Thursday, April 9, 2015

Discover Passages to Obscure Worlds with CITIES OF THE FANTASTIC by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

Get ready to expand your comics repertoire with Alex from The Sleepless Reader! Alex lives in Switzerland and is here to tell us about a fascinating Franco-Belgian graphic novel series called Cities of the Fantastic. What makes this series a cult hit? Read on to find out.

One of the best things of having lived in Brussels was the exposure to its vibrant comics scene. As a kid I devoured the most famous Belgian series such as Tintin, Lucky-Luck and the Smurfs, but now the world of the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée culture opened up to me.

In Brussels it’s impossible to escape the 9th art: there are dedicated comics book shops everywhere, the Trail of the city’s comics wall murals is one of its most popular tourist attractions. Belgium has more than 700 professional comics creators, making it the country with the most comics artists per km² and some of the best were even knighted!

Brussels' comic wall murals

Of all the new Belgian artists I got to know, my favourite is without a doubt François Schuiten. Together with French writer Benoît Peeters he created the Les Cités Obscures series, or Cities of the Fantastic. They started in the 80s and have reached cult status. Schuiten in particular is so admired in Belgium that he got to design his own metro station.

All these cities belong to a continent that exists in an anti-Earth, almost like a parallel universe. Each city is dominated by a particular aesthetic, for instance, Samaris is influenced by oriental architecture, Renaissance and the Baroque, Xhystos is connected to Art Nouveau and Urbicande to Art Deco and Bauhaus. Each aesthetic influences and is influenced by the city’s political structure and its inhabitants’ culture and way of thinking. This makes for really interesting story-telling and world-building, at least if you’re an art buff like me.

cities from les cites obscures comics

Visually, this series is exactly my cup of tea (I want ALL THE PRINTS). Schuiten was trained as an architect and it shows. The perspectives are larger-than-life but there’s a special attention to detail.

The stories, in the tradition of the Franco-Belgian comics, have a surrealist streak. Their meaning can be analysed and discussed to your heart’s content. For instance, in Fever in Urbicand a small, skeletal cube is offered to the city’s most famous “urbatech” and it slowly starts growing. Over the next few weeks it continues to expand and replicate, passing through all solid material, until eventually overtaken the entire city. In The Leaning Girl, a girl becomes victim to a strange phenomenon during a visit to a theme park: her body tilts 45 degrees, “as if gravity to which it is subject came from another universe”.

In between the main books, there are companions and spin-offs that Schuiten and Peeters developed to add to the world-building. My favourite: an illustrated tourist guide to the Cities.

tourist guide of the cities in les cites

Another interesting detail: travel between worlds is possible, through "gates" or “passages,” and Jules Verne and Claude Monet are known to have crossed them. One known passage is the Art Nouveau master-piece Maison Autrique, in Brussels. You can even read reports of crossings in websites like the Office to the Obscure Passages.

There are currently 12 volumes in Les Cités Obscures, but not all translated into English. This is a fascinating series that deserves to be widely known and read. I’m sure it’ll happen so, after all, according to the American website The Obscure Cities, The Leaning Girl was a hit at the San Diego Comic Con!


  1. Wow! I adore the artwork. I'm also kicking myself for not knowing about the comics murals when I was last in Brussels (next trip!). I read the Tintin books when I was young and really like them. Yes, now I have new things to read.

    Have you read Clues by Mara? It's in French, so I'm sure I'm missing some of the details, but I liked the first volume and I loved the art. I'm not sure where the artist is from.

    1. Just google-imaged it and in it goes to the wish-list!

    2. Just google-imaged it and in it goes to the wish-list!


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