Augie's Crazy Franco-Belgian Comics Scheme


I brought this idea up on the blog recently, but I think it's worth repeating here. This column has a larger audience, so maybe someone will have an idea.

I want to learn more French. Unfortunately, most schemes to do so involve speaking French. They aren't teaching you to read it. They expect you're going to be a tourist who wants to impress the locals in Paris with a bad French accent asking for a croissant properly at a restaurant, or for the location of the nearest bathroom. They get you mimicking the sounds and listening to the words to assimilate them. I'm more interested in textual French for the sake of reading more comic books that haven't been translated into English.

The brute force approach is to have a French comic in one hand, and Google Translate in the other. Type everything in. Pick up on words as you go that way. I've tried that. It's somewhat effective, but tedious and frustrating. Pairing that with buying a book about learning French can help, because then you'll be reading the words and learning as you go that way. Learning some basic verb tenses and sentence construction is a good thing, too.

But I want more. And I want it to be entertaining. I'm greedy like that.

If people can learn English from reading comics, then I submit that it should be possible to learn French by reading comics strips! Why?

1) They're free on the web. There's no cost to this.

2) The writing is mostly conversational. It's not a formal piece of writing, like trying to pick up a language by reading a newspaper or a book from that country. Since most comics are filled with dialogue, learning to read conversational French would be a huge plus.

There's one piece missing, though. I need a source of comic strips in both English and French. Most modern comic strips syndicated here in America are posted on the web. I'm guessing that there's a similar syndicate system in Europe -- France, in particular -- that's doing the same thing with the translated strips. I want to click on two web pages in the morning and read the same comics in English and French, flipping between two tabs in my web browser. I have to think that such a real world fun example of translations would be a great learning tool. Maybe there's a comic strip syndicate with a ".fr" version of its English language edition ".com"?

I found one example in Spanish so far. GoComics.com posts "Garfield" in Spanish. Take out the word "espanol" from that URL and you get the same Garfield strip in English. Surely, this isn't the only strip like this. And somewhere, somehow, someone is doing it with the French language. Right?

If we can figure out those sites and those link structures, it would be easy enough to automate the process of reading comic strips side by side in French and English on a daily basis and picking up on frequently used words and phrases. It's likely not a commercial venture, since the owners would likely have a problem with you scraping their site to represent their work without the ads that surround it and pay for them, but on an individual basis... Well, I'll leave that up to your own programming resources and imagination. Worst case scenario, you can just have two tabs open in your browser at a time, with a third pointing at Google Translate. That's not so bad.

Please consider this my appeal to French readers of this column: What's the website that carries these strips in a translated edition? Where can I find them? Drop me an email if you know the URLs or have any suggestions. I'll be happy to report back on what we find. Thanks!


Speaking of Franco-Belgian comics:

"Orbital" is a breathtaking science-fiction series translated and published by Cinebook. Written by Sylvain Runberg with art by Serge Pelle, it's set 200 years in the future as the earth joins up with an alien confederation, instantly propelling them into the future, as it were. Of course, not everyone agrees that that's a good thing from either side -- whether it's the humans afraid of the aliens or the aliens looking down their noses at the backwards planet of Earth. We follow Caleb Swany, a new diplomatic recruit, as he heads off to his first mission where everything (of course) goes horribly awry.

The breathtaking part of the book is Pelle's art. At it's core, it's slightly cartoony and simple, with the main human, in particular, looking more like a comic strip character than a photorealistic book that Jean Van Hamme might have written. But the detail present on every page is awe-inspiring. Much of it is done in the coloring, which looks like a mixture of paints and colored pencils. It's probably all done in Photoshop, for all I know, but that's what the final look is. Rather than blocks of colors and gradients for special effects, Pelle gives it added texture on top of technically detailed art. This book is filled with spaceships and land cruisers that aren't lacking for seams, spare parts, and gee-gaws. His sense of scale is enormous. These are large-scale missions onto other planets, so the scale should be huge.

Thankfully, the book maintains a larger size. The 48 page album clocks in at 8.5 x 11 inches in size, compared to what "Largo Winch" is shrunken down to today, a mere 7 x 10 inches. It sounds like a minor difference, but it's enormous when compared side by side. Doing the math, it's 92 square inches per page for "Orbital" versus 70 on "Largo Winch." That's big. The original is closer to 12 x 9 inches, or 108 square inches. it's big. I'm jealous.

The overall palette is relentlessly dark in this first volume. There's lots of night scenes, spaceship scenes, and ship hangars. These are not bright pleasant places, so the palette fits. The book is printed on nice flat white paperstock. I have to think the paper eats up some of the ink. I wonder if a smoother, glossier stock would show the art and colors a bit more? Or if that would destroy the effect? I wish I knew. It's not hard to read, so it's not a problem. It's just that after 40 pages of it, you'll want to step out into the sun.

The problem with the book is that it's a little too static. Things happen in the book and there are a couple of brief action pages, but there's also a lot of new characters standing around and talking things through. The expository dialogue is an evil necessity in a first volume of a book with as much back story as "Orbital" has, but it tends to stall the book's momentum out a lot. And then, just when there's a big dramatic action scene coming -- that's the cliffhanger. Like "Largo Winch," Cinebook is breaking these books into parts. Each pair of volumes comprises one story. The break point in this case works against the book. Hopefully, we have enough of the backstory now that things will start moving more dramatically in the second half. That'll also help us understand the characters' motivations more, and get a better feel for each of them. Right now, it all seems very on-the-surface.

"Orbital" is worth it for the visual splendor, alone. At the larger page size, it shows itself off nicely. I liked it so much that I automatically ordered the second volume on Amazon and will be read it this week. The cover price for this series is $11.95. The next three volumes jump up to $12.95, but also contain an extra eight pages to help offset that cost. You can see the merest hint of what the book looks like if you check out the preview for the digital edition. That preview doesn't take you into space on the adventures, but it's still a nice start to get an idea.


(Thanks to Arachne on the Pipeline Message Board for pointing this one out to me.)

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