Monday, February 15, 2010

Spirou and Fantasio - Franquin's short stories

Andre Frenquin became synonymous with "Spirou and Fantasio" due to his 20-odd year long run on the title, taking over from Jije, and turning the series into full-fledged adventure strip, rivaling Tin Tin. While creating the setting of Culdesac and Spirou and Fantasio's unforgettable animal companion Marsupilami, his own style has evolved dramatically, enabling him to continue in another direction starring Gaston Lagaffe, another of his additions to the series.

It is interesting then, to look back at the writer/artist's first pages, serialized in "le Journal de Spirou", as they reveal a young Golden age comic artist, following in the footsteps of his mentor Jije, who established Fantasio as the strip's co-protagonist. Spirou himself was created by Rob-vel, who signed the rights to the publisher "Dupuis", after creating an interesting comic strip starring an elevator boy and his pet squirrel. During the war, the stories about Spirou and Fantasio as investigative reports was worked on by the Belgian artists collective that came to be known as Marcinelle school. In the transition to the artists' post-War comics, such as Morris' "Lucky Luke", Jije started handing the "Spirou" assignments over to Franquin, who quickly proved his own, reworking the short stories format into the success that has since been associated with "Spirou and Fantasio".

In most of the Spirou translations around the world, these short stories usually take the place of the initial couple of albums. The Belgian album editions reprint the Franquin short stories as a couple albums preceding the "Count of Culdesac", and one immediately after, similarly to the Egmont's English edition published in India. Spirou and Fantasio's adventures have been published multiple times in Germany, with the publisher Carlsen once notably reprinting the earliest of Franquin's work as a separate "Spirou classics" edition. In Serbia, these Golden Age shorts have largely been omitted, as the definite publishing effort so far has largely consisted of high quality Spirou albums published in 1980s, and even then, reprinting only the latter half of Franquin's tenure on the title, as well as it's Gaston Legaffe spin-off.

At first, its' difficult to differentiate between the Jije and Franquin stories. The shorts are all drawn on the model, featuring standard Golden age dynamics of two friends constantly finding themselves in the situations over their head, leading to various light-hearted adventures. Jije himself has an active role in several of the stories following his departure from the main Spirou writer/artist position, but still remaining to collaborate with Andre. Gilain's own stories were mostly done in the space of 1943 and 1946, and could be said to feature somewhat realistic skirmishes with the mob and various complications emanating from the everyday life.

Franquin's initial involvement starts with "the Tank", a madcap gag scenario that portrays Spirou's friend as a buffoon, and basically serves to illustrate all the various situation that emanate from his ill-advised decision. Franquin's early artwork is very rough and indistinct, with a freewheeling quality to the plot, that still manages to get across his comedic timing. Like many of the early short stories, it feels very oddly structured, with action crisscrossing around the pages routinely packed with no less than fifteen panels.

Still, this was enough to convince Jije to let Franquin complete "the Prefabricated house", a Spirou story that Gilain has begun on his own. Once again, the reader is presented with the protagonists as a pair of young friends taking on odd jobs and opportunities, with only a lip service paid to their status as reporters. Spirou continues to play the straight man to Fantasio's hot-tempered nature, but for all their quarreling they remain best friends, going so far as to share the bed. The Golden age innocence paints the beach where their working as a few lines defined by primary colors, with literally noting at stake except for Fantasio's new job, found in the newspaper. Franquin is disinterested in Jije's simple setup, and proceeds to have fun by having his characters swept up by the storm, leading to a convenient comedy set-up of a friend believed dead. The madcap ending isn't very promising in itself, but overall, Andre's portion of the story shows a few glimpses of his style evolving outside of Jije's influence. This is particularly apparent in the artist's depiction of a stingray, a run down biplane and a craggy tailor, all of them betraying a much more original perspective, attracted to detailing the oddness attracting with everyday life of these Golden age characters.

This is nowhere as apparent as in "Spirou's inheritance", which starts as a haunted house story, before taking a sharp turn in order to appease Franquin's sensibilities. The artist spends a considerable time on the game of hide and seek played with his protagonists and a hunchback servant, before using the McGuffin to transport the plot into Africa. And though Spirou and Fantasio are routinely followed by a couple of crooks, the real point is to have the artist use to locale because it better suits his sensibilities. His figures are already much stronger and more dynamic than in his early short stories, but his real talent comes through in depicting the exotic tropics, where his caricatures spring to life fully formed, in the depictions of flora and fauna, along with some of the natives, unfortunately portrayed stereotypically in the blissful ignorance of the Golden age.

Still, it is evident that Franquin's sense of wonder knows no bounds, as in "Mad scientist" where limousine. The plot goes on to include robots, and a familiar plan of the destruction of the planet, only to be subjected to multiple climaxes. The story ends in a delightfully colorful way, he proceeds to tell a typical period story by starting it off with a seemingly possessed, and for once Andre decides to immediately continue upon it, in "the Robot blueprints", a typical chase story starring another bunch of familiarly depicting gangsters as the antagonists.

Along the way, Fantasio transforms into a much more believable character, that still retains his individuality by acting the part of strangely dressed eccentric. His juvenile behaviour is subdued to highlight his role as an reporter, albeit one that is very moody and prone to easy irritation. Spirou undergoes very little change, and continues to be a well meaning young man, stubbornly helping out in various crisis that he stumbles upon, in his red bellhop uniform. The two friends' living quarters are inconsistent, and the writer/artist refuses to even make note whether they are living in a small town or an urban metropolis. Spirou and Fantasio are simply youths unburdened by responsibilities beyond caring for the pet squirrel, and thus easily positioned in any kind of caper Franquin finds himself interested in. As for Spip, the gruff rodent is depicted as speaking in these stories, and even aiding his master in cutting the ropes from time to time, but he is largely kept in the background.

Soon, it becomes apparent why, as Franquin shows his preference after having Spirou and his pet take a walk in the opening of "Spirou and the pygmies". Soon, they are interrupted by no less than a jaguar, charmingly depicted by the artist, which goes on to live with the protagonists. For the first time, their living arrangements are given a character of their own, and it serves to hold Franquin's interest for a good half of the story, before he once again steers the story towards Africa. This time around, the gags are much spontaneous, and his art livelier than ever, as it sets out to detail the fictional country, standing in for Africa's longtime problems. This time around, Franquin sets out to present a clear message, showing kinship between the two warring tribes, spurred by the white man to go to war, but he does so in a manner that borders on insulting in it's simplicity. Still, though the jaguar from the first half of the story is largely forgotten by it's end, it nonetheless presented a clear model for Marsupilami, whom Spirou and Fantasio were soon to encounter.

Still, before starting his larger narratives, Franquin was inspired to comment on the group of four, that he shared the studio space with. Particularly, he is inspired by Morris, whom he depicts as Spirou's friend Maurice, instrumental to setting up a box with with his hero and the neighborhood bully in "Spirou in the ring". He follows the somewhat longer story with a short, paying direct homage to his friend's famous "Lucky Luke" series. But "Spirou rides a horse" is still not the end of colleagues directly inspiring one another, as the trip Franquin took to America with Jije and Morris ended up inspiring structurally the most successful of his short stories.

In "the Black hats", the reporters are searching for the connection between current America and it's Wild West beginnings, and it works as a complete and original piece, possessing a style and irony of it's own. It is as if by parting with the Golden age flight of fancy, Franquin matured to finally present a story that treats itself seriously enough to both entertain its readers in numerous comedic scenes, and work as a satisfying whole. By completing Spirou and Fantasio's American adventure, Andre seemed a whole different artist than the one who took over the strip from Jije. Even though he was still a long way from perfecting his storytelling to suit his personality, he seemed confident enough to try his hands at longer works.

By concentrating on his own strengths and interests as a creator, Franquin was content to continue working for "Dupuis" to bring world wide acclaim to their characters, and moreover upon up the concept to include more of his own world view. Starting with "the Wizard of Culdesac", the artist slowly endeared with the readers the world over for his unique sensibility and a sense of character that he infused to Rob-Vel's ideas. Eventually, his relationship with "Dupuis", enabled him to retain the rights to his signature creations Gaston Lagaff and Marsupilami, which have since taken a life on their own, beyond "Le Journal", while only a rare creator was capable of leaving a lasting personal stamp stamp following his decades long run defining run on the adventures of Spirou and Fantasio.

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