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Cartoons and speech bubbles tell Swiss history

comic book store
Comic books telling aspects of history are becoming more and more popular, including in Switzerland. Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Using comic strips to tell historical stories is becoming more common and Switzerland is no exception. The good news for the authors is that success often follows. 

Walking around the aisles of a bookstore one is struck by the number of comic books that tell historical stories. And data reveals that this is a real trend. Of the more than 5,000 new comic books that are released each year in France, for example, more than one tenth is about history. 

The strong presence of historical comics is not a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is that now Swiss history is also being told more often in speech bubbles.  

“Comics that deal with Swiss history have been a trend for about two or three years,” says Pascal Siffert, manager of the Fribourg comic bookstore La Bulle (The Bubble). “It has really become mainstream; I get them every month.”   

“We have more and more Swiss authors, thanks especially to the existence of the Graduate School of Comics and Illustration in Geneva,” he continues. “The internet also enables you to scan comic strips and put them in blogs to get more visibility. So there is emulation of comic strips in Switzerland. Young authors no longer have a complex about Paris or Brussels and now want to talk about Switzerland.” 

Popular media 

The great advantage of comic strips is that they are popular and accessible. 

“We realised that it’s one of the rare forms of literature that has not been supplanted by the internet. Young people read [comics] and it is a medium that reaches all social classes and generations,” comments Yvon Bertorello, co-author of a comic about the Swiss papal guard. 

Three men holding books
From left, authors Yvon Bertorello, Laurent Bidot and Arnauld Delalande with their comic-book “Le Gardiens du Pape” (The Guardians of the Pope) at the Vatican Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Eric Burnand, a former journalist for Swiss television RTS, agrees. 

“The advantage of a comic strip is that it is popular and accessible. It’s a fairly popular and widespread medium which reaches very different generations,” he says.  

Burnand used his knowledge of filmmaking techniques to write a comic entitled Emma’s Century. Illustrated by Fanny Vaucher, the fictional work retraces the journey of a Swiss family faced with five significant major historical events that occurred during the last century. 

The use of comics to tell historical stories has reached areas which normally use other means of communication, such as brochures or photographic exhibitions. Cantonal police in Fribourg, for example, published a comic strip to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its security police service. Memories of the Secret presents six stories by six cartoonists depicting events which impacted the canton, such as the Massacre of the Order of the Solar Temple.

“We first thought of the idea of a comic because there was an avid lover of comic books on the centenary team,” says Jean-Pascal Tercier, who co-managed the project.

“During the discussions, especially with the editor, we thought that a comic would have a stronger impact with the public.” 

Objective achieved. A second print run was required, and of more than 2,800 examples printed, 1,850 have already been sold.  

“We did not expect such a result at all, especially because the audience is essentially cantonal,” says Tercier. “We would never have had such success without this comic.” 

Reaching different audiences 

Comic strips can also be a means of engaging with an audience that is not usually interested in traditional history, suggests comic strip author Samuel Embleton. Embleton is a young author who has already published two works about Switzerland during the two world wars — Stationed at the Border and Switzerland resists — and is creating a third about the Burgundian Wars.  

“Comics enable you to reach people who aren’t normally interested in history and who were not interested at school,” he says. “I want to tell stories that speak to people and are close to them but are generally left untold. For example, the memory of the border defence in the Jura is still alive, but a lot of my teachers didn’t want to hear about military history.” 

Comics are also easy to read and often less dry than certain history books. “They allow you to tell stories with a bit of emotion, to fairly easily combine fiction and reality,” says Burnand.  

The genre nonetheless has certain limitations.  “It’s a narrower register than cinema,” comments Burnand. “The range of expressions is quite limited. One day, in a text, I had indicated that the character was being ironic. My illustrator then remarked that it was difficult to draw irony…” 

“It’s true that there are some limitations,” agrees Embleton. “For example, it’s difficult to communicate the sensations that a pilot experiences in the cockpit.”

Bookstore success 

Historical comics seem to have found their audience. The different authors contacted for this article all say they are surprised by the good results their works achieved. Embleton’s first book sold 2,000 copies, while Bernand and Vaucher had similar success: the first edition of their comic sold out 2,000 copies in just a month and the second print run of 2,000 copies is also almost sold out.

Such sales are more than respectable for Swiss history subjects despite being a long way off reaching sales obtained by the stars of the genre. The Alix series for example, which since 1948 has recounted the wanderings of a Gallic slave who became a Roman citizen and was befriended by Caesar, recently reached the milestone of 25 million books sold (the most recent edition — The Swiss — takes place in Switzerland). 

“These results demonstrate that there is an audience,” comments Siffert. “People sometimes do not have enough time to read a book, so they prefer a comic which is quicker and easier to read. We are also in a generation which has grown up with comics and for whom this is not about cheap literature.” 

“Comics are certainly able to reach people who would never have otherwise opened a history book,” continues Siffert. “But they also reach those who like history and who sometimes want to experience it in a different format.”


Translated from French by Sophie Douez

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