What does the ODYSSEY exhibition explain about the origins of Blake and Mortimer?
It shows that The U Ray (Le Rayon U) album is a missing link between comics in the English-language tradition and the Franco-Belgian one. Edgar P. Jacobs was inspired by Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, which he had started by plagiarizing in Bravo! magazine before going on to create his own story. The way in which the artist freed himself in a few pages from an American comic strip narrative and graphic codes such as text boxes and no speech balloons, to forge his own cartooning grammar is fascinating to observe, with period tracings and original pages on display as evidence. For his first attempt at a comic story, it's a stroke of genius. At the Comics Museum in Brussels, Jacob’s talent is displayed before our eyes.
More importantly, the exhibition changes the way we look at this album. U is more than the matrix of the characters and themes of the work to come when Jacobs creates Blake and Mortimer. In 1973, for the first collected album edition, Jacobs was not content to reassemble the original 1943 story from by just rearranging the original two panels per tier to three. He “Blake-and-Mortimerized” his U Ray. The album published by the Éditions du Lombard was no longer just the matrix of the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, but became an extension of that aesthetic. The direct comparison of pages from The U Ray album version and earlier plates from The Secret of the Swordfish, Atlantis Mystery and The Time Trap shows us the mythical character of this two-version album.
What are the most emblematic pieces of the exhibition?
The exhibition presents only original material and a majority are unpublished ones. Among the top pieces, the visitor can discover four panels sketched on tracing paper which are as sumptuous as they are extremely rare; two color-enhanced sketches of Flash Gordon, of which Jacobs only drew five pages in 1942; and two others of the two-panel version of The U Ray from 1943. These are the oldest documents from the story, as well as in the career of Jacobs as a cartoonist. Precious handwritten notes from this first story bear witness to the genesis of the names of places and characters. "Rayon V," "Rayon Vert," but also "Olrik," "Flying shark," and further on "Swordfish." We are struck by the premonitory character of such notes. They prove that from the start that Jacobs did not think in terms of comics, but in rather in terms of the novel, indicating "Roman d’aventure genre Gordon" at the top of his page. The exhibition also displays a small paper model of the album, bound by hand, on which Jacobs sketched all the boxes, the page connections, the strips to be redrawn, the new boxes, and so on, a further testimony to the needs of the draftsman to work out the story.
The visitor can view a selection of original pages from The U Ray. When observed carefully, it is possible to understand the full process of the reassembling of the story in an album and its second inception. Collages and overlays in white gouache and Indian ink abound, to house the speech bubbles as well as format the boxes. But above all, for six of the pages printed in sepia in the Journal Bravo! we have the complete redrawing. This is the exhibition’s key treasure.
Next to this black and white original art that has remained in the shadows for so long, the visitor has the chance to lift the veil on a series of sublime polychrome tracings. Abundantly commented on by Jacobs, a meticulous artist, these fragile sheets also testify to the care taken to document his work and constitute his archives. This is a process that will lead, in 1984, to the creation of the E.P. Jacobs Foundation, today in charge of preserving and promoting the heritage of the Belgian cartoonist.
From what angle does the ODYSSEY exhibition approach the album The U Ray?
Six themes make up the exhibit: Under the Auspices of the Gods, A Modern Homer, Theater of the World, The Death Ray, Unknown Earth and The Eternal Return.
The ODYSSEY exhibition considers The U Ray’s comic strip origin, as well as its genesis from the angle of the myth and the great stories of antiquity, especially Homer's Odyssey. The exhibition explores the affiliations between the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer and American comics, in particular Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond, while going beyond the model/copy pattern in order further to suggest relationships between the two stories, whose authors, Jacobs and Raymond, drank from the same literary and cinematographic sources. Jacobs' first story as an author appears as the missing link in a history of Franco-Belgian comics under American influence, of which the superhero became the titular figure, but was not when Jacobs began working.
The mythological angle therefore invites us to see Jacobs as a storyteller. It is a bridge between two generations and two cultural shores. There is a genius for storytelling in him, which cannot be reduced to the sum of the references or the tropes used. This means that despite all the analyses, even the most scholarly, there will always be something more to say about his work. Where Jacobs is at his strongest is in his ability to appropriate the narrative codes of the great tradition of storytelling and mythical narrative. We forget their influence - conscious or not - when one reads a Blake and Mortimer comic book. Jacobs is a true storyteller and that's why his stories are timeless.
I think of Jules Verne and his Voyage to the Moon, but also in particular Arthur Conan Doyle with his novel The Lost World. Behind this fantasy story, that has the trappings of a pseudo-scientific novel, hides a sociological study on the brutality of human relations in a civilized environment. I perceive in Jacobs this same universalism in the narratives with a reflexive background. In his stories, Jacobs reconnects with the primary vocation of storytelling, which was to give food for thought by striking the imagination with edifying tales, thereby creating images capable of inspiring or transmitting a certain morality.
The exhibit layout plays a major role. How did you envision it?
My creative process played on radical changes: scale, light, and color, and is inspired by the spectacle side of amusement parks. The exhibition is initially fully lit before darkening and then returning to light, following a ritual symbolism of the return to the starting point. The design is based on large sets playing the role of thresholds. It was a question of giving the space an aura of grandeur, but also of punctuating the visit with twists -- such as acts in the theater. Right from the entrance with its giant octopus, the tone is set. These decorations evoke the fairground attractions of Coney Island in New York, the model of all modern magic and source of inspiration for Winsor McCay, the creator of Little Nemo.
Under the Auspices of the Gods is dedicated to Flash Gordon and the Journal Bravo!. It presents the tracings of the 2nd and 4th panels of Flash by Jacobs. Modern Homer concentrates on the characters. Attention is drawn to the "small note papers of Edgar P. Jacobs", which show to the method of reassembly for the album. The Theater of the World emphasizes spatio-temporal exoticism and the art of staging. Color is also evoked as an agent of the wonders of Jacobs’s world. The Death Ray is dedicated to the ultimate weapon which is the McGuffin of The U Ray. The Unknown Land is the famous Terra Incognita of old maps and terrestrial globes. In this part, it is about the ape-men and the perils that threaten the troop led by the Lord Calder character.
The final theme, The Eternal Return, is dedicated to the sequel to U and presents a series of original pages from The Fiery Arrow. This theme closes the time loop by highlighting the return to certain visual archetypes in this sequel, and the way in which, again in mythology, ritual (codified repetition) is the means for humanity to access the divine, and therefore immortality. From The U Ray onwards, Edgar P. Jacobs maintained a delightfully paradoxical relationship with time that was tempting to explore here, not to resolve or reduce it, but to settle in it and savor it.
How did you take into account the interior space of the building of the Comics museum, which is extremely bright?
To ensure the preservation of the works, it was essential to control the luminosity of the interior of the building, first designed by the Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta as an opulent and bourgeois fabrics store, which serves now as a showcase for the Museum. A paper ceiling was created to break the sunlight coming from the iconic glass roof. It also plays the role of the chromatic palette of the exhibition, directly inspired by that of the album. This design device is very significant visually, both for visitors who are below and for those seeing it from the mezzanine of the upper floor. As such, an exhibition addresses the mind as much as the body and create the conditions for an encounter with the work in its very essence, and not only in the materiality of the pages that made it possible.
We must not forget that the original work in comics is the printed and published story in an album. That is what is on display. So this exhibition puts itself forward even more as a true setting in this sense, because with Edgar P. Jacobs, the setting is as important as the action and the characters. I was careful to maintain a kind of sensory and chromatic unity throughout the visit, without forgetting the key contribution of sound to give the exhibition its inhabited character. Once again, my accomplice the composer Bruno Letort, knew how to create an atmosphere that gives soul to the exhibition. Letort is a fan of Jacobs who listens to Blake and Mortimer albums as much as he reads them. For the visitors we hope to have created an exhibition in which all the senses are awakened.
Éric Dubois is a design professor in Paris and has been participating with comic strip exhibitions since François Schuiten and Benoit Peeters set him on the path with their Drawing Machines in 2016 at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. After that, he worked with Blake and Mortimer, for which he created several exhibitions with journalists and comics experts Thierry Bellefroid and Daniel Couvreur: Scientifiction (2018), The Secret of the Swordfish (2021), MachinaXion (2022). Dubois is the sole curator of ODYSSEY exhibition on the origins of Blake and Mortimer. This is an exhibition dedicated to The “U” Ray, the first comic book by Edgar P. Jacobs.
The Belgian Comic Strip Center opened its doors to the public on October 6th 1989. In no time this impressive museum became one of the main attractions of Brussels. Every year more than 250.000 visitors come here to explore 4,200 m² of permanent and temporary exhibitions, not to mention its comprehensive documentation center and rich collections. The BCSC collects anything that deals with European comics, from its prestigious beginnings to its latest developments.
Temporary and permanent exhibitions have transformed this Art Nouveau gem into a living and attractive temple. It is a dynamic and exciting place where everything is done to promote the Ninth Art (associated with the creation of the Brussels Comic Strip Route, the issue of Comic Strip stamps, etc...). The Belgian Comic Strip Center also produces, for many partners, conferences, books, creative workshops and counseling.
With more than 700 comic strip authors, Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometer than any other country in the world! It is here that the comic strip has grown from a popular medium into an art in its own right. Nowhere else comics are so strongly rooted in reality and in people's imagination.
Since 2018, first under the aegis of the King Baudouin Foundation which hosted the Jacobs Fund for four years, then under the impetus of a renewed E. P. Jacobs Foundation, several exhibitions and publications have been able to highlight the unique qualities of the work of Edgar P. Jacobs. The work of preserving the archives left by the creator of Blake and Mortimer continues. The E.P. Jacobs Foundation is actively involved in this, in collaboration with the King Baudouin Foundation, which now assists it in this task. Created by Edgar P. Jacobs to guarantee the heritage of his work, it is possible today to look into its archives of unsuspected richness and to discover there the stages of an extraordinary creation.