When it comes to comics, the Netherlands is an interesting country. Situated close to Belgium and France, the Dutch have had close ties with that bande dessinée (Franco-Belgian comics) culture, particularly when it comes to the Flemish comics, but they’ve also developed a comics culture all their own. While I’d learned about this a fair deal before, when I went to the Dutch comics festival “Stripfestival Breda” this past month, I was able to see it much more clearly.
Taking place in the city of Breda and spread across different locations near the center of town, Stripfestival Breda is a two-day event to celebrate comics. There, you could buy comics from a variety of venders, get your picture taken with your favorite characters (whether that means cosplay by fans or actual people hired to dress up), and even meet the artists responsible for all of these comics. Each location specialized in a certain area, such as one for events and awards, though I didn’t attend all of them due to time constraints and other inconveniences such as my lack of Dutch fluency. Instead, I primarily looked at the industry area, located in a theater, and the self-published area, located in the city’s Great Church (every Dutch city seems to have one).
The industry locale was the epicenter of the festival, and companies from both inside and outside of the Netherlands were there. They had plenty of books to sell, but what I found to be most impressive is that in a lot of cases, not only were the artists themselves there, but they were offering free sketches. The biggest booth was the Eppo booth, home of a variety of Dutch comics both classic and new (and in some cases the comics have run long enough to be both), which housed about 8-10 artists each with their own lines. With big names in Dutch comics such as Martin Lodewijk of Agent 327, as well as Jorg de Vos and Roman Molenaar, the artists behind Storm (which is available in English), it was a collection of heavy hitters, but amazingly the lines were short enough that I could get multiple sketches in well under an hour.
In fact, by my estimation, the combined lines between all of the Eppo artists was about as long as a line for Fred Gallagher (Megatokyo) at Otakon. This isn’t to say knock either Fred or the Dutch artists, but just to say that I was amazed by how accessible these artists were.
Interestingly, the most popular comic among young Dutch kids is an Italian series called Geronimo Stilton. I don’t know much about it other than the fact that it features an anthropomorphic journalist mouse who goes on adventures, or whether it’s doing well in the US, but its success was clear as kids line up to take photos with a real Geronimo Stilton, Disneyland-style.
There was definitely a French/Belgian presence as well, though I didn’t spend much time with them, and there were vendors selling a huge variety of comics, including (what I assumed to be) old, hard-to-find items. Many of the vendors sold comics with some erotic content, but there didn’t seem to be any particular separation or shame in it. In some cases they were shrink-wrapped, in some cases they weren’t.
There was some presence for manga and American comics, especially the life-sized Iron Man statue, the anime fan artists who I’ve seen at the Dutch anime cons, and the requisite maid cafe, though they definitely weren’t the main focus. Asking one vendor of superhero comics about the status of American comics in the Netherlands, he told me that The Walking Dead is quite popular.
The independent/alternative comics area was quite a different experience from the hustle and bustle of the industry location, though I think that may have had to do with the fact that it was held in an old-fashioned gothic-style church and featured many art pieces which I might call not very church-like at all. Featured here were many comics which strayed from convention, featuring really erratic character designs and strange subject matter, the artists were not just comics makers but sometimes contemporary art scene artists as well. Items were generally more expensive for the alternative comics than they were for the industry items, but often times not by much.
I spoke to one artist, who told me that his favorite comic was the one that had the sold the least because it wasn’t really to Dutch tastes. Intrigued, I asked him what he meant by Dutch tastes, because I don’t have anywhere near as keen a sense for European comics as I do for American and Japanese, he mentioned that it had to do with round, cartoonish characters with big feet and so on. It’s something I’ll have to do more research on.
In the end, what probably stood out to me most was the fact that gender and age distributions seemed very even. I saw people from five-years-old to fifty-year-sold both male and female lined up at booths, whether it was to buy comics or to meet the artists or their favorite characters, often times for the same series. It made me realize how much comics is a thing for all ages in the Netherlands.