« If you don’t want to be idolized by the masses, you don’t become an author, you become a plumber-welder! » — Entretien avec Mandryka, Les cahiers de la bande dessinées no. 28 (1975), conducted by Numa Sadoul
Nikita Mandryka was born October 1940 in Bizerte, Tunisia, to Russian émigré parents. His grandfather had fled the Russian Revolution in 1921 aboard a warship he was commanding. Nikita’s first professional strip appeared late in 1964 in Vaillant (Boff, in Vaillant no. 1024, Dec. 27, 1964), soon renamed Vaillant, le journal de Pif , then Pif Gadget in 1969. While he’s best known for his loquacious, dominoed cucurbit, Le Concombre Masqué, today we’re going to harvest the riches of his somewhat less familiar, but equally absurdist creation, the free-form strip Ailleurs (“Elsewhere”). The feature debuted with the inaugural issue of Pif Gadget and made its bow with issue 35, a few months down the line.
Mandryka left Pif Gadget on good terms (and returned over the years), and with a solid reason: while Pif’s editorial team rightly adored his work, its left-field humour left the majority of Pif’s young readership quite baffled, and sometimes infuriated. Mandryka’s place in the magazine may have been secure, but he yearned for an audience that actually understood him. This he would find at Pilote, with its teenage readership, and all the more so with L’Écho des Savanes (which he cofounded, in 1972, with Claire Bretécher and Marcel Gotlib).
Pif’s was an unusual case: its most singular, daring, arguably most valuable strips were those least appreciated by the kids. And that slice of the readership, you’ll have guessed it, tends to express its opinions more freely and vehemently than their elders, who did love (but more quietly) the somewhat abstract, second degré (offbeat, ironic) features, such as Marcel Gotlib and Henri Dufranne‘s Gai-Luron*, the recently-departed Massimo Mattioli‘s M. Le Magicien or Henri Crespi‘s Nestor. Still, the savvy editorial team, who after all had made the magazine a massive hit, keenly grasped the import of editorial balance and trusted its collective taste and instinct over the “wisdom” of the accountants and marketers… who, at the height of the magazine’s popularity, pulled a mutiny and… sank the ship. So, in hindsight, Mandryka was right to leave.
To my knowledge, Ailleurs has never been collected or comprehensively reprinted, save for nine of the strips turning up in Claude Moliterni‘s** excellent scholarly Phenix, revue internationale de la bande dessinée (nos. 31-31-32) in 1973.
*I’d even argue that Dufranne does a better Gotlib than Gotlib ever did.
**Among many notable achievements, he was co-founder of the Festival international de la bande dessinée d’Angoulême (Angoulême International Comics Festival).