By T.S. Morangles
During the 1960s, Francophone children were treated with four comics depicting life between 400AD – roughly the Crossing of the Rhine to the Battle of Hastings. The Cold War would be influencing the storylines through which Vikings, Saxons and early kings were to grace in our weekly magazines.
1965, France was an historical battlefield akin to the Catalonian Fields where just like in 451, the real winners would emerge later.
On one side DISNEY with Mickey Journal. On its Page 3, the mouse would go time-traveling through endless episodes visiting significant events in European History with a obvious slant toward the French point of view. Napoleon is the hero. Sorry.
Early Medieval Prince Valiant has to share pages along Thierry the Sling. A cartoon inspired by a French TV program set during the Hundred Years War. Thierry sports a neat name harking from Merovingian days and the Black Prince is the villain along traitorous Navarre.
Thierry was the heart-throb of 1965 television. As we say in 2014, do not ask.
1968 sees the arrival of The Mighty Thor. We shall not debate of myths seen through the prism of alternate universes. Thor can be seen in cinemas and on a children’s cartoon network. Alternate universe is in my humble opinion, the most charitable expression one can use as its relevance to real Norse men…
The Russian side or to be precise the French Communist side
In 1965, the Communist publisher Vaillant editions (still active in 2014) are rich in medieval characters. Robin Hood (he steals from the oppressive pre-capitalistic corrupt burghers and nobles) and Ragnar the Viking.
Ragnar has probably inherited his name from the eponymous Lothbrok but the resemblance stops here. We are discussing children comics, not grown men lathered in blood axing priests while cheating on their wives.
Ragnar has behind him already 10 years of printed raids and is ready to help a certain Rollo conquer Normandy. Eduardo Coelho and Jean Ollivier wrote remarkable episodes and, more importantly, they followed as much as they could the discoveries made by archaeologists. If Vikings raid a monastery, they are shown holding a proper Merovingian or Carolingian reliquary. Emperors wear crowns adorning imperial heads on certified Aachen illuminations. I remember arguing with my father to obtain the magazines when they were publishing about his adventures.
Today, Ragnar adventures have entered France BD patrimonial past (BD as bande dessinee is French for comic strip).In 1969, Ragnar will be a grown man and his adventures will stop, much to the regrets of a lot of his fans.
The fourth comic comes from the Franco-Belgian school. I hope our Anglo-Saxon readers know of the masterpiece known as The Adventures of Alix where a young Gaul visits countless places from antiquity. Comics are seen as the ideal medium to teach History for this school which includes Pilote and Tintin. Pilote is Asterix the Gaul own turf. One cannot but imagine the outraged faces of real Danes reading Asterix and the North Men. One has the revenges one can afford and satire is free. History is not limited to Antiquity. ..
Tintin produces Chevalier Ardent, a knight who lives in a world closer to Carolingian days but set in a proto-Arthurian world. Later, this school will publish two albums dedicated to the sons of Chlothar the Elder: 561 AD (who said the Dark Ages could not be inspirational).
In 1965, the king of the sea is called Harald the Viking. Slightly older, Harald is a child from Fred and Liliane Funcken. The couple would also be known for their remarkable work on historical uniforms. Harald did not make the same impact as Ragnar in my childhood memory for some reason.
Time flies – Marvel becomes the powerhouse we know and Mickey Mouse forgets his acquired taste for real history. Meanwhile the Franco-Belgian school is alive and kicking. Using a different format, yearly albums of 44-46 pages with a lot more attention to detail, Medieval History is still targeted: Vasco comes to mind, also Thorgal, Svein, companion of Hasting (the guy behind the real Paris raid of 886). In truth, I could write a whole book dedicated to medieval history used by comics. Up until recently Vikings as such inspired by Patrick Weber’s book along 1066 as its 950th anniversary is almost there.
I would be churlish to end this memory lane essay without including…
A difficult essay, don’t you think as it requires to select comic strips adhering as strictly as can be to real history. An arduous one as what to choose from is my answer as remembered with the bias of trying to remember a ten-year-old child’s memory. Having quickly surfed the web, it is obvious I have omitted a lot of ink-heroes.
These real heroes are often found nowadays in strips where Gregory, Bede, Pseudo-Fredegar are the writers. These stories are printed and re-printed showing there is a persisting audience for it.
1980: From Clovis to the Vikings originally published in 1980, reprinted in 2008 has its place in my library. The third chapter is titled The Sea Wolves. Eduardo Coelho of Ragnar fame is in charge. This time it is real history and once again he is up to it. The despair of the Frankish population is properly depicted. Nobody can doubt the courage of Vikings; but this is what real History channel could be.
We see thieves, robbers, looters. There is no admiration in the pillaging armies. Like wolves they bite and ripe apart the flesh of the Empire. The year long siege of 886 is the chunky part. Vikings at first seafarers were slowly to include European politics. Rollo was to become Count of the Normanni while the direct line of Charlemagne was to die out, cousins known to have fought off Danes were ready to grab the crown.
The Dark Ages which were probably called dark as they end at the light of Vikings burning books in monasteries. This book end as the Capetians will enter the stage. Because let’s not forget it: Hastings belongs to the Anglo-Saxon world. What would have happened to Normandy if William had failed (failed and not died); would he have attacked Paris and its fourteen-year-old king? After all, William may have been himself a Carolingian (Capetians are hailing from the Pippinids) via the hypothetical Princess Ghisla. If such lady ever existed, William was closer to the Great Emperor than the Capetian youth… but this is where comic books stories begin. And this essay ends.
For a specific bibliography and sources, please follow my Twitter account @morangles where you can read more about French sources which have never been translated (to my knowledge) in English. Some of these gems include:
Odin: magnificent iconography wise (Following the god Odin from the beginning to Ragnarok)
Hammerfall: dealing with the conversion of the Saxons and the old Gods show them trying to survive Charles the Great. Aside the Marvel horns, now a staple of the Trickster, said Norse Gods are a lot less powerful than their Marvel counterparts.
Millenaire/Millenium: Set near the dreaded year 1000. Frankia, England, Rome you name it are afflicted by the Sylphs. Yes X-Files set in 987! One maybe surprised that ETs who are not deprived of flying saucers are still not successful. Interesting twist on werewolves via Sarracen Ghouls (very frightening by the way). A good depiction of the end of the dark ages with a stupendous storyline.