Saturday, July 10, 2010

Spirou and Fantasio: the Horn of the Rhinoceros

"the Horn of the Rhinoceros" stands as the fourth longer Spirou and Fantasio adventure, that Andre Franquin produced, originally serialized in "the Spirou magazine" in 1952. Interestingly, the creator's original intention was to publish two adventures starring his characters, with the eponymous one being the follow-up to the spy caper. Yet, when Dupuis serialized the work in 1955, they bundled the pair together, thus providing for a somewhat richer and more complete experience.

Yet, most of the book's problems stem from that very same decision, as the two parts never really cohere story wise. Through enough, the plot points are followed up and expended upon, but the reader is still left with a very concrete ending point at roughly the two thirds of the collected edition, rendering the continuation contrived in a lot of ways.

It's only the epilogue that brings some much needed closure to Spirou and Fantasio's long voyage, and saves the book from the pulpy Golden age adventure feel, with characters literally stepping from one adventure to another. Plot-wise, this is largely because of the role a particular McGuffin plays in the story actually pays off bringing a slight, and very Franquin-like, change into the book image-wise. Still, "the Horn of the Rhinoceros" is much more notable for the writer/artist's other addition, that of Seccotine, female reporter, and the book's first female character of note.

The narrative framework of having adventure comics starring journalists as the protagonists, often gives way to only so much lip service as needed to justify getting the primaries in contact with an interesting assignment. In "the Horn of Rhinoceros", Franquin starts off by actually focusing on his protagonists' work a moment, if only to provide context for the introduction of the new supporting character. The cartoonist uses the same opportunity to introduce the plot in a dynamic way, making for a very interesting beginning of the Spirou and Fantasio story.

Using a department story as the setting for the whole first act of what was originally "Spirou and the turbotraction", proves very fruitful for both Franquin's sense of whimsy and creativity, especially compared to the previous album's opening at the Zoo, similarly depicted past the closing time. A multi-level building housing a long chase sequence might have ended up serving as merely the backdrop for a lot of high energy action sequences, but in the writer/artist's hands, it becomes so much more.

Franquin relishes the opportunity to draw the budget appliances, but never for the sake of cluttering the background for the sake of getting the reader's attention to his bravado. No, in his depiction, all of the myriad objects end up serving a purpose, first for the sake of comedy, than to set up his plot, and eventually to marry the two in a jovial way. The whole of the first act of the story is "Spirou and Fantasio" at it's best, utilizing the department store setting to it's most, while providing for a typical convoluted mystery that will take the protagonists the rest of the story to get on top of it.

Interestingly, the scheme to steal the blueprints of the automobile prototypes ties into "Spirou and the heirs"'s second act, with the "Turbot" factory being the offended party. Franquin's use of continuity is noteworthy in that it mostly deals with recasting the two drivers into new roles, using their familiarity to entice the protagonists into taking action on their behalf. Other than that, Roulebille and Martin could have easily been recast as the a new couple of spy characters, which is what they essentially are in this story.

Unfortunately, the pair of gangsters instigating the plot never really emerge into any kind of credible foils. Thankfully, Franquin realizes this and centers the adventure around the world wide search for the McGuffin, which enables his stock character adversaries just the sort of nuisances used to appear at the most convenient and trouble Spirou and Fantasio that much more. In a longer work, they would have perhaps had the roles of henchmen to a more important villain that would appear later in the story.

As it is, the second act of the story is it's weakest, consisting as it does of a down time needed to get the heavy exposition out of the way, and set up the final part of Spirou and Fantasio's journey. This is done in a very heavy handed and belaboured way, with Franquin clearly being aware as to the true nature of his plot, and treating it as what it is, basically an exercise in thinking of inventive ways of structuring chase scenes around two distinct settings.

Once in Sidi-bou-bouk, Franquin's latest stand in for a stereotypical African country, Seccotine still doesn't get a lot of panel space. This is absolutely intentional because of the relationship that quickly develops between her and Fantasio. Theirs is a friendly rivalry that still infuriates her colleague to no end, which basically forces Franquin to tailor her role to appear mysterious even to the reader.

In any case, the writer/artist is to be commanded for having his female reporter be every bit as resourceful as his male leads, which translates into not so much as irritating but capable and charming in it's own way. For a first appearance, this is more than enough, as the mostly off-panel character still leaves the impression that she has her whole other adventure outside of Spirou and Fantasio, and achieving the same goals in her own way, which naturally ends up beneficial to all.

Thus her peculiar position makes way for the highlight of the book - a long chase sequence through the Arabian market. Franquin employs the quirky streets to their comedic best, supplementing the ludicrousness with fantastic details, such as his villains' wigs, and Fantasio's cheap souvenir. A lot of heart and energy clearly went into staging these comedic escapades, and their creator clearly feels amused at having constructed them.

And while all of "the Horn of Rhinoceros" can hardly be said to carry some sort of a concrete morale, it's still notable for it's sense of good humor. This is definitely the work of an artist that is still finding his feet with this series (judging by the complete absence of Marsupilami, who was just last volume certified as a credible member of the supporting cast), but Franquin's also continually enthusiastic, which shows best in his art, that continues to tighten up and be more and more unique.

The writer/artist unique brand of caricature is leaping in strides even this early into the series, thus reader can already see little of Jije's Golden age incarnation of the characters that preceded it. Franquin has literally abandoned his mentor's model that he started off emulating and has in many ways made the series his own.

This extends into finishing his stories when he feels that he's already said what he wanted, and this is literally how he follows up the masterful display of comics storytelling that was his Sidi-bou-bouk city-based piece. Spirou and Fantasio are given a new African address, and together with their new friend, they come to the journey's end, which quickly wraps up most of the plot threads.

Seemingly at the last minute, the creator and his publisher felt that the setting deserved another adventure, thus allowing for the immediate continuation. Following some inelegant exposition, Spirou and Fantasio start partaking in a truly African quest, for the horn of rhinoceros, giving the second story, and the whole of the eventual collection, it's name. It is, once again, a typically colonial rendition of the pulpy exotic adventure story, but thankfully, with a little more care given the natives.

That is not to say that they're not wholly insensitive racial caricatures, but they are at least given some differentiation, and more importantly, the whole short has a decidedly light-hearted feeling. "the Horn of the Rhinoceros" has none of the spy trappings of it's predecessor, but embraces the African myth wholeheartedly to deliver some of Franquin's bizarre logic, as it features some truly unique comedic scenarios using what might appear as the typical staple of adventure cliches.

For one, the creator uses a previously introduced souvenir so extensively that it becomes almost a character in the story. The effect is hilarious throughout, and certainly unique to Franquin's oddball sense of humor and his unique point of view.

As is the standard with his art, his designs for animals particularly stand out, and together with his satirical leanings help the reader ignore the overcomplicated plot that sends his characters in motion. It is Franquin's creative vision that takes spotlight front and center, and it culminates in the search for the aforementioned horn that takes on a comedic quality that has to be seen to be believed. Once again, the reader is free to judge the creator's attempts at humor on his own terms, but the wholly original situations that are set up in the comic can't be glossed over.

Once again, the writer/artist expresses in the most over the top way imaginable, that is not only endearing, but so self-assured that it projects a feeling that the creator is really trying to amuse himself first and foremost. And even when Spirou and Fantasio finally find the plans they have spent so much time searching for, having been the sole plot element carried over to address their continued stay in Africa, Franquin finally reveals why he chose to call back to the previous volume.

It is precisely because of the epilogue enables him to once again indulge into one of his obsessions, that was nowhere as apparent as in the overlong second act of "Spirou and the heirs". And having spent so much with these characters and developing their world, he can certainly excused for using every excuse to spotlight his passion for technology of the era. It is precisely because of his own interests and personality that these comics have developed such a following, and even today continue to be wholly original for readers interested in the medium and all of the forms it has taken across the world.

No comments: