[This is the script for a five-minute talk I gave at the launch of the Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic on 16 September 2020. Ellen Kushner gave the keynote, which was followed by a discussion panel featuring Brian Attebery, Terri Windling and myself.]
Once upon a time there was a child who loved to read. He only read stories about things that could never happen, often set in lands or worlds that never existed, full of creatures unknown to science. He liked these stories because he was at boarding school and they took him far away from the life he led there, in dormitories and classrooms and corridors smelling of cabbage.
As he got older he went on reading stories about impossible things, but he did it in secret, because such stories were for younger children. He found there were also stories for adults of this kind, often of great beauty and complexity, though people told him that this sort of story was less grown up than other kinds.
When he grew up he wrote a doctoral thesis about stories written in the sixteenth century. This was considered a serious subject because the stories were old, but they carried him away to lands that felt as if they had been invented, full of magic, and strange creatures, and vivid pictures painted in delightful words. He got a job at Glasgow University.
Later still he went to America, where he was allowed to teach a course on the books he most liked reading, about things that never existed and never could exist. When he got back he set up a course exactly like that, for undergraduates. His friend Alice Jenkins suggested he set up a Masters programme to teach the books to graduate students and encourage the world to take them seriously.
People like him from all over the world came to study on the programme. He hadn’t realized how many people there were like him in the world: people who loved thinking about invented places and things and creatures and asking questions about them, such as why they had been invented, what needs they fulfilled at different times in history, and how they might shape the world we live in.
Glasgow University saw how many people were interested in impossible things and created more jobs in the area. He was joined by new companions from places far away and magical to him, such as Greece and Wales and the British Library. The fellowship of staff and students grew quietly from year to year.
Together we invented new ways to share the pleasure of the impossible. Night at the Museum, where imaginary people and things took over the Hunterian Museum for an evening. Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, where more people were invited to join us and talk about books and films and comics and games. A conference for imagining climate change. Fantasy Reading Parties, where we could share the stories, scripts and poems we had written. Symposiums where we plotted events for the future.
Five years after the founding of the Glasgow Fantasy MLitt programme, here we are again, setting up a Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, designed to make it easier to share ideas and dreams about the impossible with everyone who cares to join in.
Perhaps the impossible is not so impossible after all? Perhaps things can really be done with fantasy and the fantastic, and to the hearts and minds of people who enjoy such things? Perhaps fantasy and the fantastic can change the way we think of the world or the country or the town or the house we live in? Perhaps together we can build a future where the impossible becomes a template for the possible?
If you really want to immerse yourself in fantasy Brussels, you can’t do better than read its comics, and above all the work of Schuiten and Peeters. You should discover, if you can, not just the Cités obscures series but their many side-projects too, which include exhibitions designed to create the illusion that there are portals, openings or passages between our world and certain parallel universes, of which the ‘Continent obscure’ is the most complex and best known. The Continent is a kind of alternative Europe, permanently devoted, it seems, to the architecture and technology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interestingly the Continent seems to exclude any version of Britain, as if Schuiten and Peeters were already anticipating Brexit from the moment they started the Obscure project in the early 80s. But if London, Birmingham and Edinburgh are absent from their parallel universe, the place is simply teeming with versions of Brussels: from the art nouveau monster-city Samaris in the first volume of the series, which draws unsuspecting travellers inside its walls to feed on their personalities like a vast carnivorous plant, to the City of Urbicande, which gets taken over by a three-dimensional grid of giant poles or girders, made up of ever-expanding cubes which eventually construct a kind of pyramid over the city, like the pyramid Poelaert wanted to build on the highest point of his Palais de Justice. The buildings of Samaris are no more than frail facades, which invokes the ‘façade retention’ technique of Brusselisation, while the network of Urbicande can be read as a working model of a faceless bureaucracy that has failed to tailor itself to the needs of actual urban environments – the Brexiteer’s version of the European Union. But the growing grid can also be seen as liberating, since it constantly forms new passages between one place and another as it grows, temporarily connecting the prosperous south bank of the city to the impoverished north bank in defiance of the wishes of the totalitarian city council. There are, in other words, at least two perspectives on it, just as there are on the EU’s vision of a unified Europe.
La Tour is set in a version of Pieter Breughel’s two famous paintings of the Tower of Babel – a structure so vast that it may never be completed, where maintenance workers live like parasites in desolate forgotten corners of the building, striving to preserve them against the decay that is setting in before the process of construction has come to an end. Breughel painted his Tower in Antwerp but died in Brussels, where the bulk of his greatest masterpieces were executed. Brüsel concerns itself with the difficulties of the owner of a flower-shop, Constant Abeels, as he struggles to relaunch his business at a time when the City of Brüsel is itself being restructured on an epic scale in response to constantly changing instructions from a corrupt developer, Freddy de Vrouw. Meanwhile the city is falling prey to Kafkaesque bureaucracy – which makes one suspect a punning reference to Terry Gilliam’s great dystopic assault on bureaucracy, Brazil, in the album’s title – as well as a rising tide of polluted water, the very element which the city planners aimed to suppress by paving over the river Senne. As love letters to the European capital, these two albums are as fascinated by its failings as by the overweening vision that continues to test its resources to the limit, and to lift the hearts and minds of its devotees.
Another work, La musée Desombres – comprising a booklet and CD, which I haven’t yet managed to get hold of – is about a museum in our own world whose exhibits look like ordinary paintings by the artist Augustin Desombres, but actually serve as passages to the Continent. The way these passages work is explained in the album L’enfant penchée, one of whose plotlines features Desombres making his way from his dilapidated studio-museum in northern France to the Obscure universe, where he becomes the lover of Mary von Rathen. There’s nothing particularly Brussels-like about the Desombres story apart from the notion that a museum could serve as a conduit between alternative universes, which is surely what the citizens of Brussels believe, else why devote so much money, thought and time to their construction? As the series unfolds it becomes clear that many such conduits or passages exist, and that this may explain the significant overlaps between the culture of the Continent and our own. It may be the resemblances between architecturally unique structures on both worlds that make them suitable to serve as passages. Given their anachronistic purposes, museum buildings are particularly complex and resonant examples of urban architecture, which is presumably why a museum-rich environment like Brussels has so many parallels in the world of Brüsel.
Indeed, there is something akin to a museum in the organization of several albums in the series. Many Franco-Belgian BDs privilege the writer rather than the artist, in that the writer produces the story and the artist illustrates it. With the Cités obscures, by contrast, it’s often the pictures that come first, with the writer producing narratives in response to the artist’s images, much as a museum curator produces a verbal narrative to forge a coherent relationship between objects that have ended up side by side in the museum building, often through historical accident rather than design. Some of the most effective albums in the series were developed this way. L’archiviste started out as a projected collection of posters to be published by Casterman for sale on an individual basis. Converted into an album, it became an account of research carried out by an isolated archivist, perhaps in our world, into a random set of images pertaining to the world of Urbicande and Samaris. This transforms the poster series into a kind of two-dimensional display cabinet, its contents curated by the archivist as he struggles to make sense of the images and compile a report on them for his superiors. Le guide des Cités masquerades as a Lonely Planet-style guidebook to Schuiten and Peeters’s parallel universe, its accounts of the societies, structures and notable personages to be found there helping to supplement the stories told in more conventional albums. It began as a pair of articles for a literary magazine, Les saisons, but ended up as a full-scale Baedeker, transforming the cities it describes into an open-air museum to be rambled through by imaginative tourists. Souvenirs de l’éternel présent is based on Schuiten’s sketches for a planned movie to be directed by Raoul Servais in the 1980s, while La route d’Armilia started life in a commission to create a comic in Danish containing representations of an Obscure version of Copenhagen, which had to be finished in time for the opening of an exhibition of Schuiten and Peeters’s work in the Danish capital. The album also incorporates images from other projects, including posters for a glazier, a watchmaker and a Wagner festival. The constraints imposed on these narratives by the initial circumstances of their production means that they are full of startling unexplained images. A woman clinging desperately to her vacuum cleaner as she dangles over an unfathomable gulf in Brüsel (is she really the star of a commercial, as one witness claims, or is she in deadly danger, as her expression leads us to believe?). Four explorers approaching a shining crystalline mountain (‘Qui peuvent-ils être? Que cherchent-ils?’), with a garden enclosed in a natural glasshouse at the summit. A city full of towers, the tops of which morph into baroque sculptures of naked men and women, their anatomies pierced by windows much as the monumental woman in Salvador Dali’s ‘The Burning Giraffe’ is pierced by drawers. An empty artist’s studio with no artist in it, full of paintings whose central images have been ripped from the canvas by some violent censor. Decontextualized, as unattached to any narrative as an anonymous artwork given to a gallery or an ancient artefact of unknown provenance found in the storerooms of a museum, each of these images exists in a kind of suspension or limbo, available to be read and reread in any way that suits the reader. The subjects of these pictures – buildings, vehicles, machines – have lost all connection to the conditions under which they were fabricated or the purpose for which they were first intended by their makers, and they share this lack of context with many buildings in modern cities, which get repurposed – like the Horta buildings in Brussels – or awkwardly juxtaposed with newer buildings. We must invent our own narratives to account for such juxtapositions, just as Peeters must invent a narrative in each album to account for the wayward juxtapositions in Schuiten’s pictures. The reader’s efforts at supplementary storytelling may be assisted by seemingly authoritative handbooks, like Le guide des Cités, or newspaper articles as in the album L’Echo des Cités – which is made up of pages from the most significant inter-urban news outlet of the Continent – or history books, like the forbidden volume found by the child Aimé in Souvenirs de l’éternel présent, which describes the cataclysm that reduced the City of Taxandria to the graveyard of architectural fragments it has become. But guidebooks, articles and history must in turn be augmented or given life by the imaginations of their diverse readers, which invariably run aslant to one another, since they were formed in response to different pressures and conflicting desires.
One of Schuiten and Peeters’s recurring protagonists, Mary von Rathen, encapsulates this obliqueness or perversity in our various responses to the worlds we encounter. At eleven years old, Mary is struck down by a mysterious ailment after a fairground ride, a condition that leaves her walking at a permanent angle to the ground, 45 degrees aslant from the upright that governs every other person’s posture on the planet. As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that she is in fact subject to the gravitational pull of a different planet or sphere, and it takes the rest of the album to restore her to a sense of equilibrium within her native world, the Continent. As a result of this ailment Mary becomes an attraction in a circus: Laetitia the tightrope walker, whose balancing skills are rendered astonishing by the 45 degree angle at which she perches on her cable. Fundamentally at odds with her fellow human beings, dismissed by nearly every adult she encounters as a troublemaker, freak or fraud, her personality quickly becomes as perverse as her posture; after all, she is a young girl in a patriarchal culture modelled on the Europe of the fin-de-siècle, and it’s only by contradicting everyone she meets that she is able to pursue her desired trajectory towards an explanation and perhaps a solution to her gravitational problem. Aided and abetted by fellow marginals and outcasts – the journalist Stanislas Sainclair, who as a dwarf has only with difficulty escaped being branded as a ‘freak’, like Mary herself; the aged inventor-scientist Axel Wappendorp, whose real achievements don’t prevent many of his countrymen from dismissing him as a madman; the artist Augustin Desombres, whose paintings are responsible for upsetting the equilibrium of the Continent as a whole, and of Mary in particular, by forging imaginative connections between his native Europe and the parallel world she lives in – Mary eventually recovers her balance, and grows up to be a famous visionary and activist, briefly restoring social, economic and political stability to the industrial city of Mylos where she was born. A slant perspective here becomes the basis for non-violent revolutionary action, and Mary joins the ranks of enigmatic women who have provided the radical counterbalance to bureaucratic authoritarianism since the beginning of the series: Sophie in La fièvre d’Urbicande, Milena in La Tour, Tina Tonero in Brüsel, Hella in La route d’Armilia, Minna in L’ombre d’un homme and all the rest. All of these rebellious women are outsiders in the quasi-imperialist architectural fantasies of the Continent, invariably reduced to symbols, tools or erotic objects by the men who meet them, or banished completely from the city streets, as happens in Taxandria. Mary and her sisters confirm that one person’s Paradise is another’s Inferno, a saying that could apply just as well to the unified Europe of the European Union as to the fragmented alternative Europe of Alaxis, Xhystos and Pâhry.
One album in the series strikes me as saying something especially pertinent to Brexit, invoking as it does the symbiotic relationship between the underlying problems and visionary possibilities of a united Europe. Superficially, La route d’Armilia tells a simple story. A young boy is entrusted with the formidable task of carrying a crucial ‘formula’ to the City of Armilia at the North Pole. Without this formula the Continent is out of balance in some fundamental way: weather conditions are getting more extreme, communications systems are breaking down, compasses are going haywire and those who rely on them are getting hopelessly lost as a result. The formula must be carried as quickly as possible to the North Pole using the fastest conveyance in existence – an airship or zeppelin – in order that the machine there that governs the planet’s equilibrium may be recalibrated and order restored. The airship’s mission is not too urgent, however, to permit the occasional digression on the way. As it traverses the north-west corner of the Continent from its starting point in Mylos to København, and from there across the Arctic wastes to its destination, the airship’s captain is prepared to turn aside from time to time to offer help to a stranded vehicle, or to allow his passengers a better view of the cities over which they pass. The journey provides, in fact, a rich mixture of adventures and wonder, like the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne on which it is modelled: from the discovery in the hull of a young stowaway called Hella, who becomes the boy’s fast friend, to an encounter with a giant land-cruiser, which has lost its way owing to the disruption of its instruments by the problem at Armilia; from an outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel just as the zeppelin is passing overhead, to the loss of the document containing the precious formula, and foul weather in Polar regions – again produced (it seems) by the problem at Armilia – which smothers the zeppelin in ice from stem to stern and almost causes it to crash. Through portholes in the cabin the two children watch in awe as the Obscure Cities glide majestically by, their hypertrophied buildings dwarfing the dirigible, which steers between them as between the peaks of the Himalayas. Its progress is described through the diary of Ferdinand, the boy, and records his rising panic as he realises, after losing the document containing the formula, that he cannot recall the words of the formula itself. Hella, meanwhile, boosts his confidence with sound advice and unflagging cheerfulness, as enthused by every wonder on the journey as Ferdinand himself. The improbable climax of their trip is a hurried visit to København, where the quirkily beautiful towers of real-life Copenhagen have been expanded to many times their actual size and number, and where the famous Tivoli gardens are dominated by a roller-coaster twice the height of the highest buildings in New York. On the way there, they pass over Bayreuth – a city whose streets empty themselves completely whenever an opera is performed – and Brüsel, whose buildings make the skyscrapers of Chicago look like toys. This is Europe as a scattering of upwardly mobile city states, multiple polders whose swarms of flying machines inspired by the inventions of the fin-de-siècle artist Albert Robida. Between these urban centres the landscape is more North American than European, with desert dominating the territory between Mylos and Muhka, forests and mountains between Brüsel and København, and icy waters and mountains north of that. There is little agriculture in sight – apart from a field full of sheep at the aerodrome where the airship commences its journey – and no connecting roads or railways. The Continent here is exclusively devoted to adventure and wonder, with no space in it that doesn’t do service to these two urges.
In fact, the single-minded dedication of the Continent to the fulfilment of Ferdinand’s adolescent fantasies begins to look increasingly suspicious as we read on. When the airship first takes off, the boy expresses the hope that the sheep he can see from the porthole, which are utterly unfazed by the silent rise of the giant dirigible, will not set the tone for the rest of the voyage: ‘J’espérais un peu plus de sensations. Pourvu que ce voyage ne soit pas trop tranquille!’ (p. 7). Sure enough, pleasing or frightening things happen at every stage, as if in response to the premonition he expresses shortly afterwards: ‘Ah, comme je sens que ce voyage va me plaire’ (p. 11). In fact, Laroute d’Armilia makes no secret of its own artificial nature. The pages of Ferdinand’s journal are penned in a neat italic script, with hand-drawn images carefully arranged around them for maximum decorative effect and emotional impact. It is embellished with attractive motifs: the tiny circular sections of map that announce the airship’s arrival in each new city – Porentruy, Muhka, Calvani, Genova; the narrow strips of landscape-drawing that occur on almost every page. A brief study of these strips confirms that they’re frequently repeated. One image of a desert landscape appears many times between pp. 7 and 25, an image of forested hills recurs between pp. 28 and 45, while a single picture of icy mountains and waters shows up again and again between p. 47 and the final page. The repeated images are, of course, a neat way of suggesting that the zeppelin is moving across vast geographical spaces, but they also suggest a certain lack of interest in minor details of the Continent, perhaps even an ignorance of them on the part of the journal’s author. What matters to Ferdinand are the highlights of his voyage, which occur with remarkable frequency. He visits three cities, for instance, in just one day, the 27th May, and makes no comment at all on what he sees between them. It’s as if the map of the journey provided on p. 10 has been compressed in certain places to ensure a regular provision of excitement en route to the North Pole.
Other aspects of the narrative reinforce the impression that things are being arranged for Ferdinand’s benefit. The girl Hella, for instance, shows up very early in the journey as if in response to a child’s desire for someone his own age with whom to share his enthusiasms. There seem to be no other passengers on the airship, no supervising adult to help the boy discharge his crucial duty of delivering the formula. Like the young protagonists of many children’s adventure stories, Ferdinand is unencumbered by parents, having been entrusted with his mission by an absent ‘uncle’ who seems to have absolute faith in his nephew’s capacities. Smaller details are even more strikingly arranged for Ferdinand’s convenience. He has bunk beds in his cabin, for instance – as we learn on p. 46 – as if the captain has anticipated from the start the need for a second child to be berthed alongside Ferdinand, in the kind of bed young people like best. The menu on p. 11, which illustrates ‘les nourritures délicieuses’ served in the airship’s dining room, is decidedly childish: chicken and chips for the main course, three different kinds of dessert – including chocolate cake and banana split – while the only drinks available are ‘Colibri Orange’ and ‘Zeppo Cola’. Tasty meals continue to provide significant highlights in Ferdinand’s account until the final page, when he and Hella are showered by the grateful inhabitants of Armilia with ‘nourritures merveilleuses et […] machines inconnues’, as if it were Christmas. Meanwhile there is a strong element of play about the journey. When Ferdinand loses the document containing the formula and seeks to dredge up its contents from the depths of his memory, every new phrase he comes up with reads like a crossword clue, a riddle or a piece of nonsense: ‘LE SINISTRE ARLEQUIN MANGE TOUS LES MIDIS UNE TONNE DE LIMAÇONS’; ‘TAQUINE TANTE ADÈLE SOUS LE LIT DU MAÇON’; ‘MIDI VIENT DE SONNER: CHARLES QUINT DANS LA TENTE A LIMÉ SON MINISTRE’; while the formula itself, once retrieved, sounds just as playfully inconsequential as these alternatives (‘À QUINTE LA SINISTRE, À MIDI LA DÉTENTE, SONNE LE LIMAÇON’, pp. 59-60). The very notion of entrusting the formula to a child suggests a playfulness about the airship adventure which is radically at odds with its apparent significance for the safety of the Continent.
At the same time, there are darker elements to the story, hints that some sinister force may be at work to foil Ferdinand’s mission – as suggested by the presence of the word ‘sinistre’ in two versions of the formula. Early on, the boy’s sleep is disturbed by a nightmare in which the hull of the dirigible opens up to reveal an armillary sphere (pp. 12-13): a representation of the workings of time in space which occurs many times in Schuiten’s artwork, and on which the City of Armilia seems to be modelled, as we learn when the expedition finally reaches its destination. In the boy’s nightmare, the many circles and rings around the sphere in the zeppelin’s hull revolve with ‘une folle energie’, as Ferdinand calls it. All at once they grind to a halt, unleashing a flurry of sheets of paper: ‘On aurait dit les pages d’un livre s’ils n’avaient été entièrement blanches’. The sheets quickly cover the sphere, turning it white, and Ferdinand wakes up drenched in sweat as if half smothered by the paper avalanche. Next day he finds the stowaway Hella cowering in the hull of the airship, where the sphere hung in his nightmare. She tells him she has escaped from the factory in Mylos where the canvas that covers the hull was fabricated, and Ferdinand is horrified to learn that the airship was constructed with child labour (‘Quoi? Une enfant de votre âge employée dans les fabriques[!]’, p. 17). He takes her to his heart at once as a fellow sufferer from bad dreams: ‘votre cauchemar est terminée,’ he tells her, ‘Désormais, vous êtes mon invitée à bord de cet appareil’ (p. 17). But later the connection between Hella and nightmares gets reasserted, when after another restless night (‘J’ai mal dormi’, p. 24), he is suddenly struck by the idea that the stowaway might be a spy, employed by some unknown enemy ‘pour me ravir la formule’. In a panic he conceals the document containing the formula in the hull of the ship – the third item so far to be hidden there. Not long afterwards Hella accuses him of mistrusting her, and to prove her wrong he hurries to fetch the document from its hiding place; but to his horror it has disappeared. Ferdinand starts to reassure his friend that he can remember the formula in any case, having learned it by heart; but ‘les mots, soudain, se sont étranglés dans ma gorge’ (p. 35), as he realises he has forgotten it completely. This is a cue for further nightmares:
La nuit, les mots se sont mis à danser dans ma tête comme des farfadets malfaisants. Ils couraient en tous sens, sautaient, grimaçaient, ricanaient; ils glissaient comme des ombres, échangeaient leurs habits, se cachaient sous des masques (p. 37).
The sense of play that dominates the journal is here transformed into a piece of carnivalesque puppet theatre staged by some demonic descendant of the Belgian puppet-master Toone. For the first time the heroic adventure of which Ferdinand has made himself hero begins to look as if it might end badly, the smooth arc of its trajectory disrupted by the malicious twirling of sinister marionettes.
At this point the significance of those blank pages in the zeppelin’s hull gets a little clearer. If the boy’s memory remains a blank, the whole journey he is recording becomes futile, its purpose lost, and he might as well stop writing. From now on, nightmares begin to invade the children’s waking hours. As the zeppelin enters Arctic regions, Ferdinand and Hella are aroused from sleep when the vessel suddenly tilts in a gust of wind, unbalanced by the weight of ice that covers it. Later the boy’s efforts to recall the formula wake him a second time, startling everyone with his shouts, and he is forced to pretend that he has had ‘un simple cauchemar’ (p. 51). As conditions in the cabin deteriorate, hunger, cold and lack of sleep ensure that these ‘simple’ nightmares spread to other members of the expedition in the form of mirages: the steward thinks he can see horsemen on the icepack below the vessel, the helmsman thinks they are flying over a desert. Alternative narratives threaten to disrupt the story of Ferdinand’s mission, until by the end of the journey the blank pages from his nightmare could stand for the possibility of writing anything on the blank pages of the world, since there is no structure to the universe, however strenuously one might struggle to impose an imaginative shape on its shapelessness, coherent rules on its primordial chaos. By this stage the constant disruptions to the airship’s voyage seem to enact the disruption of the Continent by the breakdown of the Armilian machine.
Yet in the album’s final pages all these nightmares and metaphysical torments get swept aside in a few swift strokes. On arrival at Armilia, Ferdinand is about to confess the loss of the formula to the city’s chief scientist, Professor Pym, when Hella suddenly hands the boy the missing document and he is able to read it aloud to Pym as his uncle intended. Hella later explains that she purloined the document as a ‘blague’ or joke, because she found Ferdinand too serious, too confident that he alone could save Armilia and the world. By concealing the paper from him she has made the journey a true collaboration between them; by restoring it she has reinstated playfulness as the mission’s dominant mode. Hella’s action confirms what Ferdinand once suspected – that she is not to be trusted; but it also identifies her as the perfect playmate, a trickster who performs practical jokes on her friend to ensure that his journey is everything he wsihes it to be, full of incident, danger and difficulty as well as of wonder. The potential complexity of the boy’s conspiracy theory has been rendered childishly ‘simple’, which is how Hella describes the motivation for her joke; the sinister has been rendered amusing. And when Ferdinand begins to complain about Hella’s behaviour, the girl closes the album by shouting another version of the formula, this time a clarion call to replace what is sinister with ringing laughter: ‘QUITTE CET AIR SINISTRE! DIS, L’AMI, DÉTENDS-TOI ET RIONS SANS FAÇON!’ In doing so she identifies herself as a bearer of her own formula, which celebrates the triumph of play over the rigidity of proverbs, inflexible rules and rote learning. Indeed, her playful philosophy seems to be shared by the Obscure Continent itself, since Professor Pym has to imaginatively decode the riddling formula delivered to him by Ferdinand before it can be used to fix the damaged mechanism of Armilia (p. 60). Her trick on Ferdinand is entirely in the spirit of the universe he seeks to save – at least in the journal’s version of that universe – which suggests that she herself is in some sense the formula he needs to restore its equilibrium.
By the time this happens, however, the album’s readers are well aware that the playful plot in which Hella plays a part masks another, grimmer plot from which she is excluded, and which runs parallel to Ferdinand’s adventures in the airship. This second narrative is delivered in a style much closer to that of the conventional BD: a series of panels designed to be read from left to right, with dialogue conveyed in speech bubbles (there are no speech bubbles in Ferdinand’s journal). It kicks off in the first two pages of the album, where a pair of factory inspectors walk through a titanic industrial complex talking about a recent downturn in productivity, and promising to trace the source of the downturn as soon as possible. Ferdinand’s journal begins on p. 7 – effectively the third page of the album – with no indication as to how it might relate to the men’s discussion. From time to time, however, a return to the visual style of the opening pages reminds us of the unfinished factory plotline. At the bottom of p. 23, for instance, three consecutive panels show us a child in a strange kind of helmet, who is drawing a sketch of the land cruiser encountered by Ferdinand in the six previous pages. Who is the child in the helmet, we ask ourselves, and how does he know about the other boy’s mission? On p. 42, two more panels with speech bubbles show the factory inspectors for a second time: one of them says he has finally found the source of the downturn, while reaching for a handle fixed to the lid of a metal pod. These two panels interrupt Ferdinand’s narrative, cutting across the middle of a page of his journal, but they are quickly swept aside by the magnificent vista of København as viewed from the airship that takes up the opposite page, and then forgotten in the whirl of exciting events that follows. All at once Ferdinand announces in his journal that his adventures have been interrupted for a second time. ‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’ he writes, and then inexplicably, ‘Vite!’ (p. 53). Turning the page, the reader is confronted by the longest sequence of BD panels yet, all set in the factory. A speech bubble in the first panel announces ‘on le tient’ – ‘we’ve got him’. In the second we see the helmeted child from p. 23, crouching inside a metal pod whose lid has just been opened. The two inspectors glare down at him, pointing out to each other the cables he has disconnected to give himself light to read by. Scattered round him is a heap of books, and the inspectors express outrage at the thought of a worker reading fiction on company time. One inspector strikes the boy with one of the ‘bouquins’ (‘how do you like books now?’, he asks him viciously), then hurls the lot into a nearby furnace. At this point, the perspective of the panels opens out to show the boy as just one of a row of helmeted children in identical pods, each linked to the production line by a couple of cables at the back of his helmet. Under his helmet every child has additional cables embedded in his skull; we learn this on p. 54, when the boy’s helmet is knocked off by the book as it strikes his head. Disconnected from these cables the children will die, or so they believe: another child named Anton proudly explains as much when questioned by the inspectors. ‘Nous avons besoin des machines comme ils ont besoin de nous,’ he recites with a vacuous grin. ‘Si nous cessons de travailler, elles s’arrêtent et si elles s’arrêtent, nous mourons’ (p. 56). Anton, at least, remembers exactly what he has been taught by rote, trotting out the correct answer at the precise point in the other plotline when Ferdinand is most anxious about having forgotten his own instructions. And the words he parrots reflect a philosophy of work which is the polar opposite of the philosophy of play embodied by Hella in the journal.
At the same time, there are clear parallels between the factory plotline and Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia. In both plotlines something has gone wrong in the day-to-day functioning of a mechanised process: in the factory the production line has some sort of glitch, while the world itself is off kilter in the journal, due to the malfunction of a ‘machine inconnue’ based at the North Pole. Child workers are involved in both plotlines, with one child in each – Hella and the boy in the pod – showing a remarkable ability to imagine themselves into the positions of the moneyed classes to which they have presumably never had access. In both narratives a child forgets certain critical instructions: the rote lesson or the formula. And at the centre of both plotlines is the airship – though we have no way of knowing this in the factory plotline before the last few pages. In the final BD section we see the two inspectors walking away from the pods that house the child workers, congratulating each other on how they have handled the miscreant, the boy who reads (pp. 62-3). As the men leave the factory, the largest panel on p. 63 finally reveals what’s under construction there: an airship like the one in the journal. The inspectors agree that such a product ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’; and the exact nature of those sacrifices is visible all round them as they walk, in the rows of adult factory workers – skulls sprouting cables like the skulls of the children we saw earlier – whose withered faces testify to the premature aging brought on by lifelong imprisonment at their stations. Here is another link between the plotlines. Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia, too, involves certain sacrifices – the voluntary sacrifices of the romance hero, hunger, cold and fear – while the factory workers are unwilling sacrifices to industrialism, plugged into the production line without hope of release. Ferdinand’s adventure, in other words, touches on the workers’ lives in the factory at numerous points; but where the factory is a prison, the journal gives its child protagonist freedom and space, and where the factory workers seem wholly passive – and permanently alienated from the product of their labour, the zeppelin – the child protagonist has agency in abundance, and enjoys the dirigible as a privileged guest.
In fact, however, the factory workers are not wholly passive. One worker has acquired a degree of agency against all odds, and this agency suggests another link between the plotlines: their shared concern with secrecy and playfulness – or more precisely with the clandestine plot as a means of finding space for liberating play. Not long before we learn what the factory is making, we find out that the child worker who likes to read is also writing the journal, and that his name is Friedrich. His clandestine work of creation runs parallel with the factory’s production of luxury goods denied to workers like himself. And the inspectors never find this out; to the end of the book it remains a secret between the album’s reader and the writer-artist in his pod. As we’ve seen, just before the inspectors open the pod the word ‘Vite!’ appears in the journal, and we later deduce that this signals the moment when Friedrich conceals what he has been writing. As soon as the pod is closed again, the boy takes the unfinished journal from its hiding place and goes on writing. Ferdinand’s adventures, in other words, are permitted to continue, in defiance of Friedrich’s near exposure as a creative spirit – a young rival to the inventor Axel Wappendorp, or the authors whose books he owns. Between the opening and closing of his pod, Friedrich has made another involuntary sacrifice – his books have been burned; but his own manuscript survives unscathed, and as a result the dirigible can proceed on its way to Armilia, and the story of the formula can achieve a satisfactory ending. If Ferdinand was a hero, Friedrich is doubly so, for both resisting oppression and imaginatively conjuring up Ferdinand and Hella as his unfettered alter egos.
Friedrich’s secret writing activities provide one more point of contact between the factory narrative and the journal plotline, while also suggesting another interpretation of Ferdinand’s nightmare of the armillary sphere in the airship’s hull. The whole journal is composed under threat of discovery by the inspectors; so the writing process it involves is effectively a spy story, much like the one that has Hella as its heroine. And the blank pages that smothered the sphere represent the possibility that this writing process will be cut short before it’s complete; that its time line will be arrested, just as the movement of the sphere was stopped by the paper storm. Friedrich incorporates this fear into Ferdinand’s journal in the first words he writes after the burning of his printed books: ‘Après ces nouvelles épreuves, plus cruelles encore que les précédents, je retrouve ces notes que j’ai craint de ne jamais pouvoir reprendre’ (p. 58). At this point he mentions the various mirages suffered by the airship’s half-frozen crew, but he concludes by expressing hope that the story will achieve closure all the same: ‘Tous, nous sentons que nous allons bientôt toucher au but et ce sentiment nous redonne du courage’ (p. 58). And his optimism proves well founded. When Ferdinand’s story comes to an end, it marks Friedrich’s triumph over the inspectors, and the implication is that this triumph also comes at the cost of further glitches in production, since the inspectors have never succeeded in identifying the source of the downturn they mentioned at the beginning – his writing activities, in other words. The mission of Ferdinand and Hella, which he has invented, can be read as a parable of the liberating power of writing, and as such it serves as both a metaphorical and literal act of sabotage against the oppression of industrial capitalism.
Friedrich’s triumph through the completion of his writing project is anticipated at the very moment of the inspectors’ interruption of his creative labours. As the two men prepare to leave the factory building on p. 57, satisfied that they have terrorised the recalcitrant worker into submission, the BD format of the factory plotline finds itself invaded for the first time by the journal narrative. Just as Friedrich closes his pod – supposedly to resume his duties – a BD panel shows a narrow strip of cloudy sky. In the next panel Friedrich pulls out the journal from where it was hidden in his overalls, and in the next the airship appears among the clouds. Friedrich begins to write, and in the final panel at the bottom of the page the airship is nearer. By this time the implication is that the inspectors and the factory have been supplanted in Friedrich’s mind by Ferdinand’s mission. The reader presumes that the following page will continue the journey to Armilia, which is indeed what happens. And the same supplanting of the factory plotline by the plotline of the journal occurs in the last three pages of the album. On pp. 62-3, we see the inspectors leaving the factory, delighted by their success in putting Friedrich in his place. But on the final page – p. 64 – all restrictions on Friedrich’s imagination have been lifted. Not only has Armilia been repaired and the balance of the world recovered, but the airship has been refuelled and reequipped for the homeward journey, so that its young passengers, reconciled, can set off on new adventures unrecorded by any later albums in the Obscure series. The creative process, in other words, remains alive and fructifying at the end, unbounded by the factory structure, or the album’s two plots, or even the meticulous planning of Schuiten and Peeters. The possibilities available to it are as unconstrained as the imaginations that developed the ‘machines inconnues’ and the soaring buildings of the Obscure Continent, or the dreams of the reader after the reading process is over.
The trajectory of the album from constriction to liberation, from dictatorship to playfulness, can be traced in its visual representation of the sky. Entirely obscured by smoke in the opening pages, partly hidden by clouds in the BD strips on p. 57, by the final page it has been swept clear of clouds altogether, showing cloudlessly blue above the airship as the vessel takes off from the Arctic wastes with the Continent made freely available to its newly refurbished engines. In Ferdinand’s journal (Friedrich’s manuscript), weather conditions were at first affected by the dysfunction of the strange machine located at Armilia. The correction of this meteorological imbalance in Friedrich’s story would seem to involve the effective erasure of the factory that barred him, along with the rest of its workers, from sight of the sky, and the handing-over of the factory’s products to the wage-slaves who helped to shape them.
The crossovers between the two plotlines of La route d’Armilia invite us to ask another question. How far is Friedrich’s story, about Ferdinand’s journey to the North Pole, a work of fiction or a record of something that in some sense ‘really’ happened? The books Friedrich has in his pod, and from which he presumably derives inspiration for his own composition, represent a mixture of genres, from science fiction (Jules Verne’s Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras) to autobiography (Souvenirs d’un explorateur by the Polar adventurer Roald Amundsen), from fairy tale to Gothic short story (Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Karen Blixen’s Winter’s Tales). Odder still, all these books come from our world; even the works of fiction, in other words, are ‘real’, in the sense that they are not the products of Obscure authors. And one of the books is Brüsel, an album from the same series as La route d’Armilia. In the Continent, Brüsel is presumably a work of non-fiction, like Amundsen’s Souvenirs in our own universe. The books, then, could be seen either as evidence of the existence of passages between our world and the Continent, or as passages in themselves, allowing us access between one kind of ‘reality’ and another. Their presence in Friedrich’s pod is from one point of view an anomaly: how could a child worker have acquired them? How could he even have learned to read? But it is also evidence of the power of books throughout the Obscure series to crop up in places where they are least expected, and to have an impact well beyond what might be expected wherever they happen to crop up. The burning of the books by the inspectors, in other words, is no guarantee that they will cease to affect the environment into which they were impossibly introduced; and their continued presence is in fact implied by Friedrich’s continuing story. His character Ferdinand, after all, is named after two heroes of Jules Verne’s, the Arctic explorer Captain Hatteras and the aeronaut Robur from Robur the Conqueror (the boy’s full name is Ferdinand Robur Hatteras, p. 16) – just as the name of Ferdinand’s contact in Armilia, Pym, recalls the name of another fictional explorer from our world, Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. The fiction found in Friedrich’s pod, in other words, continues to bear fruit, and attract new fiction to itself, after it is burned (Poe’s novel is not among the volumes mentioned by the inspectors when they confiscate Friedrich’s library). The mere existence of a book in one dimension makes it available, perhaps, in others. And this implies that Friedrich’s liberation through his writing – a work of fiction – may be in some sense, or some dimension, ‘real’.
Its reality is obliquely implied, in fact, by Schuiten’s artwork. On p. 23, where we first see Friedrich working on the journal, Schuiten shows us the boy’s sketch of the land cruiser designed by Axel Wappendorp, with the airship overhead. Both the land cruiser and the airship are crudely drawn, as one might expect from a child of Friedrich’s age, though the boy’s handwriting is identical to the hand we have been reading as we followed the journal. In the panel that shows Friedrich’s sketch we are also shown the illustration he is copying from an unnamed book, which shows the land cruiser almost exactly as Schuiten drew it on p. 19, except that the illustration is in black and white, whereas Schuiten’s picture is in colour. The panel that shows Friedrich working on the journal, in other words, suggests the existence of three or four different levels of ‘reality’ on which his story operates. On one level, there is Friedrich’s reality, in which the volume from which he copies his picture of the land cruiser offers him an accurate representation of a real machine designed by the real inventor Wappendorp. On the second level there is Friedrich’s invented narrative in the journal, which is presumably inspired by the books he has been reading. On the third level there is Schuiten and Peeters’s version of Friedrich’s work, which converts his childish images into a more ‘realistic’ style, while conserving the exact appearance and wording of his written script. All these levels of reality are equally real – or equally fictional – from the point of view of the album’s reader, though we might be inclined to privilege one level of reality as more ‘real’ than another within the fictional universe. But this privileging of one level of reality over another is called into question by the care Schuiten has taken to represent the boy’s story about the land cruiser in ‘realistic’ terms – far more realistic than the picture the boy draws in his pod. The implication would seem to be either that Schuiten is representing Ferdinand’s adventures as Friedrich visualises them, or that he is representing them the way they ‘really’ happened, as Friedrich cannot, owing to his youth and lack of technical expertise as an illustrator. If the latter is the case, then Friedrich is a visionary or medium rather than a novelist. Another possibility exists – that the boy has been copying out Ferdinand’s adventures from some historical account not mentioned by the inspectors – but this does not explain the overlaps between Ferdinand’s story and the story of Friedrich, especially the point when Ferdinand anticipates the arrival of the inspectors themselves (‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’, p. 53). The whole album, in other words, continually plays with questions of what’s real and what is fabricated. And Schuiten and Peeters continue to play on these fine distinctions between fact and fiction, the real and the fantastic, in later volumes of the Obscure series, sometimes with specific reference to Ferdinand’s adventures.
In Le guide des Cités, for instance, the story of Ferdinand and Hella is implied to be a myth or a work of fiction which may or may not have some basis in fact. The tale presumably forms the basis of an opera mentioned under the entry for the composer Dieter Dennis/Didier Denis, Les enfants d’Armilia (p. 154). Meanwhile the entry for Armilia in a later edition of the guide mentions that there is some uncertainty among historians as to whether or not a boy named Ferdinand Hatteras was really responsible for correcting the malfunction of the Armilian machine at the time of the worldwide crisis it brought about. The latter entry seems to confirm that certain details La route d’Armilia are deemed to be ‘true’ in the archives of the Obscure universe: Armilia did, it seems, break down at one point, and the consequences of its malfunction affected the Continent in its entirety. The album L’archiviste, meanwhile, concerns itself with the way legends and myths of the kind that Ferdinand’s adventures represent can have material effects. The archivist’s official task in this book is to demonstrate once and for all that the Obscure Continent, whose existence is mentioned in numerous baffling references throughout his archives, properly belongs to the section he works in – the section devoted to myths and legends. In other words, the archivist has been instructed to prove that the Continent doesn’t exist. Instead he finds himself increasingly convinced that it is in some sense real, and says as much in his report, which results in his dismissal. The album ends with his clandestine return to his old office, where he sits waiting for what he knows will happen next: the arrival of representatives from the Continent to take him away to the place he now sees as his spiritual home. At this point the archivist has become one of the inhabitants of the Obscure Continent by virtue of being represented in one of the volumes of the series; he has been absorbed into the archive he was studying, just as Ferdinand is absorbed into the archives of the Continent after Freidrich has invented him and Schuiten has drawn him. Like La route d’Armilia, then, L’archiviste provides testimony to the potency of reading, writing and drawing in the Obscure universe; and this potency is confirmed in a number of other albums. In L’Echo des Cités, for example, a young orphan – younger even than Friedrich – mysteriously learns to read, and is inspired by a book to organize a pilgrimage of children from his orphanage to an inter-urban book fair, the City of Books, which takes place near Brüsel. The same album records the miraculous rescue of ‘Les naufragés du Battista’ – the castaways from the vessel Battista – by the appearance of a titanic library in the open ocean; here they are able to disembark and wait in safety for the arrival of a relief expedition from the Continent. The fact that this expedition is led by a fictional character from a book in our world – Michel Ardan, the protagonist of Verne’s novel De la Terre à la Lune (1865) – and that the castaways themselves are from a ship named after a legendary figure – Giovanni Battista, protagonist of La Tour – who is himself named after a historical Italian illustrator, Giovanni Battista Piranesi – illustrates the complex interplay between books and ‘real life’ that permeates these volumes. The situation is rendered more complex still by the fact that the newspaper in which these events are reported, L’Echo des Cités, has begun to acquire a reputation for inaccuracy by the time the reports appear. Its editor, Stanislas Sainclair, is said to be something of a fantasist, and his paper is eventually shut down to be replaced by a more reliable organ, edited by Michel Ardan, who supports his reportage with photographic evidence (Ardan himself is a celebrated photographer, formerly employed by Sainclair, who supplied snapshots both of the ‘naufragés du Battista’ and the titanic library where they fetched up). However, Ardan himself is a work of fiction, which leaves us back where we started. Is there no egress from this Borgesian labyrinth?
There is not, of course, and this is precisely the point of the Obscure series. Throughout the series, the question of what’s real and what’s fantastic is a question of power, and each album subjects the power of determining between them to playful questioning. The designation of certain things as fictional – as frauds, fabrications or distractions from the ‘real’ – is a way of asserting the authority of the designating parties. Calling Mary von Rathen a fraud because of her disability, which means she walks at a 45-degree angle to the ground, is a way to suppress her and dismiss what she represents: an anomaly that renders questionable all the assumptions of the Continent’s scientists and technicians and of the politicians who rely on their services. Dismissing Friedrich’s books as ‘saletés’ – filth – is a way to keep Friedrich and the other child workers in their places. Identifying Sainclair as a fantasist enables one to supplant his version of the world with something better tailored to the interests of rival editors, ambitious politicians, urban developers, or all three. Meanwhile, telling the stories of people like Mary von Rathen, Stanislas Sainclair, Constant Abeels, Friedrich, Hella and others whose narratives have been suppressed or sidelined is a means of fulfilling the remit of fantasy as Rosemary Jackson sees it: of expressing ‘the unsaid and the unseen of culture’, and identifying the ‘reality’ of the powerful as fundamentally fantastic. One might argue that every album in the Obscure series sets the fantasies of the authorities at odds with the fantasies of small-time rebels and resistance fighters, but this doesn’t adequately summarize the forces at work within them. A return to La route d’Armilia will help us to paint a more convincing picture.
Like every album in Les Cités obscures, La route d’Armilia involves a play-off between three opposed yet complementary forces – like three orbital paths around an armillary sphere – each of which is equally dependent on the technological and architectural resources of the Continent. The first force is that of the powerful, as embodied in the owners of the factory and their inspectors, who aim to take absolute control of these resources for their own exalted purposes. This in turn involves taking absolute control of the populace, shutting them in, setting them to work under rigidly constrained conditions, diminishing and anonymising them, terrorising them, and erasing anomalies from their ranks, such as Friedrich, the boy in the pod. For the exploiters other people are no more than puppets, suspended from cables rather than strings, and they justify their exploitation of these mindless automata by characterising themselves as visionaries, whose projects will bring enormous benefits, at least to the powerful, and therefore ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’ (p. 62), albeit on the part of the puppets, not themselves. Examples of these quasi-fascistic exploiters include the authoritarian members of the ‘Commission des hautes instances’ of Urbicande, the developer Freddy de Vrouw of Brüsel, and the nationalistic maréchal Radisic of Sodrovnie in La frontière invisible.
The second force at work in the Continent is made up of creative open minds, like those of the child worker Friedrich, the children of Armilia Ferdinand and Hella, the inventor Axel Wappendorf, the leaning girl Mary von Rathen, the flower seller Abeel Constants, the adventurer Michel Ardan, and the editor Stanislas Sainclair, whose dream is to present all the cities on the Continent to one another in all their strangeness and wayward glory. Dedicated to embracing a world which is out of kilter, adapting themselves to its ebb and flow through the qualities of balance, play and heavier-than-air flight, and concerned to improve the lives of ordinary citizens by all means possible, these creative minds delight in disruption even as they struggle to harness it for the widest possible benefit. Champions of liberty as against the tendency of their cultures to privilege coercion and confinement, anomalies are for them opportunities to exercise and expand their imaginations rather than impose their philosophies on the world by force majeur. These men, women and children, too, are visionaries, and for this reason they are susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous visionaries of the first order discussed above. Freddy de Vrouw for a while takes Constant Abeels under his wing; Mary von Rathen finds herself controlled by a succession of men before taking her fate into her own hands; the brilliant ‘urbatecht’ Eugen Robick is an employee of Urbicande’s Commission before he breaks free of their oppressive influence; Axel Wappendorf depends on wealthy, unscrupulous officials and entrepreneurs to bring his inventions into existence, and so on. The figures who embody this second, creative force are not too effective as revolutionaries – although they regularly get caught up in revolutions and rebellions – but their receptive delight in the properties of the strange world they inhabit sets them frequently at odds with the capitalist, industrial and military masters of the Cities they live in.
The third force at work in the Continent is the most interesting: it’s the force of spontaneous change, as represented by the disruption of time and weather brought about by the broken machine at Armilia, the unexplained outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel, the dreams and nightmares that plague the passengers and crew of the airship as they approach the North Pole. In every album some similar crisis occurs, a phenomenon that has no bearing on the plots of the powerful or the projects of lonely visionaries or rabble-rousing radicals – a change of rules that alters the nature of the particular urban polder in which it takes place. The growth of the network or grid of Urbicande has no human source or explanation. The rise of the waters of the Senne in Brüsel defies all the efforts of the powerful to suppress it, while it both disrupts and abets the machinations of insurrectionists and visionaries. A sudden outbreak of stones and sand in the Brüsel of La théorie du grain de sable is as unsettling for Mary von Rathen and Constant Abeels as for the city authorities (the difference being that Mary, Constant and their friends learn to embrace the disruption where the authorities strive against it). Each of these crises emphasizes the autonomy of the Obscure Cities themselves, as organic phenomena whose sheer scale and ambition overwhelms every attempt to take control of them, while at the same time spurring the puniest of human beings into herculean struggles to respond appropriately – with respect and courage and imaginative ardour – to their unparalleled size and beauty. The European Union is something like this: a project that began with a dream of economic cooperation, which would encourage cooperation on political, philosophical and artistic levels, and ended by developing into an organic entity (no longer a project) which cannot finally be contained, controlled or properly measured, and may indeed be all the stronger and more delightful for this loss of containment, control and measure; a dream that sometimes morphs into a vision or a nightmare; an architect’s model that reduces human beings to tiny, semi-translucent sketches, yet liberates them to think in terms of vast, navigable spaces and endless journeys, their very tininess and translucency capable of extending their capabilities beyond all previous limitations.
The United Kingdom has shut itself off from this mysterious and absurd region of possibilities, transforming itself into a magically fenced-off polder that resists the playful to-and-fro that characterized its relationships with other European polders between 1973 and 2020. But passages exist that will bring us back to the games we used to play with them, either through the workings of our imaginations or in some other way we might consider more ‘real’. We can look for these passages in Brussels, city of comics, museums, fantasists and migrants. We can send for others via the internet, in the form of the albums of Schuiten and Peeters. Or we can dream them up for ourselves, and playfully open new passages to Brüsel, Mylos and Armilia from the precarious safety of our own front rooms. And after those passages have been opened, who knows what new friendships and imaginative networks might be formed?
 Accounts of some of these exhibitions can be found in the volume Voyages en Utopie (see list below).
 The appendices of my edition of La fièvre d’Urbicande (see list below) offer a range of further readings, none of them comprehensive.
 It’s also inspired by the architectural engravings of Piranesi, as was made clear by the exhibition ‘Rêves de pierres’ in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in 1999 and later in the Musée Fesch, Ajaccio, between October 2000 and the end of January 2001. See Voyages en Utopie, p. 25.
 This is a point made by Thierry Groensteen in his article ‘La Légende des Cités’, on the website dedicated to the Cités obscures, Alta Plana. Groensteen points out that some albums in the Obscure series bear a closer resemblance to a ‘catalogue muséographique’ than to a conventional BD. https://www.altaplana.be/en/dossiers/neuviemeart/la-legende-des-cites
 AT NOON EACH DAY THE SINISTER HARLEQUIN EATS A TON OF LIMAÇONS; TEASING AUNT ADÈLE UNDER THE BUILDER’S BED; THE CLOCK HAS STRUCK MIDDAY: CHARLES THE FIFTH HAS FILED HIS MINISTER IN HIS TENT; SINISTER AT THE FIFTH POSITION, A TRUCE AT NOON, SOUND THE LIMAÇON.
As the UK bids farewell to the European Union I find my thoughts turning to fantasy on the European continent, and in particular to the most fantastic city on that continent, Brussels. This is a kind of polder in Belgium, as John Clute defined the word in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Derived from the Old Dutch term for ‘a tract of low-lying land reclaimed from a body of water and generally surrounded by dykes’, Clute takes ‘polder’ to mean an ‘enclave […] of toughened Reality, demarcated by boundaries from the surrounding world’. The boundaries need to be maintained by powerful magic wielded by some figure who recognises the need to keep them in place. ‘A polder, in other words,’ Clute sums up, ‘is an active Microcosm, armed against the potential Wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time’. There could hardly be a better word for Brussels, in its capacity either as imaginary capital of Europe – set up to oppose the Wrongness of totalitarianism, corruption and international conflict – or as a cultural centre, protector of artistic innovators and eccentrics from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Horta and Magritte. The figure maintaining the integrity of Brussels through magic remains obscure, but the magic is there for sure, as well as the notion of the city as a focus of anachronisms, a meeting place between multiple strands of history and the very modern social and economic problems it works haltingly to resolve.
Brussels is a linguistic as well as a cultural polder: a French-speaking capital city stranded in the middle of Flemish-speaking territory. Different rules apply here. Spatially it’s confusing, with its jumble of ancient, decrepit, out-of-date, modernist, postmodern and ultra-modern buildings, many of them highly eccentric, all locked inside a labyrinth of streets, both cobbled and tarmacked, to which no map provides an adequate key. It’s here that the Belgian Revolution started in 1830, the only political coup ever to have been triggered in an opera house. The work that got it going, La muette de Portici (‘The Mute Girl of Portici’), by Daniel Auber and Germain Delavigne – whose lead, bizarrely for an opera, is a voiceless woman performed by a dancer – is often described as the first Grand Opera, and the people of Brussels were so inspired by it that they rose against their Dutch oppressors and established the Kingdom of Belgium as an independent state in emulation of its central characters. The eccentricity that transformed Grand Opera into Revolution continues to mark the people of Brussels to this day, and a quick glance around the city will confirm its omnipresence there, embodied in the bizarre architectural structures and peculiar statues with which it is so well stocked.
Its eccentricity is also embodied in the extraordinary diversity of strange museums in the capital. There is no other city in the world that has half so many museums per capita (that’s a claim I’ve just invented, but I bet it’s true). From the Museum of Beer to the Museums of Freemasonry, Jazz, Chocolate, Clocks, Trams, Musical Instruments, Lace, and Fantastic Art, each of these institutions embodies an obsession, and many are housed in buildings which are themselves museum pieces (the Museum of Musical Instruments is a great example). The monumental Musée des Beaux-Arts near the royal palace, with its unparalleled collection of Flemish masters, was immortalised in an Auden poem [link]; he summed it up as the place where Icarus can be found, the boy who fell from the sky while everyone else went quietly about their business. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen in Brussels. The city has been an artistic as well as a commercial centre for many centuries, providing a generous home for movements such as Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Expressionism and Surrealism, and between them the museums testify to the sheer oddness of the creative gestures the Bruxellois have found most congenial. Some museums also testify to its violent past: the Museum of Central Africa, for instance, full of traces of the Belgian atrocities in the Congo which underpin Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces in the Parc du Cinquentenaire, which when I last saw it was crammed with German helmets from the Second World War with bullet holes in them, mute reminders of the importance of the project of a unified Europe. Perhaps the strangest of the museums is the Wiertz Museum, dedicated to a painter of vast lurid pictures which he left to the state on condition they be displayed for ever in his majestic studio. Wiertz’s subjects include the body of Patroclus being torn apart as the Trojans and Greeks fight over it, a cholera victim who has been accidentally buried alive clawing his way out of his coffin, a half-naked man blowing his brains out with a pistol, and a young woman smirking at an undead skeleton. There is hope that Wiertz himself might one day become a museum exhibit; his body was embalmed according to Egyptian custom and stored safely in an underground vault.
I came to know Brussels in the early 1970s when my father went to work there as an official in the European Commission. He lived in a high rise just down the road from the Berlaymont building, many storeys above the street and accessible only by a small lift or many flights of narrow stairs; when he moved there, the larger items of furniture he owned had to be hauled in through the sitting room window. The kitchen of this flat had a chute with a metal flap on it through which you could post your rubbish, which went crashing down from storey to storey till it came to rest in a noxious refuse bin in the subterranean basement. If you visited the basement to take out rubbish that didn’t fit in the chute you had to dare the automatic lights, which turned off after several seconds leaving you stranded in the dark; you then had to grope your way to one of the switches, which glowed like the eyes of Morlocks in the George Pal movie of The Time Machine, and activate the lights again – for a few seconds, until they switched themselves off and plunged you once more in abysmal darkness. When we children stayed with my father we went to the Berlaymont every weekday for lunch, being introduced to such typically Belgian delicacies as ‘filet américain’ (a plateful of raw mince) and roast chicory wrapped in ham and doused in a thick cheese sauce. There were no Brussels sprouts in Brussels back in those days, which broke my father’s heart because he loved them more than any other vegetable; just chicory in unimaginable quantities. The most remarkable thing about the Berlaymont canteen in the 1970s was that it was the only place in the country where you could get a truly terrible meal. On special occasions we would go out to a proper restaurant such as Chez Léon, near the celebrated Grand Place or central square, to eat moules frites – mussels with chips – which is the Belgian national dish, the shellfish in question being doused in every kind of sauce you can possibly imagine and many you can’t. You can’t talk about Brussels, in fact, without talking about food and drink. The food there is as various and eccentric as the architecture, and somehow perfectly adapted to it, as full of curlicues and flourishes as the Maison du Roi in the Grand Place: a confection of Gothic revival balconies and images which houses the Brussels City Museum and is also known as the Broodhuis or Bread Hall, though it looks more like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake than a conventional loaf of bread. You see? Food and buildings exist in a symbiotic relationship chez les Belges.
On successive stays in Brussels I fell in love with some of the city’s bizarrer architectural manifestations, such as the futuristic Atomium (1958), constructed in the shape of an iron crystal – and extremely dilapidated when I first visited it – and Joseph Poelart’s Palais de Justice (1866-1883), the largest building constructed in the nineteenth century, which is essentially a monstrous portico with no rooms attached to it (though there are some very impressive staircases both inside and out). Some claim that Orson Welles wanted to shoot his version of Kafka’s The Trial among its halls and corridors, while Poelart himself is said to have gone mad while building it – just as the architect of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is said to have been driven to distraction by the discovery that his masterpiece had been constructed back to front, throwing himself off one of the building’s many towers in a fit of pique. At an early age I also became aware of the practice of ‘Brusselization’, which involves buying fine old buildings and allowing them to decay until they are completely irreparable, then tearing them down and building something hideous in their place. When I first went to Brussels the city was full of these carefully neglected ruins, which lent the streets an air of melancholy, as if some calamitous architectural disease were eating away at its vital organs. The effect was enhanced by the mania for preserving historical façades while tearing down the buildings they once fronted. The many ornate frontages with nothing behind them except scaffolding and gaping brick-fringed holes in the Belgian soil added to the impression that Brussels was a kind of conspiracy, a front for something deeply suspicious and possibly inhuman which was working towards the universal destruction of mankind.
Conspiracy theories like to portray human beings as helpless sentient puppets manipulated by monstrous unseen hands; and Brussels has a hidden gem ideally suited to the tastes of inveterate seekers-out of Rosicrucian plots and anarchistic machinations. This is the Toone puppet theatre, a tiny, shadowy cave tucked away in an inner courtyard off one of the narrow medieval streets that worm the vicinity of the Grand Place. The theatre doubles as a bar draped with superannuated puppets, like corpses in a painting by the manic Belgian etcher and painter James Ensor. It has been in existence since its foundation by Antoine ‘Toone’ Genty in about 1830. Disturbingly, all the puppet masters since have adopted the name of Toone, as if they were clones of their great precursor, carved by him out of wood and brought to life by some perverse blue fairy; or a succession of boy apprentices carefully trained in the supernatural art of bringing life to inanimate objects, each of whom got possessed by the spirit of Genty at a certain point in his professional development. One memorable Toone production I saw in my teenage years involved Lucretia Borgia’s murderous attempts to set herself up as ‘Papesse’ – a female Pope much addicted to poisoning her rivals. Another was a particularly violent version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, all acted in the Brussels dialect, a unique fusion of Flemish and French which ends up sounding very much like English. The Toone Theatre is yet another polder within the larger polder of Brussels, its inhabitants dusty people made of wood, cloth, wire and string, with unsettling painted eyes. It’s a museum too, of course, as well as a bar and theatre. I think perhaps every building in Brussels is also a museum. And a bar. And possibly a theatre too, now I come to think of it.
When my father moved to Auderghem, a former forest village in the south east of the city, we spent many afternoons among the etiolated trees of the Forêt de Soignes, where charcoal burners and hunters once plied their trades and where the tracks of deer can still be traced after each fresh fall of snow. Our favourite spot was a former monastery called Rouge Cloître: a cluster of buildings surrounded by woods, within whose precincts a succession of excellent restaurants and cafés have been set up over the years, none of which have lasted more than three or four seasons. One modest café there only ever served quiches, but they were the finest quiches in the whole of creation. Parokeets flew screeching through the nearby branches, Siberian chipmunks whisked along the tops of the crumbling walls, while huge carp surfaced in the ancient fishponds, some of them attached to the fishing lines of the many anglers who crowded the banks. When in town I drank at the famous bar À la mort subite – Sudden Death – near the city centre, an ornately decorated chamber thronged with indifferent lounging cats. There and elsewhere I discovered the astonishing diversity of Belgian beers, from Gueuze, Kriek and Hoegaarden to the much more potent abbey brews, blond, dark and russet. The abbey connection suggests that beer is something of a religion in that part of Europe. There’s a Scottish connection, too; when I moved to Glasgow in 1992 I learned that Scottish beer was more highly regarded in Brussels than in Scotland, and that at least one variety – Gordon’s Highland Scotch Ale – was still being brewed exclusively for the Belgian market in Edinburgh (production was transferred to Belgium after the millennium). I have never been to the Beer Museum, but I’ll wager it’s full of astonishing facts like this one.
All these details give some sense of the eccentricity of a city whose best-known symbol is a little boy having a pee, who gets dressed up in a different costume for every day of the year (there’s a museum for his costumes, of course: the ‘Garderobe Manneken Pis’). But I promised to talk about Brussels and fantasy, and for me the epitome of fantasy in Brussels has always been the comics. By comics I mean, of course, the bandes dessinées or BDs of the Franco-Belgian school, known to francophone commentators as the ‘ninth art’ (the eighth is television; I forget the rest). My father’s flat near the Berlaymont Building was crammed with BDs, and later so was his house in Auderghem. He had all the Tintin books, mostly in French with a few English titles thrown in; he also had the whole of Asterix, an Enki Bilal, some Lucky Lukes, and more. I read everything dozens of times, poring over the relationship between words and pictures, the transition from panel to panel, the colour schemes, and slowly discovering new puns, allusions and even plotlines as the years went by and my French improved. After a few years I began to collect BDs of my own: most notably Thorgal le Viking, by the Polish artist Grzegorz Rosinski and the prolific Belgian scenario-writer Jean van Hamme, and the Cités obscures series by the Belgian artist François Schuiten and the French novelist and scholar Benoît Peeters. My taste in comics was largely determined by my taste in drawing styles. I loved pictures I could study for hours on end and return to again and again, stumbling across new details and more ingenious juxtapositions, or simply marvelling at the skill that had been lavished on each panel, page or double spread. Such were the drawings of the French artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, which led me to his masterpiece L’Incal, scripted by the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Brazilian writer-artist Leo drew me to his series Les mondes d’Aldébaran with his careful representations of peculiar alien animals, each of which is sufficiently close to some terrestrial life-form to disturb and amuse in equal measure. Régis Loisel’s flamboyant penmanship made me enamoured of La quête de l’oiseau du temps, scripted by Serge Le Tendre, while the rich textures and three-dimensional solidity of Juan Díaz Canales’s anthropomorphic dogs, goats, polar bears and rhinoceroses led me to the neo-noir adventures of the feline private eye Blacksad, written by Canales’s fellow Spaniard Juanjo Guarnido. Recent discoveries are the Valérian books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (I was alerted to these, of course, by Luc Besson’s film), the Orbital series by Serge Pellé and Sylvain Runberg, and Sillage by Jean-David Morvan and Philippe Buchet. The ten-volume Décalogue, conceived by Frank Giroud and drawn by several artists, delighted me by setting the first of its volumes in Glasgow, so that I had the pleasure of seeing the buildings I knew best magically embedded in the panels of a Franco-Belgian comic. I collected volumes or ‘tomes’ of BDs each time I went to Brussels to visit my father, often in the local Carrefour supermarket, sometimes in the Museum of Comics near the Grand Place – more accurately, the Centre Belge de la bande dessinée.
The Comics Museum is housed in a former department store designed by Victor Horta, so one could say that the BD industry has been built into the landscape of the city, entwined with the vegetable inventiveness of Belgian Art Nouveau. Another of Horta’s buildings houses material relating to the comics of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters; this is La Maison Autrique, which contains a permanent display of Schuiten’s pictures honouring the Horta legacy. The Maison plays a central role in one of the final albums of the Cités obscures series, La théorie du grain de sable. Museums occur, in fact, with remarkable frequency in Franco-Belgian comics. Captain Haddock’s house, Moulinsart or Marlinspike, is effectively a museum stocked with family heirlooms going back many centuries, standing shoulder to shoulder with mementoes of the Captain’s travels with his young friend Tintin. So is Professor Tarragon’s house in Les sept boules de cristal, its contents based on research carried out among the Incan holdings of the Cinquentenaire Museum in Brussels. There is an actual museum in L’oreille cassée, and many more in Edgar P. Jacobs’s Blake and Mortimer series and Jacques Tardi’s Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec. Schuiten and Peeters’s Mémoirs de l’éternel présent includes a museum dedicated to forbidden things, mostly clocks and timepieces whose very existence suggests that the City of Taxandria hasn’t always existed in the eternal present, as its government insists. Bande dessinée, in other words, is as besotted with miscellaneous collections of displaced antiquities, forgotten or rejected customs and extravagant artworks as the city which is the BD’s spiritual home. The strange juxtapositions accidentally achieved in the display cabinets of scholarly collections are the stock-in-trade of the ninth art, and it’s with juxtapositions that my next blog post on Fantasy Brussels, dedicated to the comics of Schuiten and Peeters, will be concerned.