5 French Cartoonists You Should Know

If you’ve spent any time at all in pretty much any bookstore in France, chances are you’ve noticed a very dominant genre: comic books. While in the U.S. comics are largely relegated to niche culture and bookstores (despite a recent popularity surge), in France they are considered a staple of daily life.

Bande dessinée (BD for short) are for everyone: children, adults, whoever. The genre spans all topics imaginable; Literary fiction, philosophy, sex, biography, pure silliness — all are handily represented in the wealth of French and Francophone BD.

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So, who are some of the creative forces behind the omnipresent genre of BD? From three younger forces to two veterans in the French comics world — let’s meet a few favorites:

1. Pénélope Bagieu

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Illustration by Pénélope Bagieu, from an interview on The Gloss.

 Bagieu came to prominence with her wonderful autobiographical cartoons Ma vie est tout à fait fascinante (as seen on her blog of the same name) and Joséphine. Both are very funny portraits of highly flawed — and relatable — young women. More recently, Bagieu has created more profound, in-depth comics chronicling the lives of famous real-life women, as in her series Culottées. But even as her work grows richer and more multifaceted, my favorite cartoon of hers is still this simple panel from a series entitled “The Joys of Family.”

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“You know, I always preferred you to that bitch Caroline.” “But Grandma, *I’m* Caroline.”

2. William Maury

Les Sisters, Image from BD Culture
Les Sisters, Image from BD Culture

– Maury is a gifted cartoonist perhaps best known for series Les Sisters (c’est du franglais!), co-written with Christophe Cazenove. This children and YA series consists of funny, beautifully drawn one-pagers, chronicling the squabbles, clashes and other adventures of young sisters Marine and Wendy. The drawing is incredibly lively — not to mention recognizable if you were ever a kid, especially one growing up with a sister. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Maury based the strip on his two young daughters with the same names. 

3. Catherine Meurisse

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“People tell me that it’s 2015, that January is over.” Image from Catherine Meurisse’s “La Légèreté,” as seen in Les Inrockuptibles.

– For the majority of her career, Catherine Meurisse has been best known as a cartoonist for humor magazine Charlie Hebdo (and the magazine’s only regular female cartoonist, no less), as well as for Le Nouvel Observateur, Marianne, Libération and a host of others. In this capacity, she has produced a vast array of satirical and gag work, such as this spin on “nuclear family”:

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Image from Larousse.

More recently, Meurisse has gained renown in the BD world for La Légèreté (Lightness), her striking response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015. Meurisse described the work as follows: “Lightness is what I lost on January 7th and what I’m trying to recover […] Lightness can also be drawing.” Indeed, the BD comes off as a stunning means of working through tragedy by turning it into art, and showcases Meurisse’s great creative range as well.

4. Albert Uderzo

A Roman, Astérix and Obelix, as drawn by Albert Uberzo. Image from Atelier Contemporain.
“You have nothing to declare?” “I’m hungry.” A Roman, Astérix and Obelix, by Albert Uberzo. Image: Atelier Contemporain.

Even though you don’t recognize this BD superstar’s name, you probably recognize his work. Uderzo was the illustrator behind Astérix — France’s most iconic and globally recognizable comic — from 1961 until his retirement in 2011 (let that sink in). When its wonderful author René Goscinny died in 1977, Uderzo also took over the writing of the comic. Perhaps most remarkably of all, Uderzo continued to render Astérix and friends until he was 84 years old.

5. Jean-Jacques Sempé

Cartoon by Jean-Jacques Sempé; image from The Cultural Cat.
Cartoon by Jean-Jacques Sempé; image from The Cultural Cat.

This BD master is well-recognized in America, thanks in no small part to his decades drawing covers for The New Yorker. Venerated in France and now 84 years old, Sempé spent a remarkable career rendering the tiny within the vast, the human within the impossibly detailed, all marked by his signature liveliness, oddness and sweetness. Besides New Yorker covers, his most famous work is the Le Petit Nicolas book series illustrations. Much like his contemporary Uderzo, Sempé only just retired this year; cartoonists, as a rule, tend to keep going until the very end. And if you ask me, what a wonderful legacy to leave, having spent a long life making people look, laugh, and think.