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The Ligne Claire School of Comics

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Perhaps many people reading this have fond memories of poring over Tintin's adventures. Some may never have stopped, in fact. If you show any of these people a page produced by Hergé in his classic style, the chances are they'll identify the illustrator straight away, whether they've seen the page before or not. The reason? The famous ligne claire1 style of art which Hergé pioneered.

What is This Ligne Claire Stuff, Then?

To start at the obvious place, the clue is in the name. If you look at most comics or cartoons2, you'll notice a lot of variation in the width of lines making up different parts of the picture. This can be used to give a feeling of depth and perspective - with closer elements being made up of thick, heavy lines while those further away are more thinly drawn - or to emphasise more important elements, for example. With ligne claire, this isn't so. Lines are all drawn with equal weight and thickness. This creates quite a distinctive appearance of clarity and simplicity - maybe even a bit of the feeling of a technical drawing exercise. Shading, and shadow, are very limited, in contrast to the shadowy film noir visual effect which is very popular in many other French comics. A single thin line might suggest a fold in a garment or the bend in a limb, but blocks of black and grey are very rarely present.

The world of art present in comics runs right from completely abstract, to matchstick figures, through colourful caricatures, to realist work which could almost pass for a photograph. If you want to find some nice ligne claire art on this spectrum, look to the middle ground. The characters, while normally drawn to realistic proportions3, are usually still unmistakably caricatures.

In fact, it's almost a hallmark of ligne claire art that things get most interesting when you look beyond the characters in the story. The environments the characters are in and the backdrops to each panel are often intricately rendered and precise.

So, How Did All This Come About, Then?

Glad you asked! Well, the style we now call ligne claire developed in France and Belgium in the 1940s4. In 1940, Belgium and France were occupied by Nazi Germany. Along with perhaps every other aspect of life, the world of comics was affected by war and occupation. Popular American comics, like Flash Gordon, could no longer be imported due to difficulties of transatlantic shipping during war-time. There were more overtly political reasons, too: the new Nazi authorities strongly disliked the thought of the culture and ideas of a decadent USA being available for public consumption. Edgar P Jacobs5 at first made his own Flash Gordon strips to take up the story where the last available imports left off, but before long these were banned. Only a very narrow range of art was deemed acceptable to National Socialist ideology. The doctrine of entartete Kunst - degenerate art - ruled out a vast variety of work, so continuing to produce different comics in the same frowned-upon style wasn't an option.

Faced with the problems imposed by this quarantine, European artists were forced to fall back on their own devices, and the art of comics in Europe developed in a new and different direction. It's ironic that the stifling cultural atmosphere of Nazi occupation gave birth to a style of art whose offshoots are still influencing comics and art right down to the present day - but necessity is the mother of invention, and that's how ligne claire was born.

So You Want to Give it a Go, Then?

While Hergé's Adventures of Tintin and Edgar P Jacobs' Adventures of Blake and Mortimer might be viewed as the trailblazers of the style, there's a lot more variety around for anyone who wants to take a look. From the late 1950s the style went slightly out of fashion. Slightly more anarchic and cartoonish comics like the Asterix series become a serious competetitor, and throughout the sixties, underground and counter-culture comics aimed at an older audience also began to grow in importance. Ligne claire never really went away, though. Its influence has been traced to the Pop Art styles of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and in the 1970s it underwent a renaissance which has lasted on and off until the present day.

If you want to investigate further, you could do no better than to try it out for yourself. In no particular order of preference, the following artists and works might be worth a look:

  • Hergé - The Adventures of Tintin6
  • Edgar P Jacobs - The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer
  • Jason Lutes - Berlin
  • Joost Swarte - Katoen en Pinbal
  • Yves Chaland's Freddy Lombard series of comics
  • Garen Ewing - The Rainbow Orchid (available free to read online)
  • Joann Sfar, whose Rabbi's Cat series owes a distinct debt to the style, while moving beyond its usual plain clarity of line and colour.

That's enough to be going on with, eh? Lets face it though. Art's often more fun when you take part as well as watching. So grab a pen, some paper and get doodling!7

1'Clear line', in English - or 'klare lijn' in Dutch.2Notably, perhaps, ones in the manga style.3Unlike, for example, Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters.4It wasn't called that then, though. It wasn't really called anything. It hadn't really been named until the Dutch artist and designer Joost Swarte coined the term in Dutch - klare lijn - in 1972.5A Belgian writer and illustrator of comics and, along with Hergé, a founding father of ligne claire.6Although some of the early albums in the series were made before he developed his signature style, they were later re-drawn and re-coloured into a style more similar to the rest - largely by Edgar P Jacobs.7It may not be the style for the shakey-handed among us - but just get a ruler and a flexible curve if you feel you can't even draw a clear line...

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