Spirou in Berline cover detail by Flix
|

Spirou for Beginners: “Spirou in Berlin”

Spirou in Berlin cover by Flix

Cold War Credits

Writer/Artist: Flix
Colorist: Marvin Clifford (with Ralf Marczinczik)
Letterer: Cromatik Ltd.
Translator: Michael Waaler
Published by: Dupuis
Number of Pages: 64
Original Publication: 2018

Dramatis Personae

A Quick Who’s Who for “Spirou in Berlin”

Spirou

Adventurer

Often dressed as a bellboy due to his origins, Spirou enjoys getting in trouble and having adventures.

Fantasio

Reporter

Being the reporter, Spirou is most likely to get into trouble while chasing a story.  Thankfully, his best friend Spirou is often right there by his side to help.

Count

Scientist

Super smart guy.  Likes to do scientific experiments with a variety of mushrooms.  Prone to getting in international trouble with his science.

Spip in a circle in Spirou in Berlin by Flix

Spip

Squirrel

You know how Dogmatix follows around Asterix and Obelix, says very little, but shows up in every panel and often has a star turn in a random scene?

That’s Spip for Spirou, except he’s a squirrel.

Spirou vs. Communism

This book is set in 1989, near the end of the Cold War.  The Count is invited to East Berlin for a scientific congress.  He refuses, not wanting to travel beyond the Iron Curtain. 

Later that night, the Count disappears.  Spirou and Fantasio quickly chase after him, Spip in tow.

The Count (of Champignac) has been kidnapped to provide his scientific know-how in finishing off a devilishly large and capable weapon in East Berlin.  That’s the old communist/socialist side. It’s the one with the mean police. We’ll get to them…. 

Spirou and Fantasio must sneak across the border from West to East Berlin, find The Count, and get out safely, teaming up with some friendly local dissidents along the way.

Oh, there are helpful gorillas involved, too, just to mix things up with a bit of whimsy.

Flix obviously knows his history of the Berlin Wall and some of the landmarks in the region.  Being based in Berlin helped him with that research, I’m sure.

He uses the Cold War as his backdrop and isn’t afraid to dig into it.  It’s not overly political, but the politics of the situation obviously play a huge role in why this story is happening. It’s brought home by one of the dissidents halfway through the book, who takes a few panels to talk about the political state of her city. 

The Stasi (East Germany’s police) are a scary and evil lot, and Fantasio at one point is captured and tortured by them in a scene that’s almost uncomfortable.  It should be…

(Yes, you may be reminded of that episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with this, though Flix doesn’t take it quite that far.)

While there is the framing of political issues, though, the book is solidly a Spirou adventure story.  This is about the wacky hijinks he and Fantasio get into.  It’s an action book through and through.  There’s not a slow moment, and the last third puts it into overdrive, with a series of ticking time bombs (metaphorically) lined up for Spirou to overcome in rapid succession.

This book is a real page turner.

What This Book Does Right

Flix starts the book off with a great introduction to the characters. In the span of three or four pages, you’ll know everyone’s name and a glimpse into their personality.  Spirou appears on the cover of a magazine for his latest (minor) adventure.  Fantasio’s nose for news shows us the instincts and the actions of a fearless reporter.  The Count is a little nutty while his home is being renovated, but that’s just perfectly him.

Before the action moves from the small Belgian town its set in, Flix gives a one page reminder of the political state of East Berlin.  It’s a perfectly breezy explanation of the division between East and West Berlin, and the kind of government that formed in the East.  It’s one page, in and out, but a necessary explainer for the rest of the book to make sense, particularly to a generation of readers now who weren’t even alive during the Cold War.

He adds little gags in his images during the explanation to keep it from getting dry.  There’s a lot going on in that one page, which is why it works so well.  It isn’t just an exposition dump.

But the thing that Flix does the best in this book is in finishing it confidently and strongly.  It’s a rocking action adventure.  Everything has a time limit to it, and every turn starts a new mini-adventure within the larger adventure. The visuals are spectacular, running the gamut from rooftops to sewers. 

The stakes are high and the personal exposure is huge.  It’s Get Out or Get Into Deadly Danger….

The book has forward motion during the entire third act because Flix sets the boundaries and gives the characters good reason to keep moving, with one cliffhanger after another.

This sounds like such an obvious writing trick, I know, but too many writers don’t do it, or will only do it with one seemingly long looming deadline. Flix keeps his deadlines more immediate and frequent, keeping the characters unbalanced and on the run for a satisfying length of time.

The Backgrounds Match the Foregrounds

The backgrounds in this book match the characters in the foreground.  They’re of the same piece. 

What does that mean?  There are people who draw super realistic backgrounds with cartoony characters in front of them.  There are artists who put less cartoony people in front of super cartoony backgrounds.

Here, Flix draws detailed backgrounds in their proper perspective with all the props in the world, but they still match the same universe that this version of Spirou, Fantasio, etc inhabit.  The line quality is the same. The weights are the same.  The shapes of objects feel like they came out of the same style guide book as the characters were built from.

This all includes Flix’s real world backgrounds.  This book is set in the city of Berlin at a very specific time.  The buildings all fit in.  It’s obvious that Flix has some strong photoreference to draw certain called-out buildings properly.  They have more detail in those moments than other backgrounds, but somehow it all still seems to come from the same piece.

I love this stuff.

Case Study: Introducing Berlin

Spirou and Fantasio arrive in Cold War Berlin, complete with flags and birds. Drawing by Flix from "Spirou in Berlin."

This is one of my favorite panels in the book.  It’s a half page image, introducing Spirou and Fantasio to Berlin.  They get out of their taxi and are standing in front of their hotel.  It’s the Palasthotel which, yes, is an actual building in Berlin. 

It also has an interesting history.  Read its Wikipedia page to learn about how the Stasi used it to keep tabs on people of interest.

I love the overall composition of the panel, and the way Flix draws your eye into and through the panel. Between the way the building angles and the way the flags line up, your eye is guided to basically where Spirou and Fantasio are standing, along with their word balloon.

The thing that I didn’t see at first but I think is the coolest part of the panel is that line of birds swooping through. This is another great way to introduce depth into a panel. Look at the way they come down from the sky towards you and then pivot back up, like they’re trying to climb over your head.

There’s another line for your eye to draw across the bottom of the panel, too, from Fantasio and Spirou right to left to the lady walking towards the hotel, the man in a longer coat in front of her, and the group in white shirts heading towards the hotel’s front door.  Spip bounces along the bottom border to help, too.

Yes, there’s a lot going on in that panel, but I bet most people see the two main characters, the hotel, and then move on to the bottom of the page.  It’s fun to stop and stare sometimes. 

His Ink Line(s)

Another example of Flix's double inkline in "Spirou in Berlin"

There’s something very interesting about Flix’s ink line that I hadn’t seen before this book.

And a week later, on Twitter, someone pointed out the style as something a lot of people seem to be doing these days.  So I’m just slightly behind the curve here.

Let me explain:

He has a double ink line.

Flix uses a double ink line in Spirou in Berlin

I’m not sure why it works or why I like it, but it looks great with his cartooning style.  I guess it’s because it makes things a little less slick. It adds extra character to his lines. When viewed at the smaller size, it almost feels like you’re looking at his rough sketches with this extra lines.  They’re not the blue lines underneath the inks, but they certainly feel that way.

They’re also not omnipresent. With smaller drawings or in architectural details, Flix sticks with strong single lines.  These double lines come more often in the closeups and on larger foreground items.  That makes sense. 

If you can’t see the separation between two lines, it’s hardly worth drawing them both.  It’d just look like one fat line. So you should save the technique for when you have the room to let it shine.

I wonder if there’s a trick to this style.  Do you ink the same think twice on separate layers digitally and then turn both layers on at the same time?  Do they make ink brushes that are dryer and wind up with two points?  (That seems extremely unlikely, but I never discount anything anymore.) Or do you just ink it a second time, being conscious of keeping the second line thinner and slightly “off” from the first?

Storytelling Risks

While this book does stick to a fairly standard four their page layout, Flix breaks from that rhythm to take a few risks.  He moves away from the standard grid to effectively tell the story in ways you wouldn’t expect.

The most effective one is just too big a spoiler to include here, which is a shame because it’s the biggest narrative risk. You’ll know it when you see it: there’s a repeated panel across one tier that shows elevator doors closing after a particularly dramatic moment. It’s perfectly timed and nails the emotion of the moment.  The lines of the closing doors effectively become the panel border growing smaller into the center of the panel.

It’s so good and you’ll love that moment when you read it.

Here’s something a little simpler and less spoilery. 

It’s a little thing, but I like the way the gunfire goes through the panel where we see the car the Stasi are shooting at.  It helps bring the two images together.

There are more than just those, and they all work.  There’s a great scene of characters crawling through a vent that’s shown as a cutaway, for example, and a travel montage done with diagonal panels.

This is not a book that’s boring to look at.

The Color Scheme

I wish I had a better vocabulary for discussing colors and color theory.  Honest, I do.  I like the style that Marvin Clifford and Ralf Marczinczik uses here a lot, but I’m not sure any of the terminology I’m about to use is right.  Here it goes anyway:

The coloring is simple in that it doesn’t rely on a bunch of gradients, special brushes, or painting techniques to make everything work.  The shadows are cut right in, like something in an anime movie or a color manga.  It is impressive and influential on my own coloring style to see how well such restraint can work. Things don’t glow or fade with special filters.  It’s all in the color choices and their shapes within the art.

Colors holds are the exceptions, and not the rule.  They’re used for good purposes, like on the outlines of smoke or the faint patterns describing the textures of bricks or pavers on the ground.   They’re not used on hair or noses or anywhere silly like that.

The time it’s used that is most noticeable is on distant backgrounds. That works because it’s emulating the way real life look, particularly in front of a camera lens.  Things further away look hazier and less clear. Color holds take black lines and make them less dark and just slightly hazier.

Other than that, the black ink lines of the artist maintain their primacy.  I love that most of all.

The color palette is likewise reserved, using a variety of colors, but none of them too saturated.  There’s plenty of moments that could be done in bold reds (Spirou’s costume) or blues (night sky), bit Clifford doesn’t bite. He keeps the colors a little grayed out.  

It’s a great look, particularly matched with this art, which I imagine would be easy to go overly bright and colorful with.

I Know I Shouldn’t Like This Lettering, But…

An example of the great lettering in Spirou in Berlin by Cromatik Ltd.

The lettering in this book is mixed case and doesn’t have the outlines along the balloon or tail portion.

I should immediately hate it.  It’s not as bad as word balloons that are semi-transparent so you can see the art through it, but its often in the same class of comic book travesties.

It does look a little bit more, to my eye, like a children’s picture book with this style, but Spirou is aimed at a younger audience. Maybe I’m not the best judge for whether the style is right or not.

That all said, I like it here.  It’s simple and perfectly clear, which matches the art.  It also matches the art in that way it goes borderless.  Gone are the black outlines on the balloons.

Flix’s art isn’t filled with crosshatching and perfect anatomy and fine art details.  The lettering is specifically and technically correct, but its rounder letterforms and bouncy style matches the art.

An example of the great lettering in Spirou in Berlin by Cromatik Ltd. This includes varieties in font size and shape.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own personality and variations. There are moments where the font adjusts to the situation, becoming bolder or larger in the balloon. That variety gives it more life, which is hugely important.

If this font reminds me of anyone’s style, it’s John Workman’s. The letterforms are large and squarish, with a little extra white space inside the balloons. The tails are completely different, though, and the balloons don’t butt up against panel borders.

About the Creator: Flix

Fix bio picture

Felix Gormann is a German comics creator born in 1976.  He goes by the name of Flix in his comics work.  He is the first German creator to work on a Spirou comic.

He does work currently for a German newspaper, but has published comics in the past, mostly in the 2000s. 

Check out 9emart.fr’s article on the comic for their video interview with Flix, where they even walk around Berlin to show you the real sites the comic is based on.

Plenty More Fish in the Sea cover by Flix

“Spirou in Berlin” appears to be his only work translated into English.  I’d love to read more of it, though.  From what I’ve seen on-line, he uses a couple different cartooning styles.  The one that looks most interesting to me is “Plenty More Fish in the Sea” (in German, “Schöne Töchter”). That’s a comic strip collection about, by the looks of it, the dating life.

More Info:

Recommended?

Spirou in Berlin cover by Flix

Yes, absolutely, on multiple levels. The cartooning is outstanding.  The time period setting adds to the tale and, for those among us who remember the end of Cold War, creates an extra bit of nostalgia.  

If you’ve never read a Spirou book before, you won’t be lost starting here. 

— 2019.020 —

Buy It Now

This one may eventually see print from Cinebook.  In the meantime, it’s available today digitally through all the usual distribution channels:

Izneo.com Logo
Buy this book on Comixology
Buy this book on Amazon






What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

5 Comments

  1. I remember hearing about it a while back, and it sounded cool… but now I’m seeing this review and wondering “wait, when did this come out again?”

    So I looked it up, and turns out it was first published in German, with the French edition only planned for 2021?
    Why is Dupuis taking so long for this?

    Damn. So, yeah, a little bit jealous I guess.

    1. I saw a reference to that, too, and it seems crazy to me. But what do I know? I guess that’s how the license is working out, or all a part of Dupuis’ plan to slow publish Spirou for the immediate future.

      I’m just glad to have the English edition digitally, at least. I’ll take the early lead for a change. I hope it translates well to French, but I don’t think it’ll have many problems there. It’s not a punny book…

    1. Thanks for the links. Very informative, and I love that interview with Clifford, in particular. Coloring is a bit of magic to me. I appreciate the good stuff, but often have a difficult time explaining why I like what I like. My color vocabulary isn’t great. So I always appreciate an article like that with all the examples in it. Great stuff! Thanks!

  2. I’d never heard of this guy Flix before and I’m way behind on Spirou books, having recently book the french-published Integrale in 2 volumes that covers the first 50 or so albums.
    Anyhoo…
    Reading this review, the plot sounds exactly like that later-days Tintin adventure, L’Affaire Tournesol, in which the professor gets captured in Switzerland by secret police/spies and hijinks ensue. To be honest there were probably a handful of late 60s-early 70s movies that have exactly the same plot, straight out of a John Le Carre novel. so I guess it’s all in the execution.
    Looks to me like a very mixed bag, very cartoony action and characters, coupled with a scratchy linework, which is the opposite of Ligne Claire, that shouldn’t mesh well.
    I’ll definitely check it out when I get around to it, but I’m certainly not going to rush into it.