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Author brings comic clarity to serious science

Marion Montaigne uses comic books to address weighty matters for her teenage readership

25 October 2017
By Samantha David

The annual Festival International de la Bande Dessinée in Angloulême, which has been running since 1974, is the biggest comic strip festival in France. The next festival will run from 25-28 January 2018 and as well as highlighting Japanese artists, will also spotlight the work of Marion Montaigne, who won the festival’s Prix du Public Cultura in 2013.

She is best known for her Tu Mourras Moins Bête series, in which Professeur Moustache and his assistant Nathanaël answer science questions purportedly sent in by confused students. Questions include “What would happen if I swallowed a spider in my sleep?” and “What would happen if I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge?” The style is resolutely raucous but the science is completely accurate, making the series beloved by parents, students and teachers alike. It started in 2008 as a blog, became a series of printed comic strip books in 2011 and since 2016 has appeared as short animated films on TV channel ARTE.

She says that although in the past comic strips used to be male dominated, more women are drawing them now. “I think it was a vicious circle. Because they were written by men, women thought it wasn’t for them. I’m not very big on feminist debates, I just demonstrate that women can and are doing everything; drawing, being astronauts, whatever... so others can follow.”

She got the idea for Tu Mourras Moins Bête (You Will Die Less Stupid) because she enjoyed science in school. “It’s always been a passion, especially biology. So it was a way of continuing to study science. I think about it all the time, especially when I’m eating! So I wanted to pass on the information I found, because real science is far more bizarre than fiction, and kids love discovering all these strange facts.

“Originally, the comic strip was aimed at adolescents, but my readership is becoming younger and younger, which shows that even very young girls and boys are interested in death, illness, in how things work.” Some people are against children reading her work, feeling it is too violent but, says Marion Montaigne, life is violent – just ask any doctor or vet.

She enjoys amusing her readers, but likes to educate too. “People reacted to the Golden Gate Bridge cartoon with shock and some parents found it too adult, but I think it’s fascinating.” [The question was “What would happen if I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge?” and the answer included the information that your guts would probably explode out of your abdomen, because when a human body hits the water, the body stops moving but its contents do not. This was graphically illustrated, along with all the other gruesome possibilities.]

She gets ideas from reading, especially Anglo-Saxon books about science and says they’re better than French ones because they are written to be understood. “I particularly enjoy Bill Bryson because he doesn’t take a superior position, doesn’t try to obfuscate just to make himself look smarter. He really just explains things clearly. In France, people who know things often want to guard their knowledge for themselves. They deliberately use old-fashioned vocabulary and keep their research secret.”

She says France is changing, however. “Young people are looking beyond our borders, getting new ideas from other countries, and gradually attitudes to life are changing in France. For example, it is considered that only bright kids do science, the rest are considered too stupid.

“People who study other subjects are not considered equally intelligent, and I hate that. In France, people get put in little boxes; if they didn’t do a Bac S, they’re stupid and will be stupid for their whole lives. But my view is that we can all understand and love science when it’s properly explained.”

She says humour is a good way of teaching, and that funny cartoons create images which stick in the memory better than plain dry facts. “Teachers often ask if they can use my BD (bande dessinée) on menstruation in their classes. I don’t know why, perhaps as a way of approaching the subject which is hyper-functional. It isn’t embarrassing, it doesn’t scare either girls or boys. Because yes, even now people are scared of talking about periods, and I find that weird. I mean one boy read my BD and then he said to me, “Oh I see! It’s blood!”

She discovered her talent for drawing BDs when she was working at an animation studio. “I always drew a lot as a kid, but didn’t know what I wanted to do, so after lycée I studied art just because I enjoyed it, and when I started working in an animation studio, I realised that I could express my own stories more easily in BD than animation, which requires a big team and a lot of money.”

Drawing cartoons does require technical knowledge, however. “Art training gives you valuable technical knowledge but you need an affinity, and there’s a debate currently going on about this. Do you need something to say? Or can you just do amusing comic strips? For myself, I doubt I’d continue if I had nothing more to say.”
Her latest book is about Thomas Pesquet, the 10th French astronaut to live on the ISS. “Children are fascinated by space, and Dans La Combi de Thomas Pesquet is all about how an astronaut is trained, what it’s like living on the ISS, the scientific experiments they carried out, everything! You can email and phone astronauts on the ISS, the lines are very clear. He was very open with me and enthusiastic, and it’s great that he collaborated with me for this book. I hope everyone finds it as fun and interesting as I did when writing it.”

Dans La Combi de Thomas Pesquet by Marion Montaigne, is out November 24.

A brief history of bande dessinée

The comic strip first saw the light of day in the early 19th century in Switzerland where teacher, Rodolphe Töpffer created stories with drawings and captions to entertain his pupils and was persuaded by the intellectual Goethe to publish. His Histoire de M. Vieux Bois was published in 1837. It crossed the Atlantic and was republished in the USA in 1842 as The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck.

As the national press developed in the USA in the 1890s, the two major publishers, Pulitzer and Hearst, used comic strips to compete for readers. They were popular and soon books and then magazines were published with heroes like Superman, Batman, Flash Gordon and The Fantastic Four. The first Marvel Comic was printed in 1939.

1930-1950 saw the golden age of comics in both the US and in Europe where Belgium took the lead with Tintin, Lucky Luke and Spirou. Mangas were also becoming popular in Japan and their popularity spread to Europe during the 1970s, with particular success in France.

Comics have always been a legitimate part of the literary scene read by both adults and children in France, and in 2016 a study by market researcher GFJ Institut d’études showed that comics and mangas are the third most popular segment of the book market after general literature and children’s books.

The market is in rude health – in 2016 there were a whopping 5,305 new titles published in France.

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