MARSEILLE • What do Sophia Loren, John Cleese and Woody Allen have in common?
They all began their careers in the oft-derided world of photo comics or photonovels. The genre, infamous for stilted storylines and sugary romantic melodramas, is finally getting a major museum retrospective in France.
The lingering kisses and frozen looks of horror in photo comic stories now seem irredeemably kitsch.
But in strait-laced post-war Europe, they were lapped up by millions even after the dawn of television - sparking moral panic and condemnation by both the pope and communist leaders.
Well into the 1960s, one in three French people were avid readers, according to the curators of the Roman-Photo exhibition at the Mucem museum in Marseille, which claims to be the first definitive look at a genre "that has rarely attracted the attention of historians".
Indeed, many of the people who created photo comics were so scornful of them that they left few behind for posterity.
Yet "photonovels were one of the biggest pop cultural successes of the 20th century", said co-curator Frederique Deschamps, "modern fairy tales filled with cars, fridges, record players and other objects that symbolise modernity, romance and desire".
From their birth in Italy in 1947, photo comics also reflected changing moral values and fed the slow rise of feminism with stories about touchy and taboo subjects such as "divorce, abortion and women's rights at work", said her co-curator Marie-Charlotte Calafat.
"They do not deserve their retrograde reputation at all," she added. Instead, they were real barometers of the "aspirations of society with storylines where women questioned their place".
The genre spawned imitators in Britain and the United States, where the satirical magazine Help! called on budding comics Allen, Cleese and his fellow Monty Python member Terry Gilliam.
But as the 1960s wore on and TV became increasingly dominant, sales began to wane, pushing publishers to up the sex and shock factors.
A large part of the Marseille show is dedicated to Killing, a sadistic Italian photo comic character who stole from other criminals and took particular pleasure in torturing scantily clad women.
Pornography gave photo comics their longest and most lucrative afterlife in best-selling top-shelf magazines such as the Italian Fotosex.
The British tabloid The Sun still uses photo strips to illustrate its Dear Deidre problem page, which inevitably turns on sexual dilemmas or titillating situations. And photo comics continue to be widely used for health education worldwide.
The exhibition runs at Mucem, Marseille, until April 23.