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.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Extraordinary Adelle Blanc-Sec

So yesterday, before I recieved some good news regarding the comics business in the UK, for a change, I was kind of stoked at the prospect of seeing the new Luc Besson movie, based on Tardi's BD (that's "graphic novel" to you mate) Adele et la Bete, featuring the extraordinary adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. On the other hand, I was getting really wound-up all over again, about the opportunities that the British comics industry, IPC and DC Thomson, pissed away. I'm afraid that every time I see an almost organic journey from comic page to graphic novel to the movie screen, as I see often in Japan, and increasingly now in mainland Europe, I see the sort of billion dollar industry, employing a great many people, that our narrow-minded, antediluvian comic-producing giants could have helped create here - had they not been so mean-spirited, insular, and unadventurous. Instead of a billion dollar business, and a vibrant creative community working in the sort of studio system that sees Golgo13 thrive in a variety of media in Japan, or sees Asterix pump millions into the French economy, we have nothing, nada, zilch. And we have a generation of talented cartoonists who simply cannot find work; on this side of the pond at any rate.

Anyway, that's just how it is and is an interesting, if somewhat depressing, exercise to look at the similarities and differences in the comics business (such as it is/was) in the UK and in France. According to Wikipedia, the first story in the fictional universe that Adele Blanc-Sec inhabits, featured Lucien Brindavoine, and was serialised in the comics anthology Pilote in 1972 (there is a bit more detail here at the excellent Cool French Comics site). Pilote, first published in 1959, was a bit like a familiar British anthology comic, except that instead of being produced by a bunch of middle-aged old farts who didn't write or draw, it was the brainchild of Rene Goscinny, Jean-Michel Charlier, Albert Uderzo and Jean Hébrard. The same team that had earlier created a very progressive comic strip insert for newspapers, Le Supplement Illustre, and who had also teamed up to produce cartoons for a magazine published by Radio-Luxembourg. Pilote's biggest draw was the almost instantaneously successful Goscinny and Uderzo collaberation, Asterix the Gaul.

In 1960, the comic was bought by Dargaud publishers and Pilote took on a new lease of life, albeit with Goscinny still at the helm as Editor-in-Chief. New series such as Charlier and Moebius's Blueberry appeared, along with Achille Tallon by Greg. Pilote was fun and a comic book fan's dream, there was something to please everyone, a mixture of sci-fi, adventure, and humour, and in 1968 Morris's Lucky Luke, which began in Spirou in 1946, made the jump to to pages of Pilote. And just as Lucky Luke and Herlock Sholmes crossed the channel to appear in British comics like IPC's Chuckles, some British pages, like the late, great, Frank Bellamy's Winston Churchill graced the pages of Pilote.

The first appearance of Adèle Blanc-Sec, as a comic strip, was in the French regional newspaper Sud-Ouest in 1976. A collection of those strips was published by the Casterman Publishing House, and they also appeared in Casterman's comic, A Suivre, which ran from 1978 to December 1997. Like Pilote, and like Spirou, Tintin and Metal Hurlant, A Suivre presented the work of some of the world's premier comic book creators including Hugo Pratt, Jean-Claude Forest, Moebius, and of course, Tardi.

Set in Paris, in the years before and after World War I, Tardi's stories revolve around the investigative journalist, Adèle Blanc-Sec. On the face of it, it sounds a bit hackneyed, it is after all a familiar European comic trope, the picaresque tale. But as we have discussed in a much older post, the same can be said of Corto Maltese and Tintin and Largo Winch, it is the characterisation, the plotting, the singular magic of the draughtsman's pen, the degree of craft, that makes them all so very different. Take Tardi's reason for placing Adele either side of WW1, for instance; "Her feisty nature made it impossible to provide her with a place in the war. She would not have been allowed to fight, and could no more have settled for being a nurse, than she could have remained home rolling bandages". This is a creator talking about a character that lives and breaths, that could be put in an artificial situation by her author, but who would surely subvert her creators intention.

A cursory glance at some of the titles of Adele's adventures, goes some way to informing you that you will be heading for territory that Tintin did not breach; and that our heroine does not hesitate to lift the veil between this world and the next: Adèle and the Beast, The Demon of the Eiffel Tower, The Mad Scientist, Mummies on Parade, The Secret of the Salamander, The Drowned Man with Two Heads, Monsters All, The Mystery of the Abyss, The Infernal Labyrinth.

There is no point really in messing you about when it comes to the artwork and the story, this is Tardi for Heaven's sake, he is the Western equivalent of a mangaka, not just a seasoned professional, but a master illustrator and storyteller. The books are lush, and the stories are fabulous fun. To be honest, the sooner Fantgraphics gets round to publishing its English translations of this work, in that particular Fantagraphics way with those elegant covers, the better. There may be other, more experimental, titles in the Tardi library, but these extraordinary adventures are what I want to curl up with and you will too.

And there we have it, the progression, in an almost organic way, of a comic strip to the screen. It is almost identical to the route taken by many Japanese comics. Adele began in one publication, picked up a regular readership, was printed in a collection, developed a larger weekly readership, sold more collections, and then became a movie. Along the way a young cartoonist perfected his craft and made a living, printers and colourists were employed, merchandising made jobs for people in other industries, publishers and their families were happy, and film companies and soon DVD companies and the like, all found work from one little idea that was nurtured and encouraged. It is beautiful when it works.

Of course here it never did work, because the comics publishers kept "all the copyright" and regularly killed the characters off, and in many cases the cartoonists difted away from the business. And now, what do we have left, not a lot, well, not a lot at present, which is where the good news comes in. Titan (our old friends from our Garth post) will soon be publishing CLINT in the UK, and who knows, maybe, since those involved, including Mark Millar and Jonathan Ross, know about comics, and the comics business, and movies, and marketing, and manga, and merchandising, and the history of comics, maybe we will have a second bite at the cherry over here. Now that would be something.

So, the movie, by Luc Besson, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, will it be any good? I'm the wrong person to ask, I love French movies, and well, it's raising the profile of graphic novels and cartoonists so it will have to really stink up the room for me to hate it. And that seems unlikely, frankly, because it has fun written all over it, the leading lady is gorgeous, it has a mummy, a pterodactyl, and I get to vicariously smoke as Adele sparks up - I'm in heaven mate.