Bécassine – The world’s first comic strip heroine

Bécassine alpiniste

When the Nazis entered Paris in 1941 and began their systematic cultural purges it seems somewhat unbelievable that one of their primary targets was a series of comic book albums depicting a simple minded, though good hearted Breton maid. So loathed was she by the German authorities, however, that not only was every single book seized and destroyed, it even became an offence to own or read them.

Virtually unknown outside the Francophone world, Bécassine, was in fact the first female comic strip heroine in history and her exploits during World War One had been a huge morale booster to the French.

Her importance to popular culture extends far beyond this however. The unique design and structure of the stories went on to influence a generation of comic strip creators including Hergé and Uderzo, whilst her creators’ insistence on drawing content from everyday life, in contrast to the vast majority of the children’s press of the period, has led some cultural commentators to label her the comic world’s equivalent of Proust. Yet it was only by a quirk of chance that she even existed to be such a thorn in the Nazi’s side.

One of the more curious results of the split between Church and State in 1905, in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, was a boom in children’s periodicals. With the church no longer responsible for religious instruction in schools, certain Catholic publishers saw an opportunity to fill this void with a series of journals which would offer suitable moral guidance to children.

Early Bécassine – An early illustrated example of Bécassine and Madame de Grand-Air, one of many recurring characters, from Semaine de Suzette. ©Pinchery/ Gautier Languereau
Early Bécassine – An early illustrated example of Bécassine and Madame de Grand-Air, one of many recurring characters, from Semaine de Suzette. ©Pinchon/ Gautier Languereau

La Semaine de Suzette, published by the Maison Gautier, was one such journal. However, when the first issue was about to go to press, they realised a printing error had left a blank page which needed to be filled. The editor Jaqueline de Rivière hastily came up with a story based on a blunder made by her Breton maid and asked the artist Pinchon to illustrate it. Bécassine, as she was named, was never meant to be a permanent feature, but such was the clamour by the papers young readers that the publishers were forced to rethink, although it took until 1913 for her to make a regular appearance.

Initially Bécassine was portrayed as foolish, ignorant and naive. A typical peasant serving as a prop to the values of the ancien regime; a loyal, if often incompetent, servant to the aristocratic Madame de Grand Air. Soon, however, Maurice Languereau, the nephew of Gautier, took over as author of the stories and she began to take on a different character. Still, fairly naive, but more complex and endearing. Languereau, who wrote under the pseudonym of Caumery, realised the stories would have greater depth if he turned her into a real heroine.

The stories were two pages long and took the tone of their humour from comedians in Montmartre, silent cinema and the humourists of L’Assiette au Beurre or L’Alamanch Vermot. Burlesque and triviality, Languereau left to the competition. It was clear that from the outset that he wanted to create something unique.

One of the first major innovations was to publish a complete back story of the character. L’Enfance de Bécasssine , released in 1913, was the first, ‘origins,’ story in comic book history, a format which would later be copied for everyone from Obelix to Wolverine. In it we discover both her real name, Annaïk Labornez, and the origins of her nickname. She is so called because of the size of her nose. ‘So small you can hardly see it,’ she explains, in contrast to the beak of a Woodcock, – a Bécasse in French, which, not uncoincidentally, also happens to be slang for,’ silly goose.’

L’enfance de Bécassine – L’enfance de Bécassine. The earliest origins story in comic book history. ©Gautier Languereau
L’enfance de Bécassine – L’enfance de Bécassine. The earliest origins story in comic book history. ©Gautier Languereau

The enormous success of L’Enfance de Bécassine encouraged the publication of further albums, which would consist of bound strips from La Semaine de Suzette. Fate dictated that the first of these were to coincide with the outbreak of World War One and would see Languereau and Pinchon quite distinctly setting themselves apart from their contemporaries. These were the albums which would later raise the ire of the Germans, although somewhat ironically they also managed to cause consternation amongst French censors of the time.

Without forgetting that he was writing for little girls, Languereau made Bécassine an example of patriotism and subtly contributed to their knowledge of the globalisation of the conflict. At the same time, and in contrast to the majority of children’s comics of the era, he singularly refused to participate in propaganda and included frequent subtle indictments against military bureaucracy.

The depiction of war was necessarily sanitised and focused on Bécassine’s relentless public spiritedness. However as war progressed, and it became obvious that the journal’s young readers would be experiencing the horrors of war themselves, a greater sense of reality began to appear in the strips. The noise of cannons and the spectre of death become ever more evident. Portrayals of the shortages of commodities and food, refugees fleeing combat zones and the reversal of fortune of Madame de Grand Air lifted the veil on the reality. Bécassine chez les Turcs (1919) went so far as to portray the evils of mustard gas, aerial bombings and the manoeuvres of German submarines in the Mediterranean.

There was of course also room for humour, much of it directed at the Republic’s administration and the incompetence of its personnel. Languereau parodied this with the Ministere d’Utilisation in Bécassine chez les Allies (1917), as well as mocking the making of propaganda films which were much derided by the French population. This refusal to toe the line was what so ruffled feathers amongst French censors.

Bécassine chez les allies – Bécassine Chez Les Allies. One of the World War One albums which would cement her reputation. ©Gautier Languereau
Bécassine chez les allies – Bécassine Chez Les Allies. One of the World War One albums which would cement her reputation. ©Gautier Languereau

Languereau’s storytelling was beautifully complemented by Pinchon’s artwork. He had been a pupil, like Toulouse Lautrec, of the history painter Cormon and felt a keen need for reality in his work. A great observer, he drew from living models, postcards and photographs. The realistic, yet simple style of his drawing, emphasising only the essential elements went on to influence Hergé, and would subsequently be known as the, ‘ligne clair.’

In fact so great was the apparent influence on Hergé that when he was rash enough to accuse the Belgian comic artist Jijé of plagiarism, his rival responded with a celebrated sketch showing Tintin’s uncanny resemblance to Bécassine. A sketch he then made sure to circulate to the newspapers.

Tintin/ Bécassine – When Hergé was rash enough to accuse the comic artist Jijé of plagiarism he responded with this celebrated cartoon emphasising the striking resemblance between Tintin and Bécassine. Hergé did not pursue the matter.
Tintin/ Bécassine – When Hergé was rash enough to accuse the comic artist Jijé of plagiarism he responded with this celebrated cartoon emphasising the striking resemblance between Tintin and Bécassine. Hergé did not pursue the matter.

Bécassine’s patriotism during the war was bound to secure her success in the years to follow but the real coup came when 1924’s Bécassine Alpiniste attracted favourable criticism from Les Nouvelles Littéraires. The review noted the semi cinematographic visual construction of the book and applauded its, ‘punchbag heroine,always a little ridiculous but endowed with a vitality and willpower that nothing will discourage.‘ This enthusiastic response from a Republican publication with left wing ideas marked a change in perception of the albums and Maison Gautier Languereau, as it was now, did everything in its power to make sure that the albums no longer appealed simply to conservative Catholics and their subordinate, dutiful daughters.

The reins had already loosened a little since the death of La Semaine de Suzette’s severe editor Jaqueline Rivière in 1918, a date which also coincided with Languereau’s marriage to the Protestant Yvonne Gallien, who became a contributor to the journal. Many of the stories were now being written by female writers at the publication, even if they weren’t actually credited. Bécassine was never going to be a pioneering feminist – this was a country where women didn’t even get the vote until 1945 – but in her own small way she began to reveal the inroads which were gradually being made into female emancipation. The attitude to race, however subtly introduced, was another element in her unique appeal.

The albums can, in many ways, be seen as a chronicle of the social and cultural victories of French women in the Twentieth Century, beginning in the first albums with the schooling of girls from the countryside and apprenticeships in urban areas and moving on to the mobilisation of women in World War One.

During the war, Bécassine herself moves from a tram operator to quartermaster and even, in Bécassine chez Les Allies (1917), becomes the first ever woman to take aerial photographs. In a beautifully drawn sequence she inadvertently takes images of such value that she is awarded a medal. This may have been a, quite literal, flight of fantasy, but it was a charming example for little girls who were otherwise bombarded with images of domesticity. She also learns to drive her own car, which, as Marie-Anne Couderc points out in Bécassine Inconnue, was exceedingly rare for a woman at that time.

Post war, the relationship between Bécassine and the Marquise also begins to change. She becomes more of a loyal companion, devoted, but free in her movements. This catalyst for this was the introduction, in 1922, of the Marquise’s baby ward Loulotte. From now on Bécassine is first a devoted wet nurse and then governess.

Loulotte gave the writers of Bécassine an opportunity to further explore the way young women’s lives were changing. Scholastic reforms in 1928 made the teaching of boys and girls uniform and gave young women a greater opportunity to go on to further study. While Semaine de Suzette continued to promote the values of marriage and family they were aware that their readers were likely to enter paid employment and this evolution is visible in the education given to Loulotte in the 20s and 30s and her subsequent career as an aspiring actress.

Loulotte’s rise is in direct contrast to the Marquise’s decline. Post war, she sees no return to her former prosperity. Devaluation left many of the old aristocracy threatened with extinction and Languereau doesn’t shy away from the reality. Year by year we see the slow decline of the House of Grand Air.

This insistence on focusing on daily realities is what made the stories so unique and continued to guarantee their success. They bear a vivid witness account to the social, political and economic changes in French society. Through Bécassine’s charmingly naive eyes we see how developments in transport and technology completely transform city life within three decades. The implementation of running water, gas and electricity free her from the burden of carrying water and wood. And although Languereau makes her the butt of jokes as she becomes used to their implementation, she swiftly understand the importance of their development and in her turn becomes an agent of modernisation when she passes her discoveries on to her parents.

There were certain aspects of daily life that Bécassine pointedly chose to play down, however. Much of the children’s press of the period displayed an exacerbated patriotism which glorified colonialism, glamorising explorations and religious missions on the pretext of satisfying a taste for adventure, when in fact they were pandering to the racist and xenophobic ideas which were becoming increasingly prevalent in French society. Bécassine alone turned her back on these ideas; whilst the great cultural exhibitions of the 20s had been heavily featured, the Colonialism exhibition of 1931 was virtually ignored.

But it would prove impossible for her to completely ignore the increase in intolerance which had been exacerbated by the economic crisis of the 30s. During the war she could happily mingle with immigrants in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, but by the late 30s when Les Mesaventures de Bécassine was published, she could only watch helplessly as Sidi, the Arab is cook is dismissed, unjustly blamed for the economic failings of the Hotel Splendide. Helpless she may have been, but it is made abundantly clear that she keenly feels the injustice.

Bécassine herself may have been the epitome of kindness and tolerance but these qualities were not always extended towards her. Long seen as emblematic of the rural exodus of the early twentieth century she infuriated Breton nationalists who saw her as a symbol of the Parisian desire to subjugate the regions. The fact that she was drawn without a mouth and often portrayed in a stooped position only increased their anger and an ill conceived film adaptation in 1939 made things even worse. Ignoring all the charm and subtlety with which Languereau had endeavoured to imbue his character, she was portrayed as an incompetent simpleton who at one point is even seen to suckle a pig. The film was so loathed that Paulette Dubost, who had the misfortune to play the character, begged for it to be taken off the screen. Matters came to a head when three Breton nationalists decapitated the character’s waxwork at the Musée Grevin in Paris.

Becassine film – Paulette Dubost in the disastrous film version of Bécassine.
Becassine film – Paulette Dubost in the disastrous film version of Bécassine.

But things were to become much worse. With the advent of World War Two, Languereau and his house were blacklisted. Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to Paris, and a former professor of drawing, well knew the French passion for the plucky Breton and was determined to make them pay for the anti German sentiment shown during the previous war. When the Germans entered Paris in 1941 they headed for the Publishers office and destroyed every copy held in stock. Not only the creation, but also the possession and reading of the albums were forbidden. The vehemence with which the prohibition was enacted means that The Bibliothèque National does not now own a single pre war copy.

Post war, her importance to French morale was evident when, despite severe paper shortage, La Semaine de Suzette was able to print special issues depicting Bécassine’s war experiences. We discover that she was a liaison agent aiding Monsieur Proey-Minans, one of many recurring characters in the series, and himself a member of the Resistance.

However, as the fifties progressed, her popularity began to decline, not helped by a fall in the fortunes of the Maison Gautier Languereau who had been forced to place their creation into the hands of a paper manufacture who understood little, and cared, less about the format of the albums. Both Languereau and Pinchon were dead by now and an ill advised rebirth in the early 60s, complete with a mouth for Bécassine and speech bubbles, was not a success.

Fortunately, throughout the sixties the regard for Bandes Dessinés, was growing, leading to it being dubbed, ‘the 9th art.’ This coincided with the republishing of the Bécassine volumes in their original format under the loving guidance of Languereau’s widow. In this new climate, the Belgian authors, Morris and Vankeer, authors of La Chronique du Neuvième Art,’ reappraised Bécassine, celebrating her qualities of patience, courage and loyalty. But it was Francis Lacassin in Le Magazine Littéraire who realised that she was a witness, like Proust, to a society in flux: ‘Thanks to her, a whole era unravels before our eyes, fleeting images of past graces provoke nostalgia for that which she has witnessed and we can no longer know.’

A recent animated film adaptation has brought her legions of new young fans and her image has graced everything from stamps to the Google masthead. But it is still the original albums we must turn to, which have effortlessly retained their power to amuse, beguile and inform, if we truly want to go in search of lost time.

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