A crowd of 400 gathered in Chelsea’s Danese/Corey gallery for Line and Frame: A Survey of European Comic Art on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (Photo: Ken Kurson for Fine Art Globe)

On January 7, 2015, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi stormed the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Identifying themselves as members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Kouachi brothers killed 12 people and injured 11 others. At the same time, a friend of theirs, Amedy Coulibaly, took hostages at a kosher supermarket in the 20th arrondissement. He had pledged allegiance to Isis. Armed with a submachine gun, an assault rifle, and two Tokarev pistols, Coulibaly demanded that the Kouachis be released unharmed. He murdered four Jewish shoppers and employees and held 15 other people hostage before the police killed him.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo, prompted by the magazine’s having dared to print cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, sparked a reckoning. Four days after the massacre, over 2 million people demonstrated in Paris to show support for free expression. The phrase “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) gained currency worldwide. In a heroic show of support, people even changed their Facebook profile photos.

Five years on, the ability of avant-garde European artists to challenge and ultimately change society has never seemed more feeble. As the response to that attack very quickly evolved from outrage to appeasement to denial, it was clear that the fascists had won. And European culture has lost.

WHAT: Line and Frame: A Survey of European Comic Art
WHERE: Danese/Corey, 511 West 22nd Street
WHEN: February 28 – March 14, 2020

A powerful retrospective of European illustration and comic art from the 1970s through the 1990s has made that contrast painfully clear. The anger and energy of kickass French greats like Moebius and Philippe Druillet and the Belgian Francois Schuiten seems totally absent in today’s reluctant-to-offend European artists. Too afraid to confront the real threats to classical liberal values such as freedom and tolerance, they settle for snark and Twitter and safe targets like political leaders, rather than taking on the actual forces that are silencing creative voices.

Line and Frame is the brainchild of collector Philippe Labaune, who founded Art9 specifically to advocate for European comic art to take its place among other fine art forms.

“Comic art is very particular. There’s no such media where you can read the same book a hundred times. Or where you can read three pages for three minutes and totally escape,” Labaune told Fine Art Globe.

In his Chelsea apartment, Philippe Labaune shows off the original drawing that became a classic cover of French humor magazine Fluide Glacial. (Photo: Ken Kurson for Fine Art Globe)

“As a French boy who grew up in the 70s, I come from a big family of four,” “My older brothers were huge comic book fans. I didn’t even know how to read, and I already started to look at the pictures. Starting with the classics, Tintin, Asterix, Alix, and Lucky Luke. As I became more of a teenager, I discovered more science fiction, erotic comic art, some manga.”

“I’ve lived in New York for 30 years, but I’ve always kept up with what I should be reading. I’m a huge fan of Blake and Mortimer,” Labaune enthused, referring to the spy adventures by the Belgian Edgar P. Jacobs, who was one of godfathers of the European comics scene. When he mentioned that next week he’ll be hosting François Schuiten, the artist who drew the most recent Blake and Mortimer, Labaune practically giggled with excitement.

Surging Interest in Europe

According to the French culture magazine France-Amérique, the number of French galleries specializing in comic art has grown from one to eight over the last two decades. The magazine cites a 2007 auction of original works by Enki Bilal as a turning point. The 32 pieces sold for €1.3 million — four times their estimated price. According to a story in Le Figaro, “Bilal is now sold for the same price as a beautiful watercolor by Magritte, or even a statue by Niki de Saint Phalle.”

Labaune had been a partner and Director of Trading & Operations at the money manager Stralem & Co., getting in on the ground floor and helping build it to over $2 billion in assets. He decided to pursue his passion for illustrations full time when he realized that finance no longer held a thrill for him. “Nothing surprises me. I was wishing for something bad to happen just to break up the monotony after 28 years.” Ever the experienced trader, he saw a market opportunity. In comics.

“In Paris there are seven or eight galleries. A few in Brussels, some in Spain. Here, there’s Scott Eder in Jersey City and really no one else.” Labaune started Art9 to help introduce the artists he grew up on to American collectors. The project gets its name from the notion that emerged in the 1960s that comics are the “ninth art,” and deserve their place among sculpture, poetry, painting and other classical pursuits.

The survey on display at Chelsea’s Danese/Corey Gallery features works by Druillet and Moebius, the two artists who in 1974 created Métal Hurlant magazine (literal translation: “Howling Metal”). That publication had worldwide influence, morphing into “Heavy Metal” in the US, where its basket of sci-fi, nudies and steampunk hypnotized D&D types for years and even turned into a movie. That both Druillet and Moebius (real name Jean Giraud) are getting their due as powerful and serious artists – over 400 people attended the opening last night – is sweet vindication to Labaune, who’s been championing their work for decades.

The walls of Labaune’s apartment in Chelsea reflect that obsession. Above his dining room table hangs a massive collaborative piece, the work of three artists – the Frenchman Moebius, the Italian Tanino Liberatore (creator of the RanXerox character) and the Englishman Brian Bolland (best known for his work on Judge Dredd and Batman).

Labaune also owns a piece that perfectly encapsulates a lifetime devoted to French illustrators. The magazine Fluide Glacial put out an issue that celebrated the entirety of the greats. Clearly influenced by Don Martin and other MAD magazine greats, the cover even featured gadgets, such as a depiction of one artist lecherously reading a girlie magazine; when you pull back the tab, you see he’s secretly reading about economics. (Labaune explained that the name “Fluide Glacial” refers to a prank French kids play – one slyly puts the freezing ointment on the other’s neck. It’s hilarious in French.)

In the survey currently on view, Enki Bilal is also featured heavily. Since his breakthrough auction, he’s had a solo exhibition at The Louvre and published several graphic novels in English. Also featured are more contemporary artists such as Nicolas De Crecy and Jacques de Loustal, whose work has been used as a New Yorker cover.

With its span of 1970s to near-present, the show makes a convincing case that great artists continue to create mesmerizing works. At the same time, however, it’s harder to believe that those works can shake the culture the way they did in earlier decades. The artists featured on that cover of Fluide Glacial would never have been silenced by religious fundamentalists demanding adherence to their rigid code.

“The first night after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I was in Union Square with a hundred other French people,” Labaune recalls. “There was a big wave about free press – expressing yourself is important. We had hundreds of thousands in the street saying that expression is a democratic tool that has to be respected. Charlie Hebdo is anything but politically correct but a few months after that, it was back to ‘let’s make sure we don’t offend women, don’t offend religion.’ As a society, we’re getting better because we’re able to shock each other. Today, everything is so politically correct. I don’t want to be a racist or misogynist. But this is art and you’re supposed to shock. Caravaggio, all he did was shock. Let’s not become too comfortable and politically correct.”

An attendee enjoys champagne and three works by Régis Loisel. (Photo: Ken Kurson for Fine Art Globe)