Show rescues photo comics from dustbin of history in France

|     Estelle Emonet     |


MARSEILLE (AFP) – 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”.

Cover pages from photo novel ‘Nous Deux’ at an exhibition ‘Roman-Photo (Photo-Novel)’ at the Mucem museum in Marseille where the irredeemably kitsch stories, lapped up by millions in postwar Europe are getting their day in the sun. – AFP

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.

“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 weekly to call them ‘the opium of the female masses’.

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

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.