A few years back, in 2013, I reviewed Cinebook’s first volume in the “Spirou and Fantasio” series. This is relatively early in my European comics journey, and long before I focused on it.
The funny thing is how similarly this review begins to what I just wrote this week for volume 1, “Adventure Down Under.” There’s a very similar complaint about characterization near the end, too. Whoops?
The text below is edited, re-arranged, and reformatted from its original appearance, but is still basically the same thing. I’ve added in some timelier comments in italics in a few spots.
“Spirou & Fantasio in New York”
You’ll have to forgive me while I fumble through the set-up here: “Spirou and Fantasio in New York” (Cinebook, $11.95) is my first “Spirou” title. Tome and Henry write and draw the book, respectively. The character, I know, has been around for decades, mostly in a red suit as a hotel bellhop. For this series, he’s a reporter, living with Fantasio, a fellow reporter. Or maybe one is a photographer and the other is a reporter? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. It’s all set-up. This is a book about two French journalists who have odd adventures. They also have a pet squirrel, who is cute.
In this book, they (and their squirrel) find themselves tricked into the middle of escalating wars between the Chinese and the Italian gangs across the Atlantic Ocean in New York City. They’re running for their lives, trying to get through the day to live to see another one, and mildly bemused by the whole thing.
The story is absurd and preposterous. It’s filled with nearly random events and tangents and silly coincidences. The Mafia use blimps to invade Chinatown, only to be turned away by Chinese kites carrying grenades, leading to a series of rooftop jumps with a grappling hook.
Don’t judge it too harshly for that. It’s not meant to be the next “Asterix,” though you can see some surface similarities I’ll get to in a minute. Think of this more as a comic book sit-com. It’s a fun, light read that will have you laughing out loud in places, and enjoying a lot of great art along the way. Nothing wrong with that.
Like “Asterix,” character names are often double entendres or puns. You get the punny excitement of mobsters named Don De Luise, Don Quixoto, and Don Cortizone. There are running gags in the backgrounds and corners of some panels that pop up from time to time. Signs deserve to be read for what they add to the settings. They even throw in a couple of cartoonist cameo appearances. Yslaire shows up as an airplane (“YSLAIR,” naturally), while Peyo makes an on-panel appearance early on, grumbling about the viability of The Smurfs’ luckiness. But, hey, “Asterix” modeled characters after real life people, too, right?
The Problems With Characterization
The biggest shortcoming of the book, at least this one taken on its own, is that the title characters aren’t all that exciting.
They get into trouble as a way to get out of trouble (travelling to New York to cover a story because they’ve depleted their funds), but don’t ever feel in control. They race through the adventure, but aren’t active participants in it. They get caught up in things instead of creating them. It’s passive, rather than active.
You can describe characters like Lucky Luke and Asterix in a simple single sentence after reading any of their books. Spirou and Fantasio are still cyphers to me. Maybe reading more books will help nail down their characters for me? I’m willing to give it a shot. (2017 note: I’ve read three more books in this series since I wrote this, and the problem isn’t solved yet.)
The Marcinelle School: The Next Next Generation?
The art, in general, though, is beautiful. It’s probably the style I enjoy the most right now. Think of “The Smurfs” and “Lucky Luke” as belonging in the same class. Characters have big heads and hands sized to match. They’re likely to go to extremes, jumping with both feet in the air when they get excited or leaning over just a bit too far when running. The eyes play a huge part in the storytelling, often being the only visible part of the characters when they are otherwise in silhouette. The hands, too, talk a lot. Once you’ve read a few books like this, every other person drawn in a comic book will look stiff and unexcitable. The same goes for the random animals in the book, including Spip the Squirrel.
The inks play a big role in this book. They’re very chunky. They can cover a scene in dramatic shadows for night scenes. They can ease back to bathe a scene in light, but still vary in width and shape dramatically in a single panel. Just look at how they draw the hands to see all the ways the lines vary. In a simple drawing of a hand with a wedding ring on it, the ink lines go out of their way to end at the ring, creating the appearance that the ring is squeezing in on the hand just a bit. The ring isn’t drawn around the sausage of a finger. The ring, instead, digs into the finger, tying it up just a bit.
This book was originally published in 1987. You might guess that while reading it. The “Miami Vice”-esque white suits the two title characters wear are a dead giveaway, but there are other fashion clues in the book that will make it obvious.
Sensitivities were also different. I’m guessing that not all of this book would go through today if it was brand new. The caricatures of people based on their races/ethnicities are a bit extreme. It’s not at the level of “Tintin in the Congo,” I grant you. The surface appearances, though, go too far, mostly with the black and Chinese characters. (Italians, as ever, get the shaft on righteous indignation. Make fun of them all you want…)
(2017: For a much more pointed commentary on the depiction of ethnicities and race in this book, read this ‘Hooded Utilitarian’ article and all its comments.)
Cinebook does a great job with the book, if you can just look past the lettering using the crossbar-“I” in every wrong case possible. The book prints well on the larger 8.5 x 11 inch size, a la “Orbital.” It’s still not at the same size as the original French album would have been, but it’s appreciably larger than the rinky-dink “Largo Winch” format.
To put it in American terms, the slim paperback book is the same height of the “Invincible” hardcovers, or Marvel’s basically defunct oversized basic hardcover format that used to hold a year’s worth of issues.
There are four “Spirou and Fantasio” books available through Cinebook today. (In 2017, Cinebook now offers a dozen, with more on the way.) I’ll definitely be going back for more. The art is good enough to carry the book for me, and the stories will hopefully get sharper as the albums carry on. Looks like there’s at least 14 volumes in the series (including a sequel to this storyline called “Luna Fatale”). That should keep Cinebook busy for a while. Their fourth volume, “Valley of the Exiles” is due out in the UK this week, and in the US in May.