Plain kitschy or icon of an era? Show rescues photo comics from dustbin of history

Photo comics or photonovels, the genre infamous for stilted storylines and sugary romantic melodramas, are finally getting their moment in the sun in a major museum retrospective in France.

art and culture Updated: Jan 10, 2018 09:14 IST
Agence France-Presse
Photo comics,Marseille,Satanik
Women standing in front of cover pages of the photo novel 'Nous Deux' during a press preview of the exhibition Roman-Photo (Photo-Novel) at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in Marseille, southern France.(AFP/BERTRAND LANGLOIS)

What have Sophia Loren, John Cleese and Woody Allen got in common? They all began their careers in the oft-derided world of photo comics or photonovels.

The genre, infamous for stilted storylines and sugary romantic melodramas, is finally getting its day in the sun in a major museum retrospective in France. The lingering kisses and frozen horrified looks that were the bread-and-butter of photo comic stories now seem irredeemably kitsch.

But in strait-laced postwar Europe they were lapped up by millions even after the dawn of television – sparking moral panic and condemnation by both the pope and communist leaders.

Well into the 1960s, one in three French people were avid readers, according to the curators of the Roman-Photo exhibition at the Mucem museum in Marseille, which claims to be the first definitive look at a genre “that has rarely attracted the attention of historians”.

Indeed many of the people who created photo comics were so scornful of them that they left very little behind for posterity. Yet “photonovels were one of the biggest pop cultural successes of the 20th century,” said co-curator Frederique Deschamps, “modern fairy tales filled with cars, fridges, record players and other objects that symbolise modernity, romance and desire.”

From their birth in Italy in 1947, photo comics reflected changing moral values and fed the slow rise of feminism with stories about touchy and taboo subjects like “divorce, abortion and women’s rights at work”, said her co-curator Marie-Charlotte Calafat.

Satanik, a character from an Italian noir comic book, during a press preview of the exhibition. (AFP/BERTRAND LANGLOIS)

‘Opium of female masses’

“They do not deserve their retrograde reputation at all,” she added, “it’s the reverse actually.”

Instead they were real barometers of the “aspirations of society with storylines where women questioned their place,” Calafat insisted. So much so that even the reforming Pope John XXIII denounced them in 1959, prompting one liberal Catholic weekly to call them “the opium of the female masses”.

A lobby group made up of French communists, Christian intellectuals and some feminists also famously branded them “infantile magazines that undermine morality and break up families”.

Eventually though the Church gave in and began using photonovels to recount the lives of the saints.

The genre soon spawned imitators in Britain and the US, where the satirical magazine Help! called on the budding comic and acting talents of Woody Allen, John Cleese and fellow Monty Python member Terry Gilliam.

Photo comics also featured in National Lampoon as “photo funnies”, with Americans borrowing the Italian word “fumetti” for the genre, meaning speech bubble (literally “little puff of smoke”).

Sex and schlock horror

But as the 1960s wore on and TV became increasingly dominant, sales began to wane, pushing publishers to ape Hollywood and up the sex and shock factors.

A large part of the Marseille show is dedicated to Killing, a sadistic Italian photo comic character who stole from other criminals and took particular pleasure from torturing scantily-clad women.

The French version of the series, Satanik, was banned after 19 issues in 1967, but the brutal anti-hero -- who wore a skeleton costume -- spawned a bootleg Turkish version called Kilink that featured in several cult films, borrowing liberally from French and Italian pulp movies Fantomas and Kriminal.

A woman walking past photographs of final pages of photo novels during a press preview of the exhibition. (AFP/BERTRAND LANGLOIS)

But it was pornography that gave photo comics their longest and most lucrative afterlife in such bestselling top-shelf magazines as the Italian Fotosex. The British tabloid The Sun still uses photo strips to illustrate its Dear Deidre problem page, which inevitably turns on sexual dilemmas or titillating situations. And photo comics continue to be widely used for health education worldwide.

Putting the exhibition together, however, was not an easy task.

Curator Deschamps said she began her interest in the genre after finding a stack of the French magazine Nous Deux (Us Two) in a skip. As she dug deeper into the subject she discovered that the originals of most of the massively selling magazines had also been confined to the dustbin of history, leaving researchers with little to go on. Without chancing upon thousands of negatives of original photos in the archives of the Mondadori publishing house in Milan, she said they would not have been able to stage the show.

The exhibition runs at Mucem, Marseille, until April 23, 2018.

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First Published: Jan 10, 2018 09:13 IST