People write off Belgium as something of a ‘non-country’. This is unfair, although it’s understandable why some people might think this; e.g., there is no such language as ‘Belgian’ – Belgium famously comprises two major linguistic zones, a poorer French-speaking southern region called Wallonia (people from which are called ‘Walloons’) and a wealthier Dutch-speaking northern region called Flanders (people from which are ‘Flemish’ or ‘Flemings’). There is a small enclave of German-speakers on its border to the east.
Why Belgium is therefore then a thing is a bewildering and complicated tale. It’s in a historically messy corner of the world and you can still get something of a sense of this. People often ask why, for example, Belgium can’t just be carved up and merged into the Netherlands and France; but that’s as over-simplistic as asking why Ireland isn’t part of the UK, because after all they speak English too? The crux of why things are as they are now is because, for a long time, the main defining feature of what it was to be Belgian was Catholicism. Belgium used to be part of its neighbour, the Netherlands, but, in very rough-sketch terms, Belgians were mostly Catholic and didn’t like being ruled by the Protestant Dutch king, so they staged a revolution in the year 1830.
Plus, though it sounds odd, being anti-French and anti-Dutch was part of the whole idea. I’ve glossed the not-Dutch bit. As for being not-French: let me start out by saying the area comprising Belgium used to be owned by Spain (the Spanish Netherlands), and then by Austria (the Austrian Netherlands). Not only was it that Austria and France were sworn enemies for a long time. While the French had a revolution after 1789 to promote Enlightenment ideas, people in pre-Belgium had a (failed) revolution at around the same time to protest Enlightenment ideas – the Austrian emperor, a real Enlightenment bod, had tried to roll back some of the privileges of their Catholic Church. Later on, pre-Belgium was invaded by the Enlightened French and their emperor Napoleon. And all before being later then handed over to the Dutch, of course (see above).
In modern times, Catholicism is a much shrivelled social and political force in European politics, and, after two world wars and the creation of a European Union to try and smooth out the haters, there is much less reason to be particularly proud of being not-French or not-Dutch. Just like the ‘three-legged stool’ of ‘Britishness’ is hobbling on its splintered last leg, post-imperial Belgian-ness is much harder to pin down, especially with globalised post-war immigration added to the mix.
Nature abhors a vacuum – and, naturally, just as Scottish nationalism in modern Britain has risen to the fore, the linguistic divisions within Belgium have increasingly taken centre stage. Belgium has six different governments with distinct executive functions, led by a federal government in the bilingual zone of Brussels. The fragmentation of Belgium’s identity falls even more into the harsh light when events like last month’s Brussels terror attacks put cohesion on the talk-show agenda.
The fact, though, that Brussels is famously the hub of the European Union gives it something of a consolation for the time being – a way to submerge its current language-culture division in a bigger, Continental project (a line of thinking also taken, for example, in Northern Ireland, where some say that violent political arguments about borders take a back seat by having both Ireland and Britain in the EU, thereby safeguarding the peace process there). But even then, the fact that Belgium’s hapless former prime minister, Herman van Rompuy, upon becoming the European Council’s first president, was derided in quarters as a grey embodiment of European bureaucracy, shows, to some degree, how mere technocratic competence and ‘keep everyone happy on paper’ can leave a lot to be desired when it comes to a rebrand for the rocky dilemma of national identity.
But whatever your thoughts on how much sense Belgium makes, one arena in which it has disproportionately, undeniably punched above its weight is cartooning. Anyone with more than a passing interest in Belgium will instantly name-check The Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs in French, De Smurfen in Dutch); or Hergé’s Tintin, with its highly influential signature style of strong, clear lines (claire ligne) and vivid colours inherited from the French Épinal print tradition. Household names like these crown a prolific output that has made both ‘Franco-Belgian comics’ and ‘Belgian comics’ their own distinct genres and Belgium a choice pit-stop for many cartoonists during the course of their careers. In few places does a comic book museum take pride of place in the nation’s capital. It goes without saying that out-and-out political satirists in Belgium are firmly embedded within the tradition. In fact, Belgium’s editorial cartoonists are the co-sponsors of Press Cartoon Europe, which awards an annual prize for the best scribbled image published anywhere in Europe.
Comics magazines have long been the quintessential medium, and the longest-running of Belgium’s prominent publications is probably Spirou, first published in Wallonia in 1938. It is named for its eponymous protagonist and mascot, Spirou, a hotel bell boy in a distinctive red uniform, whose character also functions as a ‘reporter’ for the magazine.
As you can see, levity and gravity and antics and politics freely intermingle on the pages of these comics, and, sure as sunrise, the subject of national division is pretty much a staple. Funnily enough, Spirou seems to have had recently rather a penchant for dramatic ‘S.O.S.’ headlines like the one above (Save the world!) – it has also featured ‘Sauvez la France’ and, most interesting for our purposes, ‘Sauvez la Belgique’, on the subject of Belgium’s splitting woes. Belgium famously went 589 days between June 2010 and December 2011 without an elected government – the longest such period for a developed country, and a scenario that drew unhappy international attention to its perceived dysfunction.
Ominously – and almost as if it were a reflection of the ills of its own dear lampooned land – while Spirou‘s circulation continues to hold up, its Flemish counterpart, Robbedoes, closed in 2005 due to poor sales in the northern region. While comics are translated between French and Dutch, few Francophone comics are big hitters in Flanders, and Spirou‘s regional predicament illustrates how Flemish comics retain a distinct style and audience (and increasingly so). Though (ipso facto) short on an extant Spirou equivalent, general Flemish taste can be seen in a title like Spike and Suzy (Dutch: Suske en Wiske) – to Flemings what Tintin is to Francophones (and indeed S&S was published alongside Tintin in the latter’s magazine during the 1950s); a cultural reference so widely recognised, in fact, that it has been referenced in other images itself.
There are dedicated satirical journals in Belgium as well. Most esteemed among these was Pan, created in 1945 and based on France’s Canard enchaîné, with Pan the raunchy Greek faun-god as its mascot – rendered as a sly dapper devil, with all the Pannish connotations of deviance and boisterousness. Pan’s writers signed their articles with random words containing the word ‘pan’, like ‘Pandémonium’, ‘Pantalon’ (trousers), ‘Pandecte’ (a type of encyclopaedia), and ‘Pan Bagnat’ (a southern French sandwich). It continued until 2010, when it was bought by and merged with its competitor, Père Ubu, to create Ubu-Pan magazine, which continues in print today. Ubu-Pan continues Pan’s visual style, and is also characterised by a brazen right-wing populism.
A recent alternative to the big Brussels bruisers is La Poiscaille, created in 2010 in Liège, Belgium’s third largest city (after Brussels and Antwerp), with a small but growing circulation. Although a spirited and steady effort to fill a gap in the market in local journalism, it’s prudent to note that Belgium’s recent history is littered with satirical titles that couldn’t keep the plates spinning, often lasting just a couple of years – including two Flemish titles curiously named after Chinese communist leaders, MaoMagazine (2001-2) and Deng (2003-5).
It perhaps says something about the schizophrenic Belgian identity that, on the subject of Flemish titles, the region’s only long-running satirical magazine is, like its Francophone counterpart, of conservative disposition. t’Pallieterke, founded 1945, is Flemish nationalist and aligned with the controversial ultra-conservative Vlaams Belang party, mentioned above.
Another Flemish magazine, ‘t Scheldt, also has a nativist streak. It is considered somewhat rumour-mill, and is distributed only via email, although this hasn’t stopped it courting high-profile controversy: in 2004, it was sued by Claude Marinower, a VLD politician (Flemish Liberals and Democrats, an economic-liberal party), when the magazine called him a “perfect follower of Nazi methods”. Marinower won the case, but the ruling was overturned on appeal. The magazine also awards an ignominious ‘King of Assholes’ prize to a selected politician every year.
Online these days, however, you’re probably more likely to find people reading De Rechtzetting (‘The Correction’), the Flemish answer to The Onion. Once again, its saltworthiness is measured by its ability to cut close to reality, which it did in 2011 when it published an article claiming that Flemish minister Joke Schauvliege (that is her real given name) had set the maximum speed of dance music to 78 beats per minute. A testament to the perceived idiocy of this poor woman that it was believed to be something she might actually do, the ‘measure’ nonetheless caused several anxiously oblivious headbangers to harangue the government online.
Other than having pieces published in regular issues, Belgian artists may put out their own standalone comics or collections, sometimes on a particular politician or public figure. Of ones I have come across, the one I like best in relation to the matter of Belgian disunity is a number named Dégelée Royale, by cartoonists Marco Paulo and Thierry Robberecht. Dégelée Royale imagines what would happen if Belgium ‘finally’ split up, making its royal family redundant and casting them out onto the streets. (The title is a pun: gelée royale is royal jelly, the stuff bees feed their queens, while dégelée literally means melted; so in context it refers to royalty stripped of its rich sustenance, or a monarchy that’s melted away, or one thawed out of its rigid and time-frozen dignity and habits.)
In all of the publications we have dipped into here, regional identity runs unquestionably strong. Yet there also appears (beyond the ones with an openly separatist editorial position), if not a palpable positive national feeling, at least a general embattled loyalty to the people of Belgium at large, plus a reluctance to preside over the country’s break-up, or have the burden of fault or responsibility on one’s shoulders. It’s almost as though rubbing along uncomfortably is as integral to the Belgian mix as all those other anti-identities that have mapped out the country’s constellation past and present. And ironically, since identity is as much formed post hoc by shared experience as affirmed in reflection of it, that may well keep the whole thing trundling along a good while longer, despite the ever-present pressures on the political fringes, and however much we smug outsiders might continue to scorn the rickety setup.