A Way Too Brief History of “Pilote”
Asterix didn’t originate in album format.
For 15 years, starting on October 29, 1959, Pilote serialized each story, 2 pages at a time.
The weekly magazine differentiated itself from competing weekly comics magazines by (A) being based in Paris instead of Belgium and (B) aiming its editorial content at adolescent readers. That’s a slightly older audience than what “Spirou” and “Tintin” magazines did at the time.
Pilote began with writers Rene Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, and artists Albert Uderzo and Jean Hébrard.
To fill in the pages of the book, Goscinny and Uderzo combined to create “Asterix” as one of the magazine’s serials. It was a last minute addition, replacing an earlier attempt at a series that accidentally had too similar a premise to a pre-existing strip.
Asterix became the breakout hit of the book, with album sales quickly skyrocketing into the hundreds of thousands.
Only recently did I think to look at a physical copy of Pilote, though. As an American, I’ve never seen anything like it — a weekly magazine devoted to comics?
What were those magazines like? What else was inside of them? How was the material originally presented?
To find out, I jumped on eBay. I’ve picked up a few issues, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on one, issue #455 with a July 25, 1968 cover date.
Pilote is huge. It’s bigger than the album format by at least a half inch on either side. On the pages, themselves, the art comes pretty close to the edge of every page. It’s not full bleed, but it might as well be. The series title appears at the top of the first page, and I see it getting cut off at the top an awful lot. Better to accidentally crop that off than the art, though.
It’s a color magazine, but not all full cover. I’m not sure how this worked entirely, but different sections are full color, single color, and black and white. The big name comics — and there are a bunch of them you’d recognize in here — are in full color. The secondary comics are black and white with a single color. The black and white pages are the text/editorial matter.
While the vast majority of each issue is comics, there’s also a few spare pages devoted to text features, puzzles, a letter from the editor, and some ads.
I’m used to those full color pages appearing together. The printing process, generally speaking, would allow for a “signature” of full color pages to be batched together or at least spread out in a predictable pattern as the pages are cut and folded into place of a book or magazine.
Nah, here there’s a full color page between single color pages, black and white spreads stretching out between mono-color pages, etc.
Were those single color pages an actual artistic choice, and not a limit of the printing? I don’t know.
In this issue, the full color treatment appears for “Asterix”, “Valerian”, “Blueberry”, “Lucky Luke”, “Achille Talon”, “Barbe-Rouge”, a centerfold presentation on a Lockheed airplane, and “Michel Tanguy.”
Single color treatment is available on “Iznogoud”, “Pan, La Syrinx Et Diane”, and “Tony Laflamme”.
Let’s first hit a few of the big name highlights, starting with the biggest for this issue:
The Cover Story: “Valerian” Begins!
If that cover image looks at all familiar to you, it should. “La Cite Des Eaux Mouvantes” translates out to “The City of Shifting Waters.” Yes, that’s the first volume of “Valerian”, though not the character’s first appearance.
The painted cover is a variation of the same shot done in linework for the album cover.
“Valerian” began the November before in Pilote issue #420 with “Bad Dreams,” which is effectively the origin story for how Valerian met Laureline and brought her ahead into his own time. It’s also drawn in a different style for Jean-Claude Mezieres. It’s more cartoony.
That story only ran 28 pages, so it’s too short for its own 48 page album. Strangely, nobody’s ever thought of padding out an album with some text pages or sketchbook art or anything to justify an album. You can read the story now in Cinebooks’ “Valerian: The Complete Collection” v1, with my review of it here.
But in the Summer of 1968, Valerian returned in a format that feels closer to what you’d expect in a Mezieres-drawn Valerian story, although with enough dialogue and words, in general, to rank it right up there with the worst of “Blake and Mortimer.” Give it a couple of albums and Mezieres and Christin would work that all out.
But Pilote #455 has the first two pages of the album that would be called “The City of Shifting Waters.” It’s only two pages, but it feels pretty important, historically, to see it here like this.
The size of the art in the magazine is just slightly larger than that in the Cinebook edition of the album. You can see the differences in coloring when you compare the two side by side. They’re not dramatic. Some background colors have been adjusted. The newsprint in Pilote soaked up a lot of the color, it looks like, and made things generally darker. There’s some cleanup along the edges in the final album where colors bled a little originally. Otherwise, it looks identical.
Obviously, Pilote is all in French. This is the first time I’ve looked very carefully at some of the choices the translator made. In this case, that’s Jerome Saincantin. From the French I’ve picked up over the years, it’s pretty close to the original French. I’m sure there are all sorts of minor differences I don’t recognize or turns of phrase he added to make it more fluid or culturally relevant in English, but I can’t complain.
On a personal level, it’s really cool to own a piece of this history. I spent the better part of a year on this website reviewing every Valerian book available. To own a copy of the magazine where volume 1 kicked off is special.
…As Asterix Ends an Olympic Story
As Valerian begins, so does an Asterix story end. This issue features the final two pages from “Asterix at the Olympic Games.” They’re right up front in the issue, too, on pages 6 and 7.
As with Valerian, the art is a bit wider and taller than in the final album form, which is twice as impressive when you realize that there’s a bug chunk taken off the top of the page for the series title and the little recap box. Like I said before, this magazine is huge.
The coloring is completely different in the album format compared to the magazine, and I think it’s much improved. The magazine colors are just too saturated. The art gets lost, particularly in places where blue tongues are seen in front of blue skies of the same exact color. Makes them look see-through. There’s a wink on the second page from Getafix to Asterix that you almost wouldn’t see in the magazine because the blank ink is swallowed up by the dark blue background.
I’m comparing the album before the 2014 remastering, by the way. That remastered coloring is the same as the 2004 editions I own, just with more gradients. They also cleaned up a lot of linework along the way, but I don’t think that particular album was any trouble in that department. They must have had clean copies of that film all along.
I loved seeing the original lettering on this one. I’m used to seeing the computer lettering on the English editions that’s done in the same style as Uderzo’s lettering, but it still can’t quite compare to the original. This is doubly true when a character is screaming and the letters get super large in their balloons. You can see the difference from this panel here:
They do the best they can in the computer with the translation, but there’s a liveliness to the line in the original French that gets sucked out of the computerized lettering. And Uderzo is an expert letterer. There are a couple of caption boxes where things space out a little oddly but those word balloons are perfect, and the loud voices sing.
There were other issues of Pilote on eBay when I picked this one up. I was excited to try for magazines that had pages from “Mansions of the Gods” or, one of my favorites, “Asterix and the Soothsayer.” Sadly, someone outbid me. Still, I’m keeping an eye open for more of those.
Lucky Luke Continues, As Well
“Lucky Luke” started in “Spirou” twenty years earlier, then moved to Pilote in the 1960s for a number of years before returning to “Spirou,” where it is published to this day.
This issue of the magazine continues the “Dalton City” storyline with two more pages. They’re great pages with Lucky Luke talking to the shortest Dalton. Jolly Jumper is even in a few panels.
I have better examples in other issues of Pilote, but the thing that jumped out at me about these pages is that the modern reprints have stuck to the original’s coloring style. That flat solid color style that Morris used has remained true in the work ever since. You can see it in the flat green backgrounds of the second page here, and the yellow backgrounds with green tables on the first page.
I have to admit that I”m not a big fan of that style, but I can’t imagine a Morris-drawn Lucky Luke any other way.
There was one other thing that jumped out at me while looking at these pages, much to the surprise of nobody: The lettering. Yes, this again.
The classic cartoonist hand lettering of the 60s is awesome. Reading the English translations, I’ve never seen Morris’ lettering style before now. This stuff is great.
In particular, I love the way he draws the “E”s with those tight parallel lines that come off the vertical line a little lower than expected. The little curly-cues on the “C”s and the occasional bottom of the “B”s are also interesting — again, not a style I would have chosen, but consistent and clearly his own.
There’s a lot of life to those imperfect hand-lettered balloons. Cinebook and Europe Comics both do wonderful jobs in using a font that approximates the look in all of its books, but it’s not the same.
C’est la vie!
I see why people love Blueberry so much. I’ve never seen much of the series anywhere. I missed the short-lived Marvel reprints in the 80s, and the series has famously not been available in English since then. Dark Horse is publishing the Moebius Library, but that doesn’t include this series for whatever reason.
It’s a shame because now that I’ve seen it, I want more. It’s an amazing pair of pages: dense, colorful, detailed, filled with texture and emotion, and with lots of stuff happening.
All of the other samples from other issues I’ve picked up all show the same thing. Jean Giraud did not cheat on any of his pages, and produced some remarkably lively and realistic looking stuff in these westerns.
For those at home keeping track, he’s credited only as “Gir” in these stories. “Moebius” is a name he used just for his sci-fi comics in the 60s, and didn’t concentrate on until the mid-1970s and the “Heavy Metal” days.
My Big Discovery: La Rubrique-a-Brac
There are a few other comics in this magazine. Some I’ve never heard of. Some I have little interest in. Maybe I’ll talk about the more in a review of another issue.
But there’s one big “find” in this issue for me, and that’s “La Rubrique-A-Brac” by Gotlib, whose name you may remember from my review of “Superdupont.” I had never heard of this series before I picked up these magazines, but it’s the first new one I started translating for myself.
I looked it up and found a little history on it: The series started as “Les Dingodossiers,” a two page strip by Rene Goscinny and Gotlib. They’d spend two pages on some little bit of every day life and make jokes about it. Think of MAD Magazine’s “The Lighter Side of…”, but in French.
Eventually, Goscinny was too busy with “Asterix” (and “Iznogoud” and “Lucky Luke”), and left the strip to Gotlib to continue. Gotlib retitled it, made it his own, and ran with it for a few more years.
I’m not sure I can explain why it hits me for being so funny. I guess the sense of humor is just in my ballpark, plus Gotlib’s style works so well for me. It’s also very visual. Even for what might be seen as a “simple” comic, there’s a lot going on. There are very few backgrounds. It’s all character acting and a narrator explaining things. In some ways, this almost shouldn’t work as a comic, but Gotlib pulls that off.
In this two-pager, Gotlib introduces the man who invented the paper clip after seeing some happy school children playing with their trombones. I love the visual in this one comparing a paper clip to a trombone. It works best when you see it unfold.
And, yes, the lettering is great. It has character, with thicker horizontal lines than vertical and shapes all their own. Some of the cartoonists of the era seemed capable of only drawing letters in a square box shape with an even stroke. Gotlib’s style has its own look, while being perfectly readable.
“Les Dingodossiers” originally got reprinted in three volumes, but a complete collection of it appeared in 2005.
“A Rubrique-a-Brac” saw five reprint volumes and a complete edition in 2002, which added color to it.
Everything Else: The Pilote Video
There’s more in the issue, including lots of series I wasn’t familiar with, plus one or two I had heard of but never read. Add onto that the ads in the book, the editorial matter, the educational stuff, and more.
For fun at the end of this article, here’s a silent flip through the issue, with what I’m just going to call “Pilote ASMR”. Listen to those page flips through the video and grow entranced….
I also published a video flipthrough with commentary of the whole issue.