André Franquin is undoubtedly the grandmaster of the so-called "School of Marcinelle", the group of artists that worked for the magazine Spirou during its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. A true legend in the world of comics, Franquin earned countless fans for his work in the field, as the artist of the goofy 'Gaston Lagaffe', as the author of some of the best episodes in the 'Spirou et Fantasio' series, and as the creator of one of the world's strangest comic animals, the Marsupilami.
Born in Etterbeek, the young Franquin showed an early talent for drawing and studied at the Saint-Luc Institute in Saint-Gilles for one year. Shortly after leaving school, he took a part-time job in the animation studios Compagnie Belge d'Actualités (C.B.A.), where he worked alongside Jacques Eggermont, Morris, Eddy Paape, and Peyo. After the closing of this studio, Morris introduced him to Jijé, then the main artist for Spirou magazine. Jijé paved the way for him and Morris to work for the magazine's publisher, Éditions Dupuis. During this period, Franquin also made illustrations for the scouting magazine Plein Jeu.
Franquin, together with Morris and Will, went to work in Jijé's house in Waterloo, where the four artists formed the "Gang of Four", with Jijé as tutor and inspirator. Besides Jijé, Franquin was also influenced by artists like Hergé, Floyd Gottfredson, Harvey Kurtzman, E.C. Segar and Ronald Searle. Franquin started out making (cover) illustrations for the Dupuis magazines Le Moustique and Bonnes Soirées, but was eventually handed over the writing and art duties on Spirou's title strip, 'Spirou et Fantasio', in 1947. He took over in the middle of Jijé's episode 'Les Maisons Préfabriquées', and moved on to create stories on his own, like 'Le Tank', 'Les Héritiers' and 'Radar Le Robot', all still heavily influenced by Jijé and his animation background.
In 1948 and 1949 he accompanied Jijé and Morris on a trip through the USA and Mexico, during which he kept sending his 'Spirou' pages to Europe. Franquin eventually found his own style in his 'Spirou' stories, and shaped the series for the decades to come. He began making longer stories, starting with 'Il y a un Sorcier à Champignac' in 1950-51, and introduced a great variety of new side-characters to the strip. He created the little town of Champignac and its colorful inhabitants, Fantasio's evil cousin Zantafio, the mad scientist Zorglub and, most notably, a long-tailed animal called 'Marsupilami'. He also gave Spirou's loyal squirrel Spip the role of somewhat cynical commentator.
The enlargement of the Spirou universe and the very humorous and well-structured stories made Franquin, in the minds of many people, the ultimate 'Spirou et Fantasio' artist. Every artist who has drawn the series afterwards has always been compared to Franquin. In his Spirou stories, Franquin regularly expressed his love for animals ('Le Nid des Marsupilamis', 'Le Gorille a bonne mine', 'Le voyageur du Mésozoïque'), sports ('Spirou sur le ring', 'Les voleurs du Marsupilami', 'La mauvaise tête') and cars ('La corne de rhinocéros', 'La Quick Super'), as well as his antimilitaristic sentiments ('Le dictateur et le champignon', 'QRN sur Bretzelburg'). He proved a master in drawing highly technical, yet fluently drawn mechanical objects and inventions, like in 'Radar le Robot' and the Zorglub-cycle. Also notable was his unsurpassed talent for exciting storytelling and (comedy) timing.
In 1955, after a dispute with his publisher Dupuis, Franquin headed to competitor Lombard, and signed a five-year contract to work for Tintin magazine. Thus began Franquin's first venture into the comic gag strip, 'Modeste et Pompon'. However, the disagreement with Dupuis was soon resolved, and Franquin had to work for both magazines at the same time. Fortunately, he got the assistance of other scriptwriters for his 'Modeste et Pompon' gags, most notably René Goscinny and Michel Greg, who both created another neighbor for Modeste. When Franquin's contract with Lombard ended in 1959, the strip was continued by other artists in the following decades, including Dino Attanasio, Mittéï, and Walli & Bom.
Besides the first showcase of Franquin's talent for gags, 'Modeste et Pompon' is well-known for its designs of cars and home interiors. Largely inspired by Franquin's own abstract design furniture, the comic's depiction of Modeste's home gives a preserved look in the everyday life of the 1950s. The drawings became more angular and geometric, with a large focus on modernism. This style was also typical for the 1958 World Expo in Brussels, and would later become known as the "Atomic style". It was also omni-present in the work of Jijé and Will, and knew a revival in the 1980s through artists like Joost Swarte, Yves Chaland, Ever Meulen and Serge Clerc.
This first experience of a gag strip led to the creation of his iconic 'Gaston Lagaffe' character in 1957. Drawn from the template of the American beatnik, the character initially caused amoc in the magazine's editorial sections. He just simply arrived, and no one knew who had sent him, or why? This was a striking example of Spirou's fun atmosphere and tongue-in-cheek approach under Yvan Delporte's editorship, that led to the popularization of the anti-hero in European comics. After a few weeks, Franquin started featuring Gaston in half-page gags, that were mostly drawn by his assistant Jidéhem. As the laziest employee of the fictionalized offices of Spirou, Gaston was also introduced silently into the world of the magazine's title strip; Fantasio was Gaston's fixed opponent and the character had occasional guest appearances in 'Spirou et Fantasio' episodes.
From its start as a strip with mainly office humor in the early years, to the hilarious and over-the-top happenings in later years: Gaston's antics have enjoyed generations of comic book readers. Although the strip ran for over 30 years, his superiors Fantasio and Prunelle never managed to actually get him to work. While he had only one thing to do: sort the mail! His inability to deal with authority is also an annoyance to police officer Longtarin. Famous are also Gaston's experimentations with science (that usually end with a bang), his strange inventions (of which the extraordinary Gaffophone is the most notorious), his love story with Mademoisselle Jeanne and his talent for causing disaster wherever he goes (as potential business associate De Mesmaeker experiences over and over again). It is a miracle that Gaston got fired only once during all these years, and this was after he brought a cow to the office. But tons of letters from pleading readers saved him, and in later years, he even got away with bringing his hyperactive cat and agressive seagull to work.
The integration of Gaston's world in Spirou's editorials was further enhanced in the mid 1960s, when textual accounts of Gaston's exploits were published in Spirou's pages.Written by Yvan Delporte and illustrated by Franquin, the stories sometimes didn't even deviate that much from the real world, as Delporte at one point brought an actual lion cub called Pinky to work.
Gaston was also one of the first popular comic characters to star in advertising gags. Starting with a series of gags for the table beer Orange Pied-Boeuf in the 1950s, Gaston later appeared in advertising gags for Kodak in the 1970s, and in a series of gags for Philips batteries in the 1980s. Gaston's nephew also appeared in the Kodak pages, and was revived in 2011-2014 by artist Simon Léturgie and writers Yann and Jean Léturgie in a spin-off gag series called 'Gastoon' at Marsu Productions.
The 1950s and 1960s were the most productive period of Franquin's career. He not only drew Spirou's title comic, produced 'Gaston' and 'Modeste et Pompon', but also illustrated the covers for the books with collected editions of Spirou magazine, and designed beautiful headers for Spirou's frontpage, that served as introductions for new serials. He furthermore created the shy little boy 'Petit-Noël' for a story in Spirou's mini-book section (1957), and he developed the character of 'Starter' for the automotive section written by Jos Wauters.
Because of the increasing workload, he often called in the help of his friends. Jijé's brother Henri Gillain (Jean Darc) and Franquin's friend Geo Salmon (Jo Almo) had helped with the plots of some of the early 'Spirou' stories, and for his later masterpieces Franquin was mainly aided by scriptwriter Greg. But also Maurice Rosy and Peyo helped out, as did Will for some of the background art. Franquin opened his private (and secret) atelier in the Avenue du Brésil in Brussels, where he surrounded himself with several co-workers, of which Jidéhem was the most prominent. Jidéhem provided the backgrounds for several 'Spirou' stories, drew the initial 'Gaston' gags and succeeded Franquin as the illustrator of the 'Starter' section. Jean Verbruggen was responsible for the coloring, while Jean Roba helped with the artwork of the three 'Spirou' stories that were developed especially for the French newspaper Le Parisien Libéré in 1958-1959. Other artists that attended Franquin's atelier were Marcel Denis and Kiko. As a team effort, the group made the 1959 story 'L'Île au Boumptéryx' under the joint signature of "Ley Kip" (phonetic for "l'équipe" = "the team").
Franquin frequently suffered from depressions, which at one point led to a long interruption of the Spirou story 'QRN sur Bretzelburg' in 1961. While his Spirou stories are nearly all classics, Franquin never felt at ease with the characters, as he didn't create them himself. The artist was his own worst critic, and he never really felt satisfied with his work. He mostly enjoyed creating the exploits of 'Gaston Lagaffe', and eventually felt more and more alienated from the 'Spirou' series. That's why he called it quits in 1968 and handed over the 'Spirou' series to the young Breton artist Jean-Claude Fournier in order to devote all of his time to 'Gaston'. He decided to keep the Marsupilami for himself though, for future use. To smoothe the transition to his successor, he did give a helping hand by drawing his long-tailed animal in Fournier's debut story.
From then on, the 'Gaston' gags started appearing on full pages of four strips, instead of half pages of two, and Prunelle replaced Fantasio as Gaston's opponent. Franquin assumed full artistic control, and began to experiment with graphical jokes, such as funny autographs and strange monsters in the posters on the background. Franquin usually scribbled these monsters for his own pleasure or while he was at home or in a restaurant or café. A selection of these were later published in magazines like Schtroumpf and Circus, and starred on a series of postcards. His autographs were collected in the book 'Signé Franquin', that was published by Dupuis in 1992, and Marsu Productions published two books with his monsters in 2002 and 2003. His more abstract doodles were also collected in 2003.
The darker side of Franquin's personality would come to notice in the pages of Le Trombone Illustré, a satirical supplement to Spirou that Franquin launched with Yvan Delporte in 1977. The supplement first introduced the cynical comic shadow plays, known as 'Idées Noires' ('Dark Thoughts'). But Franquin also created beautiful headers for this tabloid sized paper, starring a host of characters, including the Marsupilami and a rather strange bishop. Upon the cancellation of Le Trombone, the 'Idées Noires' started appearing in Fluide Glacial, the magazine of Franquin's friend Gotlib. Unlike Franquin's generally positive and poetic other work, these pages showed the author's pessimistic and more controversial view on politics, pollution, war, capitalism and human nature in general.
The series came about as an outlet for his own depressions and features very black comedy. Some gags are fantasy-oriented, with jokes about monsters or people in science fiction settings. Others are more disturbing because they take their inspiration from real-life fears, like horrific accidents, executions, suicides, being eaten by animals, epidemics, world war, the atomic bomb and mankind eventually destroying itself. Particularly notable are the gags where Franquin expresses his left-wing opinions about game hunters, animal abuse, pollution, fur, smokers, the death penalty, religion, the army and nuclear energy. The nihilistic tone is complimented by the black-and-white ink drawings which all feature silhouetted characters cast in shadowy backgrounds. Despite its popularity with readers, Franquin eventually quit the series because it became all too depressing and formulaic.
In addition, Franquin and Delporte have served as scriptwriters for a couple of other comic series. Between 1975 and 1985, their wide imagination was also expressed in the magical 'Isabelle' series, that Delporte had developed with Raymond Macherot and artist Will in 1969. They later scripted 'Arnest Ringard et Augraphie' for Frédéric Jannin, a comical series of short stories about the ongoing battle between a man and a mole (1978-1980 and then again from 1993-1995).
However, Franquin's activities declined during the 1980s, and 'Gaston' made less frequent appearances in Spirou's pages throughout the decade. The artists's social engagement also became clear in his later 'Gaston' gags. He used his character on specially designed posters and postcards for Unicef and Amnesty International, and humanitarian and ecological subjects were also explored in the regular gags. In 1990, Franquin was involved in the development of an animation series for Swiss television, called 'La Chronique des Tifous', together with Delporte, Xavier Fauche and Jean Léturgie. 25 episodes of 5 minutes were made, that were broadcasted in 1990. A book with Franquin's sketches was published by Éditions Dessis.
Postcard starring Gaston for Unicef
Although the rights of the Marsupilami were his, he seldomly used the character after learing the 'Spirou' comic. The long-tailed animal, often accompanied by Petit Noël, appeared in only a couple of gag pages and short stories from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. And in 1978, the German singer Dennie Christian released a Dutch language song called 'Wij zijn twee vrienden', about the friendship between Gaston and the Marsupilami. The song, cashing in on the success of Dutch singer Vader Abraham's 'Het Smurfenlied' ('The Smurfs' Song') about Peyo's 'The Smurfs', increased the characters' popularity among the general public, even though Franquin himself felt that Gaston and the Marsupilami were rarely teamed up in his comics and thus had nothing in common.
The character finally reappeared in 1987, when Franquin and Jean-François Moyersoen launched Marsu Productions to give the character a comic book series of its own. Franquin kept overall control over the strip, but the graphical part was handled by Batem, and the stories were scripted by Greg and later Yann. The new stories were based on the animal's life in the Palombian jungle, as Franquin had depicted in his 1960 'Spirou' album 'Le Nid des Marsupilamis' ('The Nest of the Marsupilamis'). Other characters returned in the initial set-up, such as the female Marsupilami, the baby Marsupilamis and the hunter Bring M. Backalive. The series still runs to this day (2016), still drawn by Batem, and written by a host of scriptwriters, most notably Stéphane Colman.
In 1993, the Marsupilami also starred in a somewhat offbeat cartoon series by the Walt Disney Studios, that completely deviated from Franquin's original creation. The setting was changed from South-America to Africa, and the animal spoke in this series, instead of his familiar shouts of "Houba! Houba!" Marsu Productions sued Disney as a result and actually won their case, as well as the rights to the character back. A more faithful series to Franquin's characters, was produced by Cactus Animation in France. It ran for 26 episodes on Canal J in 2000. A second series followed in 2003, and more seasons were added from 2009. A French CGI-animated/live-action film based on Franquin's creation, that was directed by Alain Chabat, was released in April 2012.
André Franquin, considered as one of the founding fathers of the Franco-Belgian comics tradition, passed away in Saint-Laurent du Var in January 1997. His impressive oeuvre continues to be reprinted in varying formats to this day. From the collection of his complete works at Éditions Rombaldi in the 1980s to the large format luxury publications with reproductions of Franquin's original artwork at Marsu Productions in the 2000s, the demand for Franquin's work seems to be insatiable. Since the 2010s, Franquin's shorter 'Spirou et Fantasio' stories are being recolored by Frédéric Jannin, annotated by José-Louis Bocquet and Serge Honorez, and remounted to their original format for a series of hardcover books at Éditions Dupuis. Also, recent thematic collections of gags are yet another incarnation of the 'Gaston' album series, that started with the small format books in 1966, and seems to be as chaotic as its protagonist.
Several studies of Franquin's work have appeared. One of the first and probably best-known is 'Et Franquin créa la gaffe' (1986), a collection of interviews with Franquin about his work by Numa Sadoul. A quite complete overview of his life and work was compiled and written by José-Louis Bocquet and Eric Verhoest under the title 'Franquin - Chronologie d'une Oeuvre', at Marsu Productions in 2007. Furthermore, the trip that Franquin, Jijé and Morris made to the US in the 1940s served as the inspiration of the graphic adaptation 'Gringos Locos' by Yann and Olivier Schwartz in 2012.
From April until June in 1991, André Franquin exhibited a selection of his traditional comics work and abstract black-and-white sketches at Gallery Lambiek.
Franquin's influence on the European comics scene can not be underestimated. The list of artists that have been influenced by his work is endless. To name but a few: Serge Clerc, Yves Chaland, Jean-Claude Fournier, Batem, Stéphane Colman, Frank Margerin, Emile Bravo, Marcel Gotlib, Johnny Bekaert, Francisco Ibanez, Pom, Marc Sleen, Jean-Pol, Windig & De Jong, Henk Kuijpers, Martin Lodewijk, Fabrice Tarrin, Midam, Merho, Kamagurka, Jan Bosschaert and Charel Cambré. And of course Tome & Janry, who returned the classic Franquin-feel to the 'Spirou et Fantasio' stories when they took over from Fournier in the 1980s. And although coming from an entirely different background and school, Clear Line-master Hergé has also expressed his admiration for Franquin's work.
When newspaper Le Monde compiled the "100 Books of the 20th Century", 'Gaston' ended up at number 98 as one of the few comics included in the list. André Franquin became 16th in the 2005 Walloon election for "Greatest Belgian", while he remained at number 117 in the Flemish version.
Franquin and Peyo made this drawing for Lambiek's Kees Kousemaker in 1971. By now, the pencil artwork of the Smurfs has nearly faded out...