One of the reasons I love European comics so much is their size. They don’t go small. The standard format is the album, and often it’s a hardcover. The page sizes are at least an extra inch in either direction from their North American counterparts.
It doesn’t sound like much, until you hold one in your hand and see the art unfold across the page. It’s the best that comic book art can look, and it’s a shame that it’s so often complained about in North America because it won’t fit in a longbox or on a retailer’s regular shelving.
Don’t get me started (again)…
“Pilote” issues were huge, by North American standards. They were even slightly bigger than the albums that reprinted the stories. I’d go so far as to compare them to the size of the old LIFE Magazine, but I’m not sure even I remember those dimensions anymore, either. Anyone under the age of 50 is likely to have forgotten those days already.
But larger was only one of the directions they went.
They also went small.
Introducing “Super Pocket Pilote”. This is the series that shrunk everything down to a fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand printing size. These are the digest-sized versions of these classic French characters.
Remember the MAD Magazine digest reprints? “A MAD Look at Old Movies” or one of the “Spy vs Spy” compilations? Maybe the old “Peanuts” collections from the 70s? It’s closer to that size.
Remember how CrossGen had those anthology collections that were smaller because that’s how the manga generation of the early 2000s wanted everything? They often talked about how it “gave good hand” — it fit right in the hand, some readers would say.
That’s more the direction of the “Super Pocket Pilote” editions, except they went even smaller. these books are 7.5 inches tall and 5 inches across. At 266 pages in an issue, they ran about a half inch thick.
My North American lizard brain figured that these books would be compilations of the comics from the magazines. I was wrong in two ways:
First, the book included many puzzle and text pages.
Second, it’s not all reprints. Almost every issue contained a complete Lucky Luke short story, as well as a Valerian tale. They were made with this format in mind. That’s fascinating to me. It’s completely antithetical to the Franco-Belgian tradition of larger magazine pages collected in similarly-sized albums later on.
On the other hand, it’s good to see they experimented with other formatting options, too.
Let’s take a look at what was in this issue. I’ll pick out a few familiar names, and some interesting lower profile strips, just so we’re not here forever talking about all the material in the book.
Original Valerian Stories!
This is the first I learned of this. This series, which only lasted nine quarterly books between 1967 and 1969, included seven original Valerian stories by Christin and Mezieres.
They are 12 pages each. They’ve never been reprinted in English, though in France they appear in an album titled “Across the Pathways of Space.” Judging by the art and story styles, they’re set in a time between what we occasionally call volume 0, “Bad Dreams“, and volume 1, “The City of Shifting Waters.“
These stories didn’t all feature Laureline in them. And the art style is getting closer to Meziere’s final look for the regular series, but is still transitioning out from the look that volume 0 had.
In this story, Valerian is on a break, but his ship crash lands on a planet filled with other crashed ships and an assortment of aliens in cages who warn him of The Grand Collector. Valerian has to find this guy, defeat him, and get off the planet.
I think. I’m very loosely translating just enough of the word balloons to get the gist of it all. I think it’s a standard trope to avoid a “Collector” in a science fiction tale. Even Marvel Comics has a Collector…
The story is written to be short and the art is arranged for the smaller pages. Each page tends to be three or four panels, with lots of open areas and well-designed aliens that don’t clutter the pages too much.
I don’t know how this would work in an album format. Maybe you could print two pages side-by-side sideways per page? Maybe someday we’ll see it in English. They’ve run out of Valerian material to translate, after all. (Wait, no, that’s not true. There’s a book that Man Larcenet did that still hasn’t seen English.)
It’s just so strange to see Meziere’s art this small, even though he used larger panels to keep everything legible. It looks like a simplified 60s cartoon version of Valerian. He was still leaning towards the style of the original story here, and hadn’t yet developed what the regular series would become.
Lucky Luke Joins In the Fun
But, wait! Valerian wasn’t alone. Lucky Luke is featured in a brand new eight page story in this book, as well, written by Rene Goscinny with art by Morris, naturally. Titled “Promenade Dans La Ville” (“Walk in the City”), it’s the story of Luke riding into town, having a fist fight with a local ruffian for 7 pages, and riding back off into the sunset.
Morris uses a three tier grid with up to two panels per tier. He keeps things interesting by varying them up enough, but it’s otherwise a typical look for a Morris-drawn Lucky Luke story, except it’s on smaller pages and thus has fewer panels per page. It otherwise feels like a great extended scene that might have been pulled out of a larger story in any other case.
The story was included in an album collecting some Lucky Luke short stories, that would later be given away throughout France as part of a promotion at a major gas station chain in 1972.
The story remains untranslated and unavailable to English speaking audiences.
Just look at this half-page panel that starts the story:
There’s so much about this panel that I love. First, the lettering geek in me loves that handwritten block of text at the top. I wrote about that in my original Pilote review, so go check that out.
Then look at those shadows cast off the buildings on the left. Morris was using some screen tones for that stuff.
This whole panel is probably three inches on either side, yet Morris fits a lot into it. The buildings on either side are fairly well detailed, all the way back to the mountains, which are outlines to help simplify them for page space and push them further into the background.
It’s all the little tricks of the comics trade that add up to make great comics storytelling.
Asterix Goes Sideways
In full color, we get a reprinting of “Le Printemps Gaulois” (“Springtime for Gaul”), in which Asterix and Obelix rescue the magical embodiment of spring and nurse him back to health to beat up on the magical embodiment of winter and bring about the change in the season.
Why, yes, Uderzo wrote this one. How did you guess?
How do you fit all of Albert Uderzo’s art on one of these small pages? They didn’t do it by rearranging the panels. Instead, they printed them sideways and didn’t need to rearrange anything.
Uderzo drew these pages twice up. Each art board was half the page, drawn sideways. This let him draw super large and put the detail he wanted on every panel and every page.
Thinking about it the way, it’s easy to picture tilting a page sideways and then reprinting each art board on a page unto its own. That’s what they did here.
It’s the only example in the book of a story that you had to hold the book at a 90 degree angle to read.
It’s a very traditionally-formatted two page story that spreads out across four pages in this Pocket edition.
Ultimately, the story found its home in “Asterix and the Class Act,” where the introduction points out that the story first saw print in “Pilote” #334 on March 17, 1966, three years earlier. That was the spring-themed issue of the magazine. It included the final part of the “Asterix in Britain” story as well as this two page short story. Uderzo also did the cover to that issue.
For Asterix fans, it was a great week of comics. For Uderzo, it must have been another tiring one.
It’s an interesting curiosity to see Uderzo’s art published at this reduced size, but I’m still far happier with the larger format for his work. (I’m looking at you, Papercutz!)
Black and White Moebius/Jean Giraud
Over the course of issues 2 through 7, Super Pocket Pilote published enough original “Blueberry” stories that they would be reprinted in two albums nearly a decade later.
These are Young Blueberry stories, so it follows that the story in this book was reprinted in 1975 in a book titled “La Jeunesse de Blueberry”, which translates literally to “Blueberry Youth,” but might as well be “Li’l Blueberry” or “Kid Blueberry.”
It’s a complete 16 page story, but imagine this: It’s a black and white story drawn by Jean Giraud. As beautiful as his artwork is at full size and in color in the usual weekly Pilote issues, seeing it in black and white is a whole new experience.
It’s not the style you might associate with him from later in his career in “Heavy Metal” with those thin lines and the futuristic designs, obviously. This is not “Moebius,” after all. But you can see hints of those lines here and there, particularly in the more atmospheric landscape shots. His own hand lettering certainly helps cement that look.
This is Jean Giraud hard at work, the man who can draw an amazing western story, filled with detail and inky brush lines to render the tough-as-nail cowboys and dirty townsfolk, not to mention the horses and the forests and the trains and the bridges and all the other cool stuff J.M. Charlier’s story throws at him.
If you like Ralph Meyer’s “Undertaker” art, Giraud was there 50 years ago.
Tanguy and Laverdure
It’s a title whose name I’ve heard of, but never looked into at all. It’s out there, it exists, Albert Uderzo drew some of it, and that’s all I know.
The lead story in “Super Pocket Pilote” v3 is a 16 page story from J.M. Charlier with art by Jije. And this is where I fell in love with Jije’s art.
To sum it up, the series is about two pilots with conflicting personalities. One is the by-the-books type while the other is the less accomplished one with a tendency to chase after the ladies.
Together, they spy and stuff for their homeland. It’s the perfect set-up for a television series, to be honest — and they did make three seasons of one in the late 1960s. More on that much later…
Jije’s art in this book is unlike anything else I’ve seen so far in the Pilote issues that I’ve read or flipped through. He makes heavy use of gray washes with his inks before the final color layer is added on. His characters are realistically drawn, but his rendition of Tanguy is cartoony, with a big nose, wide eyes, and exaggerated expressions. But, mostly, it’s those gray washes I fell in love with here so much.
Oh, and he can draw planes from any angle.
From the examples I’ve seen on-line, Uderzo established Tanguy as a character who was drawn a little more goofy and cartoony than the way he drew the rest of the people in the series. It all fits.
Jije’s lettering is the sloppiest of the artists I’ve mentioned so far. There’s never enough white space between the lettering and the balloon. It needs a little more space between lines. The size of the lettering shifts around without reason from line to line, and often from word to word.
It’s a little distracting, but I was looking mostly at the art here. I shouldn’t complain too much.
I did a little more research into the series and it amazed me to learn this fun fact: Albert Uderzo was drawing Tanguy strips weekly for Pilote at the same time he drew the first few Asterix books. Using a completely different style for the two serials, Uderzo kept both strips going weekly for years. I never put that timeline together, but it’s very impressive.
Putting two and one more together, then, I did the math and realized he was also drawing Oumpah-pah for “Tintin Magazine” until 1962. At that point, Goscinny and Uderzo retired from Oumpah-pah to concentrate on Asterix.
But think about that for a second: Uderzo was drawing three different strips at the same time for a good three years there. Most artists today would struggle with just drawing the level of detail Uderzo put into Asterix, let alone juggling two more at the same time.
And he didn’t have Google Images and a Cintiq to help him…
Text and Games and Fun and Stuff
Like I said at the top, I expected to see nothing but the comics in this book. It’s all reprints, so there’s no need for the filler of silly picture-matching games, right?
Maybe those games pages were a bigger draw than I gave them credit for, though, because there are plenty of them in this book.
That includes lengthy articles on subjects like the Naval Academy and some television show that featured an airplane crash or something? (Maybe that’s the Tanguy series?)
I don’t know, my French is very inadequate. There are three or four such long-ish articles included in the book, though, with a scattered selection of games pages and, near the back of the book, an answer key for all of those pages.
Many More Comics
I’ve just highlighted the big names in this issue, but there’s a whole lot more. Time and again, though, I’m reminded of MAD Magazine. It’s that mix of irreverence, pop culture, caricature, and silliness.
During his time in American, Rene Goscinny worked at a small art studio with Jack Davis, Will Elder, and Harvey Kurtzman. While this was still a few years before MAD Magazine began, there’s a certain humor that carries through all their works. It’s easy to see how they could be good friends — their senses of humor lined up well.
There’s an eight page complete story from Godard titled “Le Coffre” for the Norbert et Kari series. I love this cartooning style. It reminds me of a cross between Albert Uderzo and Don Martin. He has the floppy feet with the curly toes and the wrists that bend in half and the faces that scream with emotion.
It’s classic Big Nose cartooning, but with wide eyes and gangly limbs.
“If We Eat Like…” feels like a classic MAD Magazine gag series, filled with single panel (some icky) gags along a common theme.
In this case, what would it be like if we ate like frogs or horses, or other non-human creatures. It, again, is written and drawn by Godard.
Here’s the final page, if you’re curious, in which people eat like frogs, praying mantises, and pigs:
There’s relatively little text on these pages, and you can see most of the gags without them, anyway.
Godard is committed to these gags, stretching people to their limits to sell the gag, whether it’s with their wild running stances or their unhinged jaws to emulate the look of a frog.
I have one more feature to show you, and it sticks out for looking so different from everything else, including the action/adventure serials I’m leaving out of this article for length’s sake:
If you’re looking for great art and caricatures, Goscinny writes this piece that shows famous stars in scenes from their earliest roles. I think the conceit is that these movies now appear on television, so you might be surprised at who you see on TV. There might be funerals involved. Maybe you can guess who these famous stars are? They’re names are shown upside down just off panel.)
I think that’s what is.. That’s based on a very loose translation. And I am not familiar with most of the named stars. I think Brigitte Bardot and Maurice Chevalier are the only names I recognize in this group.
It’s the art that’s the star here. Alexis draws everything in a beautiful style. He does some great caricature work à la Jack Davis or Mort Drucker, and works a lot with screen tones/DuoTone/Zip-A-Tone together to create a certain level of detail in his work. I could pick apart these panels for hours. I love a good tone, and Alexis uses lots of it here.
The Ads of Super Pocket Pilote
The weekly magazine was packed with ads for things like pens, cameras, model cars, etc. It is easy to tell who a publication’s target audience is by seeing who they’re advertising too. For Pilote, that was mostly the school age market, with most of the models in those ads being in their early teenage years.
“Super Pocket Pilote” didn’t do that. It used only house ads, advertising only the albums collecting the stories from the magazine. Let’s look at those, because they’re a bit of fun. Also, in an era before Photoshop and Quark and InDesign, you’ll notice how much simpler the designs are.
Check this one out for the Asterix albums:
Well, do you have every book in their Asterix collection? These are books you will read and re-read, after all! And then you can go to the movies!
This is a good example that attempting to tie a comic book into a motion picture is a technique that’s been around for decades. The “Asterix and Cleopatra” animated movie had just come out in 1968, so they tied into that.
Given sales on the albums in the 60s, I almost wonder if this wasn’t the book doing the movie a favor, instead. That would be a crazy reversal from what we’re used to in this modern age.
You can see that “Asterix and the Cauldron” was the next book to be released in 1969. That would be the thirteenth volume in a series that was only a decade old. You need to ride that wave for as long as you can!
By the way, “Asterix and Cleopatra” is one of the few Asterix movies that you can stream today on Google/Apple/YouTube. I should probably watch it someday, but I don’t have the patience for that stiff 1960s animation style, sorry to say.
Speaking of television and movie tie-ins:
“Tanguy et Laverdure” became a TV series for three seasons in the late 1960s under the title of “Les Chevaliers du Ciel,” or “Sky Fighters.” That’s also the title of the movie made in 2005 based on the comic.
Here’s an ad for an early Blueberry collection, which didn’t have a supporting television series, from the typewriter of J.M. Charlier and the ink quill of Jean (“Moebius”) Giraud:
And there was also a Lucky Luke ad. “Dalton City” was the new book:
That black box there says that “The Tenderfoot” and “The Stagecoach” were also available. Keep in mind that Lucky Luke defected from Spirou to Pilote just a year or two earlier. Eventually, he’d wind back up at Spirou again…
The Fate of Super Pocket Pilote
It didn’t last long. They published nine issues on a quarterly schedule from 1968 through to 1970. Launching a new magazine is never easy…
I don’t know the details behind how or why it failed. Did people resist the smaller size? Did they just not need a second Pilote? Did distribution not pan out like they had hoped? Did the low price price suffocate the book? Did the artists refuse to make more stories for the small size? Could they not sell ads for it?
It’s a fun experiment in formatting, though. Seeing bandes dessinees at such a small size is a novel enough thing, but then seeing such familiar big name series as Lucky Luke, Valerian, Achille Talon, and Blueberry creating all new material just for the format is fascinating. Granted, Valerian had yet to take off, but in retrospect it’s interesting to see them all there together.