The 9th Art: Graphic Novelist Olivier Broyart in Belgium

Brussels, the capital city of Belgium, is famous for its chocolate and waffles.

© Olivier Broyart's "Attention Nuage"

But lesser known is the treasure trove of artists that permeate the small city.

A recent trip to the quaint town with its interesting murals and graffiti, revealed a beating heart of young graphic novelists, unassuming, imaginative and undiscovered.

I had a rare opportunity to speak to one of them, Olivier Broyart.

The young Frenchman, face full of blondish hair, in many ways embodies the quintessential Bohemian artist of ones imaginings.

Born in Alsace, France, but living for the past few years in Belgium, Broyart didn’t easily speak candidly about himself.

Yet, as he spoke, the twinkle in his eye was evidence of his passion for a medium that he felt saved him during his difficult times as a young boy in school.

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing.  I wasn’t very good in my school work, but as I got better at drawing, I became a more confident person.”

Always an artist

Broyart always saw illustration as his only career choice.  He couldn’t imagine doing anything else with his life.  The social aspects of drawing helped him get over his shyness.

A joining together of illustrators, colourists, inkers and writers, the creation of a graphic novel is often a large-scale project.  Broyart lately has functioned in all of these roles; however, he typically performs the writing and the illustration.

Broyart also collaborates with other artists on a regular basis; yet, he admitted that the early part of his process is usually a solitary one.

“I can’t let other people’s opinions influence my work at the start, or else I will not be able to continue.  There are sometimes, of course, technical reasons why I need to know what others think, and I enjoy collaborative projects.  But this is a different sort of thing.”

The graphic novel surfaces

© Broyart's "La fée et la chouette"

In recent years, graphic novels have surfaced from its subculture into mainstream view, by way of the publicity of film adaptations such as 300 and V for Vendetta.

While these films seem of interest to the especially initiated alone, they have certainly grabbed the attention of those larger audiences attracted to science fiction, fantasy and action films.

Also, comic books – often less lengthy versions of graphic novels – have gained new momentum in the world of film with an abundance of adaptations from Marvel and DC Comic book heroes such as Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Captain America, the Hulk, X-Men and the Green Lantern.

Yet, graphic novels seem to be in a class all their own, attracting evermore specialised interests with intense and often gothic story lines.

Finding the human within

Broyart tries to bring what he learns in life to his graphic novels, by finding the humanity in his protagonists.

Primarily in the genre of sci-fi/fantasy, Broyart is attracted by the way that a character might deal with circumstances that he or she doesn’t necessarily understand, by acknowledging that they still have to go through it.

Citing Shelly’s Frankenstein as one of his favourite books, Broyart believes that curiosity is often a compelling drive for characters in his stories.

“My characters are not tragic.  I try to put myself in their situations.  My characters are aware of the pointlessness of fighting against the inevitable – but still, they must try.”

Broyart admits that his story is often influenced by his own mood.

“If I’m feeling down, then so is my main character.  My characters are not machines or supermen.  They are human.”

Introducing colour

The illustrator/writer has collaborated with a colourist, Sophie Bihin.  This leap of faith boded well for Broyart, who humbly appreciated the different perspective that Bihin added to his work.  This has ultimately caused him to invest in equipment that allows him to do some colouring of his own.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of artists like Broyart is their older/wiser need to be true to their vision rather than the pursuit of commercial gain.

Though in Brussels, the market is satiated with artists without enough venues to show their work, the level of integrity of Broyart and his colleagues is refreshing.

Many may think that fans of graphic novelists may like to see the genre better appreciated, but in truth, most would just like to see some of the incredibly talented artists like Broyart get their due.

With comics being featured in film so much more readily in the past decade, it will be interesting to see in the years to come if graphic novels are brought out of obscurity.

Journalist Patricia Floric reported in a feature article last year that graphic novels are “not really respected and often misjudged” which unfortunately makes them specialty items in the UK that are often too expensive for their particular audience.

Yet, with the growing population of artists like Broyart, who are, at times, entrepreneurial and freelance, the integrity of the art need not fall into the realms of commercialism.

As people seek for something authentic to hold onto, graphic novels seem to maintain a sort of dignity that bolds well for the artistic future of la bande dessinée.

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French Cuisine in Brussels

When my friend Chris and I hopped off the Eurostar Train at Gare du Midi in Brussels, the first thing we noticed was the smell of Belgian waffles.  We had both been really excited about the trip.  And though we were eager and willing to embark on this journey, we’d had no idea that it would turn out to be, more than anything else, an expedition for our taste buds. 

After checking in at the Hilton hotel and getting directions and maps from the concierge, we started on our way.  La Grand Place was in walking distance and Chris with his navigating nose and the use of a map, was guiding us toward it.

By then, we were both ravenous and tried to find a place to eat, but kept coming up empty.  It seemed ages before we figured out that restaurants stay closed after breakfast and don’t open back up until 3pm.

By the time we found a Le Grand Café open, we didn’t much care that it was a tourist trap, crowded with sticky floors and slow service.  Though it wasn’t Brussels best by any degree, it was pretty good.  It became clear to us that the French see food differently then the rest of Western civilization.  We cook food, they create it.

In a touristy place like this, one wouldn’t expect anything to excite their palettes.  We could barely read the menu, which had no English subtitles.  But I reasoned that the word saumon meant salmon, and so we both ordered it.

What we received was a combination of rich sauces and stuffed fish that was a treat for the palette, as well as the eyes.  Dressed with what could have only been fried onion-skins and carrot strips, the presentation of food was colourfully decadent and we tucked in eagerly.  The sauces complemented the food so well that each bite was like an explosion of flavour in our mouths.

Ready for more

Satisfied but ready for more, we ordered dessert.  I had Tatin Tarte (Apple Tart) with vanilla ice cream, and was shocked to find the quality of the ice cream better than any I’d ever eaten in London restaurants.  The ice cream was from a Swiss company called Mövenpick, known for its strict charter prohibiting the use of any chemical or artificial additives.  The tarte, unlike many I have tasted before, was sweet and rich enough to stand on its own, with no need for accompaniments.   After lunch, I found myself paying more attention to the cities rituals regarding food.

We couldn’t help but notice that in the tourist area of Le Grand Place, a square in the middle of the city enclosed by some of the loveliest and ornate architecture Brussels has to offer, there was at least three chocolatiers on every road.  A fierce competition between chocolatiers was taking place, but the tourists always won.  Most of us got two or three free chocolates before we stepped foot in the doors.  None of the chocolate shops were lacking in customers.

Elisabeth’s for example was bustling with tourists; no doubt on account of the funny female duo behind the counter, both of them urging the customers to taste their newest creations.  At first, I crinkled my nose suspiciously when handed a chocolate green tea-flavoured treat.  Yet, finally disarmed by the saleswoman, I popped the strange concoction into my mouth and was greeted with two rich delicious flavours that I couldn’t have guessed would complement each other so well.

 A few hours later, as night fell over the city, we began to experience that all too familiar combination of growls and pangs growing in our bellies.  We stepped onto a street near the Arcade in Le Grand Place and immediately felt as if the city were answering our every appetite. 

At first, so many colours greeted us that we had to wonder just what kind of food was being sold on this narrow cobble-stoned strip.    The first restaurant had a replica of Brussels’ most prized statue, the Manneken Pis. The small metal boy stood naked, as water sprang from him onto a lovely exhibit of king sized prawns, lemon wedges, asparagus, oysters, clams and crab claws, caressed by crunchy red and green lettuce leaves.  It was an awesome sight, and I began to imagine that the seafood in Brussels was fresh and delicious. 

 The restaurant just across from it was called The Lobster House, which we ultimately chose for its brick-laid kiln built right in the middle of the dining area.  It was so quaint and warm inside, and our waiter was clever and funny.

I had read in a tour guide book that Belgium was actually responsible for creating french fries, and that the word ‘french’ in this case is the verb meaning to cut into thin slices.  Belgium, in fact, is famous for many foods and beverages including mussels and beer.  Our mouths watered as we waited for our meals.  It took an incredibly long time for our food to be served, which we started to believe was a trend in Brussels.

When our platters of grilled fish and seafood, frites, mixed vegetables and pastas finally arrived, we dived in gleefully.  The seafood was indeed fresh, and we imagined that our grilled salmon and prawns had been happily swimming in the ocean that very same day.

 Filled to the gills

 Filled to the gills, we walked off the tight feeling of fullness swearing to never eat again.  Yet, within two hours, that now familiar smell of Belgium waffles wafted towards us from several spots in the centre of Le Grand Place.  ‘We can’t possibly leave Brussels without having a Belgium Waffle,’ Chris suggested.  Before long, the flaky taste of buttery crust and rich chocolate had gripped us both.

The next morning, just as we were leaving for the station, we stopped to buy chocolates and treats that we claimed were for family and friends.  Yet, in truth, it was in a very small way, an attempt to bring a taste of Brussels with us. 

But the cuisine in Belgium is more than a taste of good chocolate or the smell of a waffle.  It is an experience best had in a French city where food is celebrated daily, and best shared with those who can appreciate the beauty of great food.