« 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!
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
In the spirit of celebrating the spirit of Hallowe’en even from places it’s not traditionally celebrated, it’s now my turn — and my pleasure — to draw from the wondrous inkwell of Massimo Mattioli (1943-2019) and his finest creation, M Le Magicien, which ran, largely unappreciated, in the pages of France’s Pif Gadget from 1968 to 1973. My co-admin ds devoted, back in January, a post to the artist and his creation: Massimo Mattioli Mania: M le magicien, but I’d been reserving the rare but excellent ‘spookier’ M strips for this occasion. Mattioli would delve much, much further into the macabre, in the early 1980s, with his frankly excessive Squeak the Mouse. Ahem.
« An editorial team that gathers within a magazine such as Pilote constitutes a true family, as it’s a small group and everybody knows everybody. There’s friendship, admiration, competition, hijinks and the pleasure of being together, even if we didn’t take the bus to Quiberon together in the summer. » — Patrice Leconte
« As a child, I dreamed of nothing but cinema. Well, I also dreamed of drawing. As they say, I went up to Paris and went to film school. But I kept on drawing. And I was a Pilote reader. I wrote to [ Marcel ] Gotlib, who responded, looked at my drawings, showed them to René Goscinny, who liked them, invited me to the office and found me likeable, published my drawings and encouraged me to carry on, which I did. For five years. 1970 to 1975. I was happy. Then I shot my first film [the frankly unpromising Les vécés étaient fermés de l’intérieur, co-scripted with Gotlib] and everything began to unravel, because I haven’t made anything but films since, and I gave up comics. »
Humble to a fault, Leconte is well aware of his limitations as a “classical” draughtsman (largely beside the point in his case, imho, as he’s a superb designer and stylist):
« I think that my personal touch was tied to my drawing handicap, that self-taught aspect which meant than I absolutely had to find a workaround. I’ve always held to the rule that constraints constitute a first-rate engine of creation, coupled with the magical notion of “let us make qualities of our flaws“. Well, it works! »
By all means, read the full conversation with Leconte about his bédé days, conducted by Jean-Luc Brunet and Vivian Lecuivre en 2007. It is, however, in French, but we currently have the technological means to let you grasp the gist of it.
By the way, Leconte’s got a new feature out, an adaptation of Georges Simenon‘s 45th Jules Maigret novel, Maigret et la jeune morte (“Maigret and the Dead Girl“, first published in 1954), starring deplorable human being but splendid actor Gérard Depardieu. Among Simenon’s eighty Maigret books, this must surely be the most adaptable, as this marks the fifth time this novel is brought to the screen! The trailer looks great.
« 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.
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 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 cuvée of his wine-imbibed cartoons, Cul-Sec!*
*approximately meaning ‘bottoms up!‘ or ‘down the hatch!’ — here are some hilarious mispronunciations of ‘faire cul sec’.
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 Astérix 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.
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:
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 Benoît 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.
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 Débédé in Montréal, Québec. 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.
« 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 à la financière 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.
« 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.
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).
« 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 Gérald 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 Nickelés 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 Lécureux (Les pionniers de l’Espérance, 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 Lécureux’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 lâche, 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.
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 mystères 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).
Retiring from the film industry at age 75, he then devoted his time to painting, playing the guitar, riding horses, and burnishing his œuvre 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.
*I’m inclined to draw parallels between Lécureux’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
“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:
«André 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 LaJungle 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…
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 Intégrale; the pages below are all taken from Intégrale 1, which includes Les aventures de Joé le tigre, Salut la compagnie! and La conquête de l’espace.
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 Joé try to convince vulture Adhémar to quit smoking. Adhémar 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 Adhémar flies into the skies to write a message in cigar-smoke – “tobacco is poison”.
The next two pages are Bouche-dégout, a pun on ‘bouche d’égout‘, drain (dégoût means disgust). Potame le toubib, the doctor, won’t listen to Joé’s explanation of what ails his friend the dragon, jumping to medical conclusions and insisting that Timoléon should speak for himself – with blazing results.
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.
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 palmarès 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 bédé.
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!