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May 24, 2011

Paul Gillon, 1926-2011

imagePaul Gillon, an iconic standard-bearer of traditional comics storytelling values and a gaint of French BD, passed away on Saturday, May 21, at the age of 85, in the small city of Amiens in northern France.

The cartoonist was born in Paris to a family of modest means. His early childhood was marked first by the isolation and limited physical activity that comes with extended illness (tuberculosis), and then by a period of minor rebellion and acting out once he was allowed back into school. Gillon was a bright student, and quickly caught up to his peers that had moved years ahead of him in terms of formal, general education. He found his way to the Ecole des Arts Graphiques in Paris after brief and unsuccessful stopovers in a pair of other schools. He soon found himself dismissed from that institute of learning as well.

Gillon considered pursuing a career in theater or film or even fashion. Still an early teen, Gillon soon found paid work doing illustrations and caricatures of denizens of and scenes from those arts worlds for magazines such as Samedi-Soir, France Dimanche and Gavroche. When the magazine market turned supremely chaotic after the conclusion of World War II, Gillon had a hard time finding the same kind of steady work as he had initially. On a friend's advice, he began to study opportunities available in comics.

Gillon's first comics work came in 1947 for Vaillant, a publication where he eventually took over a number of series: Lynx Blanc, Cormoran and Wango among them. He soon began to create series of his own, starting with Fils de Chine, which was serialized from 1950 to 1953. Shorter Gillon works appeared from the late 1940s-on in publications like 34 Camera and Radar. In all of his comics of the time, Gillon was part of a tradition of comics making that held the American adventure newspaper strip in high regard. Gillon himself evinced a special amount of affinity for the work of all-time comics craftsman Alex Raymond. He was also familiar with Milton Caniff and Hal Foster.

Gillon was a successful cartoonist throughout his first dozen or so years in the industry, quickly finding new work to replace any that might have been lost due to youthful indiscretion. His type of realistically rendered comic became one of the more sustained, dominant market forces in the history of French BD, almost a house style -- certainly a notable influence -- at magazines big and small. As the 1950s came to a close and Gillon moved into his mid-thirties, he began to be counted on less for his fill-ins and more for major features of his own creation, establishing a pattern and predilections that would take him through the next five decades of work. From 1959 to 1972, Gillon drew the daily soap opera 13, rue de l'espoir for France Soir (example at bottom), a significant career highlight and a work for which he'd be remembered if there were nothing before or after it. He also placed work in Journal de Mickey. From 1968 to 1972 he worked on Jeremie for Pif gadget.

imageIn 1964, Gillon began serializing in the magazine Chouchou what many consider the best work of his career and one of the defining genre series in French comics history, the science fiction saga Les naufrages du temps [Lost In Time]. Gillon co-created the feature with the writer Jean-Claude Forest. Forest and Gillon would work together on that material through 1977, producing four albums' worth of material. Gillon took over the writing chores and created another six albums worth of comics, the last of which I believe hit the market in that form by 1989. Despite its difficult serial history -- it moved from Chouchou to France-Soir and eventually appeared in Metal Hurlant, it was well regarded throughout its run and its collection into albums in the 1970s came fast and furious once it began. Martin Wisse provides a smart appreciation of the series here.

Gillon remained phenomenally busy and productive for the bulk of his career. In the early 1970s, Gillon created two works for Lombard -- Les dieux barbares and La mijauree, la megere et le nabot in 1973 and 1974, respectively. Those works were reprinted in the early 1980s by Les Humanoides Associes, who published the collections of Les naufrages. Among his popular series in the 1980s were Les Leviathans for Les Humanoides, and La Surivante for L'Echo des savanes. Among the works in an incredibly loaded bibliography are an adaptation of Moby Dick in a stand-alone book for Hachette in the 1980s, Joan Of Arc's story turned into comics for Albin Michel in two albums in the 1990s, and two albums with Richard Malka in the L'Order de Ciceron series in the 2000s. The first two of those may have been from the period in which he was doing comics for Journal de Mickey.

Gillon won several awards during the heart of his career, and one major award of recognition during its long afternoon. He took the Prix Phenix twice, in 1972 for Jeremie and in 1974 for Les Naufrages du temps. He won a best French artist award at Angouleme in 1978, and that festival's Grand Prix in 1982. He won the Grand Prix RTL for Au nom tous les miens in 1986. In 1998 he won the Grand Prix Yellow Kid at the festival in Lucca. That same year a biography of the cartoonist by Claude Gendrot, Monsieur Gillon, was published.

By the end of his career -- he stayed busy until just a few years ago -- Paul Gillon was almost a living avatar for a now-faded form of classic comics making, a reminder of the glories of magazines and genres no longer quite as important as they once might have been, of days when you could seize the attention of the mainstream through beautiful pictures and lushly-imagined world, a reminder of times when artists of that tradition were perhaps more frequently lauded and won the big festival prizes. Paul Gillon's comics maintain their enduring value by the beauty and balance they exhibit via their creator's mastery of craft, his willingness to travel to new worlds or to work at the outer edges of adult expression if the need arose. Those comics remain formidable and authentic; so was their creator.

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