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Comics and Culture in Brussels draws on a different study abroad experience

By Drake Long, For The Miami Student

Brussels may be known as the capital of the European Union and NATO, but Miami University students will have the opportunity to see it in a different light this January. Comics and Culture in Brussels is a study abroad program that focuses on the rich history of Belgian graphic novels.

Located south of the Netherlands, north of France and west of Germany and Luxembourg, Belgium is the home of comics "The Adventures of Tintin" and "The Smurfs," both of which are relevant today. The effects of these comics have permeated not only Belgian society, but also that of Western Europe itself, and the two courses offered by the study abroad program aim to teach how that came to be. The first is the similarly titled Comics and Culture in Belgium.

"Comics and Culture in Belgium is a look at Belgian culture through comics," Mark McKinney, the Miami professor leading the trip, said. "Belgian comics are an important cultural phenomenon there, and an important industry."

Along with the Comic Book Route, a trail showcasing over fifty murals celebrating comics and their creators, Brussels boasts the Belgian Comic Strip Center and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Students will get the chance to see these cultural touchstones during the program abroad.

The other course offered, the European Graphic Novel, will look outside Belgium for the traits and cultural impact of the genre.

"French and Belgian comics have been ways of exchanging between the two cultures, between the two societies, for as long as they've existed," McKinney said.

The class will primarily focus on the effects of Belgian comics on France and vice versa, but more European countries will be examined.

"Depending in part on the interests of the students, we can include comics by British authors, comics by Swiss authors, Spanish, Portuguese, etcetera," McKinney said. "There's quite a range of books we can have."

France and Luxembourg, the latter of which hosts a more popular study abroad destination for Miami students, directly neighbor Belgium. Nonetheless, the comics program in Brussels is one McKinney argues as an alternative.

"I think part of what I'm up against is that Brussels is far less well known than Paris for example, or Barcelona, or other places which are lovely to visit, too, but I think Brussels is a city worth getting to know," McKinney said.

He stresses Brussel's beauty, cultural significance and the ease with which a student can visit other popular European cities in their free time.

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A senior student committed to the program, Travis Peraza, offered his perspective on why the program was so appealing.

"I've never been outside of North America, so I started looking into winter programs, as I didn't want to go for a semester my senior year," Peraza said. "Looking at the structure of the class and how we can actually learn about a country's cultures through comics is really eye opening."

Peraza said he wants take advantage of the museum trips and have the opportunity to learn through a different medium than most people would.

The takeaway from the trip, McKinney said, will be a greater understanding of how comics are not just a product of a culture, but create it.

"Comics are at the intersection [of high and low art.]" McKinney said. "We're seeing them more and more in museums, art galleries, and at the same time they're a medium that is read by children. I hope [students] have an encounter with a different culture. A culture they may not know anything about, but helps them learn more about themselves, as well as about other cultures."