La bête est morte! (The Beast is Dead!) is a French graphic novel which was published as a children’s book in two volumes in 1944 and 1945. It was created during Nazi occupation of France and is often referred to by its subtitle, La Guerre Mondiale chez les Animaux (World War II Among the Animals). It is a satirical comic composed in the popular bande desinée style (drawn strips) that recounts the devastation of World War II (1939-1945) through an anthropomorphic cast of characters. With text written by Victor Dancette and Jacques Zimmermann, and illustrations crafted by the illustrious Edmond-François Calvo (1892-1958), La bête recounts events from the war years in exquisite yet shocking detail. Vividly colored illustrations fill each page and accompanying text appears in neat, flourishing italics. The anthropomorphized characters are drawn in a sweetly cartoonish style, yet the realism of the circumstances they face creates a dramatic contrast.

The two volumes are part of one recapitulation of major events of the war and include a multitude of heroic and dangerous characters. The first volume begins with young squirrels asking their grandfather about how he lost his leg, and then follows the trajectory of World War II through the second volume. It includes graphic imagery of persecution, violence, and death. Yet, it is told as a fable with animal characters, aimed at a young audience, and it emphasizes the ability for ‘good’ to prevail, despite intensely difficult circumstances. The national identities of characters are conveyed through different animal species and further distinguished by costumes with national or party symbols (in general, Americans are portrayed as buffalos, British as bulldogs, French as an array of small woodland creatures, and the Germans as weasels, pigs, and wolves). Adolf Hitler, “la bête” of the title, is drawn as a wolf with the iconic hair and mustache of the infamous leader and dressed in Nazi garb. La bête covers a wide range of related stories and vignettes that showed the separation of families and heinous acts of violence perpetrated during World War II. The resolute story-telling and bold statement that “The beast is dead,” (equivalent to “Hitler is dead,” and written well before that was a factual statement), serve as evidence of La bête as both an artistic and rebellious reactions to the events of the war. This two-volume series operated as social commentary and unflinching commitment to reflecting on the reality of the war years.

La bête was created and distributed immediately following France’s liberation from Nazi oppression. It served as a contemporary account of the terror of the time and has served not only to document horrifying realities of the time, but also to demonstrate a rebellious spirit and creativity that is a recurring theme of French comic art (see Charlie Hebdo). La bête has had a strong impact beyond the close of World War II, and, in 1968, producer Mattieu Kassovitz adapted the two volumes into one animated film. Although it is largely unknown outside of French-speaking areas, La bête est morte!  has served as an important work of historically-inspired comic art and has made a lasting impression on audiences for generations.

— Katelynd L. Gibbons

Further Reading

  • McKinney, Mark, ed. History and Politics in French-Language Comics and Graphic Novels. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. Print.
  • Strömberg, Fredrik. Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010. Print.
  • Strömberg, Fredrik. Jewish Images in the Comics. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2012. Print.