« 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
« I believe that the Belgians do possess some surrealistic gene. » — Eddy de Clercq
I’m afraid we’re back into surrealism territory, folks. Our focus today is on a single piece by polymath Maurice Rosy (1927-2013, Fontaine-l’Évêque, Belgium), published in bédé weekly Spirou in 1966, in the midst of Rosy’s tenure as the magazine’s co-art director (with Yvan Delporte) and boundless idea generator (1956-73, for the record… the period widely hailed as Spirou’s golden age).
As for the story in question… it was, shall we say, ahead of its time. And still is.
Intrigued by oriental philosophies and General Semantics*, jazz pianist in the modern idiom, art director of the publishing house that produces Spirou, hilarious storyteller, Rosy has had drawings published in Paris-Match and Adam, all the while crafting (with Pol Deliège) tales of Bobo. He is also the author of the most bizarre story ever to appear in a kids’ magazine, which earned its publisher and author an especially venomous stream of insulting letters. Geniuses are always unsung.
Rosy has the sharp smile of a Steve McQueen and a picturesque language all his own.
And now, the item in question:
When Rosy was interviewed for a deluxe, 16-volume reprinting (begun in 2007) of the adventures of Tif et Tondu (with Will as illustrator, Rosy served as writer/metteur en scène on the feature for many of its glory years, 1954-67), the notorious one-shot was touched upon:
In 1966, you created a strip with an unreadable, and therefore unpronounceable name, which even made it onto the magazine’s cover: are we deep into Herriman* territory?
Rosy: That’s weird, people say that, but at the time, there was no such conscious homage. It was rather a reflection of the state of mind that I was in. I was increasingly bearing the marks of (and anguished by) the absurdity of certain facets of life.
**In the same way that people with an insufficient frame of reference wrongly compare every musician they hear to The Beatles, the under-informed tend to ascribe any sign of whimsy or absurdity in the comics medium to Krazy Kat progenitor George Herriman. Yes, both were deeply influential, but come on, there are limits. In Rosy’s case, I’d posit that, if there was influence at work there, it was more likely that of the mighty Saul Steinberg.
« Flattery is like chewing gum. Enjoy it but don’t swallow it. » — Hank Ketcham
Going way back: When I was a wee lad (still in the single digits), my mother would accompany me to our area’s oldest and finest bookstore (Chicoutimi’s long-gone Librairie régionale). At the time, I had been purchasing bound collections of Belgian bédé publisher’s Spirou, the earlier the better. Even at that tender age, I held the conviction that things had already peaked.
A friendly employee ushered us into the restricted area of the bookstore’s top floor, a vast warehouse I never got a tour of… but it was immense! I was led to an aisle where, high above, dozens of older Spirou collections were kept, dating all the way back to 1962. I can afford to be specific, because I bought the oldest issue they had on hand (Album Spirou no. 84). At ten dollars a pop, they were reasonably-priced, but still costly for a child with a 1970s-scale allowance. For my parents, a reliable source of ideal birthday and Christmas gifts, however!
It was in their pages (no. 90, see below!) that, along with the established Spirou magazine series (Spirou et Fantasio, Boule et Bill, Buck Danny, Benoît Brisefer, Tif et Tondu, Gil Jourdan…), I encountered scads of unfamiliar entries. Of these, an early album caught mid-tale one that truly stuck with me through decades and therefore is the object of today’s post.
In short, though, here’s what’s relevant in this case: from 1949 to 1987 (with a pause between ’59 and ’63), Will illustrated the adventures of Tif et Tondu, characters owned by Éditions Dupuis, its publisher. Still, he longed to draw characters of his own, which wasn’t an idle whim, given that most of his colleagues and collaborators did just that, enjoying more latitude and far greater financial rewards. In 1962, he got the chance to try his hand at an original series, Éric et Artimon, conceived with versatile scripter-cartoonist Raymond Antoine, alias Vicq. And the result was outstandingly charming, light-hearted and hilarious.
A mere two long adventures (44 pages each) were produced (Le tyran en acier chromé, 1962, and Toute la gomme, 1963, plus a six-pager, Et mine de rien, in 1967), and Dupuis never bothered to collect or reprint them. Instead, well down the pike, two separate, smaller publishers licensed the rights and issued small black and white runs of, respectively, Toute la gomme (Espace Édition, 1976) and Le tyran… (Magic Strip, 1983).
I’ll be spotlighting Will’s other creator-owned series, Isabelle, at some point during this year’s Hallowe’en Countdown!