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Cartoon heroes: New centre to help Belgium's future comics talent

Nov 8, 2016
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A new centre bringing comic book creation up to date welcomes its first trainees

The cradle of Belgian comics is gearing up for a digital renaissance. Marcinelle, a town near Charleroi, is best known as the home of the Éditions Dupuis comics publisher and the post-World War Two artists known as the Marcinelle school – Peyo, Franquin, Morris, Jijé and Will. All were associated with the weekly Spirou magazine, founded in 1938 and still going strong.

Today, those who aspire to follow in their footsteps need to do more than just come up with original characters or plot lines. Even at the concept stage, they need to think about an all-encompassing fiction universe that works across multiple media and technology platforms, and a big-bang worldwide commercial launch.

The reason? Consumers’ buying trends of cultural content, including comics, are changing dramatically, according to Léon Perahia, head of Dupuis’s Belvision audiovisual division. “They look for the same fiction universe on multiple platforms, including print, cinema, television, video games, the internet, tablets and smartphones. That means creators and authors need the skills to create and develop their ideas and intellectual property for a majority of these platforms. And on top of that, internationally.”

To train today’s aspiring artists for the digital age, Wallonia’s regional government has teamed up with Dupuis and its corporate parent, Média-Participations, in a new venture called R/O and pronounced like the French héros – envisioned as a trade school, multimedia lab and business incubator all rolled into one.

The initiative will consist of three pillars. Firstly and most importantly, a training institute on Dupuis’s premises will offer theoretical and practical instruction on screenwriting, character development and other artistic processes and on multimedia storytelling through new technologies.

There will also be an R/O Lab next door at the DreamWall digital graphics and animation studio. It will be equipped with all the latest audiovisual technology innovations – such as a 3D printer and web-based tools and infographics – that artists can use to bring their projects to life.

Last but not least is the creation of a new company called Belgian Heroes to oversee financing of the institute and the lab. Belgian Heroes will also develop the intellectual property rights for the projects, such as copyright and patents, and help find companies to launch them on the world market.

'We aim to become pioneers again' 

R/O, which took three years to plan, will be backed by €4.05 million in funding. Of that amount, Wallonia will provide €2 million – half through the Wallimage audiovisual investment fund and half via Sambrinvest, a Charleroi regional fund that supports the launch and development of small businesses. The remaining €2.05 million is to be raised from a handful of private investors.

For Wallonia, R/O fits into a broader ambition to reinvent itself economically by luring investment and new start-ups in the creative and new technology industries.

“The reputation of the Marcinelle school has long been an established fact,” Paul Magnette, minister-president of Wallonia and mayor of Charleroi, said at the R/O launch in December. “R/O represents a link – economically and artistically – to guide the Marcinelle school towards a creative economy, a future sector bound to generate added employment in Europe. The objective, and our ambition, is to offer talented artists concrete and immediate professional opportunities.”

Eliane Tillieux, Wallonia’s minister of employment and education, added that the region’s involvement in a sector like audiovisual and multimedia “carries a real opportunity for the future and for emerging professions”.

Planners hope the project will put Marcinelle back on the map for new reasons, by bringing the world of comics – known as the ninth art – into the 21st century.

“When it was created, the Marcinelle school was ahead of its time,” said François Pernot, head of Média-Participations’ comics and animation division, at December’s launch. “With this project, we aim to become pioneers again.”

Only top talents from Belgium and elsewhere will be admitted, with about 40 projects chosen for an intense and competitive autumn boot camp. Of those, 15 will be selected for the debut class, set to start in January and finish by July 2017.

Once the projects are finished, the real adventure begins when their mentors from Belgian Heroes will match them with a media partner to launch their new creations. And while Dupuis hopes to do some of that launching, Perahia said it wouldn’t be a disadvantage to industry peers. “We will find the best partner for each project, that’s the main goal,” he said.

This article first appeared in WAB magazine

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