Health and Safety

8 French-language comics that helped me learn French

By Matthew Jackson, AF staff

Much like Barbie once said of math class, French is tough! I took class after class in a long trajectory from middle school to college and wasn’t confident enough to read a full novel until somewhere around my second college-level course. But during that period where I was still trying to sort out my passé composés from my imparfaits, and when the subjonctif was still the dreaded word du jour, I found myself reading a lot of French comics. Why comics? Well, they’re reliably understandable, for starters. The visual aspect helped me follow the narrative even when I didn’t pick up on every piece of dialogue or description. Picking up an issue of Tintin was also far less intimidating than diving into a Camus or a Collette - which is not to imply that comics are trivial, just that there’s a lower barrier to entry. When Stendahl felt out of reach, Hergé did not. I still maintain that delving into the world of comics is one of the best ways for easing yourself into a new language, and given that France has a huge market for the medium, there’s all manner of things to choose from without limiting yourself to superheroes and spectacle. A whole slew of genres, styles, and stories live under the label of bande dessiné and it’s a world worth venturing into if you’re curious about putting your French skills to the test. Here are some of the comics and graphic novels that helped me practice my French - without feeling like homework!

The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé

Recommended if you like Indiana Jones, The Maltese Falcon, or just a good caper.

Tintin is ubiquitous for a reason. The escapades of this cowlicked-young reporter and his adorable dog Snowy (who can sort of talk but everyone mostly ignores that) are upbeat, straightforward, and reminiscent of great adventure stories from Jules Verne to John Huston. Every issue features our globe-trotting protagonist visiting a new locale and embroiling himself in local drama, which is full of lighthearted slapstick and some great sightseeing. Some issues have aged better than others (Tintin’s adventures in the Congo reflect, let’s just say, some pretty antiquated colonial views), but the series as a whole remains charming and easy to pick up. It’s also great for learning some very specific nouns (do YOU know how to say “ice pick” in French?), and the irascible Captain Haddock’s inventive approach to cursing will have you picking up some great sea-dog slang. Mille milliards de mille sabords!

Pyongyang, Chroniques birmanes, or Jérusalem by Guy Delisle

Recommended if you like documentaries, Travel bloggers, investigative journalism.

Quebecois graphic novelist Guy Delisle has been all over the place, and his dispatches from places like North Korea and Burma read like illustrated New Yorker pieces. Each book tells the story of his personal experience immersed in an unfamiliar place, and his eye for cultural detail makes these accounts amusing, reflective, and genuinely informative. These books fall squarely under the genre of reportage, a combination of comics and documentary that is especially popular in Europe and absolutely irresistible if you love to travel (even vicariously). As humanist as they are humorous, Delisle’s comics are a great way to test your French abroad without leaving the couch.

L’homme gribouillé by Serge Lehman and Frederik Peeters

Recommended if you like: David Lynch, conspiracy theories, and Thrillers.

Paris plagued by an unceasing downpour. A mysterious set of murders and abductions. A crow-like assailant who seems to have walked right out of a dark fairytale. In this brooding, brilliant graphic novel, a mother afflicted by episodic mutism and her sarcastic teenage daughter are thrown into a world of conspiracy and menace when their house is burglarized by a not-quite-human stranger in search of cryptic family documents. The investigation that ensues will open holes in their family history and bring light to secrets buried generations down. Who is this lanky phantom haunting the streets and rooftops of the flooding city?

This mystery-thriller set in modern day Paris is moody like film noir and enticing like a Dan Brown novel. It’s not only a suspenseful page-turner that will scratch your itch for the fantastical, but also a great way to steep yourself in some of the more informal speech patterns and slang of modern French. You might call it a contemporary take on gothic storytelling - or maybe just a good spooky read about family history and the monsters we try to keep hidden.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Recommended if you like: Coming of age stories, modern history, autobiography.

I’m not saying Marjanne Satrapi is single-handedly responsible for giving comics a more “serious” reputation, but let’s just say she really pushed the bill. Persepolis was such an instant classic that it now populates many a syllabus for college-level lit courses, in French and in English, and in 2019 it ranked among The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century. Spanning two volumes, Satrapi’s autobiographical œuvre tells the story of her upbringing in Iran during the cultural revolution of the 1980s and her changing relationship to her national, cultural, and religious identities. It’s poignant, snarky, informative, and deeply personal. Its art and narration are unpretentious and honest, and Satrapi crafts some seriously striking panels with her simple, monochrome inking. De plus, the comic was adapted into a (fantastic) animated feature film in 2007, which won the Cannes Jury Prize for that year in addition to taking home a few César awards. Despite its heavy subject matter, Persepolis is very accessible from a linguistic point of view and should provide a meaningful literary experience for French speakers of any comfort level.

(See also: L’Arab du futur; Poulet aux prunes)

La sémantique c’est élastique by James

Recommended if you like New Yorker cartoons, wordplay, and dinner-party linguistics.

Why do the Québécois send “courriels” while the French are content to call them “emails?” Why was the king’s son called the “dauphin”? Why is the verb for “believe” sometimes used to express confidence, and other times used to convey uncertainty? If you love learning about the quirks of language and want to understand some of the seemingly arbitrary conventions of French, this is a great read. Originally appearing as recurring strip in La revue dessinée, this collected series is bite-sized, witty, and a handy reference guide for every factoid you didn’t know you needed to know. The concept of “semantics” can be kind of lofty, but trust me, it’s not so unapproachable when your instructor is a dumpy cartoon pigeon-man. Very meta and will potentially give you the tools to one-up even your French instructor!

A la recherche du temps perdu (yes, really) by Marcel Proust & Stéphane Heuet

If you like: Classic literature, dandies, and wistful ruminations.

If you’re one of those people who loves the concept of Proust but can’t bring yourself to actually read 4000 pages consisting of, like, 40 run-on sentences – I feel you. Also, this might be the book for you – Stéphane Heuet has systematically condensed Proust’s prodigious tomes into an easily palatable but no-less impressive series of comics that captures all of the poetic essence of the infamously verbose writer without any of the mind-numbing fat. It’s pretty remarkable how Heuet is able to convey all of the cerebral beats of his source material without over-simplifying or missing the point. He also by-and-large retains original passages of Proust’s writing, so you’ll get to flex your French on some of France’s most famous prose, with just a little assistance from the illustrations. If for no other reason, this is worth a read just so you can finally brag to your literary circle that you’ve read Proust in the original French. So what if there were pictures here and there?

Gérard, cinq années dans les pattes de Depardieu by Mathieu Sapin

Recommended if you love celebrity gossip, biographies, and french film history.

It’s no secret that Gérard Depardieu has had sort of a contentious relationship with his fellow countrymen in recent years. Once a global icon of quintessential “frenchness,” the actor is nowadays the subject of constant controversy as he has threatened to return his French passport and seems to be in constant tiffs with the French government. The Dépardieu of aujourd’hui is a complex character for sure, and it’s this complexity that Mathieu Sapin brings to the fore in his funny, candid biographical comic about his time shadowing the legendary actor. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll make uncomfortable connections to the off-putting character traits found in other powerful global figures… but I digress. This is a thoroughly entertaining portrait-by-caricature with far more depth and sincerity than it originally lets on, and a must-read for anyone interested in the often jagged landscape of contemporary French pop culture. You’ll learn some new swear words for sure.

Zombillénium by Arthur de Pins

Recommended If you like Teen Wolf, What We Do in the Shadows, or iZombie.

Zombillénium is a series about a bunch of monsters that run an infernal theme park. That’s pretty much the sell right there. It’s goofy, irreverent fun that takes the most prominent ghouls of Hollywood legend and dresses them up in bureaucratic drag, giving Dracula a managerial makeover and turning the Mummy into a millennial layabout. The whole thing is loaded with references to American pop culture – including gags about Thriller and Twilight – so you’ll never feel out of the loop when it comes to the comic’s sense of humor. Sometimes I find that the more absurd a concept is, the more it resonates with a cross-cultural audience, and I think that’s definitely the case here. If you’ve ever wanted to see Nosferatu in a pink polo, this is your chance.