Rod’s musings – British Comics: the Belgian Connection
You can call me slow if you like, but it was only when I started to look up all the old comic characters I loved, The House of Dolmann, Janus Stark, Kelly’s Eye, Galaxus, et al, that I realised that many of the comics I had grown up enjoying so much, had often been drawn by Spanish cartoonists (and since you ask, no, not even noticing that the great Carlos Ezquerra (one of my first favourites – Joe) was the ‘Ink Robot’ on Starlord and 2000 AD’s Strontium Dog prior to that, had clued me in).
I have to be honest: I was amazed because it just never occurred to me that our indigenous comics were so secretly cosmopolitan. I had always been under the impression that our British comics were uniquely British; even a little insular. So I’m sure you can imagine how astonished I was to discover that those same European artists didn’t just draw for IPC, they often also drew for D.C. Thomson. I mean, I had always considered IPC’s comics more exotic than D.C. Thomson’s comics, and now I was discovering that both these publishing houses were producing something much less parochial, and much worldlier than I had ever believed. It also came as a further great surprise to me that these very talented illustrators didn’t just draw the more technically difficult ‘realistic-looking’ comics, like those mentioned above, but they also drew some of the humorous characters as well.
Actually finding some of the gems they worked on, and looking back at them now that we are all so much more visually-literate and aware of who they are, or in some cases were, gives one an enormous thrill and, I have to say, a new-found respect for the editors who gathered them together. I mean to say, back then, in 1967, I would, just like thousands of other young kids, have flicked through a comic like Giggle without looking for much more than a good laugh.
Today of course, I am much wiser, and older, and when I look back at these old friends I read them in an entirely different way. I read them as a grown-up trying to recapture something that feels lost, I admit, but I also read them because the stories and the artwork still engage me today and sometimes I read them for, er, essential research. And that was exactly what I was doing when I was crawling all over the fantastic scans on Allan Notton’s Comics UK site. To be precise, I was searching for some tasty pages by a number of Spanish illustrators so that I could highlight their involvement in the creation of Britain’s comics, for an article I’d like to write at a later date. But during my rummage in the online copy of Giggle, on Alan’s site, I realised that I was looking at a gorgeous piece of artwork that wasn’t by a British or a Spanish cartoonist, and one that seemed vaguely familiar.
At first glance I thought it was the work of Gaston Le Gaff artist, André Franquin. On closer inspection though, I realised who the comic creator actually was, it was Pierre Culliford, better known as Peyo, the cartoonist who created The Smurfs for the famous Belgian comic, Le Journal De Spirou. So I did some quick research (a euphemism for heading straight to Wikipedia) and discovered that Peyo’s creation Benoit Brisefer, also known as Steven Strong, did indeed run in Britain’s Giggle Comic, as Tammy Tuff, The Strongest Boy on Earth.
Peyo is an important figure. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, and after graduation went to work for the famous Belgian animation studio, CBA. He then spent a period working in advertising and during that time created his first popular comic strip character, Johan, which found its way into the hallowed pages of Le Journal de Spirou. It was as secondary characters in that strip that The Smurfs, Les Schtroumpfs, were introduced before appearing in their own right.
In addition to Johan, and other work, Peyo also created Benoit Brisefer (Tammy Tuff), and when the popularity of The Smurfs enabled him to open his own studio, Cartoon Creations, he recruited a number of promising young cartoonists to work with him, including Swiss cartoonist Andre Beniest, Claude de Ribaupierre, Daniel Desorgher, Daniel Kox, Francis Bertrand, Francois Walthery and Roland Goossens, both of whom worked on Benoit Brisefer, Papyrus creator, Lucien De Gieter, and French cartoonist and creator of Doctor Pocket, Marc Wasterlain. Quite a hot-house of talent, I think you’ll agree.
No sooner had the thought occurred to me that perhaps other famous European cartoonists had worked for the British humour titles, when suddenly I was confronted with the adventures of Buck Bingo, which appeared to look remarkably like fellow CBA Studio alumni, and Spirou artist, Maurice de Bevere’s (Morris) famous cowboy creation, Lucky Luke.
And the reason it looked like Lucky Luke, of course, is because it is Lucky Luke, and what’s more, it could even be, in fact is very likely to be, a Lucky Luke episode co-created with Asterix’s Rene Goscinny – who worked as the ‘scenarist’ on Morris’s series for many years.
Morris too, was an important figure. One of Spiro’s ‘gang of four’, along with Joseph Gillain (Jijé), Andre Franquin and Willy Maltaite (Will), he helped establish the Marcinelle School of comic art, which contrasts sharply with the style of Ligne Claire, practised by the cartoonists who worked for Belgium’s other cartooning genius Hergé, at Tintin Magazine. In the late 1940s, the group travelled to the US where Morris, alone, stayed behind for a number of years, soaking up the culture and helping out with the launch of Mad Magazine. It was there, in the US, that he met his future collaborator on Lucky Luke, French cartoonist and writer Rene Goscinny, who would write some of the most fondly remembered Lucky Luke stories and of course would find even further fame writing Asterix.
Further snooping (again on Alan Notton’s fabulous site) informed me that Lucky Luke had actually appeared before, but as Lucky Luke, in Film Fun Comic, alongside, amongst other things, the adventures of Tony Hancock and Sid James (well known British comedy actors).
Of course by now I was thinking ‘what a great comic Giggle was’. I couldn’t believe how varied and eclectic and exotic it was, and then I clicked the next page, and yet again I was confronted by even more delights: a comic that looks like the work of gag cartoonist Styx, a character called Niblo Nibbs who is clearly Winker Watson’s long lost brother; the fantastic looking Captain Swoop, which again looks like the work of someone I should know – and I suspect another Belgian cartoonist. The Time Travellers looks like the work of one of the many Spanish cartoonists who worked for IPC, as does Castaways to Danger, by which I mean that they are rendered in the more ‘realistic’ style that the Spanish cartoonists brought to Britain’s comics, the style we see in Jesus Blasco’s The Steel Claw, and Dangerman and in the work of Pura Campos. But there was also another style of drawing in Giggle, one that seemed a sort of hybrid between a comicky- style and a more ‘serious’ style, and one that looked somehow familiar, and also somehow old fashioned; but in a good way. You know, that sort of Bellville Rendezvous (Triplets of Bellville) style that just looks deliberately old fashioned, and very European (is that Emile Zola in the top hat?).
What a little gem of a comic Giggle was; crammed with a collection of talented contributors whose influences spread far and wide in the history and development of comics and what we now call ‘graphic novels’. Who even guessed that all the little Giggle readers were being entertained by not just some of the best in Britain, but by some of the best cartoonists in the world? I certainly did not. As I say, my respect for the editorial team that put this little package together has gone up immeasurably.
P.S. Anyone know who actually drew Herlock Sholmes?