Spirou Marsupilami cover

Looking Back on “Spirou et Les Héritiers”

This is the first guest post for PipelineComics.com. Please welcome Mario Lebel to the site, who’s here to talk a little bit about Spirou.   Thanks, Mario! -Augie

 

An Introduction

Augie’s on vacation and he let me come and hangout in his virtual home while he’s away. I’ll try not to make a mess of the place. While he’s got a good rep online when it comes to writing about comics, I’m pretty much an unknown, so before I get to today’s review, here’s a little something about me.

My first introduction to comics was Franco-Belgian bande dessinée (shortened to BD) or what some people call Euro Comics. Born to French Canadian parents, I had a basement wall full of BD to read as a child. It’s actually what kept me interested in reading long after most kids find interest in other things. The pictures kept me hooked and I’d only read the balloons and captions reluctantly at first. Thanks to my dad’s impressive collection I was surrounded by many staple characters of the Euro Comics scene during my formative years.

I read and reread titles such as Astérix, Les Aventures de Tintin, Achille Talon, Spirou et Fantasio, Les Schtroumpfs, Les 4 As, Gaston Lagaffe, Le Petit Spirou, Boule et Bill, Lucky Luke, Yoko Tsuno, Marsupilami, and Benoît Brisefer. English speaking readers might recognize some of the series by their French titles, but others you might only recognize with the English titles. Those books might include Gomer Goof, The Smurfs, and Steven Strong (or Benny Breakiron depending on the translation). In recent years I’ve discovered other titles outside of the Franco-Belgian tradition of comics such as The Incal, Blacksad, Blueberry, The Metabarons, and The Killer. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered American comics as a teen, filled with superheroes and other oddities. Even though I was familiar with some superheroes from television and movies, reading their adventures in comics was completely different from the humor strips and adventurers from my dad’s BD collection.

Today, I read mostly American comics. The main reason for that is practicality. I no longer live with my parents and I can’t walk down to the basement and grab a BD to read. I’ve started my own collection, but it’s sad in comparison to what I grew up with. My half-shelf of BD is dwarfed by a bookcase filled with American comics.

 

Early Spirou

Still, from time to time I borrow a few albums from my dad. Most recently I took home a few early volumes of Spirou et Fantasio. It was one of my favorite series growing up and I haven’t read it in a few years. I figured it would be fun to start with the first collected album by Franquin (I specify the creator as Spirou has a long publishing history that includes many writers and artists). I started with the first one, titled Four Adventures of Spirou and Fantasio, and I was disappointed that my memories of that early album were better than what I found on the page.

Instead of moving on to the second volume in the series, I jumped ahead to one that I know is good because I’ve read it so many times before. Volume 4, Spirou et les héritiers (Spirou and the Heirs), is one of my favorites in the series. For me, this is where Franquin hit his stride and laid the groundwork for some of his most famous stories. You can see that he’s more comfortable with these characters and is gaining confidence in his ability to tell their stories and flesh out the world they live in.

The plot of this volume is pretty straightforward. Fantasio’s uncle has passed away and written in his will are the details of a competition for his two nephews to undertake. The winner will be sole inheritor. The competition is made up of three challenges. From that point on the volume focuses entirely on Fantasio and his cousin Zantafio as they take on all three challenges. The first challenge is to come up with a useful invention. The second is to place in the top six drivers in a grand prix race. The final challenge is to find, study, and capture a rare animal that lives in the South American jungle.

The first part of the story is quiet and little slow. It’s enjoyable, certainly, but it lacks the excitement of the other two challenges. What it has mostly are visual gags, which work fine, but the whole thing feels a little pedestrian. Franquin has as much fun as he can here, but some of the gags are obvious. The stuff that’s less obvious is the most enjoyable to read. I particularly like how Spirou is a celebrity; people read his comics and they happen to be the same ones we read. When rescuing a boy from a burning house, the boy goes back inside to rescue his copy of volume 2, Il y a un magician à Champignac. It’s a nice little touch that breaks the fourth wall without completely shattering it.

Spirou p36 car race gags

The second challenge, to place sixth in a grand prix race, is a thrill ride. In addition to dealing with the stress of driving a race car, Fantasio is threatened by the machinations of Zantafio who hires another racer to incapacitate his cousin and his car. Unbeknownst to Fantasio, Spirou and Spip (Spirou’s pet squirrel) are running interference and keeping Fantasio safe so that he can concentrate on the race. Here, Franquin plays the most with perspective and you really feel the speed and thunderous energy of the race. It’s probably my favorite part of the book.

In the third challenge, Spirou and Fantasio travel to the fictional country of Palombia in South American on the search for a marsupilami. They find one of course, but the search is relatively quick because Franquin focuses on the specific nature of the Marsupilami and his unique attributes. It’s a goofy animal but also a very interesting and charismatic. It proved popular and became a regular character for several more volumes of Spirou et Fantasio before getting a series of its own. It’s pretty clear that Franquin had a blast developing this character. His enthusiasm and fun can clearly be seen on the page.

While this album is made up of a single story, its structure makes it read like a collection of three separate stories. It’s kind of a transitional Spirou album in that sense, calling back to previous shorter stories and gag strips all the while establishing a newer direction of serialized adventures stories. Those stories would later get collected into albums and form the series as we know it today.

This volume of Spirou as introduces many elements and characters that crystalized what the comic would become from this point on. The adventures take on a globetrotting feel, Zantafio and Marsupilami are introduced, both of which will appear again, and Franquin clearly indicates his desire to tell longer stories and even include elements that will boil over in future stories (such as Zantafio’s future in Palombia). Zantafio actually becomes one of the earliest recurring villains in the series. He’s slimy and conniving in this volume and later returns as a dictator among other things. He’s a favorite of mine. Then again, I have a fondness for the Franquin era as a whole.

Spirou p54 Introducing Marsupilami

Marsupilami also makes his first appearance and he’s a love it or hate it kind of character. I personally love him. His key design element is very simple: he has an extremely long tail. What makes him so enduring for me is how Franquin uses his tail for gags while also taking it seriously enough to wonder how having such a large appendage would affect his behavior and personality. Truly, the tail is extremely useful and it’s great to see it used in such imaginative ways. I also like how Marsupilami’s face resembles the face of another famous Franquin creation. Look at how the eyes and nose looks like Gaston Lagaffe’s facial features. It delights me to no end.

The Art of Spirou

The art in Spirou and the Heirs follows a pretty rigid eight panel grid. All eight panels are of equal size as the page is divided into two columns and four rows. Franquin occasionally strays from this, usually for an effect or for a storytelling reason. You see him breaking with the panel structure mostly in the Marsupilami portion of the story, but even then it’s done in a way that still respects the overall structure. Instead of radically altering panels, he’ll split one of the existing eight panels into two equal sections, keeping the flow of the grid. Or, alternatively, he’ll extend one of the panels so that it represents one and a half size panels on the grid; that keeps the second panel of that row half a regular panel size. What’s really going on here is Franquin playing with the structure he established in the rest of the book while also giving himself the freedom to modify it for the needs of the story.

Another thing I want to point out is just how many full figure drawings are in this book. They’re everywhere! Yet the panels rarely overstuffed, which is surprising. Still, some of the nicer illustrations are those that include the characters appearing from the waist up or those that play with the angles. Franquin’s art shines when he plays with the perspective as it livens up the comic and makes things look more exciting. Usually we’re looking at the characters dead on, with the bottom of the panel border acting as the ground. I suspect that this is a difficult effect to pull off successfully, though it does get used excessively in this comic. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it since it’s something we rarely see in comics today.

 

Summing Up Spirou

There are other Spirou albums that are faster, more exciting, involve more travelling and even include some social commentary. Franquin has drawn better volumes, too. However, if you want a good look at where the series transformed from gag comics published in Spirou Magazine to a decades-long adventure serial filled with dozens of memorable characters and energetic artwork by some of the best cartoonists in Euro Comics, this is a good volume to track down and read. It might not blow your socks off (it’s admittedly difficult for me to completely remove my nostalgia glasses), but it’s transformative in its approach to storytelling in comparison to the types of Spirou stories that came before it. Most impressive is that Franquin managed to do this without radically changing the characters or the type of stories being told. He shifted gears and crystalized some key elements that would become stables of his tenure on the title all while keeping things distinctly recognizable and a little familiar.

Unfortunately this volume hasn’t yet been translated in English by Cinebook, the publisher that has been translating Spirou volumes since 2009. There is an older English edition, but you’ll have to put in some effort in order to find a copy.

Update: The book is available digitally, though you’d have to read it in French.

Spirou p24

You can follow Mario on Twitter @swario, and read more of his writings at SharedUniverseReviews.blogspot.ca

5 Comments

  • Looking Back on "Spirou et Les Héri... September 7, 2016 at 4:40 am

    […] An early adventure of Franquin's Spirou introduces us to Marsupilami.  […]

    Reply
  • JC LEBOURDAIS September 28, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    Looks like I had missed this post at the time. I believe this is the first appearance of Fantasio in a book-length Spirou adventure (although the character itself is much older). You’d think an english publisher would tackle the series chronologically, but after so many years and different creators, that might be a daunting task.

    Reply
    • Augie September 28, 2017 at 5:11 pm

      Yeah, and I’m sure they’re trying to publish something out of the gate that will appeal to more people. It’s stuff that’ll look newer, even if it has its own downsides. That earlier Franquin stuff still looks so 50s/60s. But I’ll be getting to one or two of those next week, I think… =)

      Fantagraphics is doing the same thing with the Disney Ducks books. They’re publishing the stories in chronological order, but they’re publishing the books out of order so that some of the best stuff came first, so people will jump on from the beginning. It sounds crazy and stupid, but I bet it works.

      Reply
  • JC LEBOURDAIS September 30, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    I just found something interesting about Spirou’s origins. It’s in english.
    http://spiroureporter.net/2017/09/02/his-name-was-ptirou/

    Reply
    • Augie October 2, 2017 at 9:43 am

      And I, of course, immediately downloaded the first issue of “Spirou” with that story in it. Let’s see how much of the French I can work out. (Seriously, I’m understanding more and more. It seems that time and repetition go a long way to learning a language.) Thanks for the pointer!

      Reply

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