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The Comic Book Calling of Philippe Labaune

After 27 years working in finance in New York, Frenchman Philippe Labaune has reconnected with his biggest passion, comic books. He is curating the first European comics exhibition in America at the Danese/Corey gallery from February 28 through March 14.

The fifty-something has a relaxed, artistic look — stubble, sideburns, and XXL eyeglasses — as he welcomes us into his high-ceilinged apartment in Chelsea. His comic book collection is showcased in the entrance hall, featuring French-Belgian classics such as Tintin, Gaston Lagaffe, Boule & Bill, Blueberry, and Blake & Mortimer. “Those a just a few of them,” he says, laughing. “But I don’t have room for them all on my shelves.”

As the shelves won’t do, Philippe Labaune has put his walls to good use. His apartment is decorated with original strips, canvases, and rare drawings. There are close to 40 in total. The corridor features the cover of La Ville de nulle part — a 1973 book about secret agent Bob Morane — and a naval battle scene in black and white — page seven from the Ile maudite comic by Jacques Martin. The protagonist Alix can be seen in several panels. “The presence of the main character determines the value of the strip,” says the comic book enthusiast. “A page without Tintin and Snowy would cost half the price.”

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William Vance, Bob Morane : La Ville de nulle part, 1973. © Courtesy of Philippe Labaune

The size of the drawing is also important. The collector paid 800 euros at an auction for a character scribbled by French artist Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius) on the back of a postcard. As for the large collaborative piece next to the dining room table by Moebius, Italian Tanino Liberatore, and British illustrator Brian Bolland, it was “very expensive,” says Labaune.

The Comic Book Boom

Long reserved for pimple-faced teenagers, comic books have now entered exhibitions and auction houses. There are eight specialist galleries in Paris, seven more than twenty years ago. “The generation that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s reading magazines such as Métal Hurlant, L’Echo des Savanes, and Fluide Glaciale arrived on the market,” says the collector. “They had money, and started buying art. The Artcurial auction house in Paris made a fortune.”

The 2007 auction of 32 original works by Enki Bilal was a turning point. They were sold for a record-breaking 1.3 million euros — four times their estimated price. “Bilal is now sold for the same price as a beautiful watercolor by Magritte, or even a statue by Niki de Saint Phalle,” wrote French newspaper Le Figaro at the time. There were several Americans among the buyers.

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Enki Bilal, Vertebrati Couple II, 2014. © Courtesy of Glénat

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are the leading collectors of European comics in the United States. The former drew inspiration from Moebius’ drawings and the Valérian saga by Jean-Claude Mézières to create the Star Wars movies, while the latter directed the adaptation of The Secret of the Unicorn. Spielberg may even have been the one who bought a renowned Tintin strip from 1937, sold to “a very discreet private American collector” for 2.65 million euros. This world record was then topped by the Egyptian Queen by American artist Frank Frazetta, sold in Dallas last May for 5.4 million dollars.

European Illustrators In Vogue

“The Americans have been collecting comics for a long time, but the paper is poor quality and the delicate, faded illustrations are difficult to exhibit,” says Labaune. “Over the last few years, there has been an increasing demand in the United States for original European pieces drawn on premium drawing paper.”

This context inspired the Frenchman to organize the exhibition Line and Frame: A Survey of European Comic Art. In chronological order, visitors will (re)discover 74 works (68 of which are for sale) by 51 artists from Hergé to Julie Maroh, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Blue Is the Warmest Color, adapted for cinema in 2013.

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Julie Maroh, Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, 2011. © Courtesy of Glénat

Labaune approached four gallery owners and eleven private collectors to source such a body of work from Europe. The former Belgian ambassador to the United Nations, now an administrator for the Dargaud comic book publisher, lent an original strip of The Castafiore Emerald and the corresponding pencil sketch. The two pages were insured for two million dollars and sent with an armed escort!

An Annual Event

Conferences will be held alongside the Danese/Corey gallery exhibition — one on French comics with publisher Jacques Glénat (February 28) and another on Belgian comics with illustrator François Schuiten (March 6) — as well as a workshop for children at the Albertine bookstore on March 7. The offering has been organized with the help of the cultural services at the French embassy, the Belgian consulate, the Wallonie-Bruxelles International agency, and the International Organization of La Francophonie.

Labaune wants to make this event the first edition of an annual comic book festival. He is also looking to introduce Americans to young French artists such as Mathieu Bablet, author of the science fiction graphic novel Shangri-La, lauded at the 2017 Angoulême Comics Festival. “Nearly one in every five books sold in France is a comic. This is a cultural powerhouse that should have a bigger presence in the United States!”

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