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Home > Bart Beaty's Conversational Euro-Comics

Bart Beaty Reviews Emile Bravo's Spirou/Fantasio Book
posted December 4, 2008
 

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By Bart Beaty

I wasn't going to review Emile Bravo's Spirou and Fantasio book, Le journal d'un ingenu, on the basis that I'd already raved about his work once this year when I wrote about his Angouleme prize-winning Ma Maman est en Amerique. Only one rave per customer per year, that's my motto. But given the slew of awards and nominations Bravo is racking up for this new book, it may be necessary to say a few words. So here they are:
Emile Bravo's contribution to the Spirou and Fantasio tradition is one of the smartest and most charming comics that I have ever read. It is a truly wonderful re-imagining of one of the defining characters of the Belgian comics tradition, and so masterfully constructed that it should be the model for any cartoonist seeking to update a classic work. Everyone should read this marvelous book.
So, with that out of the way, let's take a couple of steps back.

imageSpirou, the character, was created by Robert Velter (Rob-Vel) in 1938 for the magazine Dupuis. With the outbreak of the war, authorship of the series was transferred to his wife and, in 1943, he took the unusual step of selling the character to the publisher. They gave it to Jije, one of the leading comics creators of his time. Jije added Spirou's sidekick, Fantasio, and continued the comic as a gag strip before handing it off to Andre Franquin in 1946. It was Franquin who completely transformed the strip and made it the landmark that it is today.

It is hard, I think, for most Americans to understand the influence of Franquin on Franco-Belgian comics publishing, since so little of his work has been translated into English. Trying to understand the Franco-Belgian comics tradition without reference to Franquin is like trying to comprehend superheroes without knowing about Kirby. It simply can't be done. Franquin was an absolute genius, and his work is rightly beloved. Franquin produced 20 Spirou and Fantasio albums between 1946 and 1968, and they are among the best humor/adventure comics ever produced, rivaling the work of Carl Barks.

Since that golden age, Spirou and Fantasio books have continued to be published by Dupuis (notably by Tome and Janry and, most recently, by Morvan and Munuera). In 2006 Dupuis took the unusual step of launching a series titled Une aventure de Spirou et Fantasio par..., which would allow new artists to work with the characters in books that are, essentially, outside continuity. Bravo's is the fourth book in this particular series.

imageBravo has set his book in the Rob-Vel era. The year is 1939, and Spirou works as a bellhop and elevator operator at the Moustic Hotel. The enormous change that Bravo introduces to the series is timeliness. The original Spirou stories, and Franquin's, were oblivious to history and politics. Bravo's book is awash in them. Indeed, even the endpapers of this book are a carefully crafted collage of hammers and sickles on the one hand, and swastikas on the other. Spirou, like Belgium itself, will soon find himself caught up in the sweep of world history.

The story in Journal d'un ingénue depicts Spirou's first meetings with the journalist Fantasio, who is chasing down a celebrity sex story but stumbles onto the meeting of Nazi and Polish leaders attempting to negotiate a peaceful settlement of their border issues in advance of the German invasion. Meanwhile, Spirou is involved with a young maid from the hotel, a communist Jew of Polish and German descent, who gradually introduces him to world events. It is this slow encroachment of the real world into the high fantasy of Spirou that seems so smart.

What makes the book seem clever, on the other hand, is it careful plotting and playful use of the history of comics. The book explains, for instance, why Spirou always wears his signature bellhop uniform and has fun with him by giving him non-work related clothes that make him look, as so many characters tell him, like the comic strip character Tintin. That Tintin and Spirou were the great rivals of this golden age of Franco-Belgian comics, should go without saying.

In terms of plotting, Bravo makes tremendous use of Spip, Spirou's squirrel, developing Spip's personality and ability to think, and integrating the squirrel into the hotel in ways that allow the plot to advance in an integrated way. Suffice to say, that Spip turns out to be the cause of the Second World War (after Spirou had cleverly forestalled it). I will also say this: the one-page epilogue featuring Spip was among the great comics pages I have read in recent years.

All in all, this is a remarkably tight book. Bravo's insertion of politics into the world of Spirou, and Spirou into the world of politics, is smart and engaging. The book is, of course, beautifully drawn. Bravo has carried over all of the lessons that he has learned from years of producing the children's adventure comic Jules, and, given this opportunity to make over a canonical character, has absolutely hit the ball out of the park. I've read this book three times now, and loved it all the more each time.

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I read yesterday that Journal d'un ingenu has been licensed for translation in half a dozen countries, but I don't know if the US is one of them. Fantasy Flight translated two of the later Franquin Spirou books a dozen years ago and, presumably, lost their shirts on them. I'm told that Egmont is currently releasing the Franquin books in English in India of all places, so perhaps those are available. It would be fantastic if someone would pick up the rights to the Spirou & Fantasio Integrale series that Dupuis is currently publishing and I would hope that the Bravo book would soon follow.

Very few cartoonists can follow in the footsteps of a master like Franquin, but Bravo has proven to be one of them.

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* Le journal d'un ingenu, Emile Bravo, Dupuis, European album, 66 pages, 2800140526 (ISBN10), 9782800140520 (ISBN13), April 2008.

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