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Hic Sunt Leones
posted March 16, 2005


Ria Schulpen's Antwerp-based comics publisher Bries has been quietly publishing some of the best works in English-language comics for years now, and she generally gets no respect for it. Despite translating works by Anke Feuchtenberger, Stefano Ricci, Ulf K., and dozens of others, Bries gets very little attention paid to it relative to the importance of the works that they've released. This is a crying shame.

At Angouleme this year, I picked up a big new anthology from Ria that, with luck, will get the sort of notice that it deserves -- though I'm not going to hold my breath. A collection in English of work by young Flemish cartoonists, Hic Sunt Leones has the sort of grand title that is likely to flabbergast retailers into thinking they're ordering a rare Latin comic. The title, which references the Roman tradition of marking unexplored areas on maps with the phrase "here be lions", is itself both a threat and a promise. Comics needs more lions, and maybe those lions are coming from the less well known areas of Europe.

The book features the work of twenty-one artists, most of whom are young and relatively new to the world of comics. Perhaps the best known of the artists here is Pieter de Poortere, who has published two Dickie albums through Bries. If you haven't heard of him, there's a good chance that you won't have heard of many of the talents on display here.

Hic Sunt Leones does have a number of real highlights, and the works that I found particularly exciting were:

- "Rolling" by Bruno Seys. This is Seys' first comic (he works as a designer) and it's beautifully slick. Crisp and lushly produced, the strip shows a clear influence from the likes of Chris Ware and Richard McGuire with its focus on pop iconography.

- "Mr. Bunny Lost" by Sebastiaan Van Doninck. This is a marvelously odd wordless comic about, well, Mr. Bunny. Van Doninck is a children's book illustrator by trade, and his compositions (though not the story) show strong traces of this fact. Again, this is a really slick piece of work, the likes of which is rarely seen in contemporary American alt-comics. The use of color in this strip is as good as any I've seen in any comics work anywhere in recent years.

- Maarten Vande Wiele provides a parody of the late-1980s prime time soap operas of the Dynasty variety, as divas battle each other for love in "Society". This is a very funny strip, which seems strongly influenced by Hanco Kolk's Meccano series in terms of the subject matter and compositions, although Vande Wiele's thick linework is totally different from Kolk's thin, fragile drawings.

- Karel Lauwers provides a two page mute strip about love and laundry depicted with beautiful clean lines and a grotesque mustard yellow coloring. The colors tell you everything that you need to know about this doomed relationship. A very smart work.

- Olivier Schrauwen provides a contemporary gloss on the comics pages of the turn of the century, with a strip about a business man whose grotesquely deformed son brings him no glory. Schrauwen's take on the aesthetics of McCay and Feininger is uncanny, and he has captured the oddball sensibility of their work without completely succumbing to simple-minded nostalgia. For its postmodern take on the classic comics page, this is one of the most fascinating pieces I've read all year. I'm totally captivated by it.

One other thing that captivates me about Hic Sunt Leones is the middle section, which presents illustrations by six contemporary Flemish illustrators. Too many comics anthologies strive to maintain a strict division between comics and illustration, which has always struck me as both false and counter-productive. Hic Sunt Leones fruitfully tosses the distinction out the window, embracing some truly beautiful non-narrative drawings.

Altogether, the book is very strong. While a few of the stories fail to really click (the piece by Bart Schoofs, for example, plays away from his strengths and relies a little too heavily on knowledge of the series Pol, Pel, and Pingo to be comprehensible by readers who don't know it), the overall hit rate is very high. Couple this with remarkably high production standards as the book is beautifully printed on glossy paper, and this comes across as a major showcase for cutting edge artists. Definitely a must-read.

Next time: The post-Persepolis Marjane Satrapi