I’ve acquired a not-small number of issues of the French “Spirou” magazine in the last few months. There’s a stack of them here in Pipeline World HQ ranging from the early 1950s all the way through to the 1990s.
I think today is the perfect day to finally talk about one of them here. Let’s go:
An All Too Brief History of “Le Journal de Spirou”
The magazine debuted in Belgium exactly 82 years ago today on April 21, 1938. It began life as a small eight page magazine. It quickly grew in popularity and page count. In the earliest days, it printed a combination of Belgian comics and a selection of American comic reprints, including Superman.
Then, real life stuff got in the way, specifically World War II. American comics were verboten. The Nazis banned them. It became impossible for the creator of Spirou, Rob-Vel, to get new pages from his home in France up to the offices in Belgium. A young upstart by the name of Jije took over Spirou. Jije also drew new endings to those Superman stories when it became impossible to import them.
Eventually, the magazine ceased publication temporarily because it was impossible to get the paper supplies to the printer during war time on a weekly basis, and the Nazis had rules about who was allowed to publish.
An All Too Brief History of The Marcinelle School
Once the war ended, Spirou started back up and immediately began a glorious era of Franco-Belgian comics.
Jije lead a group of young comic artists in what would come to be known as the Marcinelle School style of comics. Spirou’s offices were in Marcinelle, Belgium, and Jije’s house was close by.
He hosted the artists in his house to work together, and he’d help train them up. That list started with Morris, Will, and Andre Franquin. Not a bad line-up at all. It grew over the years to hold influence over the likes of Peyo, Jean Roba, and even Jean Giraud, whose early style was very similar to Jije’s.
That quickly became the house style of the magazine, and it turned out to be a very popular one.
(Again, please note that this is a ridiculously brief explanation of the Marcinelle School. Someday, I hope to fill in some more of those details for you. In the meantime, read up on the fascinating life of Jije.)
Spirou #1462 – April 21, 1966
The issue I chose to review has a cover date that’s exactly 54 years old today — April 21, 1966. There’s a very specific reason I picked this issue other than the date, however, and I’ll get to that in a bit.
First, a quick overview of the magazine: Counting the covers, it’s 52 pages long. And, yes, the magazine counts the covers as pages, so I will, too. The covers are still a heavier glossier stock than the magazine interiors, which are closer to newsprint.
While still bigger than your standard North American comic, the page size is still smaller than what Pilote published at.
The magazine is a mix of full color pages and black and white with one color pages. It is an ad supported periodical, most of which are black and white. The ads always tell you who the audience is, and “Spirou” is no exception. This is a magazine aimed at young kids. Early teenagers are probably as old as you’d go in classifying the readership for this issue.
The ads are for watches, pens, cameras, candy bars, car models, etc. When there are people pictured in the ads, they tend to be younger, mirroring the intended audience.
The inside front cover is a full page Smurfs comic that’s an ad for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. It’s a black and white ad with a spot blue color that’s laid flatly in. It looks horrible. It’s not even the right blue. They took it too far — Papa Smurf’s hat is even colored blue. The lettering is a different style from the normal Smurfs comics. It just feels wrong.
The cartooning is excellent, though.
Back to the magazine now:
The comics content is a mix of long-running serials and short one or two page gag strips.
There’s also some text pages that look custom made to appeal to little boys, such as the two page spread extolling the virtues of a different car each month. Jidehem did those, and he was ridiculously good at drawing cars. There are even books collecting those articles. But that’s an article for another time…
There are other text pages that have things like puzzles, the story of a crocodile’s love, and silly news of the day.
It does sound a bit like “Pilote” in a few ways, but with a different sense of humor overall, coming from a mostly — but not entirely — separate set of creators.
Peyo is Everywhere
I already mentioned the Corn Flakes ad, but that was only the beginning. Remember what I said in my “Super Pocket Pilote” article about how busy Albert Uderzo was? Peyo kept up a pretty good pace, too. He would eventually build out a whole studio to help keep The Smurfs going. I’m not sure how far along in that process he’d have been in 1966, but he certainly popped up all over the place in this magazine.
I picked certain issues of “Pilote” to buy based on the Asterix books they were serializing. When it came to picking out some issues of “Spirou” from the crowd, I chose based on which Smurfs serials were running.
In this issue, we have two pages from “La Schtroumpfette” (“The Smurfette”), which is the debut story of Smurfette. This isn’t the first page from that story, nor is it even Smurfette’s first appearance, but it is incredibly early in the story. She still has her black hair.
Papa Smurf is showing Smurfette around the Village and keeping her away from the dam, which holds back enough water to flood out the entire village. (Hello, Chekhov’s Gun.) She’s naturally curious — she was only just made by Gargamel, so she doesn’t know a whole lot. She’s exploring, and it’s driving everyone around her nuts.
Honestly, I was impressed by how well this art and these colors are produced on these pages. This isn’t the lowest quality newsprint, but it’s not a heavy stock of paper, either. But this art looks tremendous on this paper. I can’t say that about a lot of comics from the 60s, in any country.
Also, this is the first I’ve seen a Smurfs story in its original comics form. I was never a huge fan of the lettering that Papercutz uses on their translated editions. But now I see that they were aiming for something similar to the original lettering style. I think they nail that, now that I’ve seen the source material.
That’s quickly followed up by a page from “Benoit Brisefer,” better known in the States as “Benny Breakiron,” from his translated adventures published by Papercutz. It’s not a great isolated page from the story, but it is another page in Peyo’s art style. That’s always worth looking at.
There’s something about Peyo’s art that entrances me. The Smurfs are, of course, a perfect character design — well proportioned, cute, round, easily modified a million different ways. But his normal human characters and every day situations are also well-drawn.
I look at this page, and I like the way old man looks down at this watch. He has a weight on the page and is hunched forward ever so slightly, but also maintains a bounciness and a simple sense of motion and action in the uncomfortable way he stands.
Later in the issue, there’s a half page “Poussy” strip, which is Peyo’s cat comic. I’m not sure whether this is a reprint of an old strip or just Peyo sticking to what looks like an older style for the purposes of this strip. It’s good, but it doesn’t have that round-headed style and confidence that his other works (even in this issue) have. There’s a similar storytelling style and color scheme, but I’m afraid this is the weakest of his contributions to the issue.
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The Size of Smurfs (Besides Three Apples High)
True story: In a review of the Papercutz hardcover Smurf collections, I once remarked that the art seemed a bit small. The page size was right, but there was an awful lot of white margin space around it. Surely, that meant the art was shrunk down, right?
I was assured by one of the kind (and very patient) folks at Papercutz that it was not. I believed them, but there was still a nagging corner of my mind that wanted to see it for myself.
Now I can:
You saw the album side-by-side with the hardcover edition at the beginning of this article, and now you can see the side-by-side of one specific page in its original printing versus the modern Papercutz printing.
Yup, it’s the same exact size. Part of that white margin is just accounting for the title art that runs across the top of the page in Spirou with the story’s name, credits, and “story so far” paragraph.
You can also see that the modern coloring of the Smurfs — which I’m guessing was done by Peyo’s folks — stays pretty close to the original. There’s some minor gradients in the background, and colors have been altered here and there to help separate layers in the art better, but it’s pretty much dead on.
The Smurfs folks haven’t gone that step further that the Asterix folks went with their modern remastering. There’s no volumetric lighting added, or sculpted shadows on Smurfs’ faces.
Sidebar: The “Three Apples High” thing was a mistranslation, according to this Reddit thread. It’s a too literal translation.
More Good Stuff
Franquin and Jidehem get a page up front for a Gaston La Gaffe gag involving not just Gaston’s car, but also a half page panel filled with construction vehicles. And if there’s anything Jidehem was good at, it’s drawing vehicles. It works well for this gag.
“Pantoufle” is a two page gag comic featuring a cat, in case Peyo’s “Poussy” wasn’t enough for you. Macherot is the artist on this one, and he’s got a fun style that feels very 60s-ish in the way he draws people, and a little looser with the talking animals.
The interesting thing to me about this is that Rene Goscinny wrote it. It was a different world in the 1960s, I guess, where the editor of a competitor’s magazine (“Pilote”) could still be writing strips for this magazine (“Spirou”). Imagine Jim Lee drawing a new X-Men comic. It’s just weird, to me. At the time, I’m sure nobody in the readership thought twice about it, if they even read the credits.
Likewise, J.M. Charlier, who wrote so much for “Pilote” — probably even more than Goscinny — also has credits in this issue of “Spirou.”
Oh, yeah, and all of these magazines at the time included credits. Take that, American comics of the time…
The Jean Roba Detour
Jean Roba’s “Boule et Bill” gets the back cover for a gag page, but he also has two pages in The front half of the issue for his other series, “La Ribambelle.” It was a one-off series started a few years earlier and inspired by the “Our Gang” kids. Roba picked it up, recast the characters, and kicked off a run that would last more than a decade for the characters.
This is 1966 Spirou’s move towards diversity:
Nothing subtle here — the Scottish kid wears a kilt.
Dizzy, the black (“African-French”?) boy you see above is the only holdover from the series’ original run. That caricature of black people — with very dark skin and lips that large — was the common shortcut used by cartoonists of the day. It wasn’t much better for cartoonists drawing adventure strips in more realistic styles.
The younger twins are Asian, and Roba — or whoever colored this — managed not to make their skin a bright yellow color. Trust me, I have issues of “Spirou” from not too many years earlier where that was the norm.
It could be worse, of course. The earlier incarnation of this series featured a Chinese boy named “Chink.” That didn’t age particularly well…
The stories may very well be brilliant, rollicking adventures that would thrill kids to this day, but I’m not sure anyone would rush to reprint them in North America today. That said, Zidrou wrote a revival of the series in 2011 that modernizes it enough, at least, that the cartooning from Jean-Marc Krings in the book is no longer immediately offensive.
The first thing I notice immediately in this panel is that all the kids have rose-colored cheeks, which is something the “Alone” series does, also, to indicate youth.
One last thing: The cover to this issue is a painting of the Scottish boy’s butler.
I can’t tell you how well it handles the obvious issues that such a story might bring up, but the Jerry Spring series — a cowboy tale from Jije and Lob — is in the middle of a serial in this issue titled “Jerry Spring Against the K.K.K.” I wonder if it was at all inspired by the famous Superman versus the KKK radio drama…
A History of Comics
A regular column running through Spirou in the 1960s was The Ninth Art, written by Morris and Vankeer. It is from this series of writings that Morris is often given credit for coining the term, “The Ninth Art.” Each installment takes a look at a comic strip of the past.
In this issue, it’s a look at the American strip, “Johnny Hazard”, drawn by Frank Robbins. It comes complete with a full color page reprinting a Sunday strip from “Scorchy Smith,” which is titled the less impressive “Bob the Aviator” when translated into French.
What do you put at the center of such a magazine that a ki2e3rd might want to pull out from the staples and play with? A mini-comic!
This the way they tried out a lot of new series in Spirou around this time. The Smurfs even started out this way. It’s a large part of the reason why there aren’t so many complete, mint condition Spirou magazines to be found these days.
In this book’s case, by pulling out the page in the middle, you can then, by folding and cutting where indicated, create a 36 page comic.
While I’m tempted greatly to rip this out and give it a try in the name of journalistic curiosity, I can’t destroy this particular magazine trying it. If I ever have a “less important” issue to play with, I might just make a video to see if we can all figure this thing out together.
Random Things I Notice
I picked an issue of “Spirou” that doesn’t include a Spirou story in it. Go figure.
“Pilote” was sold as being the magazine for kids who’ve aged out of “Tintin” or “Spirou” magazines. I can see that here. This does feel like a slightly younger magazine than those two, though the focus on younger male readers is still evident. There are all sorts of cool stereotypically boy things in this magazine like pirates and cars and crocodiles.
Most of the humorous comics stick to that style laid down by The Marcinelle School, to one degree or another. There’s no sudden shifts to a wildly different paradigm, though there are definitely differences between the artists. There’s also a certain 1960s look to some of the characters designs, to my eye.
I love that creators are prominently named at the top of all the strips, and that they’re credited with their signatures, more often than not. Spirou worked to brand these artists.
I know I’ve mentioned this before somewhere, but I love their signatures. I love the way these one-named wonders had distinct ways of signing their name that made them instantly identifiable, if not always legible.
If you didn’t know that was Jije’s work, it might be tough to discern “Jije” from that signature that at first looks like a seismograph in a strong earthquake…
This isn’t everything in the issue. There are a couple more adventure strips, and a few humorous series. I’m just talking about the highlights and most of the big names you might recognize here from my past writings.
Eventually, I’ll do a video flipping through the issue so I can show you all of it. There’s a lot more to say.
Also, issues from different decades take on distinct characteristics that are worth discussing. The issues I have from the early 1950s, for example, are a little less exciting for me. The issues from the 1970s feel more upscale, but also like the magazine has found its big hits and relies more on them. There’s also a lot more bright color and shinier pages.
And modern day Spirou, of course, is where I’m testing my French fluency.
It’s a fun magazine, all around, and I can see why it would have been so popular in its hey day.
One final note: The most recent issue of the series as of this writing is #4279. They’ve never had to renumber it to get a new first issue.