Comics History

Spirou (1938-present)

Spirou header, 1950

Spirou is the longest-running and without doubt one of the most iconic European comic magazines. While its direct competitor Tintin was famous for its serious, realistic stories, Spirou stood out for its humor and freshness.

A family effort

The magazine was the brainchild of Jean Dupuis, owner of a Catholic printing firm in the Walloon town of Marcinelle, near Charleroi. Born in 1875, Jean Dupuis had started the business at the age of 20, when he installed his first printing press in the kitchen of the Dupuis family home. The firm had well established its name in Belgian households in the 1920s with their family magazines Bonnes Soirées and Le Moustique, as well as the Flemish counterparts De Haardvriend and Humoradio. By 1937 the idea arose to start a third magazine, aimed at children.

Spirou by Rob-Vel
From the second issue of Spirou, 1938

Since the firm was a family effort, the entire Dupuis clan came together for a brainstorm session regarding the name and the mascot of the magazine. The name was picked from a Walloon phrase for squirrel, spirou, which also means as much as a young tearaway. The Parisian artist Robert Velter (Rob-Vel) was assigned to give the character its looks. Velter made him a bellboy, who literally came to life from an artist's canvas on the frontpage of the first tabloid-sized issue on 21 April 1938.

Spirou, by Rob-Vel
Spirou by Rob-Vel (1940)

Tif et Tondu, by Fernand DineurAlso present in the first issue was 'Bibor et Tribar', another Rob-Vel creation, the melodramatic strip 'Les Aventures de Zizette', created by Velter's wife Blanche Dumoulin and Velter family friend Luc Lafnet, and 'Les Aventures de Tif' by Fernand Dineur. The bald Tif was accompanied by the bearded Tondu a couple of weeks later, and the classic duo 'Tif et Tondu' was born. Most of the early comics were of American origin however, such as 'Superman' by Siegel and Shuster, Fred Harman's 'Red Ryder', 'Brick Bradford' by William Ritt and Clarence Gray and Chester Gould's plainclothes detective 'Dick Tracy'. A Flemish equivelent of Spirou called Robbedoes was launched in October of the same year.

Superman, by Siegel & Shuster

Survival during World War II

The outbreak of World War II caused the mobilization of several of the firm's labourers, but also of its main artist, Rob-Vel. Paper shortages and postal problems between France and Belgium were other issues that had to be dealt with. Since Jean Dupuis was in exile in London, his sons Paul and Charles Dupuis and son-in-law René Matthews were put in charge of the day-to-day business.

One of the most valuable resources proved to be Joseph Gillain, a.k.a. Jijé, a local artist from Dinant. He had been with the magazine since 1939, drawing stories like 'Le Mystère de la Clef Indoue' and 'Trinet et Trinette dans l'Himalaya'. But by 1940 he not only continued the title comic when all contact was lost with the Velter family, but he also drew fill-in episodes of the American comics, while additionally drawing weekly installments of his own series 'Valhardi' and the comic biographies of Don Bosco and Christopher Columbus.

Jean Valhardi by Jije
Jean Valhardi (1943-44)

Despite the war, the circulation was nearly doubled between Summer 1941 and Autumn 1942 from 85,000 to 152,000 weekly copies. Another mainstay was added to the team of local artists with the arrival of Sirius and his Jack London-inspired hero 'L'Épervier Bleu'. In 1943, the German Propaganda Abteilung wanted to assign a German administrator to the publishing house, which Dupuis refused. A publication stop was decreed by the oppressor in the Summer of that year. Dupuis managed to by-pass the ban by publishing the books 'L'Espiègle au Grand Coeur' and 'L'Almanch 1944' in the following months, but the Germans saw through the plan.

Jean DoisySpirou had a large and loyal fanbase however, which can largely be attributed to the unoffical editor-in-chief Jean Doisy, a.k.a. Le Fureteur (Snuffeltje in Flemish). The communist Doisy, whose real name was Georges Évrard, was the driving force behind the "Amis de Spirou" and their camps, code of honour and secret language. He had even written hidden messages for the Resistance in his editorials! During the publication ban he kept the Spirou spirit high through the puppet shows starring the magazine's main heroes performed by André Moons and his Farfadet Theatre.

Rule number 4 of the Spirou code of honour
Rule #4 of the Spirou code of honour: "A friend of Spirou is loyal to God and his country

Start of the Golden Age

Spirou Almanach 1947Shortly after the Liberation, Spirou came back stronger than ever on 5 October 1944. Joseph Gillain guided a new team of artists into a new era what was to become the magazine's Golden Age. The young André Franquin took over the adventures of Spirou and Fantasio, a character that originated in Doisy's editorials but was turned into Spirou's loyal sidekick by Jijé. Gillain also handed over his other series to his pupils, while he concentrated on his gospel in comics format, 'Emmanuel'. Eddy Paape was handed 'Jean Valhardi' and Victor Hubinon drew a new story with 'Blondin et Cirage'. Also, Dineur left 'Tif et Tondu' in the capable hands of the young Will, while Morris created his worldfamous cowboy 'Lucky Luke'.

Lucky Luke by MorrisLucky Luke

Another important contributor became the World's Press agency in Liège, that was started by Georges Troisfontaines in 1946. Troisfontaines had written Spirou's aviation section under the name Georges Cel since 1939, and now aspired to become the main supplier of editorials and realistic comics to the magazine. The first was the aviation comic 'Buck Danny' by Victor Hubinon and Jean-Michel Charlier, that remained a regular feature in the magazine's pages until 2007. The agency also started the educational series on history, 'Les Belles Histoires de l'Oncle Paul' (1951), of which Charlier and Octave Joly were the main writers. Many artists made their first steps in the comics field in this series in the following decades, such as Hermann, Jean Graton, Dino Attanasio, Liliane & Fred Funcken, Arthur Piroton and Derib.

Oncle Paul, by Paape

It was with this new team of talented artists that the magazine went into its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. Several wonderful series appeared during this period, of which many have become classics of European comics. Franquin's 'Spirou' stories are widely considered masterpieces. Charlier proved himself a master in realistic adventure comics - besides 'Bucky Danny', he also created the boyscout comic 'La Patrouille des Castors' with MiTacq and the journalist 'Marc Dacier' with Paape, but also comics biographies of 'Surcouf', 'Stanley' and 'Mermoz'.

Gil Jourdan, by Maurice TillieuxGil Jourdan by Tillieux

Other notable arrivals were of Peyo with 'Johan et Pirlouit' in 1952 and of Maurice Tillieux with 'Gil Jourdan' in 1956. Jijé resumed his work with new stories starring 'Blondin et Cirage' and 'Jean Valhardi' and also created the western hero 'Jerry Spring' in 1954, while Sirius visited all periods in world history with his 'Timour' dynasty. And let's not forget Marcel Remacle with 'Vieux Nick', Gérald Forton with 'Alain Cardan' and René Hausman with his attractive nature comic 'Saki'. Franquin and Jidéhem illustrated a great many cars of the time for the 'Starter' section.

Johan & Pirlouit, by PeyoPeyo's Johan et Pirlouit

Heavy competition came from Tintin, a magazine built around Hergé's hero, published by Le Lombard in Brussels since 1946. It was an unwritten rule that artists working for either one of these magazines should not work for the other. Just like their readers, the artists were also loyal to their employer, with a couple of exeptions. Both Franquin and Will left Dupuis for Lombard at one point or another during the 1950s, but they quickly returned due to the more serious atmosphere with the other magazine. Other departures were more permanent. Artists like Paape and Graton found a steady home in Tintin with their series 'Luc Orient' and 'Michel Vaillant', while Raymond Macherot left Tintin to find a more fitting home for his funny animal worlds in Spirou, for which he created 'Chaminou' and 'Sibylline'.

The days of Delporte

First appearance of Gaston, by Franquin and JidehemThe recovering economy paved the way for Dupuis to publish most of its important series in book format after publication in Spirou. An extra comics magazine called Risque-Tout was added in 1955, but proved less successful than its big brother and was cancelled in the following year. The cheerful mood of Spirou on the other hand was further enhanced through the inventive and innovating leadership of editor-in-chief Yvan Delporte and man-of-ideas Maurice Rosy. Delporte was a great supporter of crazy ideas, and the unexplained arrival of a lazy beanpole in the magazine's editorial pages marked the birth of one of the most remarkable anti-heros of comics history, 'Gaston Lagaffe'. Furthermore, the 'Gaston' strip, drawn by Franquin and Jidéhem from 1957, gave a hilarious fictional look behind the scenes in the magazine's editorial offices.

Yvan Delporte and PinkyGaston and Pinky
Even the most unlikely events from the Gaston comics were not always fictional. Delporte has brought several animals to the editorial offices, including a monkey and a lion cub called Pinky.

Flagada, a micro-story by Charles Degotte Delporte and Rosy were also the masterminds of the so-called 'mini-récits'. These small comic stories were printed in the middle of the magazine and could be folded into mini comic booklets. Many characters that later appeared on the regular pages had their first appearance in this section, most notably 'Boule et Bill' by Jean Roba and Peyo's 'Smurfs',  who had been previously introduced in the 'Johan et Pirlouit' comic. But also 'Génial Olivier' by Jacques Devos, 'Bobo' by Maurice Rosy and Paul Deliège, 'Sam et l'Ours', by Lagas and Deliège and 'Le Flagada' by Charles Degotte also became regulars for decades to come.

Where the 'Oncle Paul' stories were a training platform for artists in the realistic style, the mini-books were a useful introduction of young humorists. Several anonymous employers of the publisher's lettering and art studios got the opportunity to publish their own work in the mini-books, such as Serge Gennaux, Charles Degotte, Deliège and Louis Salvérius. A very productive artist for this section was Noël Bissot who drew a great many untitled stories featuring many memorable recurring characters.

Spirou cover 1963Spirou cover 1967Spirou cover 1968
Spirou covers from 1963, 1967 and 1968. Until 1966 the cover always featured a comic strip. This was mostly the weekly episode of the 'Spirou' comic or a 'Gaston' gag.

Spirou continued its successful formula throughout nearly all of the 1960s. New series were launched, such as 'Benoît Brisefer' by Peyo, 'Foufi' by Kiko and 'La Ribambelle' by Roba until "disaster struck" in 1968. That year is often referred to as the end of the golden era and the start of the decline. By then, Delporte quit his job as editor-in-chief, while Franquin handed over 'Spirou et Fantasio' to Jean-Claude Fournier from Brittany to spend all his time on 'Gaston'. Peyo became more and more involved in the merchandising deals regarding his Smurfs, and Morris took his 'Lucky Luke' comic and moved over to Pilote.

Next generation in the 70's

Natacha by WaltheryLuckily, a new generation of artists was ready to guide the magazine into the 1970s. First of all, Peyo's former co-workers Walthéry, Gos, De Gieter, Francis and Wasterlain all had series of their own by now. Gos created his extraterrestrial cat 'La Scrameustache', while De Gieter delved into ancient Egypt for his series 'Papyrus'. The times had changed and the readers were deemed ready for a wave of female heroines. Jidéhem had already made solo stories starring 'Sophie', a secondary character from his 'Starter' stories, but the late 1960s also marked the arrival of air hostess 'Natacha' by François Walthéry and Gos, Roger Leloup's electrical engineer 'Yoko Tsuno' and the fairytale world of 'Isabelle' by Will, Delporte and Macherot.

Hard-boiled action was also not avoided with the arrival of action hero and Charles Bronson look-alike 'Archie Cash' by Malik and Jean-Marie Brouyère. Tillieux expanded his activities with a focus on scriptwriting. He succeeded Rosy as the writer of the 'Tif et Tondu' series, created FBI agent 'Jess Long' with Arthur Piroton and the slapstick serial on neighborly irritations with 'Marc Lebut et son voisin' with Francis. One of the most popular new series was 'Les Petits Hommes' by Pierre Seron, whose art showed a strong resemblance to Franquin.

Spirou cover, 1972Spirou cover, 1976Spirou cover, 1979
Spirou covers from 1972, 1976 and 1979

The writer that would determine the magazine's personality the most during the following decades was however Raoul Cauvin. A former cameraman with Dupuis' animation department, he had been writing the occasional comic strip during the 1960s. One of his first and best-known successes is 'Les Tuniques Bleues', about the American Civil War. When the original artist Louis Salverius tragically died in the early 1970s, he was succeeded by Willy Lambil, who had been drawing 'Sandy et Hoppy' since the 1950s. Cauvin's humorous series quickly multiplied during the 1970s, and hardly a theme was skipped. He visited the gangster era of 1930s Chicago in 'Sammy' with Berck, the days of Napoleon in 'Godaille et Godasse' with Jacques Sandron, while mocking the law with the round police officer 'L'Agent 212' with Daniel Kox and introducing a mini-Tarzan and his friend gorilla in 'Les Jungles Perdues' with Mazel.

Cauvin at workCauvin at work (from the Pauvre Lampil comic)

The new editor-in-chief was Thierry Martens, whose impressive knowledge of the history of the publishing house Dupuis, its magazines and its authors earned him the nickname "Monsieur Archive". He searched new talent in the 'Carte Blanche' section, which meant the debuts of Philippe Bercovici, Yann, Luc Warnant, Bernard Hislaire and Alain Dodier. Other new talent was found in the fanzine scene, such as Christian Darasse, André Geerts, Watch, Dédé, Bom and Bosse.

New wave of mature comics

By the late 1970s, the comics medium had matured. Classic infallible heroes were considered old-fashioned, and the time had come for more human protagonists. Hislaire, Geerts and Wasterlain told romantic and poetic stories in their respective series 'Bidouille et Violette', 'Jojo' and 'Docteur Poche'.

Header for Le Trombone by Franquin

Even the older generation turned to more mature-themed comics when Yvan Delporte started the Spirou supplement Le Trombone Illustré between 17 March and 20 October 1977. Inspired by modern comic magazines of the time, such as Fluide Glacial, Métal Hurlant and L'Écho des Savanes, the supplement featured work by Enki Bilal, Claire Bretécher, F'Murr and Gotlib. Franquin was present with his beautiful illustrated headers starring a cast of characters including a rather controversial bishop - which was rather remarkable for a religious publishing house like Dupuis. He also made his first black humor gags 'Idées Noires', while Frédéric Jannin and Thierry Culliford made gags about the generation gap with 'Germain et nous...'.

By 1978 Martens was replaced by Alain De Kuyssche, a journalist without a former background in comics. During De Kuyssche's tenure, new artists of the Saint-Luc art school such as Philippe Berthet and Antonio Cossu were introduced with more experimental and artistic work. Hermann was also present with 'Nick', a modern rendition of 'Little Nemo'. The arrival of Yann and Conrad caused quite a stir, when they poked fun at all the established series and artists in their margin illustrations. Their series 'Les Innomables' was far too violent and explicit for the readership, and the duo was eventually banned from the magazine.

Spirou cover, 1983Spirou cover 1984Spirou cover 1986
Spirou covers from 1983, 1984 and 1985

The general tone of the magazine became even more mature under De Kuyssche's successor's reign Philippe Vandooren in the 1980s. Dodier and Makyo had started the decade with the melancholic 'Gully', but soon found success with their clumsy detective 'Jérome K. Jérome Bloche'. Marc Michetz and Bosse introduced their samurai 'Kogaratsu' in 1983, and Frank Pé created his poetic 'Brousaille'. Griffo and Van Hamme made the Orwellian series of short stories 'S.O.S. Bonheur', while Tome wrote the adventures of policeman in disguise 'Soda' for Luc Warnant and later Bruno Gazzotti and Frank Le Gall created his maritime adventurer 'Théodore Poussin'. The distinction between these series and the more mainstream comics was also noted by the publisher, who placed the book publications in special collections like Repérages and Aire Libre.

Jerxme K. Jerxme Bloche, by Alain DodierJérôme K. Jérôme Bloche by Dodier

Fournier was released from the 'Spirou' comic and after some try-outs with new authors, including Nic Broca & Cauvin, Tome & Janry and Yves Chaland, Tome and Janry were finally named the official new authors of the title comic. They relied heavily on the Franquin-era of the series, not only through the drawing style, but also by revisiting earlier characters like John Helena, Seccotine and Zorglub. The duo produced many new albums throughout the 1980s and 1990s to much acclaim by the audience, and even introduced a younger, and more naughty, version of the character in a series of gags under the title 'Le Petit Spirou'.

Le Petit Spirou by Tome & Janry
Le Petit Spirou, by Tome & Janry

Dutch independence and return to humour

Ever since the 1930s, the Dutch version Robbedoes had been largely a translation of its French older brother. But by the 1980s the editors Jos Wauters and Erwin Cavens got more freedom in filling special sections of their own. This meant the inclusion of work by Dutch and Flemish artists like Ikke ('Biebel'), Gerrit Stapel ('Huon de Neveling'), Toon van Driel ('Felis Leo'), Pjotr & Eric Meynen ('Tommy Gun en Marion Lee'), Gerard Leever ('De vloek van Bangebroek') and Peter de Smet ('Morgenster en Durandel'). But at the end of the decade Robbedoes returned to being a mere - and by now shortened - translation of Spirou. Only Gerrit de Jager and Luc Cromheecke found their way to the French audience with respectively 'Roel en zijn Beestenboel' ('Aristote et ses Potes') and 'Tom Carbon'.

Roel en zijn beestenboel by Gerrit de Jager
Roel en zijn beestenboel by Gerrit de Jager

Some of the more serious comics were removed from the magazine in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the focus returned to humor a more juvenile audience. After some final efforts by veterans like Franquin, Will, Macherot and Remacle, the magazine was almost completely handed over to new talent. Cauvin got competition as most productive scriptwriter from the likes of François Gilson and Zidrou, who created new series like 'Mélusine', 'Garage Isidore', 'Les Crannibales' and 'Tamara', with art by Clarke, Olis, Fournier and Darasse.

Le Boss by Bercovici
Le Boss

Of course, Cauvin remained present in every issue with short comical stories and gags of 'Pierre Tombal' (with Marc Hardy), 'Les Femmes en Blanc' (with Bercovici), 'Cupidon' (with Malik), 'Les Paparazzi' (with Mazel), 'Les Psy' (with Bédu) and 'Cédric' (with Laudec). Albert Blesteau and Christian Godard created the baby boy 'Toupet', while Serge Ernst and Midam satirized fanatic television viewers and gamers in their respective gag series 'Les Zappeurs' and 'Kid Paddle'. Short stories were provided by young artists like Baron Brumaire, E411, Jean-Michel Thiriet, Lewis Trondheim, Manu Larcenet and Blatte.

Kid Paddle by Midam

Stephen Desberg and Denis Lapière were responsible most of the longer adventure serials. Desberg had been writing 'Tif et Tondu' and '421' for father and son Maltaite since the 1980s, and came up with new creations like 'Jimmy Tousseul' with Daniel Desorgher and 'Billy the Cat' with Stéphane Colman. The latter also became a TV star in his own cartoon series, just like other Dupuis heroes like 'Spirou et Fantasio', 'Papyrus' and 'Cédric'. Lapière created the final rendition of 'Tif et Tondu' with Alain Sikorski, and started new series like 'Charly' with Magda, 'Alice et Léopold' with Olivier Wozniak, 'La Clé du Mystère' with Sikorski, 'Luka' with Gilles Mezzomo and 'Oscar' with Christian Durieux.

Editor-in-chief during this period (1993-2004) was Thierry Tinlot, who recaptured some of the classic spirit and fun from the Delporte era. This period also marked the return of funny editorial pages and photo comics, that regularly starred Raoul Cauvin. Zidrou and Bercovici also came up with a new editorial comic strip in the tradition of 'Gaston Lagaffe', starring a caricature of Tinlot, called 'Le Boss'.

Spirou covers from 1990, 1995 and 1999

75 years and counting...

Although the battle between Spirou with Tintin had come to a conclusion with the demise of the latter in 1988, the year 2004 really marked the end of an era. In that year, the publishing activities of Dupuis were bought by Média-Participations, the company that now owns most of the major European comic book publishers, including Dargaud and Le Lombard - indeed, the former publisher of Tintin.

Seuls by Bruno Gazzotti

Robbedoes ceased publication in September 2005, but Spirou even got 20 pages extra in 2006 and celebrated its 75th birthday in 2013. The magazine remains a breeding ground for new generations of talented comic artists and some of the freshness and fun of the golden era has definately returned. Evergreens of this period are occasionally reprinted, but new artists and series are introduced every year. Patrick Pinchart returned to the seat of editor-in-chief (he had previously held this occupation from 1987 till 1993) and the magazine was restyled. The mini-books section was revived and new authors were added to the team.

Fabien Vehlmann has been one of the most versatile writers of the new millennium with series like 'Green Manor' and 'Seuls', that he makes in cooperation with the artists Denis Bodart and Bruno Gazzotti. Together with Yoann he is also responsible for the new adventures of 'Spirou et Fantasio'. Another hit series that should be mentioned is 'Les Nombrils' by Dubuc and Delaf.

Spirou covers from 2004, 2008 and 2010

The long history of the magazine and its publisher is carefully researched by Christelle and Bertrand Pissavy-Yvernault. The first book of their 'Véritable Histoire de Spirou' covers the years 1937-1946 and was published in January 2013. The book contains testimonies by the people involved and their relatives, and reveals new facts that shed light on several mysteries that still surrounded this largely uncovered period of the magazine's existence.

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