Sunday, March 28, 2010

Spirou and the heirs

Serialized in "the Spirou magazine" in 1951, "Spirou and the heirs" was Andre Franquin's second major album working on the series. Unlike the title page of "the Wizard of Culdesac", the 1952 "Dupuis" published collected edition lists no creative assists in the credits. This is only the first indication that the writer/artist's effort feels much closer to his later works than even the first, lucid album.

It takes a very brave artist to proceed with the series by making next to no reference to the perfect long-form debut symbolized by the addition of Culdesac to the mythos. And yet, with "Spirou and the heirs" Franquin feels almost giddy in getting to enjoy the creative freedom all by himself. On the surface, the creator starts off seemingly naively, by revisiting the idea of Fantasio coming to the inheritance of the rich, previously unmentioned, cousin. By returning to the basic scenario of one of his first collaborations with Jije, Franquin doesn't satisfy himself with substituting the lead protagonist in charge of receiving the eponymous will and all the complications that go with it. The writer/artist uses this simple trope to wrap around three complete episodes, all spotlighting a major part of his creative inspirations.

The overarching plot of Fantasio and his cousin Zantafio competing to fulfill the three obligations needed to come into possession of the secret inheritance is therefore little more than a framing device that houses three distinctive chapters. Traditionally, the first one settles around Fantasio fixing to create a new invention, that is for once called for. This part of the plot begins as a fast paced physical comedy that must have been a delight to read in serial form. By the time the scheming cousin Zantafio rears his head in, Franquin is ready to start showing off his talent for drawing needlessly complicated machinery with very little practical purpose that has become the basis for most gags in his later "Gaston" series. This first part of the book actually peaks right before the big finish, with a series of hilariously over the top gags in the solicitor's house.

Thus, the final score on who gets to lead in the overall challenge feels tacked on and overlong, serving the wider plot that is largely superfluous. Interestingly, in the closing pages of this segment a rare metafictional bit occurs, bringing with it the only substantial reference to "the Wizard of Culdesac". And while it's easy to speculate on the inclusion of the arbitrary sequence, perhaps it's best to treat it as an advertisement for the collected edition of the preceding adventure. Despite the later "Gaston" spin-off being a place for the constant in jokes involving the publisher's office politics, Franquin sticks with the adventure storyline throughout "the Spirou and the heirs".

Yet, for all the fantastic contraptions Franquin comes up with as a running commentary on the continuing industrialization of the mid 20th century, there is no doubt that his inspiration comes from the cars. And while some of the artist's previous panels could be accused of having little in the way of atmospheric backgrounds, it all becomes next to irrelevant as the middle chapter comes speeding. Once again, the comic makes way for a sports event, that best encapsulates the challenge of the framing story. Even more, Franquin is so entranced by the prospect of depicting a formula race that he lends it by far the most space in the book, depicting in detail all of it's stages and ancillary events.

As for the story logic behind it, it's so childlike and naive that it defies criticism. Despite the idea of Fantasio and Zantafio receiving some training, it's best that the writer chose to spend as little time as he did on explaining how the two of them actually ended up in such a high end race. Once again, the artist falls back on using Golden Age criminals to set the plot in motion, and thankfully, he keeps it around to provide motion during the long racing sequence. Because, strangely, the all important track ends up feeling intensely decompressed, and actively in need of the subplot starring Spirou and Spip to inject energy in it.

On the other hand, technically, Franquin's craft is impressive, especially considering when it was produced. The cars' physical models, the sensation of movement and the intensity of the race is all depicted peerlessly, as if the artist was coming to the book fully educated on the subject. Of course, being a fan of auto sports doesn't explain the astounding layouts presented in "Spirou and the heirs", particularly considering that they hardly have much of a precedent in the comic book art before him. That Franquin more or less devised all of this movement himself is the album's definite high point art-wise.

Nonetheless, the race and the many machinations that erupt around it, would have benefited from some focusing and streamlining. Due to the rapid inclusion of seemingly every possible trope set around the race, the event loses a lot of momentum. It's almost certain that this was nowhere near a problem when originally serialized, but it definitely detracts from the work as a whole when sampled all in one reading. The problem can be summed up in the way the whole sequence ends, with Spirou and Fantasio riding an antique automobile, for no purpose than to provide Franquin to draw one. Interestingly, the crucial plot point tying the whole thing with the struggle for inheritance is dealt with in a single page, so as to propel the story forward and reignite the sense of rivalry between cousins.

Still, showing that Franquin indulging in his whims is creatively a very rewarding experience, is once again clear with the lest leg of Spirou and Fantasio's journey. After all, he is the creator that almost solely propelled them into one of the most popular Franco Belgian characters, and by taking them to the Palmobian jungle, he was preparing to make his mark that much more permanent. In fact, by presenting a fictional South American republic as a stand-in, Franquin unleashes some of his funniest moments right on the first couple of pages. The charming satire is quickly abandoned for a seemingly generic jungle hunt though, which can certainly be excused considering the animal involved.

Because, no matter the legal status of the character following the ending of Franquin's run on the title, Marsupilami has achieved an enormous and enduring popularity, and it all stems from a single plot strand of "Spirou and the heirs". Even in his original appearance, the weird monkey-like creature completely overshadows the protagonists. Of course, their trying to capture it results in a series of gags, but it's clear throughout that Franquin is absolutely fascinated by his new creation, and wants nothing more but to showcase its weird habits and abilities.

It's difficult to describe Marsupilami or even articulate what lead to his charm, but it's certain that somewhere amid it's gruff and unlikely ways lies a very endearing character. In any event, Franquin ended up being much more taken by his own creation than Spip, the squirrel that Spirou's original creator Rob-Vel came up with. It cannot be overstated that Marsupilami is an instantly memorable comic book character, and one that sticks in mind much more than Franquin's plots. On the other hand, his subsequent inclusion in the series' constant supporting cast has certainly lead the title far away from the subjective reality of the series, marking a clear line that delineates the Marcinelle comic book style. Simply put, depicting Marsupilami is as far away from drawing from life as the Smurfs are from "Tintin" and the more realistic ligne claire style.

Franquin must have been fully aware of the potential impact of his creation, as he quickly wraps up the last chapter of the adventure, and in turn the whole plot involving the inheritance. The unceremonious ending is valiantly hidden behind Zantafio's emotional breakdown, and the succeeding morale of the story, as imparted by the solicitor. After all the troubles, the ending feels hugely anti-climatic, and substitutes the actual pay off for shallow philosophy, seemingly thought up at the last moment. Still, this was arguably the only possible ending of a framing story that was from the start deceptively simple and unconvincing.

Yet again, the characters have ended their adventure with a very formidable reward indeed. The addition of Marsupilami to the cast, coupled with "the Wizard"'s setting of Culdesac have proven to be the chief elements that have made Golden Age characters Spirou and Fantasio such an enduring part of the Franco Belgian comic book scene. The only other, final major addition to the series was the introduction of a permanent villain, which was Franquin's final contribution to the mythos, after a long slew of albums.

Still, Franquin's departure as a way of maturing to different kinds of comics was still ways off in 1952, as the writer/artist was preparing to further integrate his new character in the world of Spirou, as set up by Rob-Vel and Jije before him.

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