Monday, March 29, 2004

Cartoon Nation

Yesterday evening we watched the six nations rugby final on French TV. It was a clash of the titans: England vs France. The match had been greatly looked forward to in France since it represented an opportunity to heal the wounds inflicted by defeat in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final held in Sydney. In that event, France came fourth behind England, Australia and New Zealand. England came out triumpant with a 20-17 victory over Australia, sealed with an extra-time penalty by a heroic Johnny Wilkinson.

The match last night at Stade de France was an exciting one. The French started well in the first half, then England tried to claw their way back in the second half, but just couldn't manage it. Dimitri Yachvili was the man of the match, the son of a former French international player, he looked slight compared to his team mates, but golly was he quick, nipping down the wing to score France's last try.

Watching England play France on a French TV channel was an odd experience. After half-an-hour of watching England's trial-by-fire, we started to yearn for the familiar voice of an English commentator giving consolation. Instead we heard laughing French men crying ooh-la-la-la!

An aspect of the French presentation of the match that has no parallel in the UK was the presence of 'live' artists documenting each turn of the match. Two artists were on hand to give different views of the action. The first stood by the pitch with a large sheet of watercolour paper and with rapid, impressionistic brushstrokes he produced colourful images of scrums and flying tackles. The second artist was a cartoonist who's lightning-fast sketches commented on the state of play. ....England were making a front row push.... the artist held up his sketchpad and there was the England captain driving a tank through the french opposition. ...The French scored a try... again he held up his sketchpad to show a picture of a wilted English rose.

This style of cartoon commentary is something peculiarly Gallic and is not just restricted to rugby matches. In the company I work for, particular individuals with the gift of humour and the courage to satirise are not only put up with, they are encouraged. Their work is featured in internal publications. It is considered normal and beyond comment when they send out cartoons attached to circular e-mails, commenting on some new company policy. These individuals take it upon themselves to be the small voice of sanity, speaking in quips and squiggly lines.

Where does it come from, this need to cartoon on the fly? Perhaps it is a result of the typical French business meeting, where sometimes the only way to get a word in is to write it on a piece of paper and hold it up. But also, cartooning is part of the mass culture. Children grow up on a diet of comic books: Asterix and Tintin to name only the famous tip of the iceberg. Picture stories for adults (bande desinée or BD) are also incredibly popular, forming an essential part of the cultural diet. The French, can, in fact, see themselves more clearly through these cartoon creations. It is their way of understanding better what is going on, and enjoying it more.

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