The term ligne claire was originally used retrospectively to refer to Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s drawing style. Albeit made popular in its French phrasing, the term was officially coined in 1976 during the exhibition Kuifje in Rotterdam (Tintin in Rotterdam), organized by Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte. A chapter of the exhibition catalog was entitled De klare lijn, detailing the main traits of Hergé’s graphic style, coining thus the name and principles of the “clear line” style.
As its name suggests, the core principle of ligne claire style is a neat black contour line of identical thickness that emphasizes the legibility of the represented figures. Other graphic elements are then used to underpin and strengthen this fundamental aspect: use of flat colors within closed contours; absence of shadows and cross-hatching; contrast between stylized characters and detailed realistic backgrounds. Hergé specialists also argue that clear line style is inseparable from its narrative function, privileging clarity and readability.
If the ligne claire was originally used for Hergé’s graphic style, as it had crystallized in the 1950s and 1960s into a very specific and homogeneous drawing production bound to a studio system, it was quickly extended to an array of other authors: from his predecessors (such as George McManus and Alain Saint-Ogan); to his influence on peers (the so-called École de Bruxelles, which referred to authors contributing to the Tintin magazine, as Edgar P. Jacobs or Jacques Martin); and then towards an even larger stylistic tradition.
In fact, Joost Swarte’s use of the term ligne claire would participate in a full-blown revival of this style in the early 1980s, used after a citational and often ironical fashion: first, among the Dutch underground comics circle, of which Swarte was part of along with Ever Meulen and Marc Smeets, and then in France with artists such as Yves Chaland and Ted Benoît, whose Vers la ligne claire (1980) clearly signposted this movement. This retrospective identification and characterization of Hergé’s style as ligne claire was thus partial of the aesthetic project of this generation. Simultaneously, comics critic Bruno Lecigne charted this stylistic genealogy in his book Les héritiers d’Hergé (1983), arguing that the clear line of Franco-Belgian comics entailed an ideology of transparency that would be put on its head by the likes of Swarte.
Ultimately, the term ligne claire would be used as an abstracted category, as when referring to contemporary artists such as David B. or Chris Ware, for whom the allusion to Hergé is less evident. However, one does continue to find examples of others deliberately evoking 1950s ligne claire comics, as is the case of Émile Bravo and Stanislas, who also respect the narrative legibility aspect, or Anton Kannemeyer, who engages with a détournement-like use of the style in his politically challenging work.
–Benoît Crucifix and Pedro Moura