Sunday, June 20, 2010

Spirou and Fantasio: the Marsupilami robbers

“The Marsupilami robbers” is the third extended Spirou and Fantasio adventure produced by Andre Franquin. After serializing it in the pages of “Spirou magazine”, Dupuis published it as an album in 1952. As with “the Sorcerer of Culdesac”, the story features a co-writer credit, this time to Jo Almo (a pseudonym of Geo Salmon).

Salmon was a sports journalist and a long -time friend, who drifted away from making comics to model making of some of the weird inventions Franquin displayed in the pages of "Spirou and Fantasio". His contribution to the third volume consists of a first draft, produced in collaboration with his wife, that served to convince Franquin of Marsupilami's value for the series as a whole. Thus, by having a hand in elevating the venerable character from a one time curiosity to the comic book icon, the Salmon couple have ended up playing a small but crucial role in the history of Marcinelle school of drawing.

Franquin has taken their cue to play upon his own frustrations with the ill treatment the captive animals see at the Zoos and circuses, and that parallel ended up serving as a backbone to the story. Unfortunately, no matter the inspiration, “the Robbers” is certainly a much less ambitious tale than its two predecessors, ending up a transitory volume that helped its creator step back, deciding how to integrate the many new ideas presented thus far.

The first half of the album stands up as some of the strongest work Franquin had done up to that point, with a chase sequence in the ZOO representing his characteristic eye for detail and a penchant for physical comedy. Despite the contrived plot of gangsters faking Marsupilami’s death as the cover for his subsequent kidnapping, once the night falls on the premises, the setup yields the series’ typical charms. This means that, in trying to find their new companion, Spirou and Fantasio are repeatedly beset by a typical incompetent groundskeeper, while the kidnapper is doing his best to get over the wall with his prey.

The writer/artist doesn’t let the gloomy backdrop rob the story of comic relief though. Indeed its early highlight is the pavilion sequence, where the nostalgic Nile monitor steals the show with his perfect comedic timing.

In any event, through the advent of some heavy handed clues, Franquin transitions the plot with a clunky scene, trying to add some ambiguity to the actions on part of one of the kidnappers. The manner in which the writer/artist communicates this idea ends up acting almost as a parody of a social realism drama. Yet, this is quickly forgotten, as mid-section goes on to provide the comedic highlight of the volume, portraying an encounter with the customs that goes horribly wrong.

Our always-rushed reporters are once again unprepared for the bureaucracy behind Franquin’s 1950s France, but the annoyance quickly culminates in a no holds barred showdown that has to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, it appears that Franquin’s enthusiasm starts waning right after this over the top sequence, as if returning to the straight forward plot structure does not really interest him as a storyteller. Likewise, the protagonists’ catching up with the kidnapper and his subsequent moral decision feel too soon and would certainly have made for a more dramatic moment if placed at the conclusion of the episode.

As it is, the final third of the story, centering around the circus Zabaglione (yet another villain whose name starts with the final letter of the alphabet), seems oddly drawn out and anti-climatic. It’s not just that the ring master feels like a lazy and generic villain, the whole milieu feels tacked on and acts as a weak parallel to the album’s opening pages, set in the ZOO.

True, the writer/artist has Spirou and Fantasio try numerous plays in order to get close to Marsupilami, but the resultant physical gags feel played out and seen before. Interestingly, another recently debuting major player resurfaces in the closing scenes, carrying with him a unique McGuffin needed to finally bring the plot to it’s violent resolution. Still, this signature touch of weirdness does not make up for the weak ending that manifests none of the story's strenghts.

Circus ring master Zabaglione once again fails to establish himself as a proper villain in his own right, and ends up being a minor nuisance, needing the help of the strongman Goliath to take care of the titular heroes. In the resulting match, all of their new found allies show up for the grand brawl, but it nonetheless feels that nothing is really at stake ( with one of the kidnappers already having faced the accusations for his crime beforehand), especially following the iconic tussle with the customs.

On the other hand, Marsupilami’s scenes are succinct and convincing, going a long way to, if not make up for the convulted story that they inspired, at least convince the readers that the wonderfully strange animal is a welcome addition to the series. Salmon's storytelling instincts ended up making a smart choice considering the focus Franquin’s signature creation would end up getting in subsequent stories.

In the end, “the Marsupilami robbers” ends up being a minor “Spirou and Fantasio” volume, despite some of the charming details along the way. It definitely benefits from being read in sequence alongside the whole of Franquin’s 20 years in the making run, but some of it's deeper themes, regarding cruelty to animals feel glossed over and touched upon only in broad strokes, which is perhaps suitable considering it's intended audience.

Franquin certainly emerges as a creator with a much clearer grasp on how to continue the series, basically by following through with the ideas he more or less developed on his own. It is in that spirit of trying to amuse himself that he would definitely reach the most readers, even if it meant leaving the big city reporters angle that never really gelled with his version of Spirou and Fantasio’s adventures.