SPIROU & FANTASIO IN NEW YORK
You'll have to forgive me while I fumble through the set-up here: "Spirou and Fantasio in New York" (Cinebook, $11.95) is my first "Spirou" title. It's written and drawn by the team of Tome and Janry, respectively. The character, I know, has been around for decades, mostly in a red suit as a hotel bellhop. For this series, he's a reporter, living with Fantasio, a fellow reporter. Or maybe one is a photographer and the other is a reporter? I don't know, and it doesn't matter. It's all set-up. This is a book about two French journalists who have odd adventures. They also have a pet squirrel, who is cute.
In this book, they (and their squirrel) find themselves tricked into the middle of escalating gang wars between the Chinese and the Italians across the Atlantic Ocean in New York City. They're running for their lives, trying to get through the day to live to see another one, and mildly bemused by the whole thing.
This book was originally published in 1987. You might guess that while reading it. The "Miami Vice"-esque white suits the two title characters wear are a dead giveaway, but there are other fashion clues in the book that will make it obvious. Sensitivities were also different. I'm guessing that not all of this book would go through today if it was brand new. The caricatures of people based on their ethnicities might be too extreme for some. It's not nearly at the level of "Tintin in the Congo," I grant you, but the surface appearances might go a bit too far, mostly with the black and Chinese characters. (Italians, as ever, get the shaft on righteous indignation. Make fun of them all you want...)
The art, in general, though, is beautiful. It's probably the style I enjoy the most right now. Think of "The Smurfs" and "Lucky Luke" as belonging in the same class. Characters have big heads and hands sized to match. They're likely to go to extremes, jumping with both feet in the air when they get excited or leaning over just a bit too far when running. The eyes play a huge part in the storytelling, often being the only visible part of the characters when they are otherwise in silhouette. The hands, too, talk a lot. Once you've read a few books like this, every other person drawn in a comic book will look stiff and unexcitable. The same goes for the random animals in the book, including Spip the Squirrel.
The inks play a big role in this book. They're very chunky. They can cover a scene in dramatic shadows for night scenes. They can ease back to bathe a scene in light, but still vary in width and shape dramatically in a single panel. Just look at how the hands are drawn to see all the ways the lines vary. In a simple drawing of a hand with a wedding ring on it, the ink lines go out of their way to end at the ring, creating the appearance that the ring is squeezing in on the hand just a bit. The ring isn't drawn around the sausage of a finger. The ring, instead, digs into the finger, tying it up just a bit.
The story is absurd and preposterous. It's filled with nearly random events and tangents and silly coincidences. The Mafia use blimps to invade Chinatown, only to be turned away by Chinese kites carrying grenades, leading to a series of rooftop jumps with a grappling hook. Don't judge it too harshly for that. It's not meant to be the next "Asterix," though you can see some surface similarities I'll get to in a minute. Think of this more as a comic book sit-com. It's a fun, light read that will have you laughing out loud in places, and enjoying a lot of great art along the way. Nothing wrong with that.
Like "Asterix," characters are named with double entendres. You get the punny excitement of mobsters named Don De Luise, Don Quixoto, and Don Cortizone. There are running gags in the backgrounds and corners of some panels that pop up from time to time. Signs deserve to be read for what they add to the settings. They even throw in a couple of cartoonist cameo appearances. Yslaire shows up as an airplane ("YSLAIR," naturally), while Peyo makes an on-panel appearance early on, grumbling about the viability of The Smurfs' luckiness. But, hey, "Asterix" modeled characters after real life people, too, right?
The biggest shortcoming of the book, at least this one taken on its own, is that the title characters aren't all that exciting. They get into trouble as a way to get out of trouble (travelling to New York to cover a story because they've depleted their funds), but don't ever feel in control. They race through the adventure, but aren't active participants in it. They get caught up in things instead of creating them. It's passive, rather than active. Characters like Lucky Luke and Asterix can be described in a simple single sentence after reading any one of their books. Spirou and Fantasio are still cyphers to me. Maybe reading more books will help nail down their characters for me? I'm willing to give it a shot.
Cinebook does a great job with the book, if you can just look past the lettering using the crossbar-"I" in every wrong case possible. The book prints well, and is done on the larger 8.5 x 11 inch size, a la "Orbital." It's still not at the same size as the original French album would have been, but it's appreciably larger than the rinky-dink "Largo Winch" format. To put it in American terms, the slim paperback book is the same height of the "Invincible" hardcovers, or Marvel's basically defunct oversized basic hardcover format that used to hold a year's worth of issues.
There are four "Spirou and Fantasio" books available through Cinebook today. I'll definitely be going back for more. The art is good enough to carry the book for me, and the stories will hopefully get sharper as the albums carry on. Looks like there's at least 14 volumes in the series (including a sequel to this storyline called "Luna Fatale"), so it could keep Cinebook busy for a while. Their fourth volume, "Valley of the Exiles" is due out in the UK this week, and in the US in May.
THINKING AU FRANCAISE
Some random French thoughts:
- I got a couple of reminders and recommendations for the always excellent BouletCorp.com blog. Boulet posts his webcomics in both French and English editions. It would be possible to run through those comics and read the two languages side by side, if you can figure out where to look. As a bonus, it's a great site and one I've linked to before. (Thanks to Hugo for reminding me of that in email.)
- Another helpful tip for learning French: DuoLingo is a site with free foreign language lessons, including a track in French. It's a series of short quizzes that have you writing in French, translating to English, and transcribing French audio samples. It's valuable in some ways, but frustrating in others. They don't teach you how to conjugate a verb or what its root is, but they expect you to pick up on the conjugation through sheer repetition and intuition. To a certain degree, that works. I'd still run through the exercises while reading a slightly more formal guide to the language, though. I don't mind a little sloppiness in my own personal translation for the purpose of reading comics, so maybe it'll be OK. It's just a matter of soaking in all the vocabulary I can possibly get. (Hat tip to Peter for this one.)
- There was news out of Angoulême at the comics festival last weekend. Nothing is bigger (to me) than Comixology's announcement that they're moving into Paris. More details have since emerged, as Comixology announced that they've signed on with Delcourt, and will be putting that company's 600 book catalog onto their digital platform in the first half of this year. That includes the Soleil line, which Marvel reprinted for a short time recently. There will also be a separate app for the popular "Lanfeust of Troy" series. Judging by its description, I've love to take a look at it, particularly since it's drawn by the same artist who did "Ythaq." I'm hoping they don't country lock the digital comics, but we'll see.
- "The Walking Dead" app has been translated into French already. You need to go into your iPhone's settings and change your language preference to French in order to get to it. The comics, though, are still in English. All of the controls that are textual are localized in French, though.
- Right now, Comixology.fr redirects you to Comixology.com in English. I haven't found the switch to flip to a localized French version of the website, which I'm sure the government over there would prefer.
- They did another 24 Hour Comic day at Angoulême, and the aforementioned Boulet participated. It's amazing how much he can draw in one day. There aren't too many shortcuts in there, either.
PIPELINKS (IN ENGLISH)
- I interviewed Robert Kirkman to talk about "Invincible" #100 and all the issues leading up to it. It was a lot of fun, and I hope you find something new in there. I think you might.
- Patrick Ballesteros has an awesome illustration up of the cast of "The Princess Bride." You could lose a lot of time perusing all his other art. It's captivating, colorful, and creative. (via iFanboy)
- Agnes Garbowska returns, with this amazing drawing of The Avengers on the playground.
- I reviewed "Glory" #32 for CBR Reviews last week, and will be looking at the most audacious action comic of the year this week. It's over the top to the extreme. It's ridiculous. It's laughable. And I loved every panel of it. Look for that review on Wednesday!
- Watching Paolo Rivera draw a "Daredevil" cover for 11 minutes is mesmerizing. I love watching people who have such control over their artistic tools as this. I'm sure everyone thinking of drawing comics digitally could learn a trick or three from watching this video.