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Sergent Laterreur, Gerald Frydman and Touis
posted March 8, 2007
 

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By Bart Beaty

I was shocked this year when I learned that the jury at the Angouleme festival had presented the Prix du patrimoine (the Heritage Prize) to Touis and Frydman's Sergent Laterreur (L'Association). The oversized Little Nemo book had seemed to me like a shoo-in, but, as someone pointed out to me at the bar, "Delcourt already had their prize: A 125Euro price tag." Angouleme's bars are filled with cynics...

Sergent Laterreur arrived as one of those books that I had absolutely no idea about. I was unfamiliar with the artists and I had never heard of the strip itself (which was originally serialized from February 1971 to December 1973 in the pages of Pilote, when I was far too young to be reading Pilote). I basically had no clue. I had flipped through L'Association’s new collected edition, but it wasn't high on my list of priorities.

That all changed in Angouleme when my good friend Uli started talking to me about this strip. He described a series of incredibly structured two-page gags from a glorious era of Pilote and talked about how he waited every week to read the new ones. He told me that when his family moved back to Germany from France and he realized that he couldn't carry his Pilote collection with him (too much weight) that he carefully ripped out all of the Sergent Laterreur strips and has saved them to this day. Uli is the type of discerning comics reader who rarely raves about comics (ok, maybe Barks), and to see him almost misty-eyed recalling this work from his youth convinced me to take a closer look. And then the prize absolutely sealed the deal.

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Sergent Laterreur is the type of book that is unlikely to ever be translated. A series of 108 short gags, the lettering of the strip is so integral to the overall page design that it would be well nigh impossible to translate the work without having to redraw virtually the entire volume. Graphically striking and visually cutting edge, Sergent Laterreur feels very specific to a particular time and space.

Each of the Sergent Laterreur strips deals with the relationship of the military sergeant and the lone soldier under his command. The sergeant is tiny, the soldier a giant. The sergeant is a bully, the soldier his punching bag. It is a comic world that they inhabit, but also a somewhat bleak one (the war is perpetual) and one where the relationships are exclusively based on power and delusions of grandeur. In the introduction to this volume, Jean-Pierre Mercier compares the work to Feininger, Moscoso and Rick Griffin, which seems like a good triumvirate by which we can orient the material. I would probably add Prohias' Spy vs Spy at the level of narrative -- the idea of two men caught in a series of endlessly recurring gags. Sergent Laterreur has an unmistakable underground influence, and the careful attention to the possibilities of the form certainly recall the more modernist work of Feininger and, to a lesser degree, McCay, whom the strip parodies on a number of occasions.

Not much changes in Sergent Laterreur over the two year run. There is no hugging and learning, and the strips seem slightly repetitive read all at once (they would definitely read far better on a weekly basis, which, of course, is the case for a lot of older strips that were designed that way). Lovingly collected in a single volume, the created impression is that this genuinely is something of a lost masterpiece, while at the same time the hyper-stylization and garish coloring becomes somewhat rattling after a while. By the strip's end, there was a sense that Touis was leading up to a stylistic breakthrough, but the strip's sudden cessation leaves that unresolved.

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I'm not sure why Sergent Laterreur ended. The introduction doesn't tell me, although I suppose that there just weren't enough readers like Uli clamoring for its continuation. A black and white collection was published in 1976 by DistriBD collecting a quarter of the strips, and there was a color edition from Dargaud in 1981 of about the same length. Touis continued to do some work for Charlie Mensuel and Pilote through until 1978, but then left comics altogether, and slowly his career and his work faded from the collective comics memory.

L'Association's edition, which collects all of the strips in full color on glossy paper, alongside some early research work, cover designs and other ephemera, should go a long way to reinserting this work in the history of the medium. This is a wonderful edition of the work, and it deserves to be widely read. This year, the Prix du patrimoine did exactly what it should do: it shone a light on a brilliant but long neglected work, and, hopefully, will help to build an audience for an important piece of comics history.

Next time: The Revelation Prize -- Mulot and Ruppert's Panier de Singe

*****

Sergent Laterreur, Gerald Frydman and Touis, L'Association, 108 pages, 2844141714 (ISBN), October 2006, 32 Euros

*****

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