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.

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.