Let’s All Go Down to the Catfights — Again!

One of this blog’s unexpected hits (pow!) has been Let’s All Go Down to the Catfights!. Though published in 2018, this post still generates a lot of interest on a practically daily basis – I knew people liked to spectate women fighting, of course, but I didn’t realize just to which extent. I mean, we have a whole THE TWILIGHT WORLD OF GIRLIE CARTOONS category, it’s not like that post was the only instance of us featuring half-or-entirely-naked women.

I’ve been meaning to do a part 2 for a long time now, gradually accumulating choice material, to finally spring it on you when you least suspect it (yes, that’s me cackling in the corner). When dealing with a potpourri of styles and decades, I usually try to go in chronological order. If this cavalcade through the years demonstrates something, it’s that our tastes haven’t evolved much. Plus ça change

Page from The Last Curtain, illustrated by Sheldon Moldoff and published in Sensation Comics no. 22 (Oct. 1943, All-American/DC).
Page from Condemned Venus!, scripted by ‘Gregory Page’ (who’s probably Ruth Roche), and tastily illustrated by Matt Baker. This story was published in Phantom Lady no. 14, 1947.
Jumbo Comics no. 105 (November 1947), with a cover by Joe Doolin.
Adelita y las Guerrillas no. 73 (1953, Ediciones José G. Cruz). This is a Mexican Western comic series created cartoonist José G. Cruz in 1936, initially published in Paquito magazine. I’m not sure whether here Adelita is fighting her nemesis, Tigresa del Bajio, or just punching around some other woman.

Crimes by women, on women? Read an entertaining overview of this dime comic book published by Fox Features Syndicate on Criminal Element.

Crimes by Women no. 6 (April 1949). Is a cheap frill the same thing as a cheap floozy?
Crimes by Women no. 16 (December 1949). ‘Crime never pays’, they always remind the reader, who’s probably too interested in the catfight to believe it.

For more Golden Age goodies, don’t forget about Here Comes Sally the Sleuth… and There Goes Her Dress! (which I am not including here, as I devoted a whole post to Sally).

We have a heavy Italian contingent today! Co-admin RG recently wrote a post about Averardo Ciriello, Sitting Pretty: Averardo Ciriello’s Maghella. As he pointed out, Ciriello lent his art to many an erotic series — here’s his cover depicting Lucifera fighting a woman with three breasts (?) I mean, nobody can say you don’t get your money’s worth from this blog… 😉

Lucifera no. 165, 1980.

And here is the original painting, for comparison purposes:

Ciriello wasn’t the only one working in that vein.

Historia d’Ahi!, a one-shot published by Edifumetto, presumably in the 1970s. Episodio Completo Inedito Fumetto… cashing in on Histoire d’O.
Storie Blu Special no. 12 — L’astronave dei mille tormenti (1983, Ediperiodici).

How about some dubious plot involving a fight between an impeccably fair-skinned maiden and an exotic black woman clad in some sort of tribal garb? Uh, sure.

A page from Royal Hunt, scripted (cringingly overwritten, frankly) by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Bolton. Marada the She-wolf finds herself a ‘worthy’ adversary in Epic Illustrated no. 12 (June 1982, Marvel).
Page from The Devil-Tree of Gamburu, scripted by Roy Thomas, pencilled by John Buscema and inked by Tony DeZuniga, published in The Savage Sword of Conan no. 42 (July 1979). Conan fans, I am sending you over to Tentacle Tuesday: Conan-o-rama and Tentacle Tuesday: the Savagery of Conan’s Savage Sword.

For a slight change of pace and style, I offer you some horror from Tentacle Tuesday Master Richard Sala, two pages from Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires, published in Evil Eye no. 13 (August 2005, Fantagraphics):

~ ds

P.S. Here’s a Tik Tok video of a female martial artist who has a rather interesting way of showing different self-defense techniques. It seemed relevant!

Never Forget: Cabu, le grand Duduche

« A shaggy mane, odd, steel-rimmed little glasses, a get-up owing rather more to personal fancy than to the edicts of fashion, a candid gaze, the smile of a malicious dunce, that’s Le Grand Duduche… and it’s also Cabu. » — René Goscinny

On this significant day, I will spotlight Jean Cabut (b. 1938, d. 2015) alias Cabu, and his wondrous Le Grand Duduche series, begun in 1963 and concluded in 1982, published in Pilote, Hara-Kiri, Charlie Hebdo and Pilote Mensuel. An absurdly massive collection of the entire series (672 glossy pages!) was published by Vents d’Ouest in 2008. Even as a hardcover volume, the thing’s so big and heavy it can barely bear its bulk, and is therefore virtually unreadable. It should really have been three books in a slipcase. But hey, the reproduction is first-rate… for what it’s worth.

Duduche is a gangly lycéen (high school student, sort of) wending his way through classes and student life, doing as little work as possible but expanding a maximum of ingenuity. It’s most certainly not about the plot.

The strip displays a fantastic level of graphic bravura and formal experimentation, while retaining 20/20 narrative clarity. I felt it was a fool’s errand to try singling out a “typical” example, since every page is unique — so here’s a sampler. Amazing, and yes, highly recommended, even if you can’t read the (marvellous and abundant) text.

Ah, remember cursive?
Little Duduche has to give away his cat’s latest litter, with deplorable results. « A female cat can have up to 20,000 descendants in just a span of five years. If you don’t want to take care of tons of cats or feel responsible for many homeless ones, it’s a good idea to spay or neuter your cat. » It’s just common sense, folks.
Expressive, varied lettering is another crucial asset in the toolkit of the complete artist. « Mister Duduche! You will no longer find it quite so droll when I quiz you on aerial warfare of 1917-18! »
Okay, this was hell to scan and reassemble (do open it in a separate tab to see the glorious details). But I felt it essential to showcase Cabu’s mastery of scale, perspective, architecture and general cohesion. Once in a while, Cabu would pull out one of these ambitious strips with over a hundred distinctive and identifiable figures, in service of a couple of dozen individual or entwined jokes. It is a rare breed of genius that can conceive such an array of moving parts and keep them all under control.
1- “Sir! Sir! Sir!” ” “Belphegor is getting deafer by the day...” 2- “May I go out, sir?” “Yes.” “Watch this…” 3- “Sir! Sir! Sir!” 4- “Sir, may I go out… to tell the principal’s daughter that I love her?” “No. There’s already another.” 5- “Well, I never!” 6- “Sir! May I go out to smash the other freak’s face in… it’s urgent!” “Okay, okay. But make it quick!
If you notice that the elderly maid, who’s known you all your life, is suddenly afraid of you…
Duduche catalogues the telltale signs of his entrance into ‘the awkward age’. “If you notice that the house cat is now wary of you…
Interesting: I had no idea until just now that the country fair game of ‘Chamboule-tout’ was known as ‘Coconut Shy‘ in English. Live and learn!
Duduche’s utter inability to keep a poker face can be a bit of a liability. I love the well-observed detail of the study monitor keeping his feet warm with a hot water bottle. In French, the lovely, evocative term for that item is ‘bouillote‘.
Here’s one from Pilote no. 590 (Feb. 1971, Dargaud). Though Cabu could be much, much acerbic than his American colleague, he and Jules Feiffer had a lot in common. “What’s on tonight at the film society?” “It’s a flick with, ah, what’s his name again… ?” “It’s on the tip of my tongue, his name…” “… I’ve got his name on the tip of my stump, your weirdo… isn’t it Fred Astaire?

Coming back around to what makes this a ‘significant day’… Eight years ago to the day, Cabu was among those viciously murdered during the terrorist assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices. Honestly, I can’t bear to talk about it, but it’s crucial that this horrible event not be forgotten, and not merely because one of my artistic heroes was slaughtered that day.

« When she visits the gravesite of her late husband in Châlons-en-Champagne, Véronique Cabut-Brachet can witness just how much the French have not forgotten him: locals and fans come regularly to reflect (“It’s Cabu’s grave that people are looking for, and some people come just for it: nearly one a day, yes!” and for the past five years, according to the caretaker of the Cimetière de l’Ouest, interviewed by France Bleu). The artist’s gravestone is copiously covered in flowers but, especially, pencils in jars, a touching homage and the most beautiful of symbols. » [ source ]

Cabu’s headstone in Châlons-en-Champagne. Photo © Radio France – Sophie Constanzer.

-RG

Florent Chavouet, From Hideaway to Vista

I’ve recently given in to a long-time interest (a fool’s dream is realized‘) and purchased one of those pretty miniature book nook kits. In case you are not familiar with them, they’re usually the size of a big hardcover book once assembled, and are meant to be inserted on a bookshelf and provide a bibliophile with an intriguing glance into an urban landscape, a Victorian street, a bookshop, a train station, or whatever it is bookworms tend to go for. One painstakingly (and crookedly, at least in my case) glues together furniture and houses, cuts out tiny pieces of paper or slices of fruit, and connects wires to provide background illumination. The one I’m currently working on is a peaceful Japanese street with a sushi shop, a tea store, and lots of cherry blossoms.

I’m clearly not alone in my love for house miniatures or drawn isometric projections of a room. One can do without too much unnecessary psychoanalysis (perhaps it allows us to feel organised and in control when real lives and houses are quite messy), but most of us find such things soothing. Placing a tiny plate on a tiny table is profoundly satisfying; the 2021 game Unpacking makes good use of this, consisting of pulling various objects from a box and placing them where you want through different rooms of the house.

The art of French artist Florent Chavouet (see my earlier post Spotlight on Florent Chavouet) hits a similar note for me. His love of isometric projection and his elaborate sketches of storefronts and people’s rooms immediately attracted me, though at the time I didn’t think to verbalise the reason for it. I concentrated on his excellent graphic novel Petites coupures à Shioguni last time, so here are more glimpses of his other books.

Tokyo Sanpo : Promenades à Tokyo (2009, Philippe Picquier)
Manabé Shima (2010, Philippe Picquier)
L’île Louvre (2015, Futuropolis)
Touiller le miso (2020, Philippe Picquier), his latest book (which I haven’t bought yet, shame on me!)
A poster created for Zoom Japon magazine, 2021.

On a more seasonal note, two of his window panoramas drawn for the famous Galeries Lafayette in 2022:

Another thing I really love is imaginary food (which is why the duo of comic artists James Stokoe and Brandon Graham is going to be a post topic sometime in the future), and Chavouet did a beautiful job with his Gloutisphère, a map of the best food in the world… completely made up. Enjoy it on his blog!

~ ds

Fungus Friday: Amanita New Year (To Get Over This One)

It’s nearly New Year’s eve, and a Friday, which seems like some sort of omen for a gallery of vintage winter postcards featuring toadstools, seeing as Fungus Friday is every bit as tangible as Tentacle Tuesday (go here if you’re late to the tentacle train). The connection between hibernal celebrations and mushrooms might not be an immediately obvious one, but one has to keep in mind that the way we celebrate Christmas is distinctly pagan.

More in reference to mushrooms, it has been argued that Santa Claus actually started out his folkloric life as a shaman who gets high on Amanita* (either by direct consumption, or by drinking the urine of reindeer who have consumed them). When one looks for coincidences, one finds them, but nevertheless it’s worthwhile pointing out that the pine trees we adorn our households with for Christmas form a symbiotic relationship with Amanita muscaria (yes, that iconic red toadstool with white warts that so often stands in for a generic mushroom in many stories), and that Santa Claus’ red-and-white costume follows its colours. For more in-depth analysis, I highly recommend Santa Claus Was a Psychedelic Mushroom (written by Derek Beres, who also coined the great alliteration ‘psychedelic piss’ when discussing reindeer-processed Amanitas).

This claim has been disputed by people (some of whom were foaming at the mouth, and not necessarily from mushroom consumption) who point out that this is rather a case of retro-fitting facts into the storyline. You may accuse me of intellectual laziness, but I actually don’t give a fig about where Santa Claus came from. Of more relevance to me (and this post) is this bit: ‘Fly agaric does not appear in authentic Germanic Christmas cards, they’re New Years cards which use fly agaric as a good luck symbol, alongside horse shoes and four-leaf clovers.’ The Fliegenpilz is indeed a good luck charm in Germany, so that’s quite possible. New Year’s card are certainly germane to this time of year, now that the ecstatic joys of Christmas (ahem) are a week behind us.

Either way, enjoy the array of vintage postcards from the late 1930s-1940s, most of them German. Whatever they’re supposed to symbolize (the ones with writing do mention New Year, not Christmas), to a modern reader’s eyes they’re delightfully weird, and I won’t blame anyone for thinking that some drugs were involved.

The Amanitas-as-good-luck-charm theory seems to be borne out in the following, given the presence of clover, horse hooves, etc.:

I wonder if the kid in white represents the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa and similar) – its name gives more than a hint about its toxicity. Perhaps ‘Mushroom Grandpa’ should stay away. Pigs are also a good luck charm, so they make more than one appearance in these postcards (though much like the rabbit’s foot, they’re distinctly unlucky for the actual animal, since they get gobbled up…)
Boldog Új Évet is actually in Hungarian, not German, and means Happy New Year
… and Daudz laimes jauna gada is in Latvian.

Who knew so much revelry was taking place around a couple of mushrooms?

The closest I was able to find is Head uut aastat, which is Happy New Year in Estonian. This post is proving to be quite a language lesson.
Another Latvian postcard. The one on the left is totally sloshed.
Gelukkig Nieuwjaar is in Dutch.

The rest of these are in German:

There is something disquieting about a pink-cheeked child surrounded by dancing mushrooms.
‘Wow, this thing is big and it’s all for me!’
An Amanita drawn by somebody who wasn’t sure what they looked like (hint: it’s not a raspberry).
Weihnacht is sort of like Christmas eve in German-speaking countries. Note that this postcard differs from others in two ways – it features a bolete, not an Amanita, and wishes the viewer Merry Christmas, not Happy New Year (with a bag full of money, apparently).

Happy New Year to all our dear readers, and may your paths be littered with tasty mushrooms in the coming year!**

*Amanita muscaria is considered poisonous, as far as foraging mushrooms go, though it has a long history of being used as a psychedelic/intoxicant by many tribes (namely, by the indigenous people of Siberia). A strong dose causes delirium and a host of other side-effects, which fade after a few days. I might add that some Russians (and god knows Russians will eat whatever mushroom is even remotely edible – I say that with nothing but admiration) consider it a good edible, provided you boil it in water three times or so. I might try that one of these days! I have no interest in psychedelic properties, but plenty of interest in culinary ones.

**Assuming you like them, of course.

~ ds

Sitting Pretty: Averardo Ciriello’s Maghella

« Italy hasn’t had a government since Mussolini. » — Richard M. Nixon

Today, let’s bask in some purely visual glory. Let’s take a gander at a small corner of the mind-boggling œuvre of Averardo Ciriello (1918 – 2016). As you can see from these dates, he was a long-lived fellow, and I’m delighted to report that he was healthy, hearty and active well into his nineties.

He was one of those illustrators who truly delighted in their craft, and so produced an enormous body of work that bore every sign of inspiration and enthusiasm. Since my plan is to focus on a specific period of his career, I’ll skip most of his early work — though it’s well worth returning to — and give you a couple of famous pieces to give you as sense of his success and importance in his field.

It’s fair to say that Ciriello excelled across the board, likenesses included. This is the Italian poster for 1956’s Forbidden Planet.
And this one for 1965’s Bond adventure Thunderball. Since the Bond movies were as much Italian as British production (if not moreso), it’s no surprise that producer Cubby Broccoli did not scrimp, tapping Ciriello for the series’ Italian promotional campaign.

Now for the heart of it: I frankly marvel at Ciriello’s willingness to provide hundreds of cover paintings for cheap, mass market erotica fumetti. The way I see it, it’s evidence that he greatly enjoyed the assignment, and that the money was but a secondary concern at best. We’ve briefly touched upon the Maghella series (in our all-time most popular post, as it happens), but here’s some more.

This is Maghella no. 1 (Nov. 1974, Elvifrance).
This is Maghella no. 15 (Oct. 1975, Elvifrance).
This is Maghella no. 22 (Mar. 1976, Elvifrance). ‘Gode’, aside from being a city in Ethiopia and a species of fish, is the abbreviation of godemichet, which is to say… a dildo.
This is Maghella no. 24 (Apr. 1976, Elvifrance).
This is Maghella no. 41 (Apr. 1977, Elvifrance). Since you’re bound to ask, here’s a recipe for Salade russe, which actual Russians call ‘Salade Olivier‘. DS made it for lunch a couple of days ago, and it was delicious.
This is Maghella no. 42 (May 1977, Elvifrance). Unlike most artists specialising in ‘erotica’, Ciriello could draw anything, in any style, and effortlessly mix sensuality with comedy with horror with angst. A true master — sorry, maestro.
This is Maghella no. 66 (Jan. 1979, Elvifrance).
This is Maghella no. 77 (Feb. 1980, Elvifrance). I assure you, those pun-based titles are utterly untranslatable.
Censorship inevitably got into the act. Here’s one of several instances, the before (with imposed editorial revision indicated) and after of Maghella no. 110 (Sept. 1978, Publistrip); said censorship seems to have driven up the cover price, to boot. This precious bit of info gleaned from a lovely monograph of the artist, Gianni Brunoro and Franco Giacomini’s Ciriello: Una Vita per l’illustratione (2016, Edizioni Di).

-RG

Fred: Bold Lines and Moustache Twirling

« Crosses and gallows – that deadly historic juxtaposition. » — Howard Zinn

Bonsoir, mesdames et messieurs…

All right, time for me to tackle (though a bit sideways, I’ll explain) another of my daunting heroes. This time out, it’s Frédéric Othon Théodore Aristidès (1931-2013), better — and more simply — known as ‘Fred’.

A compulsive and constant scribbler, he attended no institute of artistic learning but his own (and didn’t bother to complete his secondary education), and made inroads into the field by the dawn of the 1950s, landing in Ici Paris, France-Dimanche, Le Rire, Paris-Presse, France-Soir, Punch, and even as a gagman (uncredited!) for The New Yorker (others, among them Otto Soglow, would illustrate the gags for publication).

In 1960, he was, with Georges Bernier — aka Le professeur Choron — and François Cavanna, of the founding trio behind corrosive (and at times banned by the French government) satirical magazine Hara-Kiri, drawing its first sixty covers… and a lot of (self) righteous ire. Any press is good press, or so they say…

Mid-decade, he began his long and fruitful association with Pilote, launching, with the magazine’s 300th issue (July 22, 1965, Dargaud) his undeniable masterpiece, Philémon. And this is where my ‘sideways’ loophole comes in: I’m truly not ready to tackle the overflowing poetic cornucopia that is Philémon. By way of introduction, I’ll stick to the margins and showcase instead some of Fred’s ‘brutish and nasty’ (a rough translation of Hara-Kiri’s motto) panel cartoons and short pieces. There’s a lot to this guy.

Which reminds me of a time, a couple of decades ago, when Montreal’s FIFA (Festival international des films sur l’art/International Festival of Films on Art) presented a series of TV shows showcasing individual cartoonists, among them Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman… and Fred. I recall that Messrs Ware and Spiegelman were just as miserable and neurotic as expected, there was also this Manga master that felt trapped as a cog in an assembly line. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to the existential angst, Fred was brimming with evident delight and joie de vivre at his good fortune to be a working cartoonist*, grinning and scribbling in his sun-dappled studio, leisurely strolling through his village, charming the ladies, enjoying a glass of wine and a wedge of fine aged cheese… I concluded that here was an eloquent encapsulation of the respective cartooning cultures of a few nations. Regrettably, I haven’t been able to track down this documentary series, not even in the FIFA archives. Nevertheless, here’s a short visit with the dear man, by then living in Paris.

As life tends to imitate art, so has this more or less come to pass.
Obviously, you can’t nag anyone into quitting. This ingenious collage strip appeared in Pilote no. 670 (Sept. 1972, Dargaud).
An example — quite literally — of gallows humour.
Too much of a good thing can kill you — or ‘You may come to rue your mockery’.
If one looks for common ground between the more… mordant of French cartoonists, you’ll find their shared, blistering contempt for their nation’s Military brass.
The title is a French idiom which roughly translates to “There’s a nip in the air”. This collection of short pieces Fred wrote and drew for Pilote was published in early 1973 by Dargaud.
At one end, “Live Human Shooting”; at the other, “Free Admission”.
You want it darker? Oh, and also seasonal? Well, your wish is my command.

-RG

*this is serious, though: when Fred stopped drawing comics in the late 1980s, he fell into a deep depression and wound up in a psychiatric hospital. The cure? A return to creating comics. Surely there’s a lesson in this.

Oor Wullie and His Trusty, Rusty Auld Bucket

See the janny? See ma granny?
Ma granny hit um wi a sanny
then she timmed the bucket owerum
an he tummelt doon the sterr
an he landed in the dunny
wi the baikie in his herr.
*

The home of Scottish strip Oor Wullie is The Sunday Post, distributed by D.C Thomson (publishers of, notably, The Beano and The Dandy). You may note that I used the present tense – this strip was brought into the world in 1936, but astonishingly it’s still going strong (it celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2016, to give a quick idea to those who prefer not to launch into mathematical cogitations). It has, through the years, gone through a number of different hands, but it was originally created by comics writer and editor Robert Duncan Low and drawn by cartoonist Dudley Dexter Watkins, who died very much in the cartooning saddle in 1969. His work was reprinted for a bit, until new blood could be found to take over, first in the shape of Tom Lavery (who was told to imitate Watkins’ style), then followed by a bevy of other cartoonists since then.

The Low & Watkins duo also came up with The Broons, which started the same year and ran in The Sunday Post as well, to the point where the strips were often collectively referred to as Broons & Oor Wullie. There’s a lovely documentary about The Broons here.

Reading Oor Wullie is loads of fun, and a big part of that is its use of Scottish slang – not so much of it that action is obscured, but enough for plenty of colour and also the opportunity to pick up some new vocabulary. Did you know that ‘oxter‘ means ‘armpit‘, for example?

To quote from perceptive article THE BROONS AND OOR WULLIE from Indira Neville‘s blog,

« […] the use of the dialect reflected the publisher D. C. Thomson’s ‘realist’ editorial policy and focus on authenticity. It was intended to attract a large Scottish urban audience and in this was really successful. Both strips were massive hits and at their peak had an estimated readership of three million (79% of the adult population of Scotland!) 

One of the most interesting aspects of Oor Wullie and The Broons is that for most Scots they were/are the only mainstream, regularly available written representation of their spoken language. In being this they have an increased relevance within the current Scottish language revival. The National Library of Scotland is even using Oor Wullie as a means to introduce and engage children in the richness of the lexicon. It has a website that’s ‘a guid fun wey tae lairn oor language‘. »

Wullie (or William) is a pretty standard boy prototype: prone to mischief and frequently embroiled in neighbourhood fights, embarrassed when his mam dresses him in nice clothing, but basically an honest lad with his heart in the right place. In that sense, he reminds me of Sluggo. You may note that every page starts and ends with Wullie sitting on his favourite bucket – every boy needs a good friend!

The following strips have been scanned from a 1976 collection, ‘selected from the Sunday Post and earlier Oor Wullie books‘. The artist is the aforementioned Dudley Watkins (which I can confidently claim, as each page is signed – I also compared the art to some original Dudley art being sold online, and this conclusion seems legit).

To celebrate Our Wullie‘s 80th birthday in 2016, 86 statues of Wullie in different costumes were placed around Dundee for the Bucket Trail event (including Oor Bowie, a David Jones tribute). This was a great hit, and Wullie’s BIG Bucket Trail was launched in 2019, with around 200 statues installed all around Scotland. View them here, they’re really fun.

When one thinks that a Moscow-born Russian (that would be me) would be greatly enjoying a classic Scottish comic some decades later… the world works out in funny ways.

~ ds

* From The Ballad of Janitor MacKay by Margaret Green

Of Ducks, Russian Folklore, and the Mysterious Gamayun

Today’s post started out as an introduction to Moscow-born Russian cartoonist and illustrator Alexander Utkin, whose family name translates to something duck-related (‘utka’ means ‘duck’)… a few other topics may have crept in on soft paws, but sticking to one thing was never my forte.

I came across Utkin’s work in a comic book store. The volume attracted me with its stylish cover and vivid colours, standing out among its shelf companions despite the fact that they were also quite vibrant, this being the children’s corner (thankfully a reliable refuge for colour that’s often shunned in modern comics – if you haven’t noticed the absence of colour in the modern aesthetic, see this documentary about Chromophobia, or Colors: Where did they go? An investigation for a discussion).

The book that introduced me to Utkin, although what I had first seen was the French edition (Le roi des oiseaux, 2020); this edition is from 2018 and published by Nobrow.

I like cases where one doesn’t have to choose between art and storytelling, when the former is lovely and the latter, substandard (or vice versa). Utkin’s illustrations are beautiful, and he coherently and engagingly tackles a topic that’s dear to my heart – namely Russian fairy tales. Remember I mentioned Baba Yaga (see Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 28) a few weeks ago? We will meet her again today (hide your children). We also encounter the legendary Gamayun, a prophet-bird (strangely, as a child I learned its name from the song Sirin, Alkonost, Gamayun* and not from reading folk tales) with no legs or wings, who propelled itself with its tail, and whose interrupted flight signalled death or misery. In a more modern interpretation, she morphed into a sort of bird of paradise with a woman’s face. Read about her and her ‘sisters’ Sirin and Alkonost here.

Published by Nobrow in 2020. Here’s a review of this collection.

Utkin’s Gamayun is a strange, vaguely female creature with huge eyes who narrates the stories (thus ‘Gamayun Tales’). There seems to be a resurgence of interest in all things folky** in many parts of the world, perhaps a desire to preserve some cultural heritage when faced with globalisation – in that sense, one can say that this series is part of that pattern. These revivals don’t often reach a Western audience, however, so it’s especially cool that Utkin’s forays into Slavic myths have been well received and enthusiastically lauded by French and English speakers as well.

Here are a few pages from Roi des oiseaux or The King of Birds, which are, respectively, the French and English versions of the same story… except that the French edition also contains La dispute (The Quarrel), which in English was plunked into Gamayun Tales I. It’s a bit confusing.

In case you were wondering, Utkin’s Gamayun series is technically intended for children. I’m in the habit of regularly raiding the children’s section for interesting stuff, but I can call it mother’s interest (never-you-mind that I am the mother of cats and plants, not little humans). Here are several pages from Gamayun Tales II – this story is called The Quarrel (and, as mentioned earlier, was part of the French edition of The King of Birds):

The following page are from Vasilisa and the Doll, which in English was published in Gamayun Tales II, and in French, as part of the La princesse guerrière (‘the warrior princess’) collection:

I promised you Baba Yaga, didn’t I? The way Utkin draws her predatory teeth reminded me of Canadian artist Emily Carroll, whose creepy stories often mention teeth (one might say it’s a leitmoteeth of hers – sorry for the terrible pun). Her work deserves a post of its own, but for now I restrain myself to mentioning that Carroll, clearly also a fan of traditional folklore, illustrated a graphic novel (written by Marika McCoola) about you-know-who, Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015, Candlewick). Here is a tooth and style demonstration:

A few stylized pages tell the traditional story of Baba Yaga and the girl with the kind heart – you can read the tale (in English) here.
And here is what the slightly re-upholstered, modernized tale looks like.
Classic chicken legs!

To get back to our main topic, I’ll leave you with this glorious poster Utkin illustrated for a French bédé (comics) festival in 2020:

Visit Utkin’s IG account.

~ ds

*I highly recommend the whole album for those who like folk rock – it’s by the Russian band Akvarium.

**This includes the bevy of young woman trios and quartets (from Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, Finland, Germany…) popping up seemingly all over the place, singing traditional folk songs whilst walking around. Here is a charming example from Russia.

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 28

Most readers will be familiar with the East European witch Baba Yaga, she of the giant mortar, pestle, and chicken-legged-house. The Slavic tradition is rich in heroes and villains, but Baba Yaga is my definite favourite. Perhaps it’s because of her dichotomous nature – undeniably evil, kidnapping children to eat them and such, she also lends a very helpful hand to those she likes… depending on the vintage of the tale and who’s the narrator, and sometimes within the same story. Potato, pota-toh, right? She’s the kind of hag that cool women aspire to become when they’re old: a cantankerous, wise beldam who does whatever she pleases, lives alone in the middle of a forest with her cat, and tells anybody she doesn’t like to fuck off (or transforms them into something nasty to teach them a lesson).

Introduction to Vasilissa the Beautiful, illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, 1931. That’s Baba Yaga flying on top.

Interpretations of what she actually stands for abound, but to be honest I am not interested in her narrative origins, just the storytelling. She is a character who lives and breathes; it rather seems impolite to ask too many questions, lest one ends up in her oven, on the way to becoming dinner.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp‘s theory is probably the best regarded, and argues that she’s the guardian of the kingdom of the dead, with her house representing a grave (people of yore were buried in special houses built on top of tree trunks, with roots resembling chicken legs). She might have once been a deity of hills and forests, kind protector of villagers; or perhaps a goddess of harvest, punished by other gods who removed her beauty and left her a crone. Viy (yes, that Viy) is her father, and Koschei the Immortal (sometimes pictured as riding naked on his favourite horse) is either her son or her nephew. The fence around her house is built from human bones. I think she deserves her place in this year’s Halloween pantheon.

Anyway, here are a few of my favourite visual renditions of her…

Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), co-founder of the Union of Russian Artists, is mostly remembered for his illustrations to Russian folk tales. His was the first version of Baba Yaga I was introduced to a a small child (as a matter of fact, I still have a collection of tales illustrated by him lying around somewhere). His style is easy to recognize, and full of details – while tsars and beautiful maidens get clothed in robes painstakingly adorned with golden filigree, forest scenes are crowded with branches, leaves, and mushrooms, giving the slightly claustrophobic impression of the trees closing in on the viewer. This is no civilised forest. This is a wild, slightly malicious entity that does not take kindly to strangers.

Baba Yaga in her natural habitat, the flying pestle. Ivan Bilibin, 1900.

The following book from 1915 does not credit its illustrator, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to interpret their memorable signature (seen in the inside illustrations, bottom left).

Baba Yaga (this book was originally published in 1908, using the same painting, but with fewer background details; this edition is from 1915, illustrator still unknown).

Two illustrations from the inside, showing off Baba Yaga’s frequently present black cat, and her fence of human bones and skulls. Admire the decorative ‘devils dancing’ panel inside her hut. The cat can be easily bribed, and in one of the classic tales helps out the would-be victim get the best of Baba Yaga, after the young girl gives him some ham out of the kindness of her heart.

In the Western world, illustrator Nicolai Kochergin (1897-1974) is famous for his Soviet propaganda posters, but he is beloved by Russians who grew up around the so-called ‘golden age’ (1950s-1960s) of children’s book illustrations in the USSR. See a selection of the latter over at Tom Cochien’s Monster Brains Blog. WOT habitué Barney might be interested in his first-ever illustrated book, a Soviet translation of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in instalments in a magazine in 1928.

Although I technically grew up much after these illustrations were published, I think I can count myself lucky that my parents mostly surrounded me with old books.

~ ds

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 23

« It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. » — E. L. Doctorow

Once more rooting around Europe for properly atmospheric material, we unsurprisingly dig up some gold in Belgium, a land rife with longstanding traditions of the fantastic.

While there never were — if memory serves — any explicitly supernatural elements at play in Maurice Tillieux and Arthur Piroton‘s chronicles of FBI agent Jess Long’s colourful investigations, the creators used every opportunity to instill the oppressive fog of atmosphere.

While never a massive hit, the series had solid legs, lasting from its 1969 introduction in Spirou magazine, surviving Tillieux’s tragic demise in 1978 and finally coming to the end of its road with Piroton’s own passing in 1996.

Today, we feature excerpts from Jess Long’s sixth investigation, Les ombres du feu (‘Shadows of fire’), from 1972. Fasten your seatbelts!

Pretty good spotting, Agent Corey Hart!
The story runs fourteen pages, a bit long for our purposes… but I’m sure these highlights will properly convey its nocturnal essence.
This is Jess Long, Police spéciale no. 2 (1977, Dupuis), comprising the fifth and sixth adventures. For some reason, the publisher didn’t start collecting the series until 1976. In the end, twenty albums were issued, a fine run!
This is Spirou no. 1787 (July 13, 1972, Dupuis). Cover by Piroton, with a lower left vignette by André Franquin.
Another spooky Jess Long cover, this time it’s Spirou no. 1897 (Aug. 22 1974, Dupuis), with another Franquin comment.

I’ve heard that Piroton’s style was considered a bit too ‘American’ to be that popular in Europe. Amusingly, it looked like nothing published in American comics at the time — I’d say his approach was a throwback to a mix of Bernard Krigstein and, say, Alex Raymond in Rip Kirby and Secret Agent X9 mode.

Something else worth noting about the Tillieux-Piroton collaboration: while Tillieux was the complete package — writer and artist — he was essentially forced, by some disastrously myopic editorial decisions right from the top at Dupuis (a stubborn failure to grasp that not every cartoonist can be his own writer) Tillieux had to almost entirely give up drawing, even on his own series, Gil Jourdan, to take on writing duties for a great many features. But since he was, one might say, the “Anti-Stan Lee”, he painstakingly storyboarded each page of his scripts, acting not only as scenarist, but also as metteur en scène. Thankfully, some examples of these fascinating breakdowns have survived. Check out this one and especially that one. -RG