Saturday, July 31, 2010

Spirou and Fantasio: "the Dictator and the mushroom"

"the Dictator and the mushroom" presents the
sixth full length Spirou and Fantasio feature produced by Andre Franquin for Dupuis' "the Spirou magazine". Using Maurice Rosy's plot, Franquin started serializing the story in 1953, which was eventually collected in hardcover album format three years later.

On the face of it, Franquin chose to spotlight an anti-military scenario, while drawing on his own work to provide background context. And while the writer/artist has certainly introduced Palombia as an unstable banana republic from the start, it's doubtful that the simplistic examination of the military coup phenomena featured in "the Dictator and the mushroom" was to be of the primary interest to most of the readers.

The book certainly starts of by pairing the two most of the most memorable over the top ideas Franquin introduced in his work on Spirou, that of town of Culdesac playing host to Marsupilami. The wondrous creative, native to Palombian jungle needed only to be introduced to the Count's newest invention to start wreaking the domestic bliss of the provincial town. And seeing Franquin realize this idea in a series of fast paced comedic sequences could certainly have been used as a basis for a complete adventure in itself.

That Franquin wasn't content on merely marrying two previous ideas in the most obvious scenario, speaks to his commitment to theme first, as the playful antics constitute merely the prologue of the story. The oft endangered Culdesac once again seems such a definite setting for the writer/artist's particular stylings, even if he admits initial skepticism for the Rosy-invented Metomol gas. Despite his propensity for high energy unapologetic storytelling, Franquin still felt that there was a line separating the subjective reality of his characters and the full blown science fiction with little bases in the everyday life that he liked to juxtapose his characters against. Of course, this goes against his having introduced nothing less than a dinosaur to Culdesac in a later volume, but on the whole, speaks of the common ground that his comics had with their chief aesthetic rival that was Herge's "Tintin".

Perhaps this was simply due to the generational gap between the two creators, but as the younger of them, Franquin certainly seemed more interested in satirizing the middle century technological boom that was all around him those days. Thus, Count Culdesac stands as a much more active and progressive scientists, than Herge's absent minded professors, and certainly much more advanced in the biochemistry field. Even then, his aristocratic demeanour still gets shaken as his experiments fail to be contained to the laboratory grounds. Having Marsupilami simply take a canister of his latest invention and run wild around the respectable community is an iconic presentation of the typical Spirou and Fantasio conflict.

As such, it convinces the protagonists that their pet must be returned to the Zoo grounds, but failing that, they resort to return to Palombia with it. As such, in a lot of ways, "the Dictator and the mushroom" is a direct sequel to "Spirou and the heirs", and not so much it's circus-oriented follow-up publication. The journey to Palombia is another chance for Marsupilami to win readers over, with his antics, because right after the characters finally arrive in the fictional South American country, the whole of focus shifts to a much different tale.

If not for the presence of the cover, Franquin would have certainly have succeeded in misdirecting the reader's attention. Without much in the way of foreshadowing Palombian's coup d'etat, the writer/artist suddenly makes it clear that characters once again traveling to secure Marsupilami's voyage was plot point designed to get them back to Palombia, so that he could get to the story he felt the need to tell. Marsupilami's hijinks aside, this is another instance in which the creator demonstrates his use of continuity to tell completely accessible tales. Not only is Marsupilami given a complete introduction and a reason to be taken back to it's native jungle, but the uninitiated reader doesn't really need to know anything about Palombia beforehand.

This is because once Spirou and Fantasio return to it, they are as surprised as the reader to see the signs of new dictatorial regime in place. Even considering that the of Palombia's supreme commander
is another callback to "Spirou and the heirs", doesn't detract from the enjoyment of those unfamiliar with the volume in question. In this instance, they might be even better served, as the character returns in a radically different way compared to his situation when last seen. Even Franquin has gone on record for regretting the creative decision that has made the way for establishing the villain in "the Dictator and the mushrooms".

In any event, the book largely transforms with the promise of the war with the neighboring country. The benevolent humor it starts with gives way to a light hearted war time thriller, as the paranoia starts becoming a pervasive mood. Thus, the antics of Spip and Marsupilami are relegated to background gags, as the secret police agent starts bearing the brunt of Franquin's whimsy. Franquin certainly manages to get across the fear for the lives of the protagonists, and the eventual resolution of the conflict, but this is achieved in a very perfunctory manner.

Spirou and Fantasio are given important military positions, in what what can only be described as an act of madness on the part of their chief enemy so far. And for all of Franquin's satirizing him as a low-rent Hitler, his unexplainable behavior certainly goes a long way from depicting him as a credible threat. Thankfully, the country standing on the brink of war makes up for this, and Spirou and Fantasio's quest to contract outside assistance certainly carries appropriate drama.
That the help eventually arrives in the form of another recent addition to the supporting cast certainly helps cement the feeling that the writer/artist has already created a strong comic, with not it's internal logic and the author's myriad idiosyncrasies, but also a number of recurring characters that strengthen the narrative on the whole.

Yet, seeing the ultimate results of marrying two disparate parts of the story does lead to the feeling that the book is somewhat the less than the sum of it's parts. Certainly Franquin understood that the complicated nature of modern warfare was always going to be simplified in it's depiction in what was a premiere children's comic at the time. Yet, there was no excuse to follow that impulse to it's natural resolution, implying that every storytelling convention is acceptable if the creator has an humane agenda on his mind.

That the reader never gets to really meet the other part of the conflict could have been used to even augment the plot, but it certainly serves to help undermine the story's credibility when coupled with the eventual means of stopping the looming conflict. Such a brief and abbreviated scene is lent some more weight when coupled with the eventual personal showdown with the culprit behind the Palombia's troubles, but it doesn't really go a long way from helping the book cohere as the whole.

As for the epilogue, it could be said that it's much more successful, in that the writer/artist has done everything to prepare the reader for Spirou and Fantasio's final decision regarding Marsupilami's status. Once again, the characterization resurfaces as the real strength of this album, as Spirou and Fantasio leave behind the weak and unconvincing resolution of military conflict. There are certainly whole scenes that effectively drive forward Franquin's urgent pacifistic message, but the work would have perhaps benefited from being wholly focused on those issues, and not splitting the page length with the Culdesac parts, in which the writer/artist definitely felt more at home.

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