Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spirou "Hearts of steel" (Yves Chaland)

"Hearts of steel" was a Spirou story Yves ("the Adventures of Freddy Lombard") Chaland devised for the "Spirou magazine" in 1982. His was one of the several concurrent takes on the character serialized following Jean-Claude Fournier leaving the title. Unfortunately, "Dupuis" gave up on Chaland's version of Spirou halfway through the first story, leaving the artist to piece together the rest of the material, which was eventually published in several formats.

In many ways, having Andre Franquin on the series for so many years has set up a model that the publisher felt insecure to let later creators deviate too much from. Yet, by tasking the "atomic style" forerunner as a possible successor to Franquin devotee Fournier, "Dupuis" exhibited remarkable vision. Chaland himself was a lifelong fan of Spirou, but his take on the character deviates largely from pretty much all of the modern depictions of the mythos.

By having the story take place in the past, the writer/artist announced a bold departure from Culdesac, the setting which has given the title most of it's charm in the preceding decades. Aware of how such a bold choice might impact the modern readers, Chaland even went so far to originally present "Hearts of steel" in black and white, boldly proclaiming his take a throwback to the earliest history of the title. For once, it was Jije and early Franquin that a Spirou artist was calling upon, but not only as a matter of style.

Chaland was of course well versed with the endearing version that the title eventually evolved into, but his own take is much more focused on the formative years of post-War Franco-Belgian comics, a time where Spirou was much more closely related to Tintin. By shrugging off the all too familiar weirdness of Franquin's take, the writer/artist ventured into a much more paired down territory, deciding to revisit the character's earliest years, of being a young man in an elevator boy attire, with a pet squirrel as a companion and a close friendship with fellow reporter Fantasio. Once again, the reader is taken into a nameless urban city with nothing of Parisian glamor to it, acting as a hub for a series of strange coincidences that conspire to get the protagonists to action as soon as possible.

And although "Hearts of steel" never stops using Golden age logic, it feels remarkably contrived and manipulative. Chaland is well aware that he is writing a Spirou story, which justifies getting to his point by using classical contrivances such as a box being delivered to Spirou's address by mistake. The writer goes so far to have a homicidal robot in it, intentionally invoking the design of just such an adversary from the earliest Spirou short stories. Their long chase that starts off the tale is intended to confront the reader with a clear question, which is why are these old stories being remixed and brought out to the audience that's grown up on much more elaborate set ups. Chaland even has Fantasio make direct mention of the familiarity of the robot's design, which is a clear nod that the writer is fully in control of the story.

This is nowhere as apparent as in his layouts and figure work, both shining examples of very strong and capable craft holding together a particular retro modern look that has characterized the creator's output. Contrary to Jije's paper thin surroundings, Chaland's "funnies" have a frightfully tense and controlled style, deliberately invoked for just such a story as "Hearts of steel".

Taking the clue of an early Franquin short, Yves has the source of the character's problems be in the same building, living no less than in the apartment upstairs, as if this was a particularly paired down sitcom. But, by climbing to the elderly colonialist, the readers not only find an elderly adventurer surrounded by memorabilia, as in "Spirou and the Pygmies". Instead, theyd discover a man who is terminally ill and melancholic, mourning the disappearance of his African manservant. Seeing such a display of fatherly emotion, and perhaps even hints of stronger affections, was simply unknown in the initial days of Spirou and Fantasio's garishly colored exploits. The man still sets them on a typical adventure quest, but Chaland insists on every so often having a panel that very distinctively challenges the taken for granted innocence that the Franco-Belgian comics were built upon.

Having Fantasio sleepless before the flight is, of course, nothing new and completely in character, but so is his dialogue all Chaland as he actively ponders the nature of his existence, with the awareness of a mature protagonist, as if he has had decades of experience to him. That Spirou routinely shakes off this dilemma, as so many other fixed ideas that his friend has gone through, enables the story to continued with their journey. And Chaland is prepared to return to let go of post modernism for yet another return of the less sinister nostalgia.

But, such a sequence is as short as the characters' flight, and as soon as they land, the writer/artist is ready to make mention of the reality of an international corporation (called precisely by that name). This actually reveals that Africa that Spirou and Fantastio have flown to is a genuine one, completely at a disarray with the one they encountered in Franquin's initial scenarios.

This is supremely important, as it goes hand in hand with Chaland's retro modern art style. He is revisiting a Golden age locale, and is unprepared to have it be storybook jungle, or even a by the numbers military dictatorship that supplemented it in the later genre depictions. Chaland notably reveals this information by having Spirou say it out loud, while reading the local newspapers. Fascinatingly, this time Fantastio stays in character, responding in a way that could be perceived as racist, if not for his casual ignorance. His demeanor can almost be excused by imagining him having a memory of his highly stereotypical previous adventures.

Showing his hand, Yves Chaland has no doubt set out to challenge his progaonists, and have them come to terms with the complicated reality they haven't noticed before. Wisely, the artist doesn't depart from the story's atmosphere, and moreover grabs hold of another Golden age cliche by having the characters randomly encounter an old acquaintance on the streets of the foreign continent. This never before mentioned friend is another complex figure, as the affection he displays for Spirou and Fantasiois starkly contrasted by his treatment of the native populace workforce.

Most of the later plot is hinted upon in his dialogue with the characters, including the introduction of an equivocal villain of the piece. It is therefore a shame that "Dupuis" so opposed Chaland, that they had his story cut short right after he has finished setting the exposition. As soon as the writer/artist has depicted a couple of competent local detectives, and before his characters can get into a neighboring country involved with the diamond smuggling, the action abruptly stops. The readers are left with a sketchy final page promising a grand resolution, that would tie up all of the elements in a satisfying whole.

The twenty odd published pages are signed off as a complete "chapter" with conflicting reports about the publication of the rest of the story, first as a bootleg, and only recently a kind of authorized whole, bridging together the official "Spirou magazine" beginning and it's troubled follow up. It would appear that the project was left for Yann le Pennetier, who turned it into an illustrated text piece with the protagonists' identities bizarrely hidden under the leopard skins.

The names assumed by Spirou and Fantasio for this follow up are supposed to have been changed back in the long awaited "Dupuis" edition of the story, but that doesn't change the reality of Chaland's association with the title. It remains unfortunate that all of his effort and hard work was met with such a resistance from the traditionally minded publisher, one that ironically continues to reprint the characters' earliest racially offensive adventures as so much juvenalia of the comics' earliest days. Thankfully, this didn't stop Chaland from producing work in a similar vein with his creator owned "the Adventures of Freddy Lombard".

It is those five albums that he is today best known for, and it is doubtful that he would have returned to work for hire, if his life (and that of his daughter) hadn't been so tragically cut off in 1990. From the creative standpoint, his association with Spirou remains a classic cautionary tale of a creator hired to work on his favorite childhood characters. In the case of Chaland, the maturity of his world view, and the originality of his style, ended up being at odds odds with the publisher favoring sticking to the models, which seemingly works best when contracting insecure voices of relative anonymity.

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