Saturday, February 27, 2010

Spirou "the Wizard of Culdesac"

"the Wizard of Culdesac" was the first major "Spirou and Fantasio" album, serialized by Dupuis in 1950. Assisting the regular penciler Andre Franquin was Henri Gillain, a math teacher and brother to the artist's mentor Jije. Henri passed his notes of to his brother to turn into script, but insisted on signing his work under the pseudonym of 'Jean Darc'.

In effect, it was Henri's contribution of count Culdesac, an eccentric inventor living in rural France, that would prove to be crucial in the early development of the franchise. Appropriately, in story, city dwellers Spirou and Fantasio plan to make Culdesac nothing more than a short stop on a trip through the country. But even before getting off their bikes, they are treated to an unexpected dose of weirdness surrounding the charmingly anachronistic village.

Most of the album is taken up by the mystery story with a very particular atmosphere, centering around mysterious occurrences involving livestock of the sleepy helmet. The sheer oddness of artificially aged cows and spotted pigs soon carries over the inhabitants of Culdesac, common folk set in their ways. All the while, Spirou and Fantasio are perplexed by the strange mushrooms that seem to cause the strange illnesses, as well as a gypsy family whose arrival coincides with the malady. The reclusive count that seemingly hovers around everything, in his old time automobile is of no help, as he keeps to himself, and the run down family castle he calls his home.

By taking the story out of the big city inertia, Franquin once again proves at home by bringing all of the deranged and interesting details to life. Typically, his vehicles and animals exhibit a real sense of character, with their run down, caricatural designs. But, more importantly, by having a real sense of place in Culdesac, he the artist is free to finally commit on fleshing out the supporting cast. And, by and large, the rest of his two decades long association with Spirou and Fantasio's adventures centers around the concept of Culdesac, at least as a place to start from and return to, in those albums that have to do with exploring a more exotic locale.

This is only natural, considering his charmingly odd and fresh interpretation of the village, with it's dusty architecture and short, middle aged civil servants that have to put up with the weirdness that starts to creep in, seemingly from outside. All of the locals strive to present themselves as stern pillars of community, with the eloquent mayor, being the volume's standout, a perfect picture of a neurotic with a hugely boosted ego based largely on self-delusion. That both him and his bureaucrats have a hard time dealing with the crisis at hand comes as a surprise to everyone, except for the local veterinarian, constantly stumbling around, who has long since given up on the subjective normality that the rest of the village prides itself on.

Seeing all of these rich characters, with their noses and stooped stature, run around trying to be effective, when beset by what seems a horrible curse is the element that finally imbues "Spirou" with the type of energy all of it's own. The protagonists themselves initially find the strange circumstances as unnerving, but quickly grow intrigued, trying to find the real culprit behind the increasingly dangerous effects of tampering with nature. That the Count knows more than he lets on comes as no surprise, but, again, Franquin uses their finally getting into the castle as an excuse for a series of gags involving strange elixirs and physical comedy. Count Culdesac is likewise, portrayed less as a gifted inventor, and more like his absent minded assistant, which is a break following the mad scientists that Spirou has kept running into before his first extended adventure.

Yet, despite the stakes being relatively low, the artist exploits local paranoia and xenophobia against the mysterious gypsies to have the story achieve a tense mood. That some of the key proceedings happen at night, also helps carry over the supernatural mood that has beset the villagers, while still using every opportunity to point out at some of everyone's more obvious failings. All of this is done without a malicious intent, as even though Spirou and Fantasio don't make any distinctive proclamations as early as "the Wizard of Culdesac", it's clear that they fit right in, particularly in the hands of such a creative artist as Franquin.

In fact, the latter part of the album proves this in unequivocal fashion, as Jije carries Count Culdesac, and in turn the story, over to the big city. Thereupon, the two elixirs that he has taken with him are responsible for a series of unnatural events that Spirou and Fantasio are called in to investigate. Getting the young reporters on a trail of a man using unorthodox strength to achieve money by competing in sports is a familiar superhero territory, but in the hands of Belgian comics artists, it takes on a completely different note. Seeing count Culdesac in a race with his full attire on is in effect, much more similar to the feats of Asterix and Obelix using magical potion, and is used in much the same comedical manner.

Predictably, it's the local gangsters who are attracted to the familiar wish-fulfillment scenario behind such a miracle of science, and their inclusion goes to severely weaken the strength of the album as a whole. By serializing the story in two page sized chunks, it's entirely possible that this kind of effect wasn't apparent on Franquin and his collaborators, but nonetheless, having a completely different and predictably bland Golden age chase after the innovation of the Culdesac mystery sequence does detract from "the Wizard" working as a satisfying whole. None of the mismatched gangsters really feels much different from the previous antagonists in the Spirou short stories, and there's next to no suspension in seeing the artist go through the motions as he depicts the caper.

Thankfully, the final portion of the album is much shorter than it's more intriguing and highly innovative title story, which was sure to leave an impression with the readers of the time, unfamiliar with the ease with which Franquin brings together the disparate elements that make up Culdesac. In truth, breaking the stories in two separate wholes might have benefited the characterization of the protagonists too, as Spirou and Fantasio betray the artist's affinity for the Count, as they forget about their enmity as soon as they get to big city and befriend him a little too easily. By and large, this new addition to the cast is a wholly welcome one, even in this early, somewhat scattered version, as Franquin has traditionally found little use of the reporter's pet squrriel as a third protagonist.

It goes without saying that the artist's work on Spirou and Fantasio themselves is continually evolving, in such an organic way that is perfectly epitomized by Culdesac. Such ragged scenery goes beautifully with Franquin's treatment of Spirou's bravery and natural curiosity, as well as Fantasio's nervous and moody nature. It is really as if the artist was waiting for his Gillain's brother Henri to help with the final part of the outlook on "Spirou" that he needed to finally commit to the story and calls it his own. And seeing Franquin's endless imagination fully unleashed in the very next album is all the proof needed to see why the title has gone on to achieve such international success. That it's most popular artist had continued to treat it as his primary assignment for so long after that point is a boon for all of his fans, as they got to see a crucial part of his evolution from a Golden age penciller into a supremely important Franco-Belgian comics stylist.

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