Almost two years ago, I did a small series of posts on a bunch of Franco/Belgian comics. The urge to write about another small stack of them hit me all of a sudden, so:
As with the previous series, I’ll be covering works that aren’t well-known these days. There’s not that much point in writing yet another article about, say, Corto Maltese or Valerian. Instead I’ll be re-reading slightly more obscure works that I remember fondly from when I was a teenager and writing about them instead.
So half nostalgia and half curiosity: What was it about these French(ey) comics that was so exciting back then, and are they still any good, considering that most of them haven’t seen print outside of France for thirty years?
I’ll be doing one post per day for a week, and I should be able to keep to that schedule by… cheating! I’ve already written most of the articles, so I already know the answer to the questions above! Haha! Fake-out!
[…] the revolution that really drove Heavy Metal was very distinctly French and had a lot more to do with the format of how French comics were serialized than with any kind of musical aesthetic, something that is largely transparent to Anglophones. Instead of serializing stories 22 pages at a time on a monthly basis, French BD magazines serialize their stories half a page at a time in weekly anthologies and have done since the 50s. It was a technique made popular with Tintin magazine, and perfected by Spirou. By the end of the 60s, Pilote (under the editorial guidance of Rene Goscinny, not coincidentally, the writer of Asterix) was the big boy on the block, largely due to this production methodology.
The collected editions of popular stories and characters would stack half-pages together to create magazine-sized albums. Take a look at any French (or European) BD collection produced before 1970 – Asterix, Valerian, Corto Maltese, Blueberry, Philemon, Spirou – and you will notice a white gutter running horizontally through the middle of almost every page in the book. This is a direct artifact of the serialization methodology, regardless of whether the story was actually serialized or not. There were occasional splash pages in these books, but that’s more of an exception than a rule.
While I recognised the “half page” phenomena in virtually all older Frenchey (that’s a word) comics, I was rather puzzled. The standard post-war European comics length is 46 pages. Two times 46 is (where’s my slide ruler), er, uhm, 92. Stay with me here, even though the math is getting complicated.
So, 92 half pages on a weekly schedule. That would be… like… a year and a half to read an Asterix or Blueberry story. I know the French are very cultured and stuff, but that French children were this patient, even in the 50s and 60s, didn’t seem intuitively correct.
And some stories are even longer: A 58 page length isn’t uncommon, either, especially in the 70s. Were 70s children that patient? Two years for a Spirou story?
Now, if you’re American (and so many people are these days), you have no idea what I’m talking about at all, so allow me to illustrate with some pictures taken from a couple of random bande dessinées (that’s Frenchey for “comics”).
First we have a page from a 70s Spirou page by Fournier (in a recent Danish edition).
As you can see, the page is as described in the quote. The page has a gutter in the middle.
Above the middle gutter, the artist has written “9A” in a box.
And below the second part, the artist has written “9B”.
I’ve never seen any of the original magazines Frenchey comics were serialised in, and the A/B thing has intrigued me ever since I was a child and read stacks and stacks of Frenchey albums (translated into other languages, since I don’t understand French. Much).
So that’s the explanation, eh? Incredibly patient French children? My!
In case you don’t read Danish (and if you’re American (it happens) you probably don’t), it says that these pages were originally published in Spirou from issues 1682 to 1710 (that’s 29 issues (math again)) in the period from July 9th 1970 to January 21st 1971 (that’s about half a year (guesswork again)).
And this story is 58 pages long.
If we, again, apply our fantastic maths knowledge here, we see that instead of publishing half a page every week, this story was published at a rate of two pages per week. That is, French children were only a quarter as patient as originally suggested.
Still pretty good, but not extraordinary.
But that may be a fluke. Let’s look at another example. Above is a page from Valérian et Laureline, the album version of Le pays sans étoile, collected in 1972. It, too, has the half-page division and the A/B numbering on most pages.
This page says that it was “44 planches dans Pilote no 569 à 592 et couverture du no 570”. Like I said, I don’t know French, but I’m going to take a stab here and say that it says something like “44 pages from Pilote issue 569 to 592 with frog legs and potato au gratin”.
That’s (MORE MATH!) 24 issues. As this is a 46 page story, that’s about (NOO!) 1.9166666 pages per issue. WHICH DOESN”T MAKE SENSE.
Perhaps they overslept one week.
In any case, it’s more than half a page per week. Again.
(As an aside, Mezieres uses quite a few non-regular non-half-page layouts, too, like this one, which has a rare A/B/C marking.)
At this point, I feel like it’s time to go out on a limb here and call it: Classic Frenchey comics were not serialised at the pace of half a page per week.
But there is a phenomenon here: There’s the A/B thing on a vast majority of these pages. What does that mean?
Perhaps… even if the normal pace was two pages per week, perhaps they were published in half-page layouts? Every page half-full of ads? Sounds awfully uncultured and un-French, but at this point we have to use not math, but Google Image Search.
Scrolling down that page, I don’t see a single half page comic. Virtually all of them do use the “gutter in the middle” layout, though.
(To digress a bit more from this in-depth investigation, I didn’t know that these magazines used to run a logo (and stuff) at the top of each page. That explains why albums are kinda “squat” format wise, since these logos are excluded in the collection.)
Googling for pages of the Spirou magazine is slightly more difficult, but here’s one, at least:
It’s from the mid-60s, and … it’s a full page. The only half-page results I got in the search were Gaston Lagaffe, but they are half-page gags and were apparently run on the covers for a while.
So: European comics were not published on a half-page-a-week basis, and they were published as full pages.
So what’s up with the A/B thing? WHAT? Was there a paper shortage and everybody just drew on smaller paper? Is it more ergonomic with smaller page? Less stretching over the drawing table? Were the comics reformatted into smaller books? Were the editors just peculiar? WHAT?!
Googling for people at their drawing tables (“table à dessin”?) from olden times is difficult. I found the drawing above by Tabary where he does show himself with half page pages, but that’s not exactly a smoking gun, evidence wise…
Finding modern artists is easy, and they draw full pages, but that’s no surprise since they don’t use the half-page layout. Usually.
This investigation has gone as far as it can (i.e., I’m hungry now and I have to go make dinner), so unless something extraordinary happens (like somebody who knows what’s up with those A/B half-page layouts leaves a comment here), I guess we’ll just never know.
Hugo Pratt and José Muñoz are probably the two cartoonists who influenced most European comics in the late 70s/early 80s. It rare to flip through a black-and-white album from that period and not see some influence from those two. (And a bit later, from Moebius.)
But there’s another artist that seems to have been a very powerful influence on younger artists: Jacques Tardi. In this, the final section of the BD80 series, I’ll present three albums that have these things in common: They’re the first (or an early) album from each artist, the albums look an awfully lot like Tardi, and each artist dropped the Tardi influences after a while.
Hopital by Ted Benoit (1979)
Benoit was 32 years old when Hopital was published. It’s a story of people checking into a soap opera like hospital, and never really checking out. It’s pretty amusing, but somewhat slight.
But look at those Tardiesque shadows. And then a few years later, Benoit’s artwork looks like this:
It’s like a mash up of Edgar P Jacobs and Joost Swarte. Quite a change…
Alger by Gunnar Krantz (1986)
This debut album by the Swedish cartoonist Gunnar Krantz was published when he was 26. The story details, as you’d expect from a Swedish 26 year old, a journey from Paris to Algeria and back again, complete with Algerian bombers, kidnappings and betrayal.
All done in a very Tardiesque manner:
I sort of get the feeling that things would look even more like Tardi if only Krantz could draw better. But it’s a fun enough work, and, I’m sorry to say, probably Krantz most enjoyable comic book.
Here’s what his artwork looks like now:
I’m not sure what you’d call that style… er… Perhaps he should have stuck with the Tardi.
Shelter by Chantal Montellier (1983)
This isn’t actually Montellier’s first album, as I had thought. Published in 1980, Montellier had been publishing comics for two years already. Born in 1947, she published her first work in 1978, confusingly enough called 1996.
Anyway, this album is about people trapped in an underground shopping center after a nuclear war. Montellier conveys the mounting creepiness very effectively as this new society becomes ever more repressing. I have to say that I found the resolution less than satisfying, though.
I really like the artwork, too. Sure, it’s more Tardi than Tardi here and there, but can you really be too Tardi? I think not.
Unfortunately, she’s had very few albums translated into other languages, so I’m not sure what her evolution has been. Here’s a recent cover, though:
Not very tardiesque any more.
I hope somebody starts translating her other work, because I’d really like to read more of her stuff.
So there you go. Is early onset Tardi a common diagnosis? Is there something in particular about his style that’s so attractive to younger artists?
Hugo Pratt was 32 years old and living in Argentina when he got his first opportunity to make his own comics. He’d illustrated a bunch before, but Anna in the Jungle is the first one he’d written, too.
I re-read all the Corto Maltese albums the other week. They were, of course, as wonderful as I remembered. Especially up until the late 70s. I mean, the later ones were also good, but the stretch of books from 1967 to 1980 is just amazing.
So I thought it might be interesting to skip back and see how Pratt’s career started.
This album is a collection of five 20-30 page stories dealing with the titular Anna (daughter of a doctor living in Africa) and an equally young prince (!) having adventures in Africa. Mostly under the supervision of some neighbourly British soldiers.
All the things you’d expect are here — lost cities, slave traders and elephant cemeteries.
But it’s charmingly and entertainingly told. Perhaps some people would react negatively to all the pygmy cannibals that crop up here and there, but whatchagonnado?
It seems as if Hugo Pratt is finally going to become available in English after all these years. IDW are bringing out a complete set of Corto Maltese albums, although with hideous cover designs, while Cong is bringing out the Desert Scorpions stuff. As ebooks. On iTunes only. Er, what? I read a few comics blogs, and I hadn’t seen this mentioned anyway. Did they forget to do publicity? Anyway, I also re-read the first three Desert Scorpions albums recently, and they’re even more melancholic than Corto Maltese. I know. Hard to believe. They’re excellent.
In a way, I think that the Anna stories would be a good place to start. They’re quite American in their sensibilities, and they’re action/adventure tales. The Milton Caniff/Noel Sickles influence on the artwork is pretty obvious. Perhaps a smidgen of Alex Toth, too?
But, then again, going with longer series is probably a better commercial choice.
Now I’ll have to get an iDevice so that I can read the last two albums in the Desert Scorpions series…
I remember the Jonathan series as a meandering, hippy-ish series with gorgeous drawings from Tibet. It turns out that I remembered correctly, but there was also bits I had forgotten completely.
Cosey, born in Switzerland in 1950, worked as an assistant to Derib (also a Swiss guy (Swissish? Swisserese?)) in the early 70s. And geeze, that shows in the first album in this series. Jonathan physique looks just like Buddy Longways’ (a long-running series by Derib). As does the face and line work.
And my guess would be that Cosey would perhaps be slightly embarrassed to have figures like this in his comics now:
While Derib has made comics mostly about Native Americans (Buddy Longway, Yakari, Red Road) and their struggles to survive against the encroaching white people, Cosey has made comics mostly about Tibetans struggling against the encroaching Chinese people.
Anyway, what’s it all about? It’s about a guy from Switzerland, Jonathan, who’s lost his memory and is walking around Tibet trying to regain it. He meets people, some friendly and some hostile, and then he regains his memory. The end.
So you can see Cosey being quite deliberate from the start in making his protagonist not a typical hero, but instead a drifter on a physical and spiritual journey. And it works. It’s a very moving work, and it was an instant succcess (commercially and critically) when it was serialised in Tintin in 1975. And I must have liked it a lot as a teenager, too, since the first three Jonathan albums have been read to bits.
Cosey couldn’t resist giving his protagonist a kick-ass motorcycle, though:
So some genre conventions were adhered too, at least. I mean, these are comics for children, really. But pretentious children.
One fun thing about this album series is that Cosey recommends music to go along with the reading. For this re-reading of the series, I’m following his recommendations, which means I’ll be listening to a lot of Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd and Shankar today. (Through the magic of Spotify, since I don’t have any of that stuff.)
Music: I listened to Obscured by Clouds by Pink Floyd.
Et la montagne chantera pour toi by Cosey (1976)
This album takes a slightly more mystical turn, while the plot gets more into the struggle against the Chinese. And Cosey loses some of the Derib influences, and starts putting borders on his pages:
Amusingly enough, the Danish translator has included a little essay at the start of the album explaining the Chinese/Tibetan situation. He explains that Tibet was ruled by monk/businessmen who goverened city state temples that fought against each other, and that the Chinese were just helping redistribute the wealth from these incredibly wealthy people to the poor people in Tibet.
And that the rebels, the Khambas were trained by the CIA, and were generally misliked by everybody, especially the Nepalese, and they were all wiped out by 1972.
This is, to put it mildly, not exactly copacetic with Cosey’s take on the situation. Cosey’s Khambas aren’t exactly heroes, but the Chinese are definitely the villains. (Except the nice ones who desert.)
Ah, the 70s.
Music: I listened to Phaedra by Tangerine Dream.
Pieds nus sous les Rhododendrons by Cosey (1978)
Jonathan meets an orphran girl. Oh, the feels.
I had forgotten how brief these stories are. Cosey uses the standard 46 page French children’s album format, and his pages leave a lot of breathing room, so there’s not room for a lot of plot. But he does pack a lot of emotion into the albums.
This means that reading the album takes a lot less time than listening to the recommended music, though, so I’m not getting the full Mike Oldfield experience…
His artwork continues to shed the Derib influences. Perhaps he’s picked up some Moebius influences instead?
Music: I listened to Ommadawn by Mike Oldfield.
Le berceau du Boddhisattva by Cosey (1979)
Jonathan leads a mysterious group of people through Tibet to a temple. Meanwhile, a monk has found a prophecy.
And the nurse is back — this time with human anatomy:
And more pretty art.
I had forgotten how adventure-oriented these albums are. Jonathan isn’t a total action hero, but he does do heroic stuff.
Music: I listened to Episodes by Mike Oldfield.
‘espace bleu entre les nuages by Cosey (1980)
Jonathan meets an English general in the mountains.
Cosey’s faces continue to improve:
Hm… Jonathan’s head reminds me of somebody… er… who can it be… Oh, it’s this guy from the colophon page:
I guess it’s easier to draw the same face a lot if you can just use the mirror.
Cosey has a lot of plot to get through on these 46 pages, so the layouts get a bit more cramped, and with more dialogue.
He still manages to get so much feels into the stories. There’s at least one boo hoo per album. I’m not quite sure how he manages to get away with that much sentimentality, but he does. It totally works.
Music: I listened to Concerto number 3 by Beethoven.
Douniacha, il y a longtemps by Cosey (1980)
Oh, I forgot to mention that Cosey dropped the kick-ass motorbike pretty quickly.
Anyway, in this album Johanathan and sidekick meets a Russian and smuggles him across the border.
Art-wise, Cosey has developed this nice shadow-less way of rendering rocks:
He draws lots of lines across the boulders, but doesn’t add any shadows. It gives them this etherial quality that’s very appealing. It suits the, er, etherialness of the plots.
Music: I listened to Arbour Zena by Keith Jarrett.
Kate by Cosey (1981)
Plot: Jonathan meets a Magic Pixie Dream Girl.
To Cosey’s credit, he did not follow the MPDG standard plot to its standard conclusion. This album won the Alfred du meilleur prize at the Angoulême in 1982. I think that’s the “best album” prize? It’s easy to understand why — with a more standard plot and gorgeous art, it’s a crowd pleaser.
In addition to not doing the shadows all the time, Cosey’s also started to not spot the blacks here and there:
Looks very purdy, but perhaps slightly distracting when he shifts back and forth between spotting and not? I like it, anyway.
Music: I listened to The Freewheelin’ by Bob Dylan.
Le Privilège du Serpent by Cosey (1982)
Jonathan starts making cheese (he’s Swiss, after all) and meets up with an alternative psychologist.
It’s perhaps not the strongest work in the series, but Cosey manages to subvert the expected storyline nicely, and makes fun of people into fad spiritualism. Or something. Which is unusual for Cosey — he’s usually into all that stuff.
The art also seems to have reached a plateau. I didn’t notice anything much new in this album.
Music: I listened to Ambient 1: Music for Airports by Brian Eno.
Neal et Sylvester by Cosey (1983)
By this point, Cosey was growing tired of doing Jonathan and wanted to start making other stuff, but his publisher convinced him to continue churning out stories. So, once again, Jonathan picks up some strays and walks around a lot.
The plot involves a missing artist named Christo, I mean Slivno.
Oh, well. It’s a perfectly nice album, but there’s not a lot there there.
This is the final Jonathan story serialised in the Tintin magazine.
Music: I listened to QE2 by Mike Oldfield.
Oncle Howard est de retour by Cosey (1985)
Greyshore Island by Cosey (1985)
Cosey managed to publish In Search of Peter Pan before returning to Jonathan. Instead of taking place in Tibet, as usual, it’s set in New York, and is essentially a hard-boiled crime story, replete with private investigators, kidnappings and a race against the clock.
It’s a two part story, too — the first in the Jonathan oevre. So, basically, it has very little in common with any of the previous nine Jonathan albums, and is, perhaps, another sign that Cosey was just fed up with the Jonathan series.
Another sign is that this was the last Jonathan story Cosey did for a decade.
While Cosey manages to avoid taking all the noir cliches to their usual conclusions, it’s not a particularly memorable or gripping tale.
Music: I listened to American garage by Pat Metheny Group and Old Days by Neil Young.
Celui qui mène les fleuves à la mer by Cosey (1997)
12 years later, Cosey returns with a 64-page Jonathan album. It deals with Chinese repression of Tibetans, and that’s basically it. It’s kinda boring.
The artwork manages to look both more sketchy and stiffer at the same time, which is a bit odd. But the colours are nice.
Cosey has continued to make Jonathan albums — four after this one, the last one from 2013. None of them have been translated to any language I’m able to read. Which may or may not say something about the (lack of) enthusiasm generated by this album.
Whew! Done! I made it to the end! You made it to the end! Let’s congratulate ourselves!
So, is it any good? Yes, the first nine albums are very good comic books. Especially if you’re 14. They have the perfect mix of emotion, wonder, silence and action. I probably wouldn’t have included them in this (public) re-reading if I had remembered them better, though. Just as I won’t be including Valerian or Simon: They just aren’t all that interesting, in a way? Entertaining, but not interesting.
La Demoiselle de la Legion d’Honneur by Annie Goetzinger & Pierre Christin (1980)
Annie Goetzinger and Pierre Christin have created a long list of works together, and this is the first one, published in 1980.
It’s the story of a woman who drifts aimlessly through her life, controlled by various men (and their families).
It’s not a very action packed adventure, although a lot happens. It’s told from the point of view of the titular La Demoiselle remembering her life, and large parts of it fills her with such ennui that she can’t really be bothered giving much details. She goes to Africa with her husband, witnesses a small war, takes a lover, goes to Cuba, gets involved with a revolutionary, goes to Argentina, to Texas, to Los Angeles and becomes a minor movie actor, and so on and so on.
It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s a pretty engrossing work. And I like Goetzinger’s art. It has a stiff fashion art vibe to it, which makes the cold and stand-off-ish (although sometimes harrowing) tale even more distanced.
Her anatomy sometimes looks pretty odd and distracting, though:
Goetzinger was born in 1951 and studied fashion drawing in the late 60s. Her first comic was publised in 1976. Christin was born in 1938 and is perhaps best known for his work with Jean-Claude Mézières on the science fiction series Valérian, agent spatio-temporel starting in 1967.
La Voyageuse de Petite Ceinture by Annie Goetzinger & Pierre Christin (1985)
Five years later and Goetzinger’s art has changed considerably. It’s less stiff, the figures are more assured and the colouring seems more integrated into the art.
Naima wanders around Paris on an abandoned ring railway and daydreams. The tension between “reality” and “daydream” is interesting and affecting:
Halfway through the album I started wondering what it was all about. After reaching the end, I’m still not sure. But it’s really good.
Charlotte et Nancy by Annie Goetzinger & Pierre Christin (1987)
The story of two women working in the fashion industry and ending up with swapped personalities. Or something.
As with Petite Ceinture, it’s not easy to say what it’s really about. Except fashion, which is Goetzinger’s artwork is very well suited for. I’m not sure whether the fashion Charlotte/Nancy dreams up is intentionally funny or is supposed to be, like, fashion, but…
La Sultan Blanche by Annie Goetzinger & Pierre Christin (1996)
A governess is hired by a wealthy British gentleman in Hong Kong. We’re shown the sumptuous life of the final days of the British empire throughout Asia.
An old woman is found dead in a flat in London.
This work had the most shocking denouement of any comic I’ve read in quite a while. It’s astounding. It’s simply brilliant.
And Goetzinger’s art continues to, er, not excatly loosen up, but it’s more playful and reassured.
NBM recently released a translation of Goetzinger’s latest work, Jeune fille en Dior (I haven’t read it yet), but she’s otherwise been under-translated in all languages I understand. There’s 15 works with Christin, and about 10 other works (with other writers, or written by herself). If any of that work is anywhere near as good as La Sultan Blanche, I hope that somebody’ll get translating one of these years.
Pierre Wininger var born in 1950, and, er, slightly influenced by Tardi. Or what’s that other word that means the opposite of slightly?
His first series (about a detective named Victor Billetdoux and his egyptologist friend) was serialised in Charlie Hebdo and Circus between 1976 and 1982. It’s not just his artwork that’s influenced by Tardi, and Adèle Blanc-Sec in particular. The storyline is also quite Tardi — set in 1910 (or so), featuring mysterious Egyptian cults and weird machines.
I remember being somewhat underwhelmed by this sequence of albums as a teenager, but I thought it might be interesting to revisit them, anyway. Perhaps my teenaged self was wrong?
But no. The story is somewhat entertaining, but it’s pretty confusing. These two albums are the second and third in the series, but the first one was never translated. Perhaps that would have helped? I rather think not, though. If you’re jonesing for some more Adèle, it might fit the bill.
The second sequence of albums features different characters who look suspiciously similar to the characters in the first sequence. The plot is less confusing (and less derivative of Tardi), involving a mysterious plant, a giant scarab, and less mad scientists.
The art moves away from the most obvious Tardi tricks, too.
There’s little overt humour here, but some of this stuff must be meant to be funny. For instance, why do the two detectives (who are brothers called Willcock and Cockwell (that’s the overt humour part; shades of Tintin)) look just like the protagonist? Even with their weird great coats and scarves?
And speaking of scarves:
Either that’s meant to be funny, or Wininger hates drawing necks.
Wininger made a couple more comics, and then he spent a couple of decades illustrating novels printed in a magazine for teenagers. He returned to comics in the naughts, and died in 2013.