Comic fans are a specifically nostalgic lot, and European BD readers are no different. Even when the young turks of the Nouvelle Vague came tearing down the walls of the old, traditional French-Belgian school of comics, they did it with great reverence for the artistry of the old masters, if not so much for their of-their-time themes.
For a few years now, the BD market has been flooded with remastered reprints of classic series, often as collected editions with four to five albums bound into one book, and they have been selling like hotcakes. So much so that in their wake, new series are started with classic characters, this time not updated for the changing times (as is often the case with long-running series), but explicitly set in a golden age of classic adventure.
One of the best in this lot off late, is Les Fantômes De Kightgrave (The Ghosts Of Knightgrave) by Stéphane Colman and Eric Maltaite (Dupuis). This book (the first in a series of two) traces the past of the great criminal mastemind Monsieur Choc, best know as the archenemy of classic BD heroes Tif et Tondu. That character has always been something of an enigma, from his outfit (a full-on tuxedo combined with a medieval knight’s helmet) to his seemingly endless resources and rather nihilistic motivations. Choc turns out to be the product of a very disenfranchised youth, marred by social injustice, violence and betrayal. Within the framing tale of Choc settling his accounts in pure Godfather fashion, selected flash-backs reveal how he came to be who he is, and which role all those new characters played in his past.
Choc is one of the most iconic baddies in BD history, probably on a par with the Kingpin or the classic Joker in US comics. Rather than borrowing from that already established legacy, this book builds it up even more, by adding dimensions and motivations, and by explicitly setting the story before his first confrontation with Tif and Tondu. Graphically, it is a masterpiece, with superb action sequences and a meticulous attention to background detail, which makes it easier to distinguish between the various times the story is set in. The book, after all, is an important one for its artist, Eric Maltaite, who has made it into a hommage to his father, Willy Maltaite, who was the original artist on the great Tif et Tondu series.
La Femme Léopard is the new book in the series “Le Spirou De”, which allows independent creative teams to have a go at the iconic characters Spirou and Fantasio and their universe. Ironically, these teams without exception go back to Spirou’s past, rather than its current version, which seems to be mired in an ever more unsuccesful series of attempts to remain relevant. In this book creators Yann and Olivier Schwartz take up the story where they left off in their earlier collaboration (Le Groom Vert-de-Gris, the fifth in the series and arguably the greatest). The Second World War is over, Spirou has had to return to work as a bellboy in the New Moustique and Fantasio works as a reporter on the social issues of the time.
One of the guests of the hotel is attacked by a mysterious woman in a leopard suit, who in turn is chased by three apelike robots. Reason enough (plus the fact that he loses his job again) for Spirou to get involved in a story that will bring him all the way to Paris, and the existentialist scene of the Café Flore, but not before swearing off the booze, getting in bed with Fantasio’s girlfriend and trying a fabulous new car, created by Gaston Lagaffe’s more accomplished uncle, Plancton.
Again, a rollicking story full of details and hidden humour. Post-war Brussels is a wonderful backdrop for what is basically one big chase through streets that combine blasted-out shells of old buildings and hip new architecture that’s ready for the new world. There are great cameos of real people, like Simone de Beauvoir or Jean-Paul Sartre, but also of classic comic characters, such as Tintin’s Alan, who acts as captain on the ship that kidnaps Nazi scientists to Africa (don’t ask). And, of course, the ship that Spirou takes to chase them, is called the Velter, after Rob Vel, Spirou’s original creator.
La Femme Leopard is a highly recommended book, but you’ll need to have a more than average grasp of Brussels colloquial French to really get all the double entendres and word jokes.
Finally, Vacances Sans Histories is the latest in a series of remastered reprints of original Spirou stories by André Franquin, re-scanned, re-coloured and presented as they originally appeared in Spirou magazine, along with all the original art and an extensive accompanying essay. In this story, Spirou’s magnificent car, the Turbotraction, is completely destroyed by a rather stereotypically depicted oil sheik, Ibn-Mah-Zoud. Luckily, though, said sheik wants to make amends, and he presents our hero with the latest vesion of the supercar, handly referred to as the Turbotraction II, and all’s well again.
A little throwaway tale, were it not for Franquin’s masterful artwork in both action and humour sequences. This volume’s essay goes to great length to position Franquin as a child of his time, and to sketch the creation of the Turbotraction II, which was the result of a competition in Risquons-Tout, another publication of Spirou publishers Dupuis. If you are a Spirou fan, you will need this, but if you’re not, you probably won’t notice it’s there.
Les Phanômes de Knightgrave, La Femme Leopard and Vacancs Sans Histoires are all published by Dupuis, and available from their website.