Claire Bretécher was one of France’s most prominent socio-satirical comic strip authors for more than 4 decades. Bretécher is an icon in the world of bandes dessinées who has served as a role model to aspiring dessinatrices that dream of becoming successful cartoonists. Born in 1940, Bretécher broke into comics in the early ’60s when women in the cartooning business were practically non-existent. She died last year at the age of 79. Throughout her career, Bretécher published 30 albums and was a cartoonist in residence for Le Nouvel Observateur (now l’Obs) in the ’70s and ’80s. Her brutal wit and irreverent style mocked societal mores of the middle and upper class but her comics were largely apolitical.
It’s been fun getting to know more about her. Below are some entertaining highlights.
According to Bretécher, she started drawing at the age of 3. An avid consumer of comics herself, by the time she entered high school she was drawing her own strips. As with far too many artists, her childhood was not a happy one and she rarely discussed it. While Bretécher seems to have loved her mother, who encouraged her artistic talents and independence, she described her father as un sale con.
After high school she attended a fine arts college in her hometown of Nantes but found their focus on abstract art uninspiring. Eager to leave provincial life behind her, she headed to Paris where she briefly worked as a drawing instructor and babysitter before picking up work as an illustrator for various magazines.
By the mid 1960s, she was making a modest living drawing cartoons, illustrations, and one-off gags for humor magazines aimed at children. Inspired by the American humorist, Charles M. Schultz, she created a strip about a gang of kids, called Les Gnangnan. The new strip ran in the hugely popular Franco-Belgian publication Spiro.
By the 1970s, Bretécher was showing she could hold her own against her male peers. Her strip Cellulite which she created for the more adult magazine Pilote had gained enough popularity that the publisher Dargaud released two Cellulite albums (1972 and 1974). Cellulite features the antics of a medieval princess with large feet and a trumpet-like nose who is sick of waiting around for prince charming. Her lecherous father, the king, is eager to marry her off but she disapproves of his choices and follows her own instincts.
Le Bolot Occidental
In May 1973, Bretécher debuted a new series, called Les Amours écologiques du Bolot occidental, in the monthly ecology magazine Le Sauvage. In this strip, le Bolot occidental is a breed of dog obsessed with sex who lives next to a preserve for endangered animals. The main characters are a male dog Georges and his wife Guiguitte who has given birth 238 times. You can see how this might pose a problem for Georges when trying to convince the preserve’s caretakers that his species is on the path to extinction. However, Georges is determined to gain admission to the refuge where life resembles paradise on earth. The volume shown below is available for Kindle.
In 1973, Bretécher joined the staff of Le Nouvel Observateur, a weekly news magazine. There she introduced Les Frustrés, the first widely successful French comic based on social commentary. Instead of recurring characters, Bretécher presented a changing cast of Bohemian women (and sometimes men). Liberated ladies, ranging from managers to mothers to housewives, shared their defeats and triumphs in a few short black-and-white frames. Over time, Bretécher’s self-involved characters evolved from hippies to yuppies, all the while addressing issues such as education, feminism, love relationships, consumerism, parenting, and politics.
In 1975, she self-published her first album, a collection of Les Frustrés and it was an instant bestseller. She followed these with 4 more albums, translated into ten different languages. Volume 1 is available for Kindle in French and there is also a shorter version for Kindle in English.
In the late 1980’s and for most of the next two decades, Bretécher’s work featured a new character, the surly and rebellious Agrippine. I can tell you from firsthand experience that adults will find this strip hilarious but I don’t recommend it for a teenage daughter. Bretécher’s acerbic wit is in full throttle as the self-obsessed Agrippine leads the reader through countless existential crises. In total, Bretécher self-published 7 albums of Agrippine, the last one in 2004.
When asked about the name of her central character, Bretécher pointed to the Roman empress Agrippina. Not knowing much about Roman history, I looked her up in Wikipedia, which describes the woman as ruthless, ambitious, violent, and domineering. A French version of the bestselling album of Agrippine is available for Kindle as well as an English translation.
In 2006, Bretécher retired from publishing her own work but other publishing houses continued to sell new editions and compilations of both her early and later creations. In 2018, Dargaud released an edition of one-off gags called Petits Travers. Once again in this album, Bretécher demonstrates her endless capacity to serve up humorous quips that arise in moments of frustration, anxiety, desperation, and self-obsession.
When Claire Bretécher first landed in Paris, hoping to earn a living as an illustrator, women cartoonists were unheard of. Yet, she managed to forge a path for herself, a solitary pilot fish in a sea of sharks. I’ve written about the inequities that still exist in the world of bandes dessinées, where talented women continue to fight for recognition.
In 1975, Bretécher became the first woman to receive the Prize for Best Scenario at the prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival. At the 1982 Angoulême festival, she became the first female author to receive the coveted Grand Prix lifetime achievement award. (Only 2 other women have won this prize, Florence Cestac in 2000 and Rumiko Takahashi in 2019). Many of today’s male and female cartooning superstars point to Bretécher as an inspiring figure, among them Catherine Meurisse and Riad Sattouf. Even intellectuals such as Umberto Eco have sung her praises. In 2006, the astronomist Jean-Claude Merlin named an asteroid after her.
Many have described Bretécher as a feminist but she never embraced the title. She absolutely identified with many feminist ideals but she often mocked what she considered to be militant attempts to erase gender differences. Her subjects are largely female and when a man makes an appearance in one of her frames, his presence often adds to the featured woman’s frustration. In interviews she downplayed her role as an activist, explaining that she only took on women’s issues because “I understand women better than men.”
A Legacy of Period Satire
In addition to her more than 30 albums, Bretécher has other artistic achievements to point to. Eleven short films and an animated television series (available on YouTube) have been adapted from her work. She co-authored two theatrical plays and was also an accomplished painter who mainly created portraits of her friends and family members. “To paint,” she once noted, “all you need is an idea of what you want to represent. Making a comic strip requires you to find a story, to work like a dog.“
Bretécher’s work assiduously reflects the struggles of western women as they fought for increasing independence at the end of the 20th century and beyond. Some find her humor caustic and overly critical of women’s insecurities and aspirations. However, her biting one-liners and less-than-appealing portrayals form an amusing and often tension-reducing body of work. “I basically am speaking about myself,” she explains, “and my characters mock my own idiosyncrasies.”
I certainly include myself in the long list of her devoted admirers.
I’ve only managed to share a handful of titles in this post. If you’re interested, Amazon has an extensive offering of Bretécher’s work. I also found used copies for a few volumes available at Abe Books.
- Lambiek Comiclopedia, Claire Bretécher
- Le Monde, La mort de la dessinatrice Claire Bretécher
- YouTube, Les yeux de Claire Bretécher (1977)
- Youtube, Agrippine – Episode 26, Expression
- l’Obs, Les 19 couvertures du « Nouvel Observateur » réalisées par Claire Bretécher
- l’Obs, Claire Bretécher est morte. Elle nous avait ouvert les portes de son appartement
- l’Obs, L’hommage en dessin de Riad Sattouf à Claire Bretécher
- l’Obs, La dessinatrice d’« Agrippine » Claire Bretécher est décédée
- l’Obs, Les portraits privés de Claire Bretécher