« 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!
« 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:
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 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.
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.
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
I’d like to thank my Italian collega for making sure this title was in impeccable Italian, and for not backing away slowly when I asked her, completely out of the blue and without context, how to say “pardon my tentacle”. Most people would have run.
Welcome to our Latin Tentacle Tuesday! Poor Italy is the brunt of quite a few jokes, and even most positive articles about it are nothing but shallow fluff designed to sell airplane tickets and inspirational posters about food and love. All I can say is that Italians love their tentacles as much as any other hot-blooded nation. 😉
Più was a comics magazine licensed from Pif Gadget in 1982. Just like its fountainhead, Più offered a gadget with every issue, which, as I understand from nostalgic posts about it on various blogs, was a prime selling point among its young and enthusiastic clientele. As for comics, reprints of some French comics straight from Pif’s pages were rounded out with fresh Italian material. Given that Pif was publishing quite a few Italian artists at that time, this only seems fair! And on the subject of the latter, co-admin RG, whom I may call a Pif historian with no fear of controversy, has written a number of posts about the writers and artists featured within Pif Gadget’s pages during its heyday… a good place to start digging in is my favourite of these posts, Jean Cézard and Arthur le fantôme.
Moving on: the following Masters of the Universe pages are from Negli Oceani di Eternia, published in Più no. 76 (March 1984, Editoriale Domus).
Created by writer Alfredo Castelli and artist Giancarlo Alessandrini, Martin Mystèreis an exceedingly popular comic book series (as a matter of fact, the best selling comic book in Italy – in case you’re wondering what that means, around 20 thousand copies a month)*. Its title comes from the eponymous main character, Martin Jacques Mystère, the usual walking collection of tropes: good looking art historian, archaeologist-anthropologist à la Indiana Jones, collector of rare objects, and so on. No self-respecting adventurer goes around without a sidekick, and Mystère’s assistant is Java, an amazingly strong, quite mute Neanderthal man (speaking of tropes, that one is a doozy). One might also say that he’s quite international: an Italian-created American character with a French name who lives in New York City and frequently helps its finest to elucidate crimes…
This series started in 1982, and is still around, so you can just imagine how many tentacles Martin has tangled with in some 378-odd issues. Yet high-res images are scarce online, so I asked co-admin RG to whip up this nifty collage of some of his tentacular exploits:
Our next (and last stop) is another very popular series, Zagor. Its beginnings go all the way to 1962 (ancient, no doubt), when editor/writer Sergio Bonelli and artist Gallieno Ferri banded together to concoct a comic book series.
Its protagonist Zagor, or Patrick Wilding, is another American. If Martin Mystère represented the suave, erudite adventurer-about-town, Zagor is a kind of avenger-slash-protector, of the “be peaceful or I’ll beat the crap out of you” school. His origin story makes for rather uncomfortable reading: after tracking down massacring a whole family branch of Abenaki Indians to avenge his parents’ death and realizing that he made a boo-boo (by finding evidence that his father was a murdering, power-abusing sadist who was killed purely in retribution for his criminal acts… which is another can of worms), he decides to redeem his sins by ensuring peace between different Indian tribes and trappers by whatever means necessary.
His sidekick? Chico, a walking stereotype down to his full name (Chico Felipe Cayetano Lopez Martinez y Gonzales) whose presence is played for some mean laughs. «He is short, fat, extremely clumsy and voracious, corrupt, boastful, but also likeable.» Um, yeah, that sounds likeable, all right. If you’re thinking that Chico is also obsessed by food (he’s Mexican and fat, right?) and that it gets him into all sorts of stupid peril, you are perfectly correct. Gordo, this is not.
Interestingly, Zagor is most popular outside of his native Italy. Specifically, he retains popularity in the former Yugoslavian republics (Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia…) and Turkey. Stories continue to be published in Italian up until this day, but from what I’ve been able to gather, the books sell at a much brisker pace once they’re translated to languages spoken by inhabitants of the aforementioned countries.
« Rahan n’a plus peur de la nuit, ni du feu, ni du tonnerre du ciel, ni des fleuves sans fin… »
(Rahan no longer fears the night, nor fire, nor the sky’s thunder, nor endless rivers…)
Even non-European readers will probably have some familiarity with handsome troglodyte Rahan, one of the heroes of the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée.
In 1969, Rahan made, to general acclaim, his début in the inaugural issue of Pif Gadget: apparently his escapades appealed to both male and female audiences. The series was created by writer Roger Lécureux and artist André Chéret, both seasoned comic pros by then. His adventures spanned years upon years of publication and spawned legions of rabid fans. To give you an idea of what “many years” implies, the last album – with new material! – came out in 2012; the collected series, which gathers material between 1969 and 1999 (30 years of the Lécureux – Chéret team), took up 26 handsomely-printed hard-cover volumes.
The following sequence is from La flèche blanche, originally published in Pif Gadget no. 90 (Nov. 1970), and reprinted in colour in Rahan no. 7 (Oct. 1973).
I first encountered Rahan on his home turf, which is to say in some old issues of Pif Gadget. I am not a big fan of the prehistoric genre, as it demands a more momentous suspension of disbelief on my part than I can provide. (The endless parade of clean-shaven blonde hunks accompanied by female nubile savages is a little too much for me.) Besides, Pif Gadget offered far more fascinating strips to focus on, so I happily skipped over the adventures of Rahan, just as I would gleefully ignore Les pionniers de l’espérance (same writer as Rahan) or the boringly handsome Docteur Justice (not the Marvel one).
However, I have to (grudgingly) avow that Rahan doubtlessly had great things going for it. Its strengths are also what seems to provoke some modern readers into dismissing Rahan with a patronizing hand-wave: aligning itself with the communist nature of Pif Gadget, Rahan espoused such values as justice and equality. He was also an immensely curious young man with a scientific mindset, which led him to discovering/creating useful tools, helped him to solve problems and shielded him from the superstitious nonsense others believed. One doesn’t often run into a caveman whose leitmotif is Humanism.
I did not grow up with Rahan, having only come to Pif Gadget in the last ten years or so (through the influence of co-admin RG), but these values are well known to me from growing up on Soviet science-fiction (Russian has a nicer word, fantastika, which is much more encompassing and also includes any forays into fantasy, prehistoric or otherwise). That, too, often gets thrown under the train of « childish, naive and simplistic », the holy trinity of a jaded cynic that’s currently en vogue as a role-model.
This seems especially unfair given that the series did not shield its mostly young readers from some harsh truths about life. Death and violence accompanied our hero wherever he went, and a lot of characters he encountered were, frankly, colossal assholes, as disinterested in fairness or egalitarianism as some modern poo-pooing readers. Not to mention Rahan’s curse of solitude – orphaned twice, he is never really accepted by the tribes he bumps into during his travels. He’s either rejected as an intruder… or venerated as a sort of a god, once he creatively extricates himself (and frequently the tribe) from some predicament. Oh, and this being a French comic, there are also bare-breasted women like it’s no big deal (and even some breast-feeding).
Today’s post is dedicated to André Chéret, who died less than a month ago, on March 5th. He was 82.
That he was a reserved, bashful man who treasured his work above all else. And most admirably, that he was a man of great personal integrity and principles, as evidenced by the following anecdote, recounted by Mr. Medioni: « In parallel to his intensive work with (Pif-Vaillant), he occasionally works for Le journal de Mickey, but it ends on a sour note! In 1980, it is gently brought to his notice that his collaboration to a periodical associated with the French communist party is incompatible with his presence within the pages of Mickey. He must choose! Gring, who does not appreciate this type of pressure and has lofty ideas of honour, does not dither the slightest bit: he opts for fidelity. » I’m strongly reminded of Howard Prince’s valiant words to the House Un-American Activities Committee in The Front (1976).
Here, then, are some excerpts from a couple of Assimil guides from my shelves:
« J’fais dans la bande dessinée, qu’est bien plus pop que le ciné!* » — J.C. Forest (Une chanson, 1973)
On the eighty-ninth anniversary of his birth, let’s salute in passing one of the great pioneers of French comics, namely Jean-Claude Forest (Sept. 11, 1930 – Dec. 29, 1998), Barbarella’s creator, the man who, in the early 1960s, ushered strictly-for-kids bandes dessinées into decidedly more risqué and adult realms of eroticism, fantasy and fun.
« If you don’t want to be idolized by the masses, you don’t become an author, you become a plumber-welder! » — Entretien avec Mandryka, Les cahiers de la bande dessinées no. 28 (1975), conducted by Numa Sadoul
Nikita Mandryka was born October 1940 in Bizerte, Tunisia, to Russian émigré parents. His grandfather had fled the Russian Revolution in 1921 aboard a warship he was commanding. Nikita’s first professional strip appeared late in 1964 in Vaillant (Boff, in Vaillant no. 1024, Dec. 27, 1964), soon renamed Vaillant, le journal de Pif , then Pif Gadget in 1969. While he’s best known for his loquacious, dominoed cucurbit, Le Concombre Masqué, today we’re going to harvest the riches of his somewhat less familiar, but equally absurdist creation, the free-form strip Ailleurs (“Elsewhere”). The feature debuted with the inaugural issue of Pif Gadget and made its bow with issue 35, a few months down the line.
Mandryka left Pif Gadget on good terms (and returned over the years), and with a solid reason: while Pif’s editorial team rightly adored his work, its left-field humour left the majority of Pif’s young readership quite baffled, and sometimes infuriated. Mandryka’s place in the magazine may have been secure, but he yearned for an audience that actually understood him. This he would find at Pilote, with its teenage readership, and all the more so with L’Écho des Savanes (which he cofounded, in 1972, with Claire Bretécher and Marcel Gotlib).
Pif’s was an unusual case: its most singular, daring, arguably most valuable strips were those least appreciated by the kids. And that slice of the readership, you’ll have guessed it, tends to express its opinions more freely and vehemently than their elders, who did love (but more quietly) the somewhat abstract, second degré (offbeat, ironic) features, such as Marcel Gotlib and Henri Dufranne‘s Gai-Luron*, the recently-departed Massimo Mattioli‘s M. Le Magicien or Henri Crespi‘s Nestor. Still, the savvy editorial team, who after all had made the magazine a massive hit, keenly grasped the import of editorial balance and trusted its collective taste and instinct over the “wisdom” of the accountants and marketers… who, at the height of the magazine’s popularity, pulled a mutiny and… sank the ship. So, in hindsight, Mandryka was right to leave.
Writer-Artist-Colourist Jean Cézard (né Jean César), born March 23, 1924 in the small French village of Membray, saw a ghost in his room when he was ten years old. In the morning light, the spectre turned out to be naught but one of his mom’s blouses, but the seed was sown: the incident would inspire his most famous creation, Arthur le fantôme justicier.
Arthur first manifested himself (though still invisible!) in issue 449 of comics weekly Vaillant (December 20, 1953). The editorial team realizing the character’s vast potential and charm, Arthur then returned with issue 451 (January 3, 1954), this time fully visible (when he so desired) and he was set for the afterlife. After his creator’s 1977 passing, Arthur’s adventures continued for a time in lesser hands, but really, Cézard was irreplaceable.
Arthur was Cézard’s favourite series to work on, because he could set the little revenant’s* adventures anywhere and any when, and he certainly did.
Les Éditions Toth, an ambitious Parisian publisher, set out to restore and reprint the works, but after five volumes (2002-2006), the enterprise seems to have stalled. However, another specialty publisher, Éditions du Taupinambour, picked up the gauntlet and published all of Cézard’s Pif Gadget Arthur stories (1969-77) in 13 volumes. That leaves, it seems, a gap of five years or so.
In closing, an anecdote about the loneliness of the long-distance cartoonist, told by Pif’s finest editor in chief Richard Medioni (1947-2016) in his definitive chronicle of Vaillant’s rise and fall, Mon camarade, Vaillant, Pif Gadget : l’histoire complète, 1901-1994 (2012, Vaillant Collector): « So I begin to read the episode that Jean has brought — when an author hands me his new pages, I necessarily read them in his presence, because I’m eager to read them, of course, but also out of respect for the work accomplished — and I admire it.
As I read on, Cézard comments here and there… when I laugh, he smiles. Sometimes, he points out a detail in the drawing that I missed… he never ceases to observe me and appears satisfied when I react as he had hoped.
Suddenly, it dawns upon me just how important such a session is to him. I bring up the notion and he explains:
“I spend days at my drawing table, alone, without a soul to appreciate my toil. And it’s a lot of time. No-one to give me a sense of what works and what doesn’t, what will bring a laugh and what will fall flat. So, when I come here, in seeing your response, I get that indispensable connection with my audience…” »
*Arthur, unlike, say, Casper, isn’t the shade of some dead child: his parents made him the old-fashioned way.
Guillermo Mordillo (1932 – 2019), known simply as Mordillo, was an Argentine artist of Spanish parentage. Through his long and productive career, he released more comic albums than you could shake a stick at… and at 86, was still active in the comics field. His easily recognizable style, love of bright colours and oft-surreal humour make his work memorable despite his persistent profligacy.
It would be impossible to provide an overview of his body of work in one post, but it is my pleasure to furnish a fun sampling of his œuvre. Most images below have been gleaned from Opus 5 (Glénat, 1984) and Safari (Glénat, 1990), unless indicated otherwise.
The following two images were scanned from early 1970s issues of Pif Gadget.
In the mid-70s, Mordillo’s cartoons were used by Slovenian artist Miki Muster to create Mordillo, a series of cartoon animations that ended up being 400 “episodes” long (for a total of 300 minutes – each episode is under a minute). These droll snippets were broadcast in over 30 countries between 1976 and 1981. Should you have a few minutes to spare for a chuckle or two, have a look at this video (recorded by somebody in Germany on VHS tape in the 90s and, many years later, uploaded to Youtube – what lovely, contorted pathways some of these things take).