« I lived on a houseboat in Amsterdam for a year. It was intense, and it’s possible that I even had a few blackouts. » — Wolfgang Beltracchi
Today’s featured tale is an old favourite illustrated by one of American comics’ perennial mal-aimés, the much-maligned Jack Sparling (1916-1997), a prolific, reliable, distinctive stylist who toiled for just about every publisher on the block. Of course, he’s persona non grata with the superhero set (a compliment in my book!) but his chief strengths lay just about everywhere else, in humour, horror, crime and adventure… you name it.
« This world is run by clowns who can’t wait for it to end. » — Too Much Joy, ‘Clowns‘
Well, the topic of this post kind of snuck up on me. I’ll explain: last Saturday, as we were out of Russian marinated mushrooms (a simply unacceptable state of affairs in this household), we ventured into a European deli in quest of something to tide us over until we could properly restock. They had some button mushrooms in oil, fair enough. As we reached the counter to tally up our purchases, something caught my eye: a display for a French confection called Carambar, which I’d known about for most of my life, but never encountered in the wild.
After a moment’s hesitation (which baffled my partner), we picked up a sample and added it to our bounty.
It happens that Caram’ Bar (as it was called until 1977, when the apostrophe was dropped) ties into a minor childhood incident whose recollection elicits, in equal parts, snickers of amusement and pangs of guilt. It was in, oh, the second or third grade. We were standing in rows, about to return to class after recess. I turned to my neighbouring classmate, and asked him whether he knew… oh, never mind — it went exactly like this:
Regrettably, the back of my hand connected with my classmate’s nose, not his cheek, and he wound up with a nosebleed. Désolé, Germain!
The preceding Super Caram’ Bar ad was quite unusual in that it was a full-colour three-pager, which must have cost the candy maker a bundle. Indeed, it only ran au complet once or twice; thereafter, only its concluding page appeared.
Looking back at this campaign, I wondered whether these clowns were merely company mascots, or something more. As it turns out, Sergio (né Serge Drouard in 1950, so 21 years old at the time) was in the early stages of a remarkable career in the circus, first as Clown blanc Sergio (here are a brief video profile from 1970 and a lovely 1975 performance at Paris’ legendary Cirque d’hiver) and then as ringmaster M. Fidèle. Now seventy, he more-or-less retired after the 2010-2011 season. As for poor Pipo, I’m afraid I don’t know. He’s similar to the famous Dutch clown Pipo de Clown, but they’re merely homonyms.
For my part, I’m not so eager to condemn en bloc. Your run-of-the-mill, unqualified local kids’ show, mall-opening Bozo is but a faint, hopelessly distorted echo of the great clowns of history. They were the fruits of a complex, nuanced and codified tradition with its thick, gnarled roots in early 16th century Italy’s Commedia dell’ Arte.
But I don’t need to reach quite that far: I grew up on Radio-Canada’s absurd, minimalist masterpiece Sol et Gobelet (1968-71). Sol (Marc Favreau) was a naïve tramp clown who creatively mangled language and logic and Gobelet (Luc Durand) was the poetic, reasonable, refined Pierrot type. Here’s a classic episode. Such is the duo’s cultural significance that a public library (Favreau) and a nearby public park (Durand) have been christened in their posthumous honour.
And since we’re on comics and clowns, here’s a bonus short tale.
While LCDC is the flimsiest of stories, just a troupe of stock characters going through their hoary paces, Grandenetti’s artwork elevates the affair. It’s as if, having precious little to work with, the artist opted to push against the material, moulding it oddly, imbuing the proceedings with unstated implications. Consider, for instance, how sinister is the depiction of the ringmaster. Nothing in the dialogue or plot indicates that the man is up to anything untoward or malicious, quite the contrary. The second panel of page four is quintessential Grandenetti.
And how was my first Carambar, you may ask. We both tried it, and… were singularly underwhelmed. Perhaps it was a question of freshness, but it was disappointingly brittle in the beginning, almost chalky, hardly what you’d expect from a caramel product. Then it just fell apart and faded, like third-rate taffy.
« I found something in one of my pockets. It was about as big as your shoe, but it was shaped like a rocket! » — a not-at-all ambiguous statement from litigious chuckler Bozo the Clown
« I don’t know what’s wrong with him! He’s in hellish torment! » — there’s witchery afoot, clearly
I’ll grant you in a heartbeat that Nick Cardy‘s (and, to a lesser extent, Neal Adams’) earlier The Witching Hour (full original title: It’s 12 O’Clock… The Witching Hour!, hence its twelfth day appearance) covers beat out subsequent entries on the overall quality front, but this particular beauty, in my opinion, takes home the terror tiara as the very creepiest of the bunch. Is it the otherwise-innocuous daytime setting, the tension between the pastoral and the grotesque? In the end, it induces shivers, and that’s what counts.
Though it comes as the tail end of their involvement, Carmine Infantino and Cardy still had a hand in, as publisher and art director, and took an active rôle in the design of each DC cover of the era.
And so — why not? — here’s the full tale, so that you may judge for yourself.
Wilfredo Limbana ‘Fred’ Carrillo (1926–2005) was an underrated Filipino artist who produced some quite fine work for DC Comics’ mystery titles in the 1970s. I was particularly fond of his work on The Phantom Stranger, when he illustrated both the titular feature and its worthy backup, The Black Orchid, at the tail end of the title’s run.