From Our Continental Correspondent – Spirou returns in great shape
With 71 years of adventures on his roster, Spirou Et Fantasio is one of the seminal characters in the Franco-Belgian tradition. Great cartoonists like Jijé, Franquin, Fournier and more recently Tome and Janry have contributed to a series of no less than fifty albums that somehow managed to right in with the times in terms of visual design and topical content, and which can now be seen as a record of what the world looked like and thought throughout all those years, besides being damn good fun. Recently however, the series has found itself in a bit of a rut. Tome and Janry’s final album, the quite experimental Machine qui Rêve met with quite mixed reviews due to its radical departure of Spirou’s established style and tone, whilst the most recent book, Morvan and Munuera’s Aux Sources du Z, which was no less than a massive reboot, or even retcon for the series, was a confusing and muddled affair, which left a lot to be desired.
After 70 years, even an iron-clad concept like Spirou et Fantasio is bound to get strung out at some point. All these pages of back history, all these characters and all these “laws” are bound to get too constrictive to even result in a vivid story. And maybe that’s the reason why a recent spin-off series of one-shots, called Une aventure de Spirou et Fantasio has resulted in some very interesting books, which met with commercial and critical success. Emile Bravo’s Le journal d’un ingénu won the Prix Saint Michel for best comic and was also named as one of the essentials at this year’s Angoulème Festival. In a move that has proven quite successful for other long-running comics series (Batman, anyone?), Bravo took the reader back to Spirou’s Year One, when, while working as a bellboy in a Brussels hotel in the years leading up to World War II, he discovers a plot that may change the course of history.
It would seem that Bravo has set an example, as the latest book in the series, Schwartz and Yann’s Le Groom Vert-de-Gris continues on that concept: World War II is raging across Europe and Spirou is working in a hotel that has been commandeered by the Nazi’s during World War II, all the while doing under cover work for the resistance. It’s a real rollercoaster of an adventure, mixing all traditional elements of a World War II story (cruel but stupid Nazis, resistance fighters, Jews in hiding) with a Chaland-like graphical style and a quite typical Bruxellois atmosphere. Somehow it manages to capture the raucousness of the early Jijé stories and translates it to a modern comic that is at once entertaining and thought-provoking, contemporary and historically accurate, and ready for a popular audience as well as critical acclaim.
The best part about the book, in my opinion, is the fact that it is full of little references to other classic bandes-dessinées which, considering that the story is set in 1942, are quite anachronistic. Still, I’d like to present to you a selection of the best bits:
Yes, indeed, those are Hergé’s Quick et Flupke being chased through the Brussels Marolles borough.
In this scene on the Brussels flea market, we see Willy Vandersteen’s characters Lambik, Jerom and Sidonia trying out some dumbbells and a hat (left), but in the back, you can also check out Tintin creator Hergé making some notes.
Now, where have we seen this machine before ? Ah, yes, it’s the fully automatic machine for cleaning clothes that Professor Calculus invented in the Tintin book, The Secret Of The Unicorn.
Talking about Tintin references, this Nazi villain looks the spitting image of Dr Müller from The Black Island, another Tintin classic.
It can’t get any more obvious : here we see resistance hero Raymond Leblanc defending the “collaborateur” Hergé against his resistance superiors. After the war, Leblanc would make sure that Hergé’s civil rights got reinstated, founded Tintin Magazine, and the rest is history (see here for an excellent interview with Leblanc conducted the year before he passed away – Joe).
Nowadays, a poster like this would be quite offensive, but here it serves as a salute to Jijé’s classic series, Blondin et Cirage. And did you notice the street sign: Rue Joseph Gillain, after Jijé’s real name. On the other panel, we see Jo Et Zette, from Hergé’s other series, in an act of sheer resistance.
This is quite closer to home. The robot carrying Spirou is the same as the one in Franquin’s Radar Le Robot (1947 – see here for a reconstruction at a recent Franquin exhibition).
Ever wonder what E.P. Jacobs’ Captain Blake did before he met his friend Professor Mortimer? He served in the RAF during World War II, that’s what.
You’ll certainly have noticed the young GI reading the Superman comic in this panel, but have you also noticed the pin-up girl on the airplane in the background? That’s Poison Ivy, from Philippe Berthet’s series of the same name (which, incidentally, is a play on Milton Canniff’s work for the army during World War II)
After the liberation, the hotel Moustic is raided by angry Bruxellois, amongst whom we again recognize Lambik and Jerom, carrying out a bath tub, and Sidonia, who has been able to get her hands on some classy underwear.
And finally, the liberators are welcomed in the city, and parade along the streets, passing a monument for legendary cartoonist Franquin (and his most celebrated character, the Marsupilami); But wait, what’s that in the background? A poster for a hair growth product, featuring Tif and Tondu, the main characters from another classic series that debuted in Spirou Magazine.