Plastic Dog in a Plastic Age*

Given that I grew up in the days when PC games were just starting to be a thing (what a pleasure it is to reminisce about Secret Agent, Crystal Caves, or Jill of the Jungle…), anything pixelated immediately gives me a warm rush and a sense of pleasant nostalgia, be it the quiet appeal of Toyoi Yuuta‘s art or modern ‘pixel art’ games that go for that retro feel (the dark glory of Blasphemous, the cozy feel of Stardew Valley!). As for comics, I suspect most are drawn on a computer these days, but few of them use pixel art per se. One look at Plastic Dog, and it was puppy love, especially given its acerbic sense of humour.

Henning Wagenbreth, born in 1962 in East Germany (which is perhaps what partially gave him a lifelong anti-totalitarian stance), is an illustrator/graphic designer who actually excels in a number of techniques. Lambiek Comiclopedia touts him as ‘German pioneer in comics created with the computer‘; I don’t know enough about the development of electronically-drawn comics specifically in that part of the world to state that with certainty, although this is as good a time as any to mention that Peter B. Gillis and Mike Saenz‘ wonderful Shatter (1985-1988) is usually credited as the first significant comic book created on computer. Topic for another day, no doubt.

Be as it may, Wagenbroth did something interesting: he designed the strip Plastic Dog in 2000 specifically for perusal on early pocket computers (such as Pocket PC or Palm OS), which had a black and white screen of 160×160 pixels. In 2004, colourized versions migrated to weekly newspaper Die Zeit, printed within its pages, but also available as downloads on their website.

The French publisher L’Association released a 26-page collection of Plastic Dog strips, translated into French from German by EugĂ©nie Pascal. As far as I know, no official English translation exists, aside from maybe one or two random strips (probably translated by Wagenbreth himself). The following pages are scans from this French edition.

Dead Wood. Plastic Dog calls the police to report a stolen wooden cabinet, to find that it’s been removed by the Tree Liberation Army, who bury their ‘felled, deported, dismembered and abused’ friend in the tree cemetery.
The Killer Cars. Plastic Dog goes out to search for his missing child, to find the latter in pieces after being attacked by driverless cars gone rogue. In the final panel, PD says ‘tomorrow, we’ll buy you a nice new body’.
Nothing Ever Happens. ‘A grey day, pure boredom’, bemoans Plastic Dog, ‘I am always in the wrong place at the wrong time, and everything is so predictable…’
In his never-ending search for new experiences, Plastic Dog stumbles upon a device that proffers guidelines to achieve maximum happiness. Its instructions are not devoid of poetry: ‘give all your money to be eaten by zoo animals’, ‘do 15 squats on top of a chemical factory’, ‘make three loafs of bread laugh in the middle of the night’, ‘plant wind instruments in the garden’. The final piece of advice (‘withdraw into solitude and practice patience’) is what seems to defeat PD’s enthusiasm (seems like in his world, getting lost in the desert is the only way to solitude…)

The following is the last PD strip, and readers are thanked at the bottom for their many emails and downloads. There’s also something about a free TV as a reward, but I wouldn’t bank on it 😉

A family visit to the zoo! Touted as the last surviving specimens by the guide, these animals may not quite be what they seem. The flamingo complains, ’12 hours standing on the same leg!’, but Plastic Dog argues that having to constantly hang upside down is much worse.

Wagenbreth recently had an exhibition at MontrĂ©al’s UQAM university, which to my regret I completely missed… due to finding out about it far too late (i.e. now). Here is the poster for it:

~ ds

* « Every day my metal friend
Shakes my bed at 6am
Then the shiny serving clones
Run in with my telephones »

Desclozeaux, Vintner of Dreams

« Juggler of eccentric ideas, more poetic than truly macabre, Desclozeaux is served by an admirable technique that aligns him with the clan of Folon and Flora, which is to say designers for whom white space holds as much– if not more — importance than the line, the arabesque or the scroll. » — Jacques Sternberg and Michel Caen (1968)

Since the world seems to be crashing down around our ears, I figure it would be reasonable to focus on an artist who’s well-adjusted, happy, prolific, casually brilliant and, to top it off, still alive at a ripe old age. Meet, then, if haven’t already, French national treasure Jean-Pierre Desclozeaux, who will, if I’m not jinxing it for him, turn 84 this coming 5th of June.

Jean-Pierre began his career as a watercolourist and poster designer, studying under the legendary Paul Colin.

A sample of his early poster work. In this case, the client was an antique dealers’ fair.

In 1965, he branched out into press illustration and cartoons. Here are a few early samples of this endeavour:

If Wikipedia will forgive me, I’ve cribbed and translated this bit for our English-only readers: « In 1968, he began his collaboration with Le Nouvel Observateur, where he published at least one drawing each week. From that point on, Desclozeaux devoted himself almost exclusively to the press and publishing areas : satirical drawings, book and magazine illustration, posters for exhibitions and shows, postcards, book jackets. »

This one, from 1982, is entitled Songe d’une nuit d’Ă©tĂ©, which happens to be the standard translation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”… but with more bikes.
A pair of watercolours from his book Entre chiens et chats (1983).
He also created scores of theatre posters, such as this one for Paris’ Le Caveau de la RĂ©publique, circa 1986. The play’s title, which translates to “Hands off my vote”, was a riff on French anti-racism organisation SOS Racisme‘s slogan, namely Touche pas Ă  mon pote (Hands off my pal).
This caricature festival’s most appropriate host city has been renowned for its images d’Épinal (“Epinal Prints“) since the late 18th century.
A piece entitled À la pointe du rat, a homophonic calembour on Pointe du raz, a spectacular promontory in France. “Raz” translates as “strait”.
This piece appeared on the cover of TĂ©lĂ©rama (France’s TV Guide equivalent, but inevitably a bit smarter) for its Jan. 30, 1991 issue. The headline asks “Has Television Changed Our Unconscious?
And here’s our cheeky bon vivant. Desclozeaux, whose beard was described by his friend Ronald Searle as “an enchanted space and a hideout for secrets and legends“.
A 2006 wine ad… as you can plainly see. This sort of irreverence seems largely lacking in North American advertising.

This post’s title hails from the term of endearment and respect bestowed upon Desclozeaux by no less a personage than his affichiste confrere, Raymond Savignac (1907-2002). This reference to wine-making presumably alludes to his long-standing graphic contributions to sundry gastronomic columns. In 2002, Albin Michel even issued a heady cuvĂ©e of his wine-imbibed cartoons, Cul-Sec!*

-RG

*approximately meaning ‘bottoms up!‘ or ‘down the hatch!’ — here are some hilarious mispronunciations of ‘faire cul sec’.

Meet Peyo’s Perspicacious Poussy

Mention Belgian artist Peyo (real name Pierre Culliford, 1928 -1992) and the first thing that comes to mind is his hugely popular Les Schtroumpfs, introduced within the pages of his strip Johan et Pirlouit. Les Schtroumpfs, of course, are Smurfs, those blue humanoid creatures living in mushroom-houses in the forest. When I was just starting tentative forays into comics during my shy youth, it’s the local library’s Smurf albums that first attracted my attention, alongside Uderzo and Goscinny’s AstĂ©rix le Gaulois and Roba and Rosy’s Boule et Bill.

Another strip I really liked, unaware that it was created by the artist responsible for the Smurfs, is Poussy. Despite competing with all the other cat adventures one can think of (although there are far more today than there were twenty years ago), it was its old-fashioned charm that drew me in. This was a world where rambunctious (but always well-meaning) boys roasted chestnuts in a fire, mothers in high heels burned their Sunday roast, and families always went to the beach for their vacation. I wasn’t interested in these (human) characters, but they made a perfect backdrop to cat antics, comforting like watching cartoons on a rainy day.

The first Poussy album I found at the local library (1977, Dupuis).

21-year old Peyo drew 26 black-and-white gags of Poussy for the humble youth section of Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir between 1949 and 1951. Here’s an example of one of these early manifestations of Poussy, a playful black-and-white cat, up to very normal cat mischief:

‘Poussy is ambitious’, printed in Le Soir no. 175 (July 1949).

When Le Soir decided to revamp its youth section into a more ambitious version titled Le Soir Jeunesse, Peyo, who had been concentrating on his Johan series (later to become Johan et Pirlouit, or Johan and Peewit in English) for Journal de Spirou, revived Poussy, and this frisky kitten frolicked once again between Le Soir‘s pages from 1955 to 1960. Set aside again to make room for more ambitious endeavours (namely, Peyo’s BenoĂźt Brisefer series) at the behest of publisher Charles Dupuis, for whom Peyo was working concurrently, Poussy tiptoed back into life in 1965, this time in Journal de Spirou, in colourised re-runs of previous Le Soir material, published quite out of any chronological order.

Here are a few favourites from these re-runs — I mostly chose mute strips, both because Poussy’s expressive meowing needs no translation, and because I by far prefer jokes centered on his behaviour without too much human interference.

Gag no. 11, published in Spirou no. 1552 (January 1968).
Gag no. 24, published in Spirou no. 1514 (April, 1967).
Gag no. 85, published in Spirou no. 1523 (June 1967). One can argue about the originality (or lack thereof) of Peyo’s style ’til one is blue in the face, but Poussy’s spot-on expression and body language in the last panel are unarguably perfectly executed.
Gag no. 105, published in Spirou no. 1528 (July 1967). This must have been a rare ‘be kind to mice’ day.
Gag no. 124, published in Spirou no. 1450 (January 1966). ‘I’m done, and it smells wonderful! What hard work! But it doesn’t matter, I am thrilled with the results! You see that one can easily create an expensive perfume at home!
Gag no. 138, published in Spirou no. 1636 (August 1969). The final panel advertises milk-based soap.

It was only in 1969 that Peyo resumed the production of new strips, starting with gag no. 222… and by no. 233, he had a collaborator, Lucien De Gieter, who soon took over entirely as Peyo had far too many other series on his hands to be able to continue Poussy. De Gieter continued the strip until 1974.

There have been three albums collecting Poussy material, published in 1976 and 1977 – and last year, Dupuis published a very handsome and very complete collection of all Poussy strips (a painstaking and impeccable chronological presentation, accompanied by exhaustive publishing information) which I purchased at the excellent comic-and-book store DĂ©bĂ©dĂ© in MontrĂ©al, QuĂ©bec. One doesn’t always feel like revisiting books from one’s childhood (for instance, I have little desire to ever reread Boule et Bill), but in this case I spent a few warm moments smiling at the strips I remembered surprisingly well.

~ ds

Dreams of the Rarebit Little Ego

« RAREBIT n. A Welsh rabbit, in the speech of the humorless, who point out that it is not a rabbit. To whom it may be solemnly explained that the comestible known as toad-in-a-hole is really not a toad, and that ris-de-veau Ă  la financiĂšre is not the smile of a calf prepared after the recipe of a she banker. » — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

It’s dicey to make a broad generalization about what people have heard of and what they haven’t, so I’ll just say that, for a comic strip more than a century old, likely Canadian Winsor McCay‘s Little Nemo in Slumberland is rather well remembered (and represented) in the greater culture.

The strip has inspired numberless adaptations and the cultural landscape is quite peppered with Nemo references, both overt and veiled.

In the early 1980s, Italian cartoonist Vittorio Giardino (1946–) created a series of short pieces (first published in issues of Comic Art and Glamour International), intended as an erotic pastiche of McCay’s brainchild.

Here are the Little Ego pieces I value most.

I must admit I only enjoy the earlier, less grandiose ones, in no small part because they’re scarcely Nemo-like. Instead, they’re patterned after an earlier McCay creations, and my personal favourite, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-25), which I’ve long treasured in its beloved and exemplary Dover collection.

« I wonder what’s come over me to have such dreams… I’ll never be able to speak of them… even to my shrink!! »
Here’s the cover art of the original French collected edition (1989, GlĂ©nat).

To quote the late cartoonist and local favourite Richard Thompson:

« There are strips that are classics that I respond to on many levels without loving them (Little Nemo is one). I can enjoy such strips without really learning too much from them. »

I share Mr. Thompson’s ambivalent sentiment about Nemo. It’s an indisputable masterwork, mind-bogglingly accomplished, and best enjoyed in its original size.

See what I mean? An original-size Little Nemo showcase cleverly included in Graphis Magazine‘s Comics: The Art of the Comic Strip (1972, The Graphis Press, Zurich).

But its epic scale and themes fail to move me. I far prefer the quotidian-turning-absurd magic of the Rarebit Fiend.

At length, feeling perhaps constrained by the two-page format, Giardino moved on to a longer, sustained narrative full of aerial derring-do, treacherous desert vistas, opulent palaces, and lots and lots of rapes (a fumetti standard). Not my thing, thanks all the same.

I drew from the French edition of the strip since it’s the one I own, but also for its superior reproduction and as the English translation is rather flat and witless in comparison. [ see for yourself! ]

Here’s a tasty pair of sample Rarebit Fiend strips.

… and we return to Richard Thompson, who introduced his own ‘strip within a strip’ parody with Little Neuro within his Cul de sac (2004-2012).

Cul de sac’s March 26, 2008 daily, wherein Little Neuro is first touched upon. « Little Neuro is a parody/homage to the great fantasy strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. I thought up Little Neuro in the early ’80s, but I had to invent Petey before I knew what to do with it. »
Cul de sac’s Sunday, September 6, 2009 strip. Thompson: « Obviously an excuse to draw a dragon. I don’t get many. »

-RG

Customer Service Wolf: How May I Assist You?

« Thank you for calling customer service. If you’re calm and rational, press 1. If you’re a whiner, press 2. If you’re a hot head, press 3. » — Randy Glasbergen

Comedy oriented towards employees who work in retail is its own breed of humour. I remember my ex-boss warning me early on that ‘the public is stupid’ – and that’s certainly the impression one gets, being confronted (day in, day out) by customers unable to read signs (no matter how big and prominent one makes them), pulling on doors that are meant to be pushed, and asking questions so inane that it feels slightly surreal.

There are myriad comics poking fun at the daily frustrations of retail… most of them making observations of a rather obvious nature, though frustrated employees will still chuckle at them (it feels nice to be ‘seen’!) I have mixed feelings about all the people leaping from ‘look, I doodle in my spare time’ to ‘I am an Artist who has a Webcomic!’, but that’s a topic for another day. Occasionally one stumbles onto a gem amidst all the ugly pebbles.

There are several things going for Customer Service Wolf, drawn by Australian illustrator Anne Barnetson. Its immediate appeal is that it’s beautifully drawn, of course. I am impressed at the variety of animals, convincingly depicted. It’s also very self-aware and funny, appending the usual ‘customers are destructive/insane’ stories with an unexpected recurring punchline (hint: it involves a wolf’s sharp jaws). A bookstore is a backdrop for a very special kind of lunacy, and Barnetson has clearly has had her share of it.

The following have been scanned from the collection (2019), but you can view all of them at the Customer Service Wolf tumblr.

One of this strip’s strengths is periodically pointing out that we the employees are not so different from the customers we mock.

And I kept a really sweet one for the end:

~ ds

GĂ©rald Forton, Tall in the Saddle All the Way!

« Horse sense is the instinct that keeps horses from betting on men. » — Josephine Tey

While ‘academic’ realism has never been my thing in comics, I’ve always had a soft spot for GĂ©rald Forton (Apr. 10, 1931 – Dec. 18 2021), who left us late last year, and who would be turning 91 today. He’s certainly my favourite Bob Morane artist (1962-67), but that’s not saying much, and besides, not his best work.

And just what is his best work? Ah, that’s easy: Teddy Ted. Just like his forebears, including his grandfather, the legendary Louis Forton (1879-1934), creator of Les Pieds NickelĂ©s and Bibi Fricotin, grew up with an undying passion for horses. The Forton clan bred, raised, sold and raced horses, so it wasn’t a mere case of the banal and stereotypical European passion for the American ‘Far West’ and its Cowboys and Indians.

In 1964, Forton and ace scripter Roger LĂ©cureux (Les pionniers de l’EspĂ©rance, Rahan) picked up the reins of a series launched by Jacques Kamb and Francisco Hidalgo and abandoned after three episodes. The new team revamped Teddy Ted, turning the protagonist from a boy to a man and instilling LĂ©cureux’s humanist worldview* into the proceedings.

Teddy Ted and Forton reached their peak soon after the artist left Belgium, and the Bob Morane series, to raise horses in the South of France, a direct source of inspiration and documentation!

Without further ado, here’s my pick: Tim le lĂąche, from Pif Gadget no. 42 (Dec. 1969, Vaillant). It’s the tale of a craven back-shooting sneak against whom no-one has been able to garner any evidence, given the lack of survivors or witnesses. Given that Teddy’s close friend Pecos has been ambushed and taken out of commission by Craven Tim Galaways, Teddy and the town drunk (also its doctor!) set a dangerous trap with Teddy as bait and human target.

I’ve long had an aversion to ‘realistic’ European westerns, and that’s largely because of the absurd density of useless detail, the pages so busy and darkly-coloured as to buckle and collapse under the weight of the ink. Forton, by contrast, aside from being a master at spotting blacks, is just as bold in leaving white space where it’s needed, where the reader’s eye needs it. And here, unlike a lot of the technically-challenging genre strips (by which I mean, for instance, aviation, war or car racing, where one all-too-often encounters perfectly depicted machinery and stiff, generic human figures), Forton lavishes attention and care to every single thing, so we don’t wind up with beautiful horses and cardboard everything else. Which brings me around again to my point of Forton’s exceptionalism among the ‘realists’: the verisimilitude of his art is the result of observation, not soulless photo documentation.

After Teddy Ted was dropped from Pif Gadget, circa 1975, by its less-enlightened new management, Forton was picked to illustrate an adaptation of TV’s The Wild, Wild West (“Les mystĂšres de l’Ouest”), which ironically made for the most realistic version of that colourful, but painfully stagey show, thanks to Forton’s excellence at capturing likenesses and conveying wide open spaces and details of period and setting.

By the early 1980s, Forton had moved to the US, where he tentatively freelanced in comic books, where he proved a poor fit. Though the French deemed him one of the most ‘American’ of Franco-Belgian cartoonists, he stood out like a sore thumb in the 1980’s mainstream, likely since his influences hailed not from comic books but rather comic strips, and those of an earlier generation at that (Alex Raymond, Frank Robbins, Milton Caniff
 and his idol, Fred Harman).

He then heeded Horace Greeley’s legendary bit of advice and headed to California, bought himself a ranch in Apple Valley and, like many an overqualified but outmoded veteran cartoonist, toiled in mediocre animated shows.

Ah, but he still had plenty of life in him: moving to more fertile and rewarding soil, he smartly shifted to film storyboards (here are some samples!). Among his more notable credits: the original Toy Story, The Prince of Egypt, Coyote Ugly, Starship Troopers, Ali**

Retiring from the film industry at age 75, he then devoted his time to painting, playing the guitar, riding horses, and burnishing his Ɠuvre for posterity by providing new artwork for reprint collections of his past works, in the midst of a resurgence in Europe.

Humble, active and alert to the very end, Forton finally and peacefully rode into the sunset, at the most venerable age of 90. For more Forton art, check out this lovingly assembled gallery.

-RG

*I’m inclined to draw parallels between LĂ©cureux’s view of the West on Teddy Ted to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry‘s approach on Have Gun, Will Travel: compassion, but with a hard edge.

**wherein Will Smith doled out punches rather than slaps

Quelle jungle? Quelle folie!

“Oh, another cutesy animal comic”, you may sigh upon glimpsing the preview for this post. Indeed, today’s exhibit A abounds in puns and features a cast of almost every kind of animal one could think of. However, under its cute façade lurks surprising savagery and a kind of philosophical resignation to life’s little foibles.

We’re talked about a number of comics published within the pages of Pif Gadget, here’s another one to join the gang: La jungle en folie, written by Christian Godard and illustrated by Mic Delinx. The title of the series was selected as a nod to Walt Disney’s 1967 animated film The Jungle Book, then at the height of its popularity in France. The pivotal events of 1968, known as May 68, a period of civil unrest in France that paralyzed its economy and marked the minds of the authors and their fellow citizens, surely had something to do with the cynicism of this strip:

« AndrĂ© Glucksmann recalled May 1968 as “a moment, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury
. a ‘cadaver,’ from which everyone wants to rob a piece.” His comments sum up the general cynicism and ambivalence of many on the French left when it comes to May ’68: “The hope was to change the world,” he says, “but it was inevitably incomplete, and the institutions of the state are untouched.” Both student and labour groups still managed to push through several significant reforms and win many government concessions before police and De Gaulle supporters rose up in the thousands and quelled the uprising (further evidence, Anne-Elisabeth Moutet argued this month, that “authoritarianism is the norm in France”). »

Just like fairy-tales, animal fables are often quite brutal (whether Aesop’s or La Fontaine’s, to name two widely-known sources), but it’s not easy to get this of mixture to rise just right: too much brutality, you sink into a quagmire of sadism; too much fluff, and it’s just a filler in a magazine. I would argue that La Jungle en folie hits the right balance: the right amount of wit with plenty of nastiness snuck in. Escapism this isn’t, not quite. The doctor is talented but has no issue with sending patients to their death. The inspector is obsessed with finding the guilty party even if it means putting innocents behind bars. Taxmen snatch their (literal) chunk of fur from the backs of unionized workers. Office workers search for the meaning of life (and fail to find it). Wives throw stuff at their husbands’ heads, talentless troubadours are all in love with the same frigid coquette. This world is a very recognizable one, even if it’s a tiger conversing with a worm (or a rhinoceros with a trout).

As for nastiness, one story immediately comes to mind – when Eustache the elephant gets a proboscis-otomy to shorten his trunk (he dreams of having a ‘Greek profile’), the cut-off part ends up at the butcher’s, as the latter buys chopped-off body parts from the doctor to resell as meat. The trunk is sold to Gros Rino as sausages, and by the time Eustache realizes he was better off with his old appendage and looks for it, it is too late, alas – the ‘sausages’ are being grilled over an open fire, and Gros Rino refuses to part with his breakfast, anyway…

Pif Gadget no. 159 (March 1972). Vegetarian tiger Joé (he only eats apples) and food-fixated Gros Rino are best pals.

The first, one-page strip was published in Pif no. 34 (October 13th, 1969). The strip was a quick success, even making it to some covers starting with issue no. 56 (March 1970). After a hiatus in 1974, during which La jungle en folie continued to be published in ‘albums’ by Belgian publishing house Rossel, the strip returned to Pif in 1977 and stayed until 1986, while albums continued to be regularly published until 1988, for 20 published albums overall. They have now been collected in six volumes of IntĂ©grale; the pages below are all taken from IntĂ©grale 1, which includes Les aventures de JoĂ© le tigre, Salut la compagnie! and La conquĂȘte de l’espace.

Cage et masti-cage. ‘Cage‘ is self-explanatory, and ‘masticage‘ is the act of chewing (think ‘mastication’). In this story, Auguste the crocodile decides to free JoĂ©’s winged pet, explaining that no bird is made to be imprisoned. ‘You see, Auguste,’ pensively says JoĂ©, ‘I’ve never exactly figured out whether it’s a cage to imprison, or a cage for protection…’ The naive bird gets eaten by a wolf (who lures it into his gaping maw by lying under a ‘the tunnel of horror’ sign). In the final panel, a discussion takes place: what’s the most beautiful word? Liberty, equality or fraternity? Take your pick…
MĂ©dor debout (MĂ©dor is a typical French name for a dog, the French ‘Fido’). The two pooches take turns walking each other, with the moral (delivered by the noisy magpies – les pies – who always get the last word at the end of the story) of ‘you can make anybody walk on all fours for a few compliments’.
Klaxonneries (klaxonner means to honk one’s horn). Anatole the octopus is a very dutiful agent de circulation (traffic officer)… but the clarity of his gestures leaves something to be desired. I like the variety of animals and means of transport.
Horreurscope (horroscope), probably my favourite strip. After asking Gertrude the trout for her astrological sign (she’s Pisces, of course), JoĂ© reads her horoscope: it speaks of the possibility of dangerous accidents, especially asphyxiation. Skeptical Gertrude thinks it’s ridiculous that a fish should worry about asphyxiation… but in the end, can one escape destiny? JoĂ© decides not to intervene – and suggests Gros Rino should cook her ‘Ă  l’Ă©touffĂ©e‘.

I associate La jungle en folie with one-page strips, but it’s worth taking a little detour into longer stories. The next two pages are Coup de tabac, in which the doctor and JoĂ© try to convince vulture AdhĂ©mar to quit smoking. AdhĂ©mar is adamant, however: for him, smoking is a question of survival. We learn why in the next page…

‘Here’s today’s advertising message, try to not make spelling mistakes’, says his boss, and AdhĂ©mar flies into the skies to write a message in cigar-smoke – “tobacco is poison”.

‘Not great… this guy lost faith in what he’s doing. He’s getting old. I’ll have to look into it…’ says the wolf-boss, as Mortimer the snake remarks ‘a young man’s enthusiasm, it’s all that’s real and true!’

The next two pages are Bouche-dĂ©gout, a pun on ‘bouche d’Ă©gout‘, drain (dĂ©goĂ»t means disgust). Potame le toubib, the doctor, won’t listen to JoĂ©’s explanation of what ails his friend the dragon, jumping to medical conclusions and insisting that TimolĂ©on should speak for himself – with blazing results.

‘Speak more softly, he’s not deaf.’

~ ds

Salami Western: Benito Jacovitti’s Cocco Bill

« I’m a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but salami is salami. You can’t sell it as caviar. » — Stephen King

Farcical ‘Wild West’ comic strips may be a dime a dozen, but despite the undeniable hoariness of the premise, a number of them are inevitably outstanding. To name but a few, there’s been Maurice ‘Morris’ De Bevere‘s Lucky Luke (1946); Basil Wolverton‘s Bingbang Buster (1949); Harvey Kurtzman‘s Pot-Shot Pete (Sheriff of Yucca-Pucca Gulch) (1950); Jean-Claude Poirier‘s Horace, cheval de l’Ouest (1970); Jean ‘CĂ©zard’ CĂ©sar‘s Billy Bonbon (1973); and today’s cowboy in the spotlight, Benito Jacovitti‘s Cocco Bill (1957).

Cocco Bill was introduced in the pages of Il Giorno dei Ragazzi (1957-68), “originally intended as the Italian version of the British children’s periodical Eagle“. After Il Giorno’s demise, Cocco Bill shifted his sagebrush shenanigans to the venerable Corriere dei Piccoli (1908-95).

This is 7 fois mouche (1975, JC LattĂšs, France), originally serialised in Corriere dei Piccoli as “Cocco Bill fa sette piĂč”, 1968-69. In Italy, it was actually number twenty in the series.

With Wolverton, Jacovitti (1923 – 1997) shares an animist sort of predilection for cramming every square centimetre of the panel with absurdist details, facetious sound effects, recurring motifs and symbols and, naturally, gags. It’s a most noble cartooning tradition that runs the course of the medium’s history, from Bill Holman through Kurtzman and Will Elder (chicken fat!) and merrily endures to this day in Dan Piraro and Wayno‘s oft-sublime Bizarro.

Here’s a two-page ambush sequence that gives you a sense of how handy — and deadly — our protagonist is with a pair of irons.

The sign says: “Do not trample the cacti“.
The surviving bushwacker is put out of his misery by the gang’s second-in-command, the Chaplinesque Kruel; you know he’s a villain of substance because he rides a double horse. Pray note the lovely SALOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON sign with its behatted snake carvings.
Meet hired guns the Kuknass Brothers: Brown, White, Green, Black, Yellow, Blue and Red, of course. Like the idea, Quentin? Note the extra digits (the better to count with, panel five). It’s easy to imagine Jacovitti having some influence on Mad’s Don Martin
In the manner of many a pure-hearted cowboy, Cocco Bill’s brew of choice is alcohol-free; his poison is chamomile tea, a drink with numerous health benefits! With sugar and lemon, but hold the paprika, thank you! Note: Don’t Shoot the Piano Player!
This is Sur les rails (1975, JC Lattùs, France), originally serialised in Corriere dei Piccoli as “Cocco Bill sulle rotaie”, 1969. In Italy, it was number twenty-one in the series.
The train meets the stagecoach, and how! A page from Sur les rails.

Last month, my co-admin ds reported, in the course of her spotlight on Massimo Mattioli, that Jacovitti is said to be the Italian cartoonist best known internationally. I have no idea how such popularity is measured, but I do enjoy the idea of a palmarĂšs headed by cartoonists I love, for once. I do, however, suspect that the global reach of animation frequently contributes more to a cartoonist’s name recognition than does his printed work (think Guillermo Mordillo). Case in point: while Cocco Bill strips have been translated and reprinted in several countries, these efforts have been, more often than not, patchy and sporadic. On the other hand, the Cocco Bill TV series (2000-04) ran a healthy 104 episodes. And it looks great, which didn’t hurt. Check out the pilot episode, ‘Cocco Augh‘. For a creator, it’s assuredly a classier calling card than a bunch of sordid sex ‘comedies’.

I’d like to dedicate this post to the fond memory of a departed cartooning colleague, Patrick ‘Henriette Valium’ Henley (1959-2021), since Cocco Bill was, I’ve heard tell, his favourite bĂ©dĂ©.

-RG

Roland Topor’s Unvarnished Truth

« Topor is probably the greatest graphic mind of the twentieth century. » — Seymour Chwast

Well, that’s quite a lofty claim
 but considering the source, one that must be seriously considered.

Are you familiar with Roland Topor‘s work? Perhaps you’ve seen Roman Polanski’s 1976 adaptation of Topor’s novel Le locataire chimĂ©rique (1964). Or seen the singular animated film La planĂšte sauvage / The Fantastic Planet (1973). Maybe you’ve seen some of his arresting film poster art (The Tin Drum, Realm of the Senses… and more). Were you perhaps an early reader of France’s legendarily transgressive magazine, Hara-Kiri, journal bĂȘte et mĂ©chant? Or, at the other end of the scale, did you grow up with Groucha, Lola and the Gluons on his charmingly bizarre 1980’s kids’ show, TĂ©lĂ©chat?

All the same, Topor (Jan. 7, 1938 – Apr. 16, 1997) — eighty-four years ago today — is one of those rare fellows (like, say, Shel Silverstein) who achieved great success at whatever they undertook
 and without compromising their vision. Painter, actor, scenarist, playwright, director, affichiste, cartoonist, illustrator
 he did it all, and he did it all well. I’m happy to say that his legacy seems safe, if his posthumous presence online and in galleries and minds is any indication. And I’ve rarely had so much trouble paring down my selections, so prolific and versatile and hard-hitting was he. Dig in!

This is a typical, if striking example of the sort of work Topor was producing in the early 1960s (largely for Hara-Kiri — some three hundred drawings in a five-year span), and one wasn’t sure if his draughtsmanship could keep pace with his ideas.
I like to call this one ‘La ruelle armĂ©e’.
A bit of Photomatonfumetti from Mr. Topor, circa the 1960s. To the right: nothing. To the left: nothing. Behind me: nothing. Before me: a moron!
Topor recycled the punch-in-the-kisser motif several times; it was first used for a Hara-Kiri promo poster in 1961.
A pair of excerpts from 1974’s L’Épikon. I love the concept: Topor graphically (and fancifully) elaborated upon some antique pornographic photos. « In Warsaw, a housekeeper, by piety sucked the church candles. By dint of polishing the tallow, she skinned her lips and blushed like a virgin. »
« A Las Vegas whore, who resided in a palace, resorted to a trick to tame phalluses: she illuminated her snatch. » Here’s more from L’Épikon.
La roue (the Wheel) — 1973.
Another bit of recycling: first created (I think!) for Revue MĂ©pris n° 1 (1973, Éditions Kesselring), Topor donated this powerful piece to Amnesty International for its worthy promotional work, such as this 1977 print ad. « Is Freedom of Speech Lethal? ».
This sardonic piece appeared in the collection L’amour Ă  voix haute (“Love Out Loud”); the English version was entitled Je t’aime: A Pillow Talk, and used it as its cover.
Les nouvelles en trois lignes I (The News in Three Lines) – 1975. Comics!
Le saut pĂ©rilleux (the somersault) – 1980.
« Pain, according to Topor. »
« Leaving pain behind, according to Topor. » (1982)
I’m happy to say that, with the years, his work just kept evolving and, in some ways, improving. This poster was created to promote the 1984 edition of a drawing festival held every other year.

Well, even if you weren’t familiar with Mr. Topor’s Ɠuvre per se, you must have seen its echoes across all media in the work of (just off the top of my head!) Bill Plympton, Brad Holland, Peter Kuper, Bernard Kliban, Jean-Claude Suares… and countless others.

-RG

Massimo Mattioli Mania: M le magicien

Greetings to all! In this New Year, like an alcoholic in remission, I will abstain myself from tentacles (for at least a few months) while I catch up on other things I want to talk about. The first installment of this non-Tentacle Tuesday starts with an M, so it seemed appropriate to run it on Monday.

Massimo Mattioli (1943-2019) may be the second best-known Italian cartoonist abroad, at least according to Lambiek Comiclopedia (the first being Benito Jacovitti, another post in the making). However, an anglophone audience is likely to associate him with uncomfortable levels of violence, as only his 80s-and-onward strips have been translated to English. Case in point: his most notorious creation was Squeak the Mouse, serialized in underground Italian comics magazine Frigidaire in the early 80s. When this strip was imported into the United States, the customs agents seized the lot, as the work was deemed to be obscene and pornographic.

« Laying full-on slasher horror onto wacky cartoon violence, Mattioli’s characters embark on a sadistic bloodthirsty rampage, leaving a trail of mangled corpses and pools of blood in their wake. And the comic’s gratuitous bloodshed is not to be overshadowed by its crude humor and over-the-top sexcapades. In sum, a tour de force of unrelenting transgression, rendered in clean line art and dazzling pastel colors. » [source]

But this isn’t today’s topic. For this post I’d like to go back further in time, to a gentler and arguably more inventive Mattioli, since I don’t believe that over-the-top violence necessarily requires that much imagination. We go back to 1968 and the magical (and I try not to throw this word around lightly) M le magicien. Co-admin RG and I have our separate libraries, but since our tastes overlap by a large margin, we try to keep the number of duplicates to a minimum. Suffice it to say we both have a copy of the collected M le magicien strips (published by L’Association in 2003), and neither of us is parting with ours.

In 1968, 25-year-old Mattioli had moved from his native Rome to Paris, France, and there joined the illustrious ranks of artists revelling in absurdity and tongue-in-cheek humour (for example, Nikita Mandryka and his Le concombre masquĂ©) working for communist magazine Vaillant, which was renamed Pif Gadget a year later. Mattioli’s first long-term project, M le magicien debuted in issue no. 1227 (December 1968), and continued its run until 1973.

It’s not really clear why the series ended – the introduction to L’Association collection just mentions that Mattioli decided to return to Rome. However, it seems likely that the strip was ousted by pressure exerted by Claude Compeyron, prĂ©sident-directeur gĂ©nĂ©ral (CEO) of Vaillant – obsessed by commercial success and marketing schemes, he saw no point in publishing ‘lesser’ strips that were more difficult to absorb (Hugo Pratt‘s Corto Maltese, Les pionniers de l’espĂ©rance) or not immediately appealing to children. Compeyron’s approach to selling magazines (‘a magazine is like any product you sell or buy, like a pair of shoes‘) led to rĂ©dacteur en chef (editor-in-chief) Richard Medioni resigning in 1973. Medioni’s departure marked the end of what was arguably Pif Gadget’s golden, ‘red’, period; from that point onward, the editors had to learn to kowtow to the marketing department, and commercialism reigned supreme.*

The cast of M le magicien is relatively succinct: the protagonist, your fairly standard magician, his talking magic wand, and a couple of chameleons (who periodically mlem the magician, mistaking him for an insect), two Martians bent on world destruction (or just magician’s castle destruction), a few insects of various shapes and genders, and some talking flowers and mushrooms. The characters are free to roam across pages, consume the backgrounds when they get hungry, and address the reader directly. Mattioli was not confident about his French, so he availed himself of visual humour with fairly simple (sometimes slightly unhinged) dialogues, which added to the charming atmosphere of absurdity.

While (as mentioned previously) we are the proud owners of two copies of the collected M le magicien, I had no wish to destroy either book by attempting to scan pages from it. Luckily, RG put quite a few Pif Gadget issues at my disposal, and I chose my favourites from this lot.

In the early days, Mattioli often stuck to one theme for his page, but tackled it from many angles in each self-contained strip of five panels. The following page vaguely concerns itself with the yellow chameleon’s insatiable appetite, a recurring joke:

From Pif Gadget no. 31 (September 1969). The first sequence of panels ends with ‘what a thirst!‘ In the second, the fish passes the ‘no hunting’ sign for a ‘no fishing‘ one, since the chameleon is fortunately illiterate. In the third, he’s dieting. Finally, in the fifth, the ant switching to English unexpectedly confuses the chameleon so that he forgets to eat it.
From Pif Gadget no. 53 (February 1970). The snow-averse flower wants somebody to lend it its fur, then complains to the heavens that nobody likes snow (to which the heavens answer, ‘but it’s free!’). Defeated by the snow, the flower concludes with ‘I surrender!’
From Pif Gadget no. 111 (April 1971). I love that the ants have an elaborate underground city – and use it to their advantage. Note that by now M le magicien has an official (and lovely) logo!
From Pif Gadget no. 144 (November 1971). A self-explanatory sequence of head swaps!
From Pif Gadget no. 182 (August 1972). The flower that hates water (and would rather eat steak) refuses to be watered until the magician mentions that it’s free to remain dirty and smelly if it wants to – then the flower opts for a bubble bath.

In later issues, Mattioli went for more ambitious, visually stunning but more spare one-page stories, often paying an obvious hommage to Krazy Kat.

From Pif Gadget no. 184 (September 1972).
From Pif Gadget no. 185 (September 1972). Starting with a ‘look out, car!‘ warning, this page uses headlights as camouflage for the chameleon, betrayed by the characteristic FLOP sound he makes when gobbling up the remaining bug in the final panel.
From Pif Gadget no. 189 (October 1972). Another Herriman-esque page… with a classic banana gag, to boot (or to slide).
From Pif Gadget no. 225 (June 1973). ‘Pervert!‘, exclaims the indignant ant – to which the chameleon responds with ‘… but I only wanted to eat her…

And there we have it, a quick gallop through but a few strips of this masterpiece of humour and poetry. I highly recommend seeking out the omnibus if you speak at least un petit peu français.

Looking up meta-humour while I was writing this post, I came across a few choice jokes that made me crack up. While they’re not wholly related to M le magicien, their lovely absurdity fits right in with its spirit.

A dyslexic man walks into a bra.

A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.

A guy walks into a bar and says “ouch!”

What do you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question?

A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.

~ ds

*Which is a (depressing) conversation for another day, but in the meantime, we highly recommend getting it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, by reading Mon Camarade, Vaillant, Pif Gadget: l’histoire complĂšte 1901-1994 by Richard Medioni.