French Comic Books are Having a Moment



There's been a lot of excitement over Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson's collaboration on a 3-D motion capture version of Tintin, Hergé's famous comic book based on the adventures of a young Belgian reporter. Essentially, the film will use the same technology as Avatar on a perfectly chosen cast to make it look as though the comic has come to life (though if you ask me, the series of 40-minute cartoons from the early 1990s kind of already did that).

But Tintin—which isn't due out until Christmas 2011—isn't the only Franco-Belgian comic on its way to the big screen. Two others—one about a mystery-solving writer, one about the world's second ice age—are being made into films as well, and they both look worth seeking out, to say the least.

French writer-illustrator Jacques Tardi had a particular fondness for political fiction and a fascination with war but his most famous character is Adèle Blanc-Sec, who underwent a four-year artificial hibernation in the middle of her adventures, sleeping right through World War I. Adèle is a novelist turned reporter, living alone in a sixth story apartment, solving the great mysteries of supernatural Paris. She drinks, she smokes, she shoots stuff with her revolver. She takes lovers, wears ridiculous hats, and writes detective novels. In short, Adèle is a great French hero and Luc Besson has made her movie.

Adèle fans might worry that actress Louise Bourgoin is too young and hot to play the clever curmudgeon, but Bourgoin has more up her sleeve than some regrettable nude photos. The sculptor, animator, voice artist, and comedienne had a regular gig on French TV channel Canal+, parodying book titles and performing hearty spoofs of celebrities. In this one () special guest John Travolta looks confused as Bourgoin ziplines into the studio a la Femme Nikita, makes some obscure jokes in her pink wig, then cross-dresses as President Sarkozy's goofy son, greeting butchers in the street. Note: she's making fun of politicians' sons becoming politicians when maybe they'd be better off doing other things.

Watch the trailer for Les Aventures Extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc-Sec and start getting excited. It looks like Besson has made a very careful study of Tardi's grubby, puddle-wrecked Paris on the brink of war and lifted a few memorable panels directly from the comic. The film is released this month in France, meaning a subtitled version should make it here next year:

While Adèle shares some of Tintin's adventurous innocence and charm, the story of Transperceneige is far more grim. Illustrator Alexis and writer Jacques Lob started work on the project in the 1970s, and when Alexis died in 1977, the papers sat on a floor somewhere for many years until Jean-Marc Rochette helped complete the artwork for the first volume. When Lob died in 1990, Benjamin Legrand took his place working beside Rochette for the next two volumes.

In French interviews, it is quite common to ask Rochette if he feels like death is upon him, as though the comic is cursed and he's living on borrowed time. The three-part black and white series loops through a second ice age in which the Earth's last survivors are stuck on a freezing train called Le Transperceneige (Snowpiercer), making its passage on an unknown track, and running, like most post-apocalyptic worlds, by its own complicated set of rules.

But this isn't about the end of the world, it's about how we keep on playing the same old game even when we've lost half the deck. The train compartments follow a strict social order and serious change, like, the whole world being doomed by frost, doesn't seem to change manipulative, greedy people. Told you it was grim.

But here's the good news: brilliant Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho bought the rights in 2005 after he read the whole series in one go, standing in a comic book store near Hong-ik University. Park Chan-wook, not a rival after all, will produce it. Fans of the dark comic will feel the frissons of anticipation—Bong's films suggest he will make this into something beautiful.

Bong met with Rochette and Legrand in 2006 at Cannes and the three drafted a list of French-, Korean-, and Japanese- speaking actors they thought belonged on the train. But the film will probably feature a mostly Korean cast. The screenplay, currently being written by a South Korean sci-fi writer, is not going to follow the plot of the comic exactly. That all sounds great, though I'm wondering if the film will maintain Rochette's strictly black and white palette.

Bong is aiming to shoot and release Snowpiercer next year, meaning that if these three films stay on schedule, 2011 is poised to be a pretty good one for Franco-Belgian comics. And if they're well received maybe Casterman, the Belgian publishing house, will finally translate Transperceneige to English (and hire me to do it?).