
On the whole, one can also see an evolution in these comics towards a
greater degree of standardisation of panel arrangements. This did not change
much in European comics until the 1960s, when artists such as Guido Crépax
and Philippe Druillet broke with the dominant four- and three-tier grid.

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COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

TITLE: The Conquest of Space: Evolution of Panel Arrangements


and Page Layouts in Early Comics Published in Belgium
(1880—1929)
SOURCE: Eur Comic Art 2 no2 Aut 2009

The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it


is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in
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