Sunday, May 23, 2010

Goscinny, the Legacy

So, whilst the marvelous Adelle Blanc-Sec is, hopefully, working her way toward our cinema screens over here, Le Petit Nicolas, the creation of the late and much-missed Rene Goscinny, and cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempe, is already available on Blu-ray DVD from Amazon, France.

The adventures of Nicolas, who has been around now for more than 50 years, are translated into more than 30 languages, and the free exhibition at the Hotel de Ville, Paris, last year (2009) to mark the creation's 50th anniversary, where children visiting were given an activity book and a pencil so they could draw their own pictures of Nicolas, drew tens of thousands of visitors. Like Goscinny's other creation, Asterix the Gaul, Le Petite Nicolas is, it would seem, both iconic, and an Ambassador for the Ninth Art (cartooning) in France.

It is no surprise that Le Petite Nicolas has remained so popular in France and further afield, for so long. In addition to the stories being wonderfully illustrated by Sempe, the stories are beautifully written by the man who also brought Lucky Luke and Asterix to life. Goscinny is credited, within these stories, with perfectly capturing a child's narrative and this is not simply hyperbole. With what appears to be a few deceptively simple techniques, like the exuberant run-on sentences of an excited narrator, Goscinny has, for many, created a snapshot of what it is or was like to be a boy trying to understand and fit into the crazy world around him. For someone like me, who is interested in autobiographical comics (and by autobiography I also mean the sort of made-up autobiography that creates Holden Caulfield in our minds eye), Le Petite Nicolas is a real treat, and a real education in how the simplest of drawings can be made more evocative with a well chosen word or phrase.

We don't really have any equivalent to Le Petit Nicolas here in the UK, unless you think Janet and John (actually Alice and Jerry and licensed to the UK as Janet and John) fits the bill. Actually, that's not as wild a comparison as it sounds, while the Government here, in the 1950s and 1960s, tried to educate the proletariat with the whitest, most uptight, "middle-class", oh-so-very English role-models you have ever seen, children in France were being enchanted by Petite Nicolas and his family, friends and acquaintances; including Clotaire, bottom of the class, Alceste, who eats all the time, Eudes, who is very strong, Geoffroy, whose is very rich, teacher's pet, Agnan and Rufus, whose father is a policeman.

Interestingly, the first Nicolas story ever published, on 29 March 1959, appeared in Sud-Ouest, which those of you who read the Adelle Blanc-Sec piece below will recognise, and that story appears in the new Petite Nicolas collection, The Balloon and Other Original Stories, alongside a treasure-chest of nine new stories that Goscinny's daughter Anne discovered and put together with new drawings by the still-brilliant and ever youthful Sempe.

The new Le Petite Nicolas movie actually reminds me of two things and they are rel event to this discussion, one is that there was a movie made about Posy Simmonds semi-autobiographical story of school days (in fact Rosemary herself scripted it), The Frog Prince, which took place largely in France, and also that Posy's graphic novel Tamara Drew has been made into a movie. Now, despite the fact that these events have happened about 20 years apart, that might look like a great stride for comic/graphic novel/children's book creators here, but I don't think so, I'd remind you of three things: unlike Le Petite Nicolas, The Frog Prince was not a graphic work, unlike the universally recognisable experience of Nicolas, Posy's tale was a tale of a privileged private-school upbringing, and unlike Le Petite Nicolas, with it's many, many, readers, Tamara Drew was a comic strip that appeared weekly in The Guardian, which has a daily circulation of only 283,063, with the usual percentage breakdown of that figure that actually bothers reading comic strips.

Whilst I don't think it is very difficult to imagine Le Petite Nicolas, the movie and DVD, doing good business in France and even further afield, because of the way its creators "grew" their audience, I see it as a huge leap of faith imagining that Posy's as usual very middle-class, very English, re-imagining of Thomas Hardy's "Far From The Madding Crowd" will be in the cinemas for very long, if at all, before it hits the DVD shelves. Moreover, whilst Le Petite Nicolas is based on a 50 year-old idea, and a romanticised view of French childhood, it is more modern than the idea behind Tamara Drew. I don't think it's a coincidence that the country that actually celebrates its cartoonists, has a vibrant market in comics and graphic novels, and supports creator-owned work, understands better the business of cartooning and the journey of the cartoon, along with its intended audience, from the page to screen.

No comments: