Gérald 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 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.

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 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).

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 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.

-RG

*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

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:

« 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 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 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.

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 Joé’s winged pet, explaining that no bird is made to be imprisoned. ‘You see, Auguste,’ pensively says Joé, ‘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…
Médor debout (Médor 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), Joé 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? Joé decides not to intervene – and suggests Gros Rino should cook her ‘à l’étouffée‘.

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”.

‘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-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.

‘Speak more softly, he’s not deaf.’

~ ds

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.

Eleven Panels: a Tribute to Nikita Mandryka

« In the last analysis, a pickle is a cucumber with experience. » — Irena Chalmers

Earlier this week, the world lost another of its greatest cartoonists in Nikita Mandryka (October 20, 1940 – June 13, 2021), and he’s been among my lifelong favourites, thanks to his accessible, deceptively simple style and its nervous, explorative vitality. I’ve written about Mandryka’s Ailleurs some time ago, so there’s no pressing need to rehash his biography.

He was a giant, I tell you! The artiste circa 1975.

This freed me to opt for another tack this time. Since Nikita’s work is all-but-untranslatable (between the argot and the puns and general free-form lunacy… I’m not Even Going to Try) and his pages too dense for meaningful large-scale extraction, I’ve selected a sort of random number of panels — eleven seemed right (and winnowing things down was predictably exacting); Hope you like them.

Encore merci, Monsieur Mandryka!

An incisive entry from Rébus au pied de la lettre, published in Pilote super pocket no. 5 (Sept. 15, 1969, Dargaud); script by Marcel Gotlib.
Clopinettes: Toute une existence, from Pilote no.634 (Dec. 30, 1971, Dargaud), script by Gotlib. « I have loved… »
Clopinettes: Les bons conseils de tante Glutzenbaum, from Pilote no. 635 (Jan. 6, 1972), script by Gotlib. Background characters singing « Mammy Blue » was one of Mandryka’s most enduring recurring gags, certainly an idée fixe. The song was an inescapable, multi-lingual worldwide earworm hit in 1971 and beyond. It was composed by seasoned French songwriter Hubert Giraud, who had earlier written the standard Sous le ciel de Paris / Under Paris Skies. Chanteuse Nicoletta’s rendition was the bane of Nikita’s existence; the one that pervaded my childhood was Roger Whittaker’s, and here’s a reggae version by The Cimmarrons. Americans would know of it through Stories’ 1973 rendition. Phew!
Clopinettes: Les trois dessinateurs, from Pilote no.644 (March 3, 1972, Dargaud), script by Gotlib. In the usual order, L’Écho des Savanes‘ founding trio: Mandryka, Gotlib, (1934-2016), Claire Bretécher (1940-2020). L’Écho was but a couple of months away!
Opening panel from Initiation, collected in Les aventures potagères du Concombre Masqué (Apr. 1973, Dargaud). At left: le Concombre’s fabled home, the Cactus-Blockhaus. The cryptic cucurbit’s loyal companion, Chou-rave (kohlrabi) is seen on the right. Nice brushwork!
« Somewhere, at the world’s edge… », an excerpt from Rêves de sables 2, collected in Le retour du Concombre masqué (1975, Dargaud).
A favourite excerpt from the superb opening sequence of Comment devenir maître du monde?, another entry in the Concombre Masqué saga (1980, Dargaud). Our protagonist is a journalist making the perilous journey to conduct an exclusive interview with Le Concombre.
A panel from « … quelque part à l’endroit où ailleurs veut dire ici… », collected in La vie quotidienne du Concombre Masqué (1981, Dargaud). For the full effect, listen to Schubert’s La truite.
Another one from the same source. « Scram! Out! Everyone! ».
« Le Concombre is on his way to the South Seas with Zaza »; a panel from Le bain de minuit (2006, Dargaud). Meet Zaza, le Concombre’s latter-day personal secretary and Girl Friday. Incidentally, they’re travelling by bathtub, which is likely le Concombre’s favourite place to be.
A panel from La vérité ultime (2012, Dargaud). All is not what it seems aboard this flight to Timbuktu.

For more Concombre Masqué and all things Mandryka (did you know it was he who reportedly coined Métal Hurlant‘s title? ‘Howling Metal’ would have been such a better name than ‘Heavy Metal’… and ironically more Metal), check out his website (while it lasts). In french, hope you won’t mind!

-RG

Of Confectionery and Clowns

« 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:

Mister Pipo! I will pose you a riddle!” “Do you know what the difference is between a Caram’ Bar…” (I love riddles!) “… and a Super Caram’ Bar?” (They’re the same!) “But of course not, Mister Pipo!” “The Caram’ Bar was this long…
The Super Caram’ Bar is THIS LONG!” The full-length Super Caram’ Bar fumetti, as it appeared in the pages of Pif Gadget no. 171 (May 1972, Vaillant).

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 acquired item.
…. unwrapped. CaramBar wrappers have, since the 60s, famously featured corny gags, which once were selected from entries provided by consumers. A kid whose joke got the nod could win his weight in candy. Here’s one of the pair I got here (the other doesn’t work in English)… Q: Why are elephants grey? A: Because if they were pink, they’d get confused with strawberries. It may come as no surprise that in France, a ‘blague Carambar’ has become shorthand for a lame joke.

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.

Clowns are a curious proposition. Kids used to (presumably) find them amusing and endearing, but several generations of thin, gruelling antics and downgrading of the brand and métier, not to mention the sinister hijinks of the infamous Pogo the clown, have flipped the cultural perception of these once-beloved entertainers. At this point, Coulrophobia is impressively widespread, and not just among the wee ones.

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.

« Sergio has also learned that one must never try to catch a falling performer. One should only push them to redirect their path and cushion their fall. One day at the Paradis latin, he had no choice but to tackle in flight a trapeze artist who was about to land on a table. The outcome : a few collapsed vertebrae. » Also, « When a lion attacks, it always goes for the testicles. » Keep these sage verities in mind, next time you’re under the big top!
Laugh Clown — Die, Clown appeared in It’s Midnight… The Witching Hour no. 21 (June-July 1972, DC). It was scripted by editor Murray Boltinoff under his Bill Dehenny nom de plume and illustrated by Jerry Grandenetti.

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

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: Perdonate il mio tentacolo!

I’d like to thank my Italian collega for making sure this title was in impeccable Italian, and for not backing away slowly when I asked her, completely out of the blue and without context, how to say “pardon my tentacle”. Most people would have run.

Welcome to our Latin Tentacle Tuesday! Poor Italy is the brunt of quite a few jokes, and even most positive articles about it are nothing but shallow fluff designed to sell airplane tickets and inspirational posters about food and love. All I can say is that Italians love their tentacles as much as any other hot-blooded nation. 😉

Più was a comics magazine licensed from Pif Gadget in 1982. Just like its fountainhead, Più offered a gadget with every issue, which, as I understand from nostalgic posts about it on various blogs, was a prime selling point among its young and enthusiastic clientele. As for comics, reprints of some French comics straight from Pif’s pages were rounded out with fresh Italian material. Given that Pif was publishing quite a few Italian artists at that time, this only seems fair! And on the subject of the latter, co-admin RG, whom I may call a Pif historian with no fear of controversy, has written a number of posts about the writers and artists featured within Pif Gadget’s pages during its heyday… a good place to start digging in is my favourite of these posts, Jean Cézard and Arthur le fantôme.

Moving on: the following Masters of the Universe pages are from Negli Oceani di Eternia, published in Più no. 76 (March 1984, Editoriale Domus).

Created by writer Alfredo Castelli and artist Giancarlo Alessandrini, Martin Mystère is an exceedingly popular comic book series (as a matter of fact, the best selling comic book in Italy – in case you’re wondering what that means, around 20 thousand copies a month)*. Its title comes from the eponymous main character, Martin Jacques Mystère, the usual walking collection of tropes: good looking art historian, archaeologist-anthropologist à la Indiana Jones, collector of rare objects, and so on. No self-respecting adventurer goes around without a sidekick, and Mystère’s assistant is Java, an amazingly strong, quite mute Neanderthal man (speaking of tropes, that one is a doozy). One might also say that he’s quite international: an Italian-created American character with a French name who lives in New York City and frequently helps its finest to elucidate crimes…

*I stand corrected by one of our readers, who pointed out that Italy’s most popular comics series is Tex, which sells around 200 thousand copies a month (compared to Martin Mystère’s 20 thousand). Thanks, Darko!

Martin Mystère no. 103 (October 1990). Cover by Giancarlo Alessandrini.
Martin Mystère no. 328 (August 2013). Cover by Giancarlo Allesandrini.

This series started in 1982, and is still around, so you can just imagine how many tentacles Martin has tangled with in some 378-odd issues. Yet high-res images are scarce online, so I asked co-admin RG to whip up this nifty collage of some of his tentacular exploits:

Issues no. 163, no. 181, no. 237 and no. 297, with covers by Giancarlo Allesandrini.

Our next (and last stop) is another very popular series, Zagor. Its beginnings go all the way to 1962 (ancient, no doubt), when editor/writer Sergio Bonelli and artist Gallieno Ferri banded together to concoct a comic book series.

Its protagonist Zagor, or Patrick Wilding, is another American. If Martin Mystère represented the suave, erudite adventurer-about-town, Zagor is a kind of avenger-slash-protector, of the “be peaceful or I’ll beat the crap out of you” school. His origin story makes for rather uncomfortable reading: after tracking down massacring a whole family branch of Abenaki Indians to avenge his parents’ death and realizing that he made a boo-boo (by finding evidence that his father was a murdering, power-abusing sadist who was killed purely in retribution for his criminal acts… which is another can of worms), he decides to redeem his sins by ensuring peace between different Indian tribes and trappers by whatever means necessary.

Zagor no. 42 (December 1968), illustrated by Gallieno Ferri and written by Guido Nolitta (Sergio Bonelli’s nom de plume).
Inside art from Zagor no. 42, illustrated by Gallieno Ferri and written by Guido Nolitta.

His sidekick? Chico, a walking stereotype down to his full name (Chico Felipe Cayetano Lopez Martinez y Gonzales) whose presence is played for some mean laughs. «He is short, fat, extremely clumsy and voracious, corrupt, boastful, but also likeable.» Um, yeah, that sounds likeable, all right. If you’re thinking that Chico is also obsessed by food (he’s Mexican and fat, right?) and that it gets him into all sorts of stupid peril, you are perfectly correct. Gordo, this is not.

Interestingly, Zagor is most popular outside of his native Italy. Specifically, he retains popularity in the former Yugoslavian republics (Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia…) and Turkey. Stories continue to be published in Italian up until this day, but from what I’ve been able to gather, the books sell at a much brisker pace once they’re translated to languages spoken by inhabitants of the aforementioned countries.

Zagor no. 626 (September 2017). Cover by Alessandro Piccinelli. Okay, so those are not tentacles per se, but it says TENTACOLI! right on the cover, so I’m not arguing.
Zagor no. 662 (September 2020). Cover by Alessandro Piccinelli.

~ ds

Tentacle Tuesday: Rahan to the Rescue

« Rahan n’a plus peur de la nuit, ni du feu, ni du tonnerre du ciel, ni des fleuves sans fin… »

(Rahan no longer fears the night, nor fire, nor the sky’s thunder, nor endless rivers…)

Even non-European readers will probably have some familiarity with handsome troglodyte Rahan, one of the heroes of the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée.

In 1969, Rahan made, to general acclaim, his début in the inaugural issue of Pif Gadget: apparently his escapades appealed to both male and female audiences. The series was created by writer Roger Lécureux and artist André Chéret, both seasoned comic pros by then. His adventures spanned years upon years of publication and spawned legions of rabid fans. To give you an idea of what “many years” implies, the last album – with new material! – came out in 2012; the collected series, which gathers material between 1969 and 1999 (30 years of the Lécureux – Chéret team), took up 26 handsomely-printed hard-cover volumes.

The following sequence is from La flèche blanche, originally published in Pif Gadget no. 90 (Nov. 1970), and reprinted in colour in Rahan no. 7 (Oct. 1973).

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I first encountered Rahan on his home turf, which is to say in some old issues of Pif Gadget. I am not a big fan of the prehistoric genre, as it demands a more momentous suspension of disbelief on my part than I can provide. (The endless parade of clean-shaven blonde hunks accompanied by female nubile savages is a little too much for me.) Besides, Pif Gadget offered far more fascinating strips to focus on, so I happily skipped over the adventures of Rahan, just as I would gleefully ignore Les pionniers de l’espérance (same writer as Rahan) or the boringly handsome Docteur Justice (not the Marvel one).

However, I have to (grudgingly) avow that Rahan doubtlessly had great things going for it. Its strengths are also what seems to provoke some modern readers into dismissing Rahan with a patronizing hand-wave: aligning itself with the communist nature of Pif Gadget, Rahan espoused such values as justice and equality. He was also an immensely curious young man with a scientific mindset, which led him to discovering/creating useful tools, helped him to solve problems and shielded him from the superstitious nonsense others believed. One doesn’t often run into a caveman whose leitmotif is Humanism.

I did not grow up with Rahan, having only come to Pif Gadget in the last ten years or so (through the influence of co-admin RG), but these values are well known to me from growing up on Soviet science-fiction (Russian has a nicer word, fantastika, which is much more encompassing and also includes any forays into fantasy, prehistoric or otherwise). That, too, often gets thrown under the train of « childish, naive and simplistic », the holy trinity of a jaded cynic that’s currently en vogue as a role-model.

This seems especially unfair given that the series did not shield its mostly young readers from some harsh truths about life. Death and violence accompanied our hero wherever he went, and a lot of characters he encountered were, frankly, colossal assholes, as disinterested in fairness or egalitarianism as some modern poo-pooing readers. Not to mention Rahan’s curse of solitude – orphaned twice, he is never really accepted by the tribes he bumps into during his travels. He’s either rejected as an intruder… or venerated as a sort of a god, once he creatively extricates himself (and frequently the tribe) from some predicament. Oh, and this being a French comic, there are also bare-breasted women like it’s no big deal (and even some breast-feeding).

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Original cover art from Rahan – L’intégrale Tome 16 (2019, Soleil).

Today’s post is dedicated to André Chéret, who died less than a month ago, on March 5th. He was 82.

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A self-portrait of the artist, which originally saw print in Pif Gadget no. 81 (Sept. 1970).

You can read some Rahan stories here.

∼ ds

Robert Gring’s Wits-Sharpening Fun

« We do not stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing. » — G. Stanley Hall

Despite the ubiquity of his work over several decades, very little is known of Robert Gring, at least online. Ah, but thankfully, ‘one reads books‘… and so I turned to Richard Medioni‘s indispensable ouvrage on the history of Mon camarade, Vaillant and Pif Gadget, L’histoire complète 1901-1994. About Mr. Gring (likely born in 1922 and died in 1995), we discover that he was for several years a press illustrator for centrist daily newspaper France-Soir, that he spent some time in a work camp during WW2, that, post-war, his work appeared in L’Almanach Vermot, Paris Match, Télé 7 Jours, La vie parisienne… and so forth.

That he was a reserved, bashful man who treasured his work above all else. And most admirably, that he was a man of great personal integrity and principles, as evidenced by the following anecdote, recounted by Mr. Medioni: « In parallel to his intensive work with (Pif-Vaillant), he occasionally works for Le journal de Mickey, but it ends on a sour note! In 1980, it is gently brought to his notice that his collaboration to a periodical associated with the French communist party is incompatible with his presence within the pages of Mickey. He must choose! Gring, who does not appreciate this type of pressure and has lofty ideas of honour, does not dither the slightest bit: he opts for fidelity. » I’m strongly reminded of Howard Prince’s valiant words to the House Un-American Activities Committee in The Front (1976).

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Francs-Jeux was a long-lived kids’ magazine published from 1946 to 1979… 777 issues!), and Gring provided a number of its covers and several interior illustrations and strips. This is Francs-Jeux no. 390 (Sept. 15, 1962). See: even then, you had a couple of kids in black hoodies skulking to class.

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This is Francs-Jeux no. 393 (Nov. 1st, 1962). The title feature, Le coucou qui ne voulait plus dire ‘coucou’ is the touching tale of a clock birdie who decides to make a dash for freedom, only to discover that life on the outside is intolerably uncertain and perilous. This is a France straight out of Jacques Tati‘s Mon oncle.

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Another Gring specialty: Le jeu des bulles, wherein errant word balloons must be restored to their proper speaker. If you must know: 1-g, 2-j, 3-a, 4-f, 5-i, 6-d, 7-b, 8-e, 9-k, 10-c, 11-h; Published in Pif gadget no. 33 (Oct. 1969, Vaillant). Plots from the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, script by Roger Dal.

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Gring could always be counted on to compose and depict complex but lucid crowd settings, and this is a fine example. It’s also a 5-in-1 game: 1) Find the five anomalies; 2) Find the hidden umbrella; 3) Spot the five differences between the nearly-identical Durant Père and Durant Fils boutiques; 4) Four objects appear three times apiece. Find them; and 5) To whom does the stopwatch on the pavement belong? Published in Pif gadget no. 71 (June 1970, Vaillant); game conceived by Odette-Aimée Grandjean.

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No customers! « The café is deserted and the barman leans forlornly on his bar counter. This is abnormal, of course, but certains things are even more abnormal. » During our current state of all-around home confinement, it seemed sadly à propos. From Pif gadget no 143 (Nov. 1971, Vaillant).

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From Pif gadget no. 185 (Sept. 1972, Vaillant). You wouldn’t see this sort of thing in an American kids’ publication, that’s for certain. The object of the game: find the anomalies.

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« But he would attain fame in most unexpected fashion. In order to enliven the austere pages of the Méthode Assimil, he is called upon to illustrate a variety of idioms for the manuals. Not only does his drawing prove itself effective for the learning of English, German or Spanish, but it makes these volumes funny and user-friendly. » This undated gouache illustration Gring created for Assimil is scanned from the original, a prized part of my collection.

Here, then, are some excerpts from a couple of Assimil guides from my shelves:

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1) « No smoking is allowed in here. » 2) « Personally, I’m really not hungry at all. » 3) « I love him, he loves me, and that’s what matters most. » 4) « All streets are exactly alike in these parts. » 5) « We’d always rather be where we’re not. » — from Le russe sans peine (1971, Assimil) and 6) « We’re headed to Dubrovnik by way of Zagreb. » — from Le serbo-croate sans peine (1972, Assimil). Thanks to Darko Macan for confirming that last translation!

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Gring was also a regular contributor to Ludo, Le journal des amateurs d’énigmes. If you can read this, here’s the solution, which I’m afraid requires prior knowledge of Paris in the 1970s: « Pendant sa crise, le bonhomme a sans doute marché jusqu’aux studios de Boulogne. La scène qu’il a surprise se déroulait dans les décors de cinéma. » Incidentally, a quality hardbound collection of this material was published in 2013 by Les Éditions Taupinambour. under the title of Les énigmes de Snark & autres mystères.

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In the 1960s, Gring illustrated a popular series of keychains for Norman dairy company Virlux, featuring the signs of the Zodiac. I’m still missing Taurus, Aquarius, and Cancer (thanks, Matt!) as you can see.

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A rare photograph of Monsieur Gring (left), and one of his writing partner, Roger ‘Dal’ Dalméras, date unknown.

-RG

 

Jean-Claude Forest, ‘Father of Adult Comics’

« J’fais dans la bande dessinée, qu’est bien plus pop que le ciné!* » — J.C. Forest (Une chanson, 1973)

On the eighty-ninth anniversary of his birth, let’s salute in passing one of the great pioneers of French comics, namely Jean-Claude Forest (Sept. 11, 1930 – Dec. 29, 1998), Barbarella’s creator, the man who, in the early 1960s, ushered strictly-for-kids bandes dessinées into decidedly more risqué and adult realms of eroticism, fantasy and fun.

Born on September 11, 1930 in the Parisian suburb of Le Perreux-sur-Marne, he passed away in 1998 at the age of 68, but not before leaving behind a body of work of breathtaking depth and variety. Barbarella aside (sorry, miss): Le Copyright (the springboard for Nikita Mandryka‘s Le Concombre masqué), Hypocrite, Mystérieuse matin midi et soir (his wild riff on Jules Verne’s L’île mystérieuse), Bébé Cyanure, Les Naufragés du temps (illustrated by Paul Gillon), Enfants c’est l’Hydragon qui passe… « et j’en passe », as they say.

Here are a few highlights to give you a sense of the man’s imagination, versatility and tremendous draftsmanship, in chronological order.

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An excerpt is from Les colères du mange-minutes (1965-66), the second volume of Barbarella’s adventures. Yes, there was a film adaptation, but it’s, well, pretty vapid. Director Roger Vadim was kind of the Gallic John Derek; both were fair-to-middling directors whose chief talent was womanizing. Though one has to admit it *was* quite a talent.

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« No, you mustn’t love me… » Detail from the cover of giff wiff, revue de la bande dessinée no.22 (Dec. 1966), previewing its article on Forest’s 1965 experimental tv cartoon Marie Mathématique, which you can watch here. It features the dulcet tones of Le beau Serge, certainly one of the most overrated artistes of the 20th century. Too much competition to call the race to the bottom, though. 😉

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Born out of a misunderstanding between the editorial team of Pif Gadget and Forest, Mystérieuse matin midi et soir proved too labyrinthine for the magazine’s young readership, cost the publishers a bundle, and only two of its three parts appeared in Pif. Fear not, it was collected in album form the following year. This is a page from part 1, which saw print in Pif Gadget no. 111 (April, 1971).

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A sequence from the rollicking N’importe quoi de cheval…, featuring Hypocrite, another of Forest’s spunky heroïnes. From Pilote Mensuel no. 6 (Dargaud, Nov. 1974).

A pair of pages from the melancholy, elegiac Enfants, c’est l’Hydragon qui passe « Children, there goes the Hydragon » (Casterman, 1984).

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I’m sure it’s mere coincidence, but the boy, Jules, seems to be modelled after yet another Gainsbourg “muse”, pop nymphette Vanessa Paradis.

– RG

*I make comics, they’re far poppier than movies!

Nikita Mandryka’s Ailleurs

« If you don’t want to be idolized by the masses, you don’t become an author, you become a plumber-welder! » — Entretien avec Mandryka, Les cahiers de la bande dessinées no. 28 (1975), conducted by Numa Sadoul

Nikita Mandryka was born October 1940 in Bizerte, Tunisia, to Russian émigré parents. His grandfather had fled the Russian Revolution in 1921 aboard a warship he was commanding. Nikita’s first professional strip appeared late in 1964 in Vaillant (Boff, in Vaillant no. 1024, Dec. 27, 1964), soon renamed Vaillant, le journal de Pif , then Pif Gadget in 1969. While he’s best known for his loquacious, dominoed cucurbit, Le Concombre Masqué, today we’re going to harvest the riches of his somewhat less familiar, but equally absurdist creation, the free-form strip Ailleurs (“Elsewhere”). The feature debuted with the inaugural issue of Pif Gadget and made its bow with issue 35, a few months down the line.

Mandryka left Pif Gadget on good terms (and returned over the years), and with a solid reason: while Pif’s editorial team rightly adored his work, its left-field humour left the majority of Pif’s young readership quite baffled, and sometimes infuriated. Mandryka’s place in the magazine may have been secure, but he yearned for an audience that actually understood him. This he would find at Pilote, with its teenage readership, and all the more so with L’Écho des Savanes (which he cofounded, in 1972, with Claire Bretécher and Marcel Gotlib).

Pif’s was an unusual case: its most singular, daring, arguably most valuable strips were those least appreciated by the kids. And that slice of the readership, you’ll have guessed it, tends to express its opinions more freely and vehemently than their elders, who did love (but more quietly) the somewhat abstract, second degré (offbeat, ironic) features, such as Marcel Gotlib and Henri Dufranne‘s Gai-Luron*, the recently-departed Massimo Mattioli‘s M. Le Magicien or Henri Crespi‘s Nestor. Still, the savvy editorial team, who after all had made the magazine a massive hit, keenly grasped the import of editorial balance and trusted its collective taste and instinct over the “wisdom” of the accountants and marketers… who, at the height of the magazine’s popularity, pulled a mutiny and… sank the ship. So, in hindsight, Mandryka was right to leave.

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Ailleursdébut, from the inaugural issue of Pif gadget / Vaillant no. 1239 (March 1st, 1969); If it goes “zgunk”, it’s not a zgonk, it’s a zgunk.

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As an english equivalent to « Sacré vingieu! », I propose « Dagnabit! »

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Ends with a sarcastic « Glory to the ten millionth discoverer of our planet! »

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« An original solution to the parking problem. »

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From Pif gadget no. 23 / Vaillant no. 1261 (July 1969); now you know what the legendarily stoic members of The Queen’s Guard do whilst at leisure.

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From Pif gadget no. 33 / Vaillant no. 1271 (Oct. 1969); idea provided by Tabary (Jean or his brother/ghost Jacques? We may never know).

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The final Ailleurs strip, from Pif gadget no. 35 / Vaillant no. 1273 (Oct. 1969). This would have made a great skit for Jacques Tati‘s peerless Mr. Hulot.

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Nikita’s just heard a really good one during this photoshoot for a L’Écho des Savanes advert.

To my knowledge, Ailleurs has never been collected or comprehensively reprinted, save for nine of the strips turning up in Claude Moliterni‘s** excellent scholarly Phenix, revue internationale de la bande dessinée (nos. 31-31-32) in 1973.

-RG

*I’d even argue that Dufranne does a better Gotlib than Gotlib ever did.

**Among many notable achievements, he was co-founder of the Festival international de la bande dessinée d’Angoulême (Angoulême International Comics Festival).