Just a Working Class Dog: Pif le chien

« The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing. » — Karl Marx

Pif le chien was introduced to the world on March 26, 1948, in the French Communist daily L’Humanité. His strip was intended to replace that of Felix the Cat, who was deemed too bourgeois, what with his magic bag and invisible means of financial support. On the other paw, Pif, early on, was even a stray, homeless and starving. In time, he was taken in by a humble working-class family (as late as 1957, it was the outhouse and public baths), and that’s when the elements clicked into place.

This is Les rois du rire no. 7 (Jan. 1969, Vaillant), a rotating anthology title gathering, in this case, two-pager Pif strips from the pages of Vaillant. Cover art by Pif’s creator, José Cabrero Arnal (1909-1982).

While I greatly admire and enjoy the work of Pif pater José Cabrero Arnal — and trust me, his is a story worth the telling: fought the Fascists in Spain, spent four years in a Nazi Stalag in Austria before being liberated by the Soviets, never quite recovered from the ordeal of his captivity, and remained fragile for the rest of his days. Consequently, in 1953, he handed Pif’s leash over to the truly indefatigable Roger Masmonteil (1924-2010).

Of Masmonteil (who signed R. Mas.), historian Hervé Cultru writes, in his Vaillant, 1942-1969 : La Véritable histoire d’un journal mythique (2006, Vaillant Collector):

« The problem is that, once he got his finger caught in the gears of the freelancing engine, he couldn’t just yank it out! Because giving life to the Césarin family is practically a vocation: one must provide the daily strip, six a week. Over thirty years, Masmonteil, aka Mas, crafted over eleven thousand of them. There are also the Sunday strips, the pages for Vaillant, solo Pifou stories, Léo, created for Pif Gadget. It never ceased. By his career’s end, he had racked up some 45,000 gags or so. »

« Unlucky me, I’ve smashed the vase! » « Out of sight, out of mind! » « Bleh! What a revolting aroma! » « I’m found out! »
« When the sea is too far, one makes do with a little corner of the Seine! » « I’m king of the plank! » “Sur mer” (“On-Sea” would be the English equivalent) is a popular suffix to denote a town or resort’s coastal location. The Seine’s toxicity borders on the legendary, but things have actually improved in recent decades.
I love a good pantomime gag. And every look is a sideway glance, which makes it even more special.
« It’s in these things that they buried their pharaohs! » « That’s solid stuff! » « COME IN ». What most impresses me here is the final panel, with its expert use of a tiny space to convey depth, distance and setting. That’s the cartoonist’s art!
« Quit your music! It bothers tonton! ».
« And a-one! » « Brr! Doesn’t it cause him pain when you remove the hook? » « Not at all… it’s designed not to hurt… » « Next! » « Quiet! It’s designed not to! » Up yours, René Descartes!
A slice (ouch!) of politico-historical guillotine humour.
A dollop of social criticism. The sign says, naturally, « No Littering ».
Pif’s archenemy, Hercule, at work. « Who’s going to get a good soaking? The Pif, that’s who! » « Failed! »

I’m inclined to admire Mas for the same reasons I hold Nancy’s Ernie Bushmiller in the highest regard: the uncanny ability to find humour in any and every place or situation, to distill and express it in a pared-down visual language made all the more potent by its universal simplicity. But it’s hard work, even if geniuses make it look easy. As Hervé Cultru explains, in Mas’ case:

« … Pif gets the last word in: at night, he haunts Mas’ dreams. The point at which he’s about to doze off is actually one of intense creativity. He constantly keeps a notepad and pencil at his bedside, to jot down ideas straight away, because if he neglects this precaution, all is forgotten by morning. »

An ad from L’Humanité, circa the late 1950s.
Our cast: Tante ‘Tata’ Agathe and Oncle César ‘Tonton’ Césarin, Doudou, Pif, Hercule, and Pif’s son, Pifou. This is my copy of Album Vaillant no. 8 — 4th series (comprising issues 952 to 960, August to October 1963), its rather fragile spine helpfully reinforced by a previous proprietor. I long wondered why on earth the French call wrestling ‘catch’. Turns out it’s their shorthand version of the forgotten 19th century appellation of the sport as ‘catch-as-catch-can‘.

In April 1967, Mas walks away from the Pif feature in Vaillant (four pages a week!), maintaining the daily in l’Humanité and Pifou’s solo strip. Pif returns briefly to Arnal, who still can’t handle the workload; Pif then passes into other, and decidedly far lesser hands.

Mr. Cultru, again:

« In 1968, the team takes umbrage with the repetitive and by far too ‘domestic’ character of the adventures. It feels that the working class household, typical of certain post-war values, that serves as a setting, has become obsolete, if not grotesque, and that it no longer fits the social context of the times. »

So they methodically excised everything that made Mas’ Pif special, and turned him into another Mickey Mouse, which is to say the familiar mascot or standard-bearer of a company, but one whose adventures nobody reads or truly gives a hoot about. Oh well — you still had a good run, Pif!


3 thoughts on “Just a Working Class Dog: Pif le chien

  1. Krackles December 14, 2021 / 17:47

    🎵 The Years of the Cat 🎵
    Today, given that cats seemingly will never stop raising in popularity, Hercule should become the rightful star of the mag « et PAF dans le PIF du toutou usurpateur! » 


  2. Adrian M January 22, 2022 / 14:22

    Totally agree with you. I was just reading the entire collection of Vaillant and had a blast going through all the years when Mas handled Pif: extremely funny, joyful, phisical gags, wonderfully drawn, just a pleasure to watch.

    I’m now in 1967, in the post-April issues that still somehow publish some older R. Mas planches that are similar to those in the late 50s. Not necessarily duplicates, but clearly at least 10 years old.

    I remember meeting Pif as a child around 1980, aged 5, and from then on growing with the magazine (extremely difficult to get in Communist Romania).

    Loved the magazine, but not necessarily its main character, as at the time his adventures were some of the less humorous of the comic strips.

    Not so with Mas’ Pif. In my opinion, the best Pif that ever was.

    As Hercule was at its best when drawn by Yannick in the late eighties, Pif was at its best under the hand of Mas.

    He was 43 years old when he abandoned Pif, but his humor continued with Pifou and Leo, so I think there perhaps was a problem not only with him being tired, but also with the changing times – a new generation that wanted urban adventures, the influence of superheroes (to be seen becoming stronger and stronger in the late 80s and 90s not only in Pif, but also in Donald Duck’s adventures (read it under its French Picsou avatar) and others.

    The saddest Pif is the one of today, a zombified, humorless version published as green propaganda – not even in its most Communist times would have Pif preached social and eco justice like it does today. Apart the lack of humor, the horrible form he and his friend Hercule got for the current artists is just an insult to the whole memory of these characters.

    Anyway. I wrote a lot. Thank you for what you wrote, I searched to understand better why R. Mas abandoned Pif, and now I know a lot more. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • gasp65 February 6, 2022 / 17:28

      Hi Adrian! I’m sorry about my tardiness in replying — things have been rather hectic over here.

      It must indeed be a blast going through the Vaillant archives. I’m guessing they had to run reprints in 1967 as Arnal struggled with the deadlines. Mas’ productivity was truly phenomenal, especially given the constant quality of his output. It’s hard to imagine anyone, even with studio assistance, matching it.

      My own first encounter with Pif came in 1971, so I also missed the Vaillant years, not to mention the Mas era. But Pif poche took care of properly schooling me.

      While I was aware of Pif’s Romanian connection, it’s fantastic to have a first-hand perspective from beyond the Iron Curtain. As briskly as Pif sold in Romania, it sounds like its publisher could have sent more copies over to truly meet demand. Have you heard about this exhibition celebrating that special relationship? http://pifenroumanie.canalblog.com/

      And indeed, the pernicious and ever-growing influence of celebrity and superhero culture continues to take its toll. Little wonder kids overwhelmingly prefer Manga to this desperate trash.

      Please don’t apologize for writing ‘a lot’. Yours is a fantastic comment, and I’m honoured that you took the time to drop us a line, let alone such an eloquent and pertinent one. Much, much appreciated, Adrian!



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