From our Continental Correspondent – cycling through comics
I came across the comic “La Primavera” recently by Alexis Frederick-Frost (Center of Cartoon Studies Class of 2006) recently, and, having been infected with the cycling bug by my grandfather myself, it immediately caught my attention. This book, for which Frederick-Frost received a Xeric grant, tells the tale of the heroic Milan-San Remo bicycle race of 1910, when the cyclists had to conquer the distance of nearly 300 km in the foulest weather possible, with the Col De Turchino covered in snow so thick that the pass was closed to motorists.
In a way, the book is a celebration of a time when cycling was still a sport of force, self-reliance and improvisation, of endurance as well as strategy, and not the scandal-riddled commercial circus it seems to have become today (as the recent Tour de France sadly showed). It tells how riders like Eugène Christophe and Ernest Paul stand by each other when it gets tough, even though they are adversaries. But it also shows how for other riders, like the egocentric Cyrille Van Hauwaert, winning is more important than taking part. The age-old opposition of the game as a goal as such, versus the game as a means to achieve victory.
(cover to Alexis Frederick-Frost’s self-published La Primavera )
Frederick-Frost’s cartoon art is very balanced and restrained, and, even though he sometimes gets dragged away in effects, always serves the story. That story in turn is in itself very well researched, but the historical truth never becomes its message. Rather it acts as a backdrop for a salute to these early heroes of the most impressive sport that is cycling.
The book reminded me of “L’Aigle Sans Orteils” (“The Toeless Eagle”) by Christian Lacroix (or Lax), which was published in 2005 by Dupuis in their Air Libre collection. While “Primavera” is an account of an actual, historical event, this book tells the fictional story of Fario, a young man from the Pyrenées who is determined to become a contender in the Tour De France, which was at that time (1910) a very new but no less celebrated event.
(cover to the Dupuis edition of L’Aigle Sans Orteils by Lax)
In order to obtain the money necessary to buy a bicycle, Fario serves as a courier for an observatory, high up in the mountains. One day, while coming back from his round, he is surprised by a snow storm and is able to survive (although barely) by hiding in an unheated shed. After he is rescued, it turns out that he has lost each and every one of his toes to frostbite. One of the astronomers at the observatory fashions him a set of prosthetic devices, which enables Fario to surpass this handicap and become one of the public’s favourites in the early tour.
Lax’s style is totally different from Frederik-Frost’s. His sceneries are lush with details, his characters are very distinct and very much alive and his use of colour is atmospheric and emotive. But then, he’s telling a totally different story. The crux of his intention can be found in the opening pages, when we are presented an exhausted cyclist who’s been disqualified from the Tour for finishing too late, and is met by a member of the press telling him “the public is only interested in winners”. And even though Fario does win a couple of étappes, he is not an absolute number one, but a winner nonetheless. He surpasses his difficulties and set backs and keeps his eyes on his goal.
(panels from Lax’s L’Aigle Sans Orteils, published by Dupuis – don’t you pick up a just a little vibe of Les Triplettes de Belleville here?)
Which leads me to another difference between the books. La Primavera is explicitly limited to the heroic tale of the race, whereas Lax wants to position his story in the broader historical context. Even though people like Fario, in their determination and faith serve as a symbol of hope for all of us, he too in the end is crushed by the madness of the modern world: the World War.
Two books, similar in subject matter but totally different in style and tone – one more example of the variety and richness of that insanely great medium that is comics. In a related story, Neorama reports that Lax has a new series, Amère Patrie, about to launch from Dupuis this October.