Of Confectionery and Clowns

« This world is run by clowns who can’t wait for it to end. » — Too Much Joy, ‘Clowns

Well, the topic of this post kind of snuck up on me. I’ll explain: last Saturday, as we were out of Russian marinated mushrooms (a simply unacceptable state of affairs in this household), we ventured into a European deli in quest of something to tide us over until we could properly restock. They had some button mushrooms in oil, fair enough. As we reached the counter to tally up our purchases, something caught my eye: a display for a French confection called Carambar, which I’d known about for most of my life, but never encountered in the wild.

After a moment’s hesitation (which baffled my partner), we picked up a sample and added it to our bounty.

It happens that Caram’ Bar (as it was called until 1977, when the apostrophe was dropped) ties into a minor childhood incident whose recollection elicits, in equal parts, snickers of amusement and pangs of guilt. It was in, oh, the second or third grade. We were standing in rows, about to return to class after recess. I turned to my neighbouring classmate, and asked him whether he knew… oh, never mind — it went exactly like this:

Mister Pipo! I will pose you a riddle!” “Do you know what the difference is between a Caram’ Bar…” (I love riddles!) “… and a Super Caram’ Bar?” (They’re the same!) “But of course not, Mister Pipo!” “The Caram’ Bar was this long…
The Super Caram’ Bar is THIS LONG!” The full-length Super Caram’ Bar fumetti, as it appeared in the pages of Pif Gadget no. 171 (May 1972, Vaillant).

Regrettably, the back of my hand connected with my classmate’s nose, not his cheek, and he wound up with a nosebleed. Désolé, Germain!

The acquired item.
…. unwrapped. CaramBar wrappers have, since the 60s, famously featured corny gags, which once were selected from entries provided by consumers. A kid whose joke got the nod could win his weight in candy. Here’s one of the pair I got here (the other doesn’t work in English)… Q: Why are elephants grey? A: Because if they were pink, they’d get confused with strawberries. It may come as no surprise that in France, a ‘blague Carambar’ has become shorthand for a lame joke.

The preceding Super Caram’ Bar ad was quite unusual in that it was a full-colour three-pager, which must have cost the candy maker a bundle. Indeed, it only ran au complet once or twice; thereafter, only its concluding page appeared.

Looking back at this campaign, I wondered whether these clowns were merely company mascots, or something more. As it turns out, Sergio (né Serge Drouard in 1950, so 21 years old at the time) was in the early stages of a remarkable career in the circus, first as Clown blanc Sergio (here are a brief video profile from 1970 and a lovely 1975 performance at Paris’ legendary Cirque d’hiver) and then as ringmaster M. Fidèle. Now seventy, he more-or-less retired after the 2010-2011 season. As for poor Pipo, I’m afraid I don’t know. He’s similar to the famous Dutch clown Pipo de Clown, but they’re merely homonyms.

Clowns are a curious proposition. Kids used to (presumably) find them amusing and endearing, but several generations of thin, gruelling antics and downgrading of the brand and métier, not to mention the sinister hijinks of the infamous Pogo the clown, have flipped the cultural perception of these once-beloved entertainers. At this point, Coulrophobia is impressively widespread, and not just among the wee ones.

For my part, I’m not so eager to condemn en bloc. Your run-of-the-mill, unqualified local kids’ show, mall-opening Bozo is but a faint, hopelessly distorted echo of the great clowns of history. They were the fruits of a complex, nuanced and codified tradition with its thick, gnarled roots in early 16th century Italy’s Commedia dell’ Arte.

But I don’t need to reach quite that far: I grew up on Radio-Canada’s absurd, minimalist masterpiece Sol et Gobelet (1968-71). Sol (Marc Favreau) was a naïve tramp clown who creatively mangled language and logic and Gobelet (Luc Durand) was the poetic, reasonable, refined Pierrot type. Here’s a classic episode. Such is the duo’s cultural significance that a public library (Favreau) and a nearby public park (Durand) have been christened in their posthumous honour.

And since we’re on comics and clowns, here’s a bonus short tale.

« Sergio has also learned that one must never try to catch a falling performer. One should only push them to redirect their path and cushion their fall. One day at the Paradis latin, he had no choice but to tackle in flight a trapeze artist who was about to land on a table. The outcome : a few collapsed vertebrae. » Also, « When a lion attacks, it always goes for the testicles. » Keep these sage verities in mind, next time you’re under the big top!
Laugh Clown — Die, Clown appeared in It’s Midnight… The Witching Hour no. 21 (June-July 1972, DC). It was scripted by editor Murray Boltinoff under his Bill Dehenny nom de plume and illustrated by Jerry Grandenetti.

While LCDC is the flimsiest of stories, just a troupe of stock characters going through their hoary paces, Grandenetti’s artwork elevates the affair. It’s as if, having precious little to work with, the artist opted to push against the material, moulding it oddly, imbuing the proceedings with unstated implications. Consider, for instance, how sinister is the depiction of the ringmaster. Nothing in the dialogue or plot indicates that the man is up to anything untoward or malicious, quite the contrary. The second panel of page four is quintessential Grandenetti.

And how was my first Carambar, you may ask. We both tried it, and… were singularly underwhelmed. Perhaps it was a question of freshness, but it was disappointingly brittle in the beginning, almost chalky, hardly what you’d expect from a caramel product. Then it just fell apart and faded, like third-rate taffy.

« I found something in one of my pockets. It was about as big as your shoe, but it was shaped like a rocket! » — a not-at-all ambiguous statement from litigious chuckler Bozo the Clown

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 12

« I don’t know what’s wrong with him!
He’s in hellish torment!
» — there’s witchery afoot, clearly

I’ll grant you in a heartbeat that Nick Cardy‘s (and, to a lesser extent, Neal Adams’) earlier The Witching Hour (full original title: It’s 12 O’Clock… The Witching Hour!, hence its twelfth day appearance) covers beat out subsequent entries on the overall quality front, but this particular beauty, in my opinion, takes home the terror tiara as the very creepiest of the bunch. Is it the otherwise-innocuous daytime setting, the tension between the pastoral and the grotesque? In the end, it induces shivers, and that’s what counts.

Though it comes as the tail end of their involvement, Carmine Infantino and Cardy still had a hand in, as publisher and art director, and took an active rôle in the design of each DC cover of the era.

This is It’s Midnight… the Witching Hour no. 62 (Feb.-Mar 1976, DC). Edited by Murray Boltinoff. Argentine grand master Luis Dominguez’s cover art is loosely based on Carl Wessler and Fred Carrillo’s The Cat’s-Eye Stone. That aside, is it actually a picnic that Mr. Romantic has in mind, what with a “picnic place that no one will ever find“? Suspicious, to put it mildly.

And so — why not? — here’s the full tale, so that you may judge for yourself.

One small quibble: doesn’t Drusilla’s witch’s brew count for something in the spell? Surely the words won’t suffice…
For a devil-worshipper, she’s pretty biblical (‘cast the first stone’). Or maybe that’s the point.
This story anticipates the shock ending of Carrie by almost a year. Or had this twist already made the rounds? Perhaps the cycle began with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death… but I’m not sure.

Wilfredo Limbana ‘Fred’ Carrillo (1926–2005) was an underrated Filipino artist who produced some quite fine work for DC Comics’ mystery titles in the 1970s. I was particularly fond of his work on The Phantom Stranger, when he illustrated both the titular feature and its worthy backup, The Black Orchid, at the tail end of the title’s run.

-RG