Jean Graton was one of the main artists for the classic comic magazine Tintin, and is the creator of the successful Formula 1 comic hero 'Michel Vaillant'. This comic strip has become a classic in its own right and a media franchise beloved with every fan of automobile racing. Graton, who was born in Nantes in 1923, had an early interest in drawing and sports, the latter through his father's involvement in the local motorcycle club. He saw his first drawing published in Le Soir when he was only eight years old. When World War II broke out, Graton went to live with his grandmother and he found a job in a shipyard. The Nazis took his father as a prisoner of war. Graton himself spent his military service in Algiers and returned to Nantes in 1947.
He began his artistic career in Brussels, Belgium, in 1948. While taking evening drawing courses, he found employment with the newspaper Le Journal des Sports. He drew caricatures and advertisements for the paper, but noticed business wasn't going too well. A better job waited for him at the World's Press agency of Georges Troisfontaines, a comics studio closely associated with the Belgian comics magazine Spirou. It was here that Graton met Jean-Michel Charlier and Victor Hubinon, creators of the aviation series 'Buck Danny'. Charlier offered Graton a job as comics artist at Spirou. Since the young man had never drawn a comic strip before he became an apprentice of Hubinon. He inked some pages of 'Buck Danny' and was such a fast learner that he was allowed to work out some short stories of his own. Graton was among the earliest artists to draw the historical comic series 'Les Belles Histoires de l'Oncle Paul' for Spirou magazine between 1951 to 1954. He was only preceded by Eddy Paape, Dino Attanasio and René Follet, while a great many young artists continued the series until the early 1980s. Mostly written by Octave Joly, the series had a formulaic and somewhat corny approach. Uncle Paul was a storyteller who'd always interrupt his nephews during an argument. After overhearing the nature of their argument he'd tell a story about a historical character who once faced a similar problem or challenge. Afterwards the boys would typically reconcile and Paul then delivered a moralistic message to the readers. The series offered Graton the opportunity to draw realistic portrayals of different historical periods. The downside was that it was so formulaic that he was just one of many skilled artists taking turns in illustrating the scripts. Several of Graton's stories appeared in the 'Oncle Paul' album series in 1953 and 1954, while a complete collection of Graton's contributions to the series was published by Dupuis in 2013.
In 1954 Graton joined rival magazine Tintin. He mainly drew one-shot sports comics for the magazine, which were collected in a volume called 'Ca c'est du sport' (1957). Among the series he worked on was 'L' Inconnu du Tour de France' ('The Unknown of the Tour de France', 1954-1964), which were biopics about real-life cycling legends. Contrary to his time at Spirou, Tintin's chief editor Raymond Leblanc allowed him to write his own scripts. He even promised him a Ferrari if he stayed with their company. Five years later Graton indeed received a Ferrari, though on loan from Leblanc and he was only allowed to drive it once. Graton was also a regular artist for Lombard's press agency PubliArt. He drew ads and advertising comics for Huret and Imifi, the publisher of Les Sports. For a sticker book issued by ice cream company Finial-Frisco he drew the comic strip 'Frisco Kid'. His work could also be read in the Revue du Club Pierrot, the club magazine of Spa-Monopole.
In 1957 Leblanc asked Graton to make a comics series about one central character, rather than his usual one-shot short stories. The automobile crazy artist didn't have to think long about a fitting subject. Since there was no major comic strip about a race car driver he created one himself. 'Michel Vaillant' centers around the family firm "Vaillant", a transporting company who also engage in Formula One racing. Henri Vaillant is the business leader and married to Elisabeth, with whom he has two sons, Jean-Pierre and his younger brother Michel, who both participate in automobile races. Michel is married to journalist Françoise Latour. He is a noble and talented race car champion, often teaming up with his American co-driver Steve Warson. While Michel is a clean-cut hero, Warson has more human fallibies. He enjoys the pleasures of life and often throws temper tantrums. As such he is Michel's comic relief sidekick and highly popular with readers. Despite his vices he is still intensely loyal to Michel.
Other good friends are drivers Yves Douleac, his girlfriend Gabriele Sprangenberg and motorcyclist Julie Wood. The latter originally appeared in another series by Graton, 'Julie Wood' (1976-1980), which was published in Pilote because Tintin didn't allow attractive or independent female characters in their magazine. When the series was terminated she became one of the main characters in 'Michel Vaillant' instead. Vaillant unfortunately also has adversaries. His nemesis is a character nicknamed "The Leader". Motivated by greed and money rather than a love for sports, he often tries to win games by using the most advanced technology, reckless drivers and illegal ploys. One of The Leader's henchmen is Bob Cramer, a hot-tempered American driver who is both tactless, reckless and a drunk.
The strength of the series is its realism, both in the graphical style as well as the stories. Graton did a lot of research to make sure every technical detail of the cars and circuits was correct. He also gained information about the organisation and business side of the sport, which is reflected in the comic too. He personally attended races to take sketches, photos and notes. Whenever he had the chance he met up with drivers, technical personnel and other people associated with these events. Many legendary drivers became personal friends, including Lucien Bianchi, François Prevert, Alain Prost and Jacky Ickx. When a homage album was released to celebrate the franchise's 20th anniversary, several iconic drivers autographed the album, including car business magnates Henry Ford Jr. and Enzo Ferrari. Graton's characters have also participated in every real-life racing event, from Le Mans, Monte Carlo, the Indianapolis 500 to Paris-Dakar. The artwork keeps up with the times as well. Backgrounds, fashions and car designs are frequently updated, as are the celebrities whom Michel interreacts with. In the 1950s and 1960s he competed against Juan Manuel Fangio, while in the 1970s Gilles Villeneuve and Jacky Ickx were his best friends. In later stories Ickx' daughter Varina is also a recurring character.
Virtually any famous name in the sport has had a cameo in the series, including Lucien Bianchi ('Le Grand Défi', 1959), Jacky Ickx ('Le Fantôme des 24 Heures', 1970, and 11 more appearances), Nikki Lauda ('Le Prince Blanc', 1977), Alain Prost, Gilles Villeneuve, Nigel Mansell ('Rififi en F-1', 1982), Thierry Boutsen ('Le Défi des Remparts', 1988), Aryton Senna, Damon Hill ('Paddock', 1995) and Michael Schumacher ('La Fièvre de Bercy', 1998). But even celebrities outside this niche have occasionally shown their face, such as Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco ('Le Pilote sans Visage', 1959), Prince Albert (the later Belgian king Albert II) ('Des Filles et des Moteurs', 1974), French politician (and later president) Jacques Chirac ('300 à l'heure dans Paris', 1983), cyclist Eddy Merckx ('Racing Show', 1985), fashion model Claudia Schiffer, Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone ('Paddock', 1995), U.S. President Bill Clinton ('La Piste de Jade', 1994) and Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene ('Caïro', 2000). Graton also gave himself a cameo in 'Le Galérien' (1980). While most albums are race-related there are a few odd-one outs which don't take place at a circuit at all, such as 'Les Chevaliers de Königsfeld' (1967) and 'La Nuit de Carnac' (1990).
'Michel Vaillant' was a huge success from the start and became one of Tintin's most popular series. In readers' polls it often ended at the number one spot, only rivalled by Tibet's 'Ric Hochet'. It was translated in Dutch, English, German, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Spanish and Portuguese. In 1967 the franchise was adapted into a live-action TV series, 'Les Aventures de Michel Vaillant', which combined a dramatization of the stories with documentary footage of actual races that year. In 1990 an animated TV series was made, 'Michel Vaillant', broadcast on the French terrestrial network La Cinq and the public channel France 2. In the USA, where 'Michel Vaillant' was unknown at the time, the series was dubbed and released as 'Heroes on Hot Wheels', tying in with Mattel's toy car line 'Hot Wheels'. In 2003 Louis-Pascal Cuvelaire directed a live-action movie, 'Michel Vaillant' (2003), starring Sagamore Stévenin in the title role. The screenplay was written by Gilles Malençon and famous director Luc Besson (known for 'Léon' (1994), 'The Fifth Element' (1997) and 'Taxi' (1998)). The picture received poor reviews and flopped. The comic strip also inspired a board game, a video game and toy cars.
The series also reached audiences who otherwise weren't that interested in comics. Many automobile fans love 'Michel Vaillant' and have praised the comic for its accurate portrayal of the sport, as well as capturing the excitement they feel about beautiful cars chasing one another. Automobile designer Luc Donckerwolke claimed that several of his designs were inspired by Graton's art. In 2006 he presented a model of the SEAT Ibiza car, which he nicknamed the "SEAT Ibiza Vaillante". He later even worked for Studio Graton, drawing some of the cars featured in 'Michel Vaillant'. Another celebrity fan is world champion Alain Prost, who credited the comic strip for inspiring him to become a driver. In 2012 Swiss race car driver Alain Menu competed in the World Championship Race of Portugal under the name "M. Vaillant". His Chevrolet sported the protagonist's name all over the vehicle and he even shaved his facial hairs to look more like the character. The circuit of Zolder in Belgium named their biggest building the Michel Vaillant Club, in honour of Graton's work. Special Michel Vaillant albums have been released by companies like Renault, Ford, Elf and Chevron.
During the first twelve years of the franchise Graton mostly worked alone. His wife Francine helped him with colorizing, looking for good photographic documentation, but also wrote scripts, particularly for his other comics series 'Les Labourdet' (1966-1972), which was published in the family magazine Chez Nous. This was a family saga which spawned nine albums. In 1962 Graton took an assistant, Christian Denayer. Eight years later Denayer left to help out Tibet. Graton started organizing a little studio with artists who helped him with drawing cars and backgrounds. Denayer's successors were Daniel Bouchez and Christian Lippens.
While 'Michel Vaillant' was a genuine bestseller, Graton still felt his publisher, Lombard, didn't do enough to promote the series. When his contract ended in the mid 1970s he wanted to quit. Raymond Leblanc wasn't keen on letting his golden goose leave and Graton was forced to take the matter to court. The trial went on for years and Leblanc put reprints of 'Michel Vaillant' on hold. During this period Graton drew another series, 'Julie Wood' (1976-1980) for Dargaud, which was published in Pilote. To fill in Michel Vaillant's absence in Tintin, Leblanc asked Graton's former assistant Christian Denayer to create a similar automobile race-themed comic. This became 'Alain Chevallier' (1973-1986), for whom André-Paul Duchâteau drew the scripts.
In 1982 Graton won legal ownership over his creations and intended to join Dargaud. However, they knew he had no other huge comics publisher to go to and offered him a less lucrative contract than before. Graton surprised them by not taking their offer and went to work for Koralle instead, part of the German Springer Verlag concern. 'Michel Vaillant' appeared in their magazine Zack, which was also published in the French and Dutch equivalent magazines Super-As and Wham!. Thanks to his team of assistants, Graton had no trouble meeting his deadlines. Unfortunately, all the other artists in Zack did and so the magazine was discontinued. Graton found a new publisher, Novedi, but overheard that Dupuis planned to take over this company. In fear of losing his independence again he took a bold move and founded his own publishing company in 1982: Graton Editeur (later renamed Studio Graton). At the time this was an unprecedented move. No other Franco-Belgian comics artist had ever attempted to distribute his own comics. His son, Philippe Graton, became both his business partner as well as his script-writer. From the 57th album, 'Le Piste de Jade' (1994), on he was credited as co-author. Jean Graton retired in 2004. In 2007 'Michel Vaillant' was put on hold for five years. It was rebooted in 2012 with Philippe Graton as scriptwriter and Marc Bourgne and Benjamin Benéteau as new artists.
Among the other artists who've worked for the studio throughout the years are Christian Denayer (1963-1969), Glem (1967), Christian Lippens (1970s-1990s), Daniel Bouchez (1970s-1990s), Juan Castilla (colorist, 1970s), Marc Michetz (mid 1970s), Clovis (1974-1981), Scott Wood (1970s), Vincent Deporter (1978), Jean-Luc Delvaux (1990s), Guillaume Lopez (1983-?), Frédéric Pauwels (1999-?), Christian Papazoglakis (1998-2007), Robert Paquet (2003-2007), Ivan Paduart (colorist, 1999-2000) and Nedzad Kamenica (2005-2007). Graton's wife and assistant during the early years, Francine, passed away in 2011.
In 1995, Graton Éditeur launched the 'Dossiers Michel Vaillant' collection, a book series with comics and articles about famous persons from the car and motorracing scene. It includes biopics about racing car champions, such as Jacky Ickx, Aryton Senna, Juan Manuel Fangio, Henri Pescarolo, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Gilles Villeneuve, but also about automobile businessmen such as Sunichiro Honda, Enzo Ferrari and Louis Chevrolet. Even actors with a love for racing were featured, such as James Dean, Coluche and Steve McQueen. The publishing house also reprinted Graton's older work, including his 'Oncle Paul' stories and the 'Les Labourdet' series.
In 2004 the artist was honored as a Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. A year later he was knighted "Chevalier de l'Ordre de Léopold" by Belgian king Albert II. Graton was also one of many comics artists who drew a homage to Albert Uderzo in the album 'Astérix et ses amis' (2007). In the story 'Éternel Obélix' ('Eternal Obelix') Asterix and Obelix join Michel Vaillant in a car race.
Graton is still a cult figure within the race car driving world. Outside of this niche, though, he is less popular among regular comic book fans, particularly if they have no interest in cars. As a result he hasn't had much of an influence on later generations of comics artists, with the exception of Ever Meulen, Yves Rodier and Berck.