It’s Marsupilami as E.T., but set in post-World War II Belgium. Except this E.T. eats smaller animals. And people?
That would be enough to sell me on it.
If it’s not enough for you, then check out Frank Pé’s artwork. He’s amazing. Let me show you….
Long Tail Credits
Artist: Frank Pé
Letterer: Cromatik Ltd.
Translator: Montana Kane
Published by: Dupuis/Europe Comics
Number of Pages: 155
Original Publication: 2020
What’s Going On?
It’s a decade past World War II in Belgium, and Francois is a young boy getting bullied at school because his (now absent) father was a German soldier. His poor single mother makes ends meet by bringing home the scraps from the fish market where she works.
Francois also has a knack for finding, bringing home, and adopting the strangest runt animals. In much the same way as he feels lost and alone, he brings in animals who would otherwise be unwanted, such as the three-legged dog and the bat who flies during the day. Don’t overlook the wild boar and the horse with a drinking problem, etc. etc.
One day, he discovers a strange new animal that nobody has ever seen before. It’s a mangy yellow-furred animal with a tail that runs more than twenty feet. It’s a sickly beast, but it instantly warms up to Francois.
But the troubles at school are soon to come home, and everything might be at risk.
This is a reimagining of the Marsupilami legend, taking bits and pieces from Andre Franquin’s creation and setting it in a more real world, post-War scenario.
It’s at times heart-warming, heart-breaking, and visually stunning. Zidrou and Pé mix the real world with a bit of cartoony exaggeration with the animals to create a story where you want to root for all the put-upon characters who star in it.
This includes Francois and his mother, but also his school teacher with the awkward crush on mom. He’s, in many ways, Francois’ best friend at the school or, at least, the closest thing he has to a protector. Add to that his natural bumbling nature around members of the opposite sex, and he’s an entertaining sub plot to the overall story.
It’s fun to pick apart the bits of this story that may or may not be referring back to Franquin and classic old school Franco-Belgian comics. The choice of a wild boar brings Asterix to mind.
The boy’s name, Francois, is pretty close to “Franquin.” Marsupilami is found and trafficked out of Palombie, the South American country near Columbia that Franquin set those earliest adventures in. (The French Wikipedia page for Palombie is hysterical for how it gives the complete history of the country, pieced together from the various comics set there.)
The Marsupilami builds a nest that is a beautiful version of Franquin’s classic Marsupilami home.
There’s a Disney reference that made me laugh out loud:
If you don’t understand what that’s referring to, I need to recommend to you one of the most popular articles on this site, “Comic Book Artist Sues Disney — And Wins?!?!”
I’m sure I’m missing more, and I hope more will become obvious whenever the second volume is published. (Aug Stone catches more of them in his review/interview with Zidrou and Pé.)
The second volume is still in the works. It hasn’t been published in France, yet, so don’t hold your breath.
An Art Showcase
At the end of the day, this book is an amazing showcase for the art of Frank Pé. He is an artist whose artwork I’ve seen a couple of samples of in the past, but none of his other work has been translated before this. His reputation is as an animal artist, and he gets to show that off here.
He doesn’t have a large body of work behind him, and he’s known for being a slow and meticulous artist. So while you’re waiting for the second book in this series, Magnetic Press is publishing Pé’s take on “Little Nemo,” which also features a lot of animals and looks stunning.
This book starts with a nearly black and white sequence that runs about fifteen pages in the hull of a docked ship. It’s a cold and rainy night in Antwerp, Belgium. In the interior of that ship, all the animals have been destroyed, except one. That’s the Marsupilami, but we’re not going to see him completely just yet. (I made the “E.T.” reference before, but this is more “Jaws.”)
Pé’s storytelling in this sequence is masterful, always dancing around the thing we all want to see and know we’ll eventually see. But he keeps his “camera” just behind the action, except for a stray yellow tail that darts in and out of a few panels, and mangy silhouette in a couple of others. (See above.) The end of the sequence is particularly cinematic, including a long camera dolly out of the ship all the way out to a double page spread from afar with tiny yellow lettering that reads “Hooba!”
That might just be my favorite panel of the book. It’s a dramatic double page spread that wouldn’t bowl you over if you saw it out of context. But when read as the conclusion to the cold open, it’s a great moment. Of course, the lettering is colored yellow to match Marsupilami and stand out from the black and white art, even as small as it is on the page.
This is a great example of where comics can use cinematic techniques in a way that works, and isn’t just copying styles. Pé has the space in a long book like this to pull off that whole opening. Since the whole sequence has that feeling, it’s well earned that he can go for it.
Pé’s animals are a marvel. He’s not going for completely accurate representations of their breeds. They’re realistic, but he adds character and cuteness to them, like an animator might. They’re not about to open their mouths and talk to you. They’re still animals. But their eyes can sell their emotions, and their body language is super important and easy to read.
The colors on the book — and I’m assuming he’s watercoloring these pages himself — are mostly drab, on purpose. Depicting Antwerp in the 50s is not exactly the same as drawing the beaches of California in the 1960s. The town looks overall very drab and gray, with a foggy atmosphere and outdoor lights that blur in the background. The skies are perpetually overcast, and rain always breaks out when it’s least welcome.
The only chance that brighter colors have is on the clothes of the school kids who pick on Francois. All of the other school kids are uniformly brownish-grey, made to blend into the background to help the plot-specific characters stand out better. Otherwise, it’s gray and some sepia tone. Every other color is desaturated and made to blend in with its surroundings. It’s a decisive look and one that works well for this story.
Love the Lettering, Yet Still I Nit-Pick
I like the lettering style in this book. It reminds me that classic European hand lettered look, which I’m not sure I could completely describe if I tried — usually slightly taller and thinner than American lettering. This font is a little squarer, but retains that looseness and energy of hand drawn lettering. Bonus: It uses the lowercase-i in the middle of words, which always reminds me of Asterix.
Unfortunately, all of the rest of the “I”s have the crossbars, even when they shouldn’t.
I can get nit-picky about things like how infrequently they use the second “E” shape, but I didn’t notice that at all until I inspected it more closely for this review. (But, really, there are four “E”s in “SEVENTEEN” including a pair of them. You should hit SHIFT-E for one of them to help mix things up.)
It looks like the word balloons are hand drawn in, also. I’d bet Pé hand lettered the original French version of the book. I like the oversized balloons. They remind me a bit of John Workman’s style.
Yes, while it may feel slightly like a variation on a plot you’ve seen before, the Marsupilami angle and references are a lot of fun, and the characters shine through. You will sympathize and empathize with the family at the center of this story by the time this first book ends.
It would have been easier to simplify their situation and focus on Marsupilami, but I respect Zidrou’s choice to go the other way and fit Marsupilami into this family’s life in a way that makes as much sense as it ever could. This isn’t a quick cash-in on the yellow guy’s fame. This is, indeed, its own story incorporating some of Marsupilami’s legend into it.
And did I mention that this first book is 155 pages? It reads pretty quickly. The dialogue never weighs down the story, and Pé’s art is often drawn large on the page. The format is also a bit more square than your typical Franco-Belgian album. It works for Pé’s style, so I have no complaints.
You’re definitely getting your money’s worth out of this one.
Buy It Now
[Yes, that last one is an affiliates link that nobody ever uses. But if you do, I get a tiny percentage as an affiliate and you don’t pay any extra. My business model is highly questionable…]