Since Hallowe’en isn’t as widely celebrated in Europe — Ireland and the rest of the U.K. aside, obviously — as it is in North America, it’s not always evident and easy to keep the countdown truly international. No worries: in such a situation, I’m no stickler — I’ll take the spirit of the law over its letter.
The first (and until now, only) time I posted about Thomas Ott, I wound up with a contender for least-popular post in this blog’s history. Have I learned my lesson? Heavens, no. I live, perhaps naïvely, in the belief that our audience has grown in the interim, and that said audience is ever more attuned and receptive to our quirks.
« By 1948, the Italians had begun to pull themselves together, demonstrating once more their astonishing ability to cope with disaster, which is so perfectly balanced by their absolute inability to deal with success. » — Gore Vidal
The accomplished Italian graphic designer, animator and illustrator Niso Ramponi (1924-2002), is perhaps most renowned (it’s all relative, but not to actual merit!) under his pinup cartooning nom de plume of “Kremos”.
Ramponi champion Joseph V. Procopio sheds some light on the genesis of this alias:
« Ramponi’s pen name, Kremos, was born of necessity: Like many of his generation, after the war Ramponi was conscripted into the Italian army for a year of service. Loath to abandon his budding cartooning and illustration career but barred by military regulations from working as a freelancer, Ramponi conspired with a friend named Sandro Cremo, who acted as his intermediary to secure and deliver freelance art assignments on Ramponi’s behalf. To maintain the ruse, Ramponi signed his work Kremos, a pseudonym that stuck even after his discharge from military duty. »
My own initial exposure to Ramponi/Kremos’ work came through Lawrence Lariar and Ben Roth’s splendid, but woefully short-lived Best Cartoons From Abroad collections (1955-60), which contrasted favourably against the genteel contemporary American humour anthologies. Fortuitously, Signor Procopio eventually assembled, circa 2015, twin collections of Ramponi’s finest cartoon work, ‘Kremos: The Lost Art of Niso Ramponi‘, volumes 1 (b&w) and 2 (colour). Grab ’em while you can!
Here’s a mixed even dozen of my favourite Kremos cartoons. Buon appetito!
« It’s true that Gourmelin’s world has everything to unsettle the general public: it contains as much horror as black humour, as much morbidness as sombre poetry. But to classify his drawings in a well-defined genre is a hopeless enterprise, and we well know how our times need clear, idiotic and exact labels. This relegates Gourmelin to some fuzzy area, a sort of no man’s land where one can find anything — even fanatics — but never a thing to eat or to drink. » — from the artist’s presentation in the anthology Les chefs-d’œuvre du dessin d’humour*(1965, Les éditions Planète; ).
While France’s Jean Gourmelin (1920-2011) started out as a painter and practiced — and often mastered — scores of artistic techniques and media (etching, technical drawing, sculpture, stained glass, wallpaper design, and so on…), he’s more commonly remembered for his stark black and white, wordless pen and ink drawings. Even as they remain open to interpretation, their power and eloquence are undeniable.
While his earliest drawings appeared in print sporadically from 1951, his crucial turning point was his 1961 encounter with Belgian writer-historian Jacques Sternberg, who encouraged Gourmelin to emphasise, in his work, idea over form. This canny shift in approach soon landed his newly-galvanised work in the pages of Planète, crucially, but also those, just as notable, of Bizarre, Midi-minuit Fantastique, Pariscope, Hara-Kiri… with occasional forays into other media, for instance some striking production design for a 1967 TV adaptation of Gustav Meyrink‘s classic novel, The Golem. Here’s an unexpected (and fine!) article in English about Gourmelin’s work on the film.
Here, then, are some (dark) highlights of Gourmelin’s work in the 1960s.
*It says something (flattering, if you ask me) about the Gallic character that Gourmelin’s work would fall under the category of “humorous”. We’re a looong way from, say… Dave Barry.
« There are two kinds of Arctic problems, the imaginary and the real. Of the two, the imaginary are the most real. » — Vilhjalmur Stefansson
As it’s been a record-shattering scorcher of a week over much of North America, I’ve been daydreaming of cooler, much cooler climes whilst simmering at my desk. And why not make a post of it? A couple of years ago, I picked up one of the finest comics I’ve ever encountered, Racontars arctiques: l’intégrale (2018, Sarbacane). Its myriad of virtues, subtle and obvious, made it easy to enjoy, but a challenging work to dissect and properly discuss. But here we are — hope I did it justice!
Danish writer Jørn Riel (b. 1931 in Odense) spent the better part of his twenties and thirties in Greenland as part of a scientific expedition. This sojourn in turn inspired a successful series of tall tales set in the Arctic, fanciful accounts of the lives of hardy explorers, hunters and Inuit natives. His works have been translated into fifteen languages, and in an unusual twist, English isn’t among these.
French cartoonist-illustrator Hervé Tanquerelle (b. 1972 in Nantes) might be termed a cartoonist’s cartoonist, with all that entails: he hasn’t achieved superstar status, but it’s not through any lack of talent or toil. While I’ve often lamented the rather banal tragedy of great North-American artists who can (and do) cruise through decades-long careers without ever coming within hailing distance of a decent script, Hervé Tanquerelle’s path has been paved with glorious scenarios, most of them provided by writer-artist compères: Professeur Bell (with Joann Sfar, 2002-06, which I’ve featured here); Le legs de l’alchimiste (with Hubert Boulard, 2002-07); Les faux visages (with David B., 2012), and his most commercially successful opus thus far, Racontars arctiques (with Gwen De Bonneval, 2009-13). He has just completed work on the ambitious Le dernier Atlas (with De Bonneval and Fabien Vehlmann, 2018-2021), nothing less than a gritty, SF-infused alternate version of the Algerian War.
For Racontars, Tanquerelle even travelled to Greenland with a group of scientists and artists, with Jørn Riel among them, which added layers of authenticity and personality to what was already an undeniable labour of love. Try to envision your average US cartoonist putting out this kind of effort and commitment (one notable exception being, of course, the prodigious William Stout)! Anyway, Tanquerelle made fruitful use of this experience and its attendant documentation with a semi-autobiographical ligne claire account (fittingly published by Casterman, Tintin’s forever home), Groenland Vertigo (2017).
Despite essaying the thankless role of the invisible middleman, Gwen De Bonneval (Tanquerelle’s fellow Nantois, né Gwénaël de Bonneva in 1973), deserves full marks for admirably condensing Riel’s tales without sacrificing their appeal, not to mention cherry-picking the ones most ripe for adaptation (confirmed by co-admin ds, who’s read both the prose and the comics versions).
Jørn Riel defines a racontar (rumours or gossip don’t quite convey the meaning), as “a true story that could pass for a lie. Unless it’s the other way round“. I hope the language barrier doesn’t prove too much of a hurdle. These marvels truly offer a fantastic opportunity for the discerning publisher… and, unless I missed something, the overdue scoop of Riel’s first English-language publication. Hello, Fantagraphics, D&Q…
« In the last analysis, a pickle is a cucumber with experience. » — Irena Chalmers
Earlier this week, the world lost another of its greatest cartoonists in Nikita Mandryka (October 20, 1940 – June 13, 2021), and he’s been among my lifelong favourites, thanks to his accessible, deceptively simple style and its nervous, explorative vitality. I’ve written about Mandryka’s Ailleurs some time ago, so there’s no pressing need to rehash his biography.
This freed me to opt for another tack this time. Since Nikita’s work is all-but-untranslatable (between the argot and the puns and general free-form lunacy… I’m not Even Going to Try) and his pages too dense for meaningful large-scale extraction, I’ve selected a sort of random number of panels — eleven seemed right (and winnowing things down was predictably exacting); Hope you like them.
Encore merci, Monsieur Mandryka!
For more Concombre Masqué and all things Mandryka (did you know it was he who reportedly coined Métal Hurlant‘s title? ‘Howling Metal’ would have been such a better name than ‘Heavy Metal’… and ironically more Metal), check out his website (while it lasts). In french, hope you won’t mind!
« When I grow up I would like to be an artist in France. » — Keith Haring
The other day, while weighing the idea of producing this post, I asked my wife: “Is Sempé too obvious a choice?”, to which she wisely replied: “To whom?”. To add another few grammes of perspective, I’m reminded of how, a decade-or-so ago, I was helping out a friend by manning his business phones while he took a vacation. One caller identified herself as Mme Sempé. I immediately asked whether she was related to the cartoonist. She was (they’re second cousins), but rather shockingly, this was the first time anyone had ever brought up the subject with her. Okay, so not so obvious after all.
If you only know Jean-Jacques Sempé‘s work through his cover illustrations for The New Yorker, well, you’ve missed his finest. Sempé (born August 17, 1932, in Bordeaux, France) was recruited in the late 70s, in the twilight of editor William Shawn‘s tenure (1952-87) with the magazine. To be quite frank, Sempé’s New Yorker work is his weakest, comprising almost invariably mawkish scenes of the dying arts: little girls practicing scales at grand pianos, ballet rehearsals and grand operas. And the work has only grown more anachronistic and sentimental with time; I’d say he’s the least compelling cover artist currently working for the magazine, with the exception of art director Françoise Mouly‘s little chouchou, the stiff and bland Adrian Tomine, he of the lifeless line and emetic palette. Ahem.
But there was a time…
In 1968, a decade-and-a-half into Sempé’s career, ever-lucid Belgian writer and historian Jacques Sternberg perceptively summed up the artist’s appeal:
« But Sempé’s humour has earned the favour of a very wide audience. Without a doubt because he’s able to observe with a playful — but rarely sadistic — eye the drawbacks and peculiarities of our daily lives, and that his reader feels — mistakenly — reassured by this vision.
Sempé has, in fact, a way with an impressive setting, with meticulous detail, of the mise en scène that sugarcoats the bitter pill and of the lyrical flight that dampens the ferocity of the content. The miracle occurs as if by magic: Sempé, who is rather scathing, seduces rather than worries his readers. »
« The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy. » — Oscar Wilde
Marc Caro, born in 1956 in Nantes (birthplace of Jules Verne!), was never a prolific bédéiste, quite possibly because he liked to spread his talent around: musician, animator, film director, designer, art director… et j’en passe!
Back in the early days, though, while juggling animation projects and musical gigs (ah, youth!), Caro created a clutch of brief and brutal vignettes for such fabled publications as Métal hurlant, Fluide glacial, Charlie Mensuel and, on this side of the pond, Raw. Most of these strips were crafted using the daunting technique of scratchboard; done right, it’s strikingly effective, and in Caro’s nimble hands, it’s done right. Another master of the technique is Switzerland’s Thomas Ott.
Our featured piece was translated into English by Elisabeth Bell and lettered by Lea Hernandez [psst: someone left out a word in the first panel…]. It appeared in The New Comics Anthology, edited by Bob Callahan (1991, Collier Books). In this case, Caro is using a combination of scratchboard and Craftint.
Sadly, this printing doesn’t quit do justice to the finesse of Caro’s rendering. Compare with an excerpt from the French original:
« Generally speaking, espionage offers each spy an opportunity to go crazy in a way he finds irresistible. » — Kurt Vonnegut
I love a good tale of espionage, but not in the Bond mould. While the adventures of Fleming’s 007 have their charm, it’s not exactly plausible spycraft, nor is it expected to be, I reckon. The world-weary, less flashy and more cerebral approach pioneered by Eric Ambler (Passport to Danger, A Coffin for Dimitrios) and Graham Greene (The Confidential Agent, The Quiet American) is more in keeping with my interests.
« Before Ambler, international thrillers tended to be dominated by such writers as John Buchan, Herman Cyril McNeile (known as “Sapper”), and their many imitators. These books were often rousing adventures, but filled with improbabilities, both of plot and character, plus a hearty jingoism and a well of right-wing, Old World prejudice that would curl your hair today. » [ source ]
As far as I’m concerned, I’m afraid that describes Fleming’s writing to a T. By contrast, I was right chuffed when I learned, a couple of days ago, of this striking bit of news about worthy Ambler disciple John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who passed away last year.
Now, given his prodigious and lasting popularity, most people likely presume that James Bond was the first “super spy”. While espionage chronicles have been around nearly as long as there’s been storytelling, the spy, if he survived his adventure, rarely embarked on a sequel.
That state of affairs was scrambled somewhat by the arrival on the scene of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117. Created by Jean Bruce, he’s starred in 265 novels, which have sold in excess of 75 million copies. The series was initially published by the legendary Fleuve Noir press, which lent the English language the now-ubiquitous (and often misused) term of ‘Noir‘.
As it happens, Mr. Bruce decided, after 25 novels in three years, to shift his series over to a rival publisher (Presses de la Cité*). Fleuve noir, understandably scrambling to avoid a massive shortfall, commissioned a pair of Belgian writers, Gaston Van den Panhuyse and Jean Libert (under the joint nom de plume of Paul Kenny) to concoct a replacement agent secret. The new fellow was Francis Coplan, alias FX-18. He was featured in 237 novels between 1953 (beating James Bond to the stands by a couple of months) and 1996.
In 1966, les Presses de la Cité began issuing, through their Arédit/Comics Pocket line, graphic adaptations of OSS 117 novels; Coplan followed in 1969. As a kid (and later!), I assiduously steered clear of these: stiff and generic-looking artwork, overly-verbose scripts. At nearly 200 pages, the comics were barely shorter than the novels (generally less than 250 pages long), so the adaptors clearly didn’t make full use of the visual medium’s condensing potential.
So why am I even discussing these?
Because I discovered recently that an artist whose work I do rate highly, José de Huéscar (1938-2007), drew, as it happens, a handful of Coplan issues, and demonstrably well at that. Here are some samples, pulled from the original art.
*the competitors would merge in 1962, when Presses de la Cité bought Fleuve Noir. While les Presses always did a steady business in translations of American novels, their output comprised a healthy contingent of French-language originals (including excellent series by San-Antonio and Georges Simenon); nowadays, after the usual jumble of soul-killing mergers and acquisitions, they mostly traffic in translated novelisations of American TV shows and pop franchises, a dismal parallel path to globalisation and the steady decline of French culture from the second half of the 20th century.
« It took me some years to clear my head of what Paris wanted me to admire about it, and to notice what I preferred instead. Not power-ridden monuments, but individual buildings which tell a quieter story: the artist’s studio, or the Belle Époque house built by a forgotten financier for a just-remembered courtesan. » — Julian Barnes
Depending on where and when you are, this post will take you far away and to long ago.
For instance, during the storied humour magazine Le Rire’s prime years (roughly the first quarter of the 20th century), Gerbault was featured in most issues, often on the front or back cover, and generally in sumptuous colour. Well, you’ll see what I mean. Clearly not one to rest on his laurels, he somehow found time to lend his sundry gifts to the theatrical, advertising, etching, and fine art fields.
« I believe that the Belgians do possess some surrealistic gene. » — Eddy de Clercq
I’m afraid we’re back into surrealism territory, folks. Our focus today is on a single piece by polymath Maurice Rosy (1927-2013, Fontaine-l’Évêque, Belgium), published in bédé weekly Spirou in 1966, in the midst of Rosy’s tenure as the magazine’s co-art director (with Yvan Delporte) and boundless idea generator (1956-73, for the record… the period widely hailed as Spirou’s golden age).
As for the story in question… it was, shall we say, ahead of its time. And still is.
Intrigued by oriental philosophies and General Semantics*, jazz pianist in the modern idiom, art director of the publishing house that produces Spirou, hilarious storyteller, Rosy has had drawings published in Paris-Match and Adam, all the while crafting (with Pol Deliège) tales of Bobo. He is also the author of the most bizarre story ever to appear in a kids’ magazine, which earned its publisher and author an especially venomous stream of insulting letters. Geniuses are always unsung.
Rosy has the sharp smile of a Steve McQueen and a picturesque language all his own.
And now, the item in question:
When Rosy was interviewed for a deluxe, 16-volume reprinting (begun in 2007) of the adventures of Tif et Tondu (with Will as illustrator, Rosy served as writer/metteur en scène on the feature for many of its glory years, 1954-67), the notorious one-shot was touched upon:
In 1966, you created a strip with an unreadable, and therefore unpronounceable name, which even made it onto the magazine’s cover: are we deep into Herriman* territory?
Rosy: That’s weird, people say that, but at the time, there was no such conscious homage. It was rather a reflection of the state of mind that I was in. I was increasingly bearing the marks of (and anguished by) the absurdity of certain facets of life.
**In the same way that people with an insufficient frame of reference wrongly compare every musician they hear to The Beatles, the under-informed tend to ascribe any sign of whimsy or absurdity in the comics medium to Krazy Kat progenitor George Herriman. Yes, both were deeply influential, but come on, there are limits. In Rosy’s case, I’d posit that, if there was influence at work there, it was more likely that of the mighty Saul Steinberg.