When I decided to write an introductory series on Heroines in Franco-Belgian bande-dessinée, it wasn’t very hard to know where to start. There are numerous Heroines in BD, but few are as iconic and enduring as the famous Yoko Tsuno, a Japanese expatriate living in Belgium, skilled electronics engineer, pilot and all around adventurer.
(Warning, a few spoilers follow for the series.)
Created by Belgian comic artist Roger Leloup, she was born in September 1970, when the first short story featuring her first encounter with soon to be friends Vic and Pol was published in weekly BD magazine Spirou. Leloup, who is currently 83 and still penning the series himself, worked under Hergé on The Adventures of Tintin series, producing technical and background drawings, and wrote quite a number of specialized pages which he also illustrated for Tintin magazine. This training is significant because if there is another main element in The Adventures of Yoko Tsuno, it certainly is the magnificent machinery and wealth of background detail that populate the pages of the series.
At first Yoko was created to play second fiddle to a duo of male characters, but after having been warned by Hergé that “Be careful, women have never worked out in bande-dessinée.” (“Eh bien faites attention, une femme dans la bande-dessinée, ça n’a jamais marché !” from “Roger Leloup (Yoko Tsuno)”, an interview on Actua BD in three parts), Leloup still decided that she was the more interesting element of his story. The series was finally accepted by the publisher Dupuis and Yoko was born and immediately embraced by the readers of Spirou. Le journal de Tintin (Tintin Magazine) and Spirou are two of the oldest Franco-Belgian comics magazine. If Tintin magazine stopped in 1993, Spirou is still ongoing, reinventing itself decades after decades. Series published in Tintin were mostly proponents of the famous Ligne Claire adopted by Hergé, while series published in Spirou hailed more from the Marcinelle or Charleroi schools of drawing.
As far as Leloup is concerned, it’s interesting to note that he worked in both, and that if Yoko’s adventures started in the Marcinelle/Charleroi style, they evolved rapidly toward a more Ligne Claire type of drawing.
The first album of the series relates how Yoko met Vic and Pol, and how they together met the Vineans, a technologically advanced extraterrestrial people who took refuge on earth thousands of years ago after fleeing the cataclysm that destroyed their home planet. The story of the Vinean diaspora and their efforts to get back to Vinea after realizing the planet survived, then trying to find the dispersed remnants of their people, is one of the main storylines in the series. It’s in this first volume that Yoko meets Khâny, the leader of the Vineans refugees, a no-nonsense but sympathetic woman who has to deal with dissension in the ranks and the machinations of a mysterious adversary. It’s the beginning of a long and close friendship between the two women.
There’s no need to ask if the series passes the Bechdel-Wallace test. Most albums of the series do, and women are very often at the center of Yoko’s adventures, either as friends or foes. And when she makes friend with them, they tend to become an integral part of the series, recurring guest-stars, whose story also evolves in the background.
A few antagonists from the series:
Cruel Queen Hégora in Les archanges de Vinéa (The Archangels of Vinea).
On the Rhine, Yoko saves the life of Ingrid Hallberg, a famous organist who is trying to solve what she thinks is the murder of her father. They will become fast friends and Ingrid will feature in a number of Earth-side Adventures.
Visiting her cousin in Borneo, Yoko helps Monya, a young time traveler from the future who has come to prevent the destruction of Earth. Yoko will eventually welcome her into her family as her cousin and they will have many time-traveling shenanigans.
In China, Yoko meets Rosée du Matin (Morning Dew), and her pet dragon. She will end-up adopting the little girl. Those are only three of the prominent female characters that Yoko meets and embraces during the series. No wonder then that it accumulated such a following among female readers. According to the feedback received by Leloup himself, over two thirds of his readers seem to be girls and women.
Though he’s often quoted as saying that he always refrained from giving Yoko a romantic partner because he thought that the readers were in love with the character and therefore shouldn’t have any rival, in a 2014 interview, Leloup is on record stating that Vic is her boyfriend, but that as an author, he has no particular intention of describing the private romantic life of his characters, whose interactions do indeed stay very discreet on the page.
Yoko nevertheless easily falls into passionate declarations of feelings towards people, women included, and even admits almost falling in love with a (male presenting) android. This combined with the numerous women and female presenting beings she meets, indubitably leaves room for the imagination, and explains why the series is sometimes recommended to people looking for LGBTQ BD leads.
There’s rarely any assumption that Yoko can’t do something because she is a woman. She is not that strong, but she’s a black belt in Aikido, an art she uses sparsely. She’s also quick to point out her qualifications when needed. The only blatant example of someone objecting on grounds of her gender that I can think of takes place during the album La fille du vent (Daughter of the Wind), in which Yoko, for the first time in the series, goes back to Japan to help her father Seiki Tsuno, a geophysicist who studies the creation of tornadoes, and her old mentor and second father figure, Aoki. Out of fear, her father tries to prevent Yoko from participating in a dangerous operation on the grounds this is not a mission for a woman (earning himself a pointed retort), but is convinced by Aoki.
By virtue of refusing to put his heroine in any type of blatantly romantic position, Leloup escapes objectification easily and even in the usual course of his stories, there’s nary a whiff of it among his many female characters. There’s not much exotification either, bar a slight tendency to quote pseudo “A sage said” aphorisms (not just by Yoko), and as far as I can tell, being French myself, Leloup manages his foray into foreign culture relatively well, probably because he is such a stickler for in depth research.
In short, Leloup’s cast of characters is somewhat diverse and the series has a decidedly progressive outlook, which never comes out as clearly as in Les titans (The Titans), where the story ends with Khâny reading back to Yoko her own words, etched in a crystal material that will defy time: “The forms that differentiate beings don’t matter much if their thoughts unite to build a universe” (“Les formes qui différencient les êtres importent peu si leurs pensées s’unissent pour bâtir un univers.”).
A worthy motto for a worthy series.
- The Adventures of Yoko Tsuno was and is still published by Dupuis one of the oldest BD publishers in Belgium, and currently counts 26 volumes. There is also a thematic anthology collection featuring a lot of added material. The series is translated in about 16 languages. In English, 10 of the volumes have been translated by Cinebook and a few of the first volumes of the Vinean story arc were published together by Catcom under the title Yoko Vic and Paul 1 & 2.
- For a closer look at mechas in Yoko Tsuno, visit this blog post “From Earth To Vinea : Cool Machinery part 1“.
BD: pronounced as “beh-deh”, is the usual short-hand for bande-dessinée, or Franco-Belgian comics.
Album: a volume of BD, usually containing one complete story. The traditional number of pages is 44 to 46 pages, the format is about 32 cm x 24 cm (but may slightly vary from publisher to publisher), with a hard glossy cover. Indies (even established ones) have different formats, often closer to the US comics size, without a hard cover and with an indefinite number of pages.
This article is cross-posted on Critical Writ.