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 chimérique (1964). Or seen the singular animated film La planète 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 bête et méchant? 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, Téléchat?

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 armée’.
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 Mépris 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 1998 collection L’amour à 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 périlleux (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 œuvre 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 masqué) 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, président-directeur général (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’espérance) 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 rédacteur 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 complète 1901-1994 by Richard Medioni.

Santa Clauses Good, Bad, and in Between!

« Talk about cheap – on Christmas Eve, my neighbor shoots off three blanks and tells his kids Santa Claus just committed suicide. » — Milton Berle

We hope this Christmas day finds you healthy and happy, whether you’re spending it quietly with the nearest and dearest, or stranded far from your family. We all do the best we can.

In a slightly different, yet somehow appropriate, vein… the following Christmas story by Max Andersson is a bracing antidote to the usual syrupy cheer of December 25th. As co-admin RG aptly put it*, in Andersson’s world, malevolence is the status quo, and this Jekyll-and-Hyde version of Santa Claus will fluff up the fur of the staunchest anti-Christmas reader.

*Read A Secret, Silken World: Max Andersson’s “Lolita’s Adventures”

Good Claus Bad Claus was published in Zero Zero no. 7 (Jan-Feb 1996, Fantagraphics).

As a bonus, we are including the no less cynical, but quite satisfying, back page of Death & Candy no. 1 (December 1999, Fantagraphics). Santa had it coming!

Ho-ho-ho (down the shaft), merry Christmas to all of our kind readers!

— Daria and Richard

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!

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: « Do me up like one of your French girls! »

Tentacular greetings to all! Today’s post finds us with our feet firmly planted in France (well, maybe with one toe dipping into Belgium, as usual). As friend Barney might say, come for the Important & Serious Artist discussion, stay for the ‘naked man/nubile woman’ fringe benefits…

Many are fans of Jean Henri Gaston Giraud, far better known under his nom de plume, Mœbius. Co-admin RG and my humble self do not belong to this category, which is possibly why he has never been mentioned in WOT before. RG thinks he’s ‘the Serge Gainsbourg of French comics‘ (not a compliment); I do not specifically dislike his work… nor am I interested enough in it to investigate. We could argue about Mœbius’ profound influence on science-fiction and cyperpunk and his lasting impact on comics until we’re blue in the face, so I suggest we look at some tentacles instead!

The original art from Il y a un Prince-Charmant sur Phenixon (Pilote, 1973), published in English in Heavy Metal Magazine v. 4 no. 10 (January 1981) as ‘There Is a Prince Charming on Phenixon’.

The Long Tomorrow was written by American screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and illustrated by Mœbius in 1975. Published in Métal hurlant (nos. 7 and 8) in 1976, it was then picked by Heavy Metal in 1977 for the anglophone market. This story is credited with having heavily influenced a number of movies – Blade Runner gets mentioned a lot, for example. Read the full story (and a little interview with O’Bannon) here.

Page from the story published in Heavy Metal no. 5 (August 1977).

Speaking of Métal hurlant, this cover offers some quality tentacles from French comics artist/illustrator Jean Solé:

Métal Hurlant no. 3 (July 1975), cover by Jean Solé.

Solé liked the absurd, the grotesque, and the psychedelic, so naturally he has more tentacles on offer than just one cover!

Illustration painted for publication in Pilote in 1985.

The last offering of today’s TT is this very dramatic action scene by Claude Serre. Is the surgeon trying to stuff these tentacles back in, or extract them? We shall never know.

Scanned from Serre, a best-of collection published by Glénat in 2001. This illustration was an excerpt from Serre’s Humour noir et hommes en blanc (“Black Humour and Men in White”), a collection of sombrely jocular drawings on the topic of medicine.

~ ds

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 28

« The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over the harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on. » — Carl Sandburg

The first novel I ever read was a Bob Morane… so we’re old friends.

This was the one. I ask you, how could any self-respecting, red-blooded boy resist the lure of a book entitled ‘Monsters From Space’? And no, I don’t remember a thing from it. Cover art by the prolific Pierre Joubert.

Bob Morane, created in 1953 by yet another Belgian writer* both talented and astoundingly prolific, Charles-Henri Dewisme aka Henri Vernes (1918-2021), has been the hero of over two hundred novels, movies, television shows, animated series, records, you name it.

A foray into comics logically followed in 1959, when, according to Vernes,

« Femmes d’Aujourd’hui, a women’s weekly, asked me to do a series. I said: ‘why not?‘ And so I did, that’s all. »

For brevity’s sake, we’ll stick to the comics, one album in particular at that (the series numbers, after all, over one hundred by now.) I’ve always been intrigued by this one, though I never have, as far as I know, encountered a copy in the wild. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I queried my go-to bédé provider about it, and he responded that: « Bob Morane albums sell just as soon as they arrive. We can’t ever keep them in stock. » So I ordered a copy from Belgium. One must choose one’s battles with care.

This is Les yeux du brouillard (1971, Dargaud). First serialised in Belgian women’s weekly Femmes d’aujourd’hui (issues 1295 to 1316, 1970), which might seem odd… but said magazine regularly featured several pages of comics, and not just ‘women’s comics’, whatever that may be. What can I say? The Belgians, bless ’em, appreciate their comics. Cover art by William Van Cutsen, aka William Vance (1935-2018).
While I’ve never been much of Vance fan, finding him a bit stiff and generic, I’d never claim that he doesn’t get the job done, however. He’s clearly at his peak here.
Spoiler alert: disappointingly, the ‘Eyes of the Fog’ turn out to be more or less what this novelty comic book ad promised, though far cooler. Plus they did a great job of keeping the superstitious natives away and the phone booth repairmen puzzled (but gainfully occupied).

Want to see what you actually received upon (well, six to eight weeks later, if memory serves) ordering your very own U-Control Life-Size Ghost? Brace yourself, and look here.

-RG

*Maigret creator Georges Simenon (nearly 500 novels!) and my favourite writer, Jean Ray, readily come to mind. Something in the water, perhaps?

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 15

« Get ready for the future: it is murder. » — Leonard Cohen

Since Hallowe’en isn’t as widely celebrated in Europe — Ireland and the rest of the U.K. aside, obviously — as it is in North America, it’s not always evident and easy to keep the countdown truly international. No worries: in such a situation, I’m no stickler — I’ll take the spirit of the law over its letter.

The first (and until now, only) time I posted about Thomas Ott, I wound up with a contender for least-popular post in this blog’s history. Have I learned my lesson? Heavens, no. I live, perhaps naïvely, in the belief that our audience has grown in the interim, and that said audience is ever more attuned and receptive to our quirks.

Here, then, is some gallows humour from Mr. Ott. Don’t try this at home, unless…

Top: The Night Porter, anyone?
Er… Top: Deadly Weapons, anyone?
Originally published in Tales of Error (Oct. 1989, Edition moderne, Switzerland). Yes, a book in English by a German-speaker from a Swiss publisher with a French name.
The Exit collection (Sept. 1997, Delcourt) gathers the essential bits of Ott’s first three albums (Tales of Error, Greetings from Hellville and Dead End), as well as some new pieces.

For more poisoned goodies from Mr. Ott, just plod your carcass over to his official website.

-RG

Niso Ramponi: He’s not a Pervert, He’s… Kremos!

« By 1948, the Italians had begun to pull themselves together, demonstrating once more their astonishing ability to cope with disaster, which is so perfectly balanced by their absolute inability to deal with success. » — Gore Vidal

The accomplished Italian graphic designer, animator and illustrator Niso Ramponi (1924-2002), is perhaps most renowned (it’s all relative, but not to actual merit!) under his pinup cartooning nom de plume of “Kremos”.

Ramponi champion Joseph V. Procopio sheds some light on the genesis of this alias:

« Ramponi’s pen name, Kremos, was born of necessity: Like many of his generation, after the war Ramponi was conscripted into the Italian army for a year of service. Loath to abandon his budding cartooning and illustration career but barred by military regulations from working as a freelancer, Ramponi conspired with a friend named Sandro Cremo, who acted as his intermediary to secure and deliver freelance art assignments on Ramponi’s behalf. To maintain the ruse, Ramponi signed his work Kremos, a pseudonym that stuck even after his discharge from military duty. »

My own initial exposure to Ramponi/Kremos’ work came through Lawrence Lariar and Ben Roth’s splendid, but woefully short-lived Best Cartoons From Abroad collections (1955-60), which contrasted favourably against the genteel contemporary American humour anthologies. Fortuitously, Signor Procopio eventually assembled, circa 2015, twin collections of Ramponi’s finest cartoon work, ‘Kremos: The Lost Art of Niso Ramponi‘, volumes 1 (b&w) and 2 (colour). Grab ’em while you can!

Here’s a mixed even dozen of my favourite Kremos cartoons. Buon appetito!

From Travasissimo no. 41 (Jan. 1951).
Worry not: she’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way. From Travasissimo no. 50 (Oct. 1951). I see much kinship between Ramponi and Jack Cole‘s pinup styles, don’t you?
Ah, yes, when one ate fruit and vegetables only when they were in season. I miss that; it seems more honest, less decadent and wasteful. From Travasissimo no. 57 (May 1952). For the strangest reason, this doesn’t leave me craving peaches, but rather… aubergine.
From Il Travaso (Jan. 18, 1953).
From Travasissimo no. 76 (Dec. 1953). I do believe that this is an encore appearance from the previous cartoon’s exam taker.
From Travasissimo no. 85 (Sept. 1954); translated version from Best Cartoons From Abroad 1955, my inaugural, unforgettable brush with the Kremos aesthetic.
From Travasissimo no. 88 (Dec. 1954). The caption was completely rewritten for the cartoon’s English-language appearance in Best Cartoons From Abroad 1955, edited by Lawrence Lariar and Ben Roth. The original gag went: Husband: “You know, dear… I took some swimming lessons from the lifeguard because I wanted to surprise you…
Wife: “Now?”
Husband: “No, in April!
From Il Travaso –“The overflow” for you English speakers (May 26, 1958).
From Il Travaso, circa 1958; reprinted in Best Cartoons From Abroad 3, edited by Lariar and Roth.
From Il Travaso, circa 1958; also reprinted in Best Cartoons From Abroad 3.
From Il Travaso, circa 1958; again reprinted from Best Cartoons From Abroad 3. Those American editors loved their Kremos. I love the word “pappagallo” which, in Italian slang, means a wolf… autrement dit, a randy ragazzo.
From Il Travaso, circa 1959; reprinted in Best Cartoons From Abroad 1959, edited by Messrs. Lariar and Roth.

-RG

Jean Gourmelin: Tenants of the Void

« It’s true that Gourmelin’s world has everything to unsettle the general public: it contains as much horror as black humour, as much morbidness as sombre poetry. But to classify his drawings in a well-defined genre is a hopeless enterprise, and we well know how our times need clear, idiotic and exact labels. This relegates Gourmelin to some fuzzy area, a sort of no man’s land where one can find anything — even fanatics — but never a thing to eat or to drink. » — from the artist’s presentation in the anthology Les chefs-d’œuvre du dessin d’humour* (1965, Les éditions Planète; ).

While France’s Jean Gourmelin (1920-2011) started out as a painter and practiced — and often mastered — scores of artistic techniques and media (etching, technical drawing, sculpture, stained glass, wallpaper design, and so on…), he’s more commonly remembered for his stark black and white, wordless pen and ink drawings. Even as they remain open to interpretation, their power and eloquence are undeniable.

While his earliest drawings appeared in print sporadically from 1951, his crucial turning point was his 1961 encounter with Belgian writer-historian Jacques Sternberg, who encouraged Gourmelin to emphasise, in his work, idea over form. This canny shift in approach soon landed his newly-galvanised work in the pages of Planète, crucially, but also those, just as notable, of Bizarre, Midi-minuit Fantastique, Pariscope, Hara-Kiri… with occasional forays into other media, for instance some striking production design for a 1967 TV adaptation of Gustav Meyrink‘s classic novel, The Golem. Here’s an unexpected (and fine!) article in English about Gourmelin’s work on the film.

Here, then, are some (dark) highlights of Gourmelin’s work in the 1960s.

This one is entitled « En famille ».
Ever had one of those weeks?
This piece appeared in Les chefs-d’œuvre de l’épouvante (1965, Les éditions Planète), accompanying Claude Farrère‘s classic 1928 short-short story, Le Train perdu, which you can read here (in the original French). Gourmelin also provided the anthology’s arresting cover and frontispiece artwork. Maybe next time…

-RG

*It says something (flattering, if you ask me) about the Gallic character that Gourmelin’s work would fall under the category of “humorous”. We’re a looong way from, say… Dave Barry.

Keeping Cool in Grønland: Racontars arctiques

« There are two kinds of Arctic problems, the imaginary and the real. Of the two, the imaginary are the most real. » — Vilhjalmur Stefansson

As it’s been a record-shattering scorcher of a week over much of North America, I’ve been daydreaming of cooler, much cooler climes whilst simmering at my desk. And why not make a post of it? A couple of years ago, I picked up one of the finest comics I’ve ever encountered, Racontars arctiques: l’intégrale (2018, Sarbacane). Its myriad of virtues, subtle and obvious, made it easy to enjoy, but a challenging work to dissect and properly discuss. But here we are — hope I did it justice!

Danish writer Jørn Riel (b. 1931 in Odense) spent the better part of his twenties and thirties in Greenland as part of a scientific expedition. This sojourn in turn inspired a successful series of tall tales set in the Arctic, fanciful accounts of the lives of hardy explorers, hunters and Inuit natives. His works have been translated into fifteen languages, and in an unusual twist, English isn’t among these.

French cartoonist-illustrator Hervé Tanquerelle (b. 1972 in Nantes) might be termed a cartoonist’s cartoonist, with all that entails: he hasn’t achieved superstar status, but it’s not through any lack of talent or toil. While I’ve often lamented the rather banal tragedy of great North-American artists who can (and do) cruise through decades-long careers without ever coming within hailing distance of a decent script, Hervé Tanquerelle’s path has been paved with glorious scenarios, most of them provided by writer-artist compères: Professeur Bell (with Joann Sfar, 2002-06, which I’ve featured here); Le legs de l’alchimiste (with Hubert Boulard, 2002-07); Les faux visages (with David B., 2012), and his most commercially successful opus thus far, Racontars arctiques (with Gwen De Bonneval, 2009-13). He has just completed work on the ambitious Le dernier Atlas (with De Bonneval and Fabien Vehlmann, 2018-2021), nothing less than a gritty, SF-infused alternate version of the Algerian War.

For Racontars, Tanquerelle even travelled to Greenland with a group of scientists and artists, with Jørn Riel among them, which added layers of authenticity and personality to what was already an undeniable labour of love. Try to envision your average US cartoonist putting out this kind of effort and commitment (one notable exception being, of course, the prodigious William Stout)! Anyway, Tanquerelle made fruitful use of this experience and its attendant documentation with a semi-autobiographical ligne claire account (fittingly published by Casterman, Tintin’s forever home), Groenland Vertigo (2017).

Despite essaying the thankless role of the invisible middleman, Gwen De Bonneval (Tanquerelle’s fellow Nantois, né Gwénaël de Bonneva in 1973), deserves full marks for admirably condensing Riel’s tales without sacrificing their appeal, not to mention cherry-picking the ones most ripe for adaptation (confirmed by co-admin ds, who’s read both the prose and the comics versions).

The majority of our esteemed cast: Anton, Museau, Lodvig, Le Comte, Herbert (cradling Alexandre), Mads Madsen, William le Noir, Bjørken, Lasselille, Lieutenant Hansen; and Valfred providing the beefcake in front.
The climatic extremes of the Great North aren’t for everyone, to put it mildly. Anton sinks deep into melancholy.
With its unusual day/night cycle, Greenland is no place for a normal rooster, as we learn from the woeful tale of Alexandre.
« Museau was a first-rate hunter… until he lost his glasses », explains his companion, Bjørken. While treating the puppies to some jam, a freeloader comes along.
What do you do when someone kicks the bucket during the long winter? The ground being frozen solid, he can’t be buried. And if you leave him outside, foxes or other rascals are liable to carry off the corpse. In this case, you give him a proper send-off — by dropping his coffin into the sea, but first gathering everyone for a boozy feast, with the stiff in the place of honour. Oops, he’s thawing out.
In the darkest of these tales, Le Roi Oscar (that’s the hog), Halvor loses his mind (what his companion calls “the Great Vertigo”), with dire consequences.
Callow youth Anton Pedersen arrives with a baggage of illusions and misconceptions about the trapper’s life. Reality nearly does him in.
His spirit is saved in extremis by the song of Spring’s first snow bunting, a sweet little guy.
In the set’s wildest and most epic tale, Valfred and Hansen… take a little detour.
The series’ centrepiece is probably La vierge froide (“The Cold Virgin”), in which the men share a useful delusion of Emma, an ideal woman they barter back and forth. Note how Emma’s appearance shifts according to the proclivities of each current companion.
Of this adaptation, Jørn Riel said: « Opening this book is like opening the door to the arctic world as I knew it so many years ago. The trappers in these drawings are exactly as I discovered them then, and to meet them anew this way was both a surprise and a source of great joy. I thank with all my heart the authors and publisher. The trappers of Northeastern Greenland have been resurrected. » Let’s not underestimate the resilience and backbone of such men: after all, the vaunted Vikings gave up living there… because conditions were too harsh for their tender hides.

Jørn Riel defines a racontar (rumours or gossip don’t quite convey the meaning), as “a true story that could pass for a lie. Unless it’s the other way round“. I hope the language barrier doesn’t prove too much of a hurdle. These marvels truly offer a fantastic opportunity for the discerning publisher… and, unless I missed something, the overdue scoop of Riel’s first English-language publication. Hello, Fantagraphics, D&Q…

-RG