Claire Bretécher, Satirical French Cartoonist, Dies at 79

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Claire Bretécher, a satirical, fearless and lacerating French comic artist who was one of the first women to break into France’s male-dominated cartoon industry, died on Feb. 10 in Paris. She was 79.

Her death was announced by her publisher, Dargaud, which provided no other details.

Ms. Bretécher (pronounced bray-teh-shay) became a celebrated cartoonist in the 1970s, and her comic strips were a fixture in French newspapers and magazines for decades. Her work also appeared around the world; in the United States she was published in Ms. magazine, Esquire and National Lampoon.

She brought a mordant wit to gender issues and was so incisive about the human condition that in 1976 the philosopher Roland Barthes called her the “best sociologist of the year.”

She specialized in holding up to scrutiny the affluent urban female in all her angst, melodrama and hypocrisy. Ms. Bretécher embodied many of her characters’ traits, and she readily lampooned them.

“She was the first satirist who meticulously and subtly captured the behavior and conversations of both the adult and adolescent female,” Lambiek Comiclopedia, a compendium of comic artists around the world, said, citing her two signature series, “Les Frustrés” (1973-81) and “Agrippine” (1988-2009).

She invented a gallery of sparsely styled misfits, most famously a morose young woman named Agrippine (Agrippina in English), whom she followed through teenage crises and existential quandaries. “Agrippine” was turned into a 26-episode series on French television in 2001; much of Ms. Bretécher’s work was adapted for animation, stage and radio.

Her stable of characters also included Fernand, an opportunistic and self-pitying orphan, and Robin les Foies, a lazy detective. One of her longest-running was Cellulite, an emancipated princess who was tired of waiting for her Prince Charming and who became one of the first female antiheroines of French comics.

Ms. Bretécher’s humor, Comiclopedia said, “lies in the spot-on satire of the language and mannerisms of the bourgeois intellectual, while the drawings reveal the bored-out snobbism and decadence with subtle nuances.”

She became best known for her popular comic strip “Les Frustrés” (“The Frustrated Ones”), which ran in the leftist weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, now known as L’Obs.

“Les Frustrés” had no recurring characters but showed women dealing with everyday concerns like loneliness and anxiety, as well as issues specific to them, including, as Comiclopedia put it, “menstruation, the pill, weight concerns, raising children, dealing with men who just don’t seem to understand, rivalry with other women and aging.”

Ms. Bretécher was among the first female cartoonists with a regular spot in several classic comic magazines in France.

In her cartoon universe, men were often nouveau riche posers. Women were sometimes vain and silly but more often zealous feminists, downtrodden housewives or unfulfilled career girls.

“I’m from a family where women are strong and men are weak,” she told The New York Times in 1977. “I was raised to think it’s better not to marry than to marry a jerk.”

She added that she had resolved her own problems long ago: “Now I live with someone who understands that I’m not doing the housework, that my dough is mine and his is his, and that I don’t want kids.”

Claire Bretécher was born on April 17, 1940, in Nantes, in western France. Her father, a jurist, was a violent man, according to Comiclopedia, and her mother, a homemaker, urged her to become resourceful and independent. She was educated in a convent.

She started drawing comics as a child but abandoned the practice while studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Nantes. She left for Paris in the late 1950s.

She scraped together a living by drawing illustrations for women’s magazines and advertisements. She told The Times she was so timid that she would throw up before each appointment over an assignment.

She worked from a small, disheveled Montmartre atelier. An inveterate procrastinator, she panicked when confronted by a deadline.

“If I haven’t started by 2, I go to bed,” she told The Times. “Once I rolled around till 4 thinking, ‘Nobody loves me, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, etc., etc.’ And that was my strip for the week.”

Her influences included the comic strips “Peanuts,” by Charles M. Schulz, and “The Wizard of Id,” by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart, as well as the socio-satirical work of Jules Feiffer, the longtime cartoonist for The Village Voice, and James Thurber of The New Yorker.

Ms. Bretécher was married twice. Her first husband was a photographer. Her second, Guy Carcassonne, a noted professor of constitutional law in Paris, died in 2013. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

While her work was overtly feminist, Ms. Bretécher resisted that label for herself. She said her comics were not meant to deliver a feminist message, only to reflect the fact that she understood women better than she understood men.

Still, she acknowledged to The Times in 1977 that men often thought she hated women.

“Ugh, men,” she groaned. “They’re such dopes. Frankly, I’m fed up explaining things to them.”


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