'Comment naquit la Marseillaise', Octave Joly's first 'Oncle Paul' story with art by Dino Attanasio (Dutch version from Robbedoes #593, 1951)

Octave Joly was a Belgian journalist, columnist, film scriptwriter, advertisement script writer and occasional comics writer. He is best remembered as a regular contributor to Spirou, writing storylines for the educational comic series 'Les Belles Histoires de l'Oncle Paul'.

Joly was born in Momignies in 1910. He initially studied at an agricultural school, while dreaming of a career as a sailor, but eventually switched to journalism. His career as a writer started in 1930, when he published his first article in the French magazine Ciné-miroir. He wrote some travel reports for the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, but had to interrupt his activities because he was drafted. Between 1934 and 1939 he penned several articles and opinion columns for the Belgian newspaper L'Opinion Publique. Once again, military service interfered with his literary career when he was mobilised during World War II. German troops took him as prisoner-of-war in 1940. After the war he became chief editor of the magazine L'Informateur-Midi, and he was re-educated as a scriptwriter and operator by a film studio in 1947. He made various contributions to Radio Luxembourg, for whom he wrote commercial advertisements. He was scriptwriter for Claude Misonne's film studio and, between 1949 and 1955, wrote dozens of commercial spots for the agency Vandam-K.H., for which he also received an international award for publicity.

Octave Joly

In 1951 Joly met Jean-Michel Charlier through comic artist and illustrator René Follet. Charlier asked Joly to write scripts for a feature called 'Les Belles Histoires de l'Oncle Paul' ('The Beautiful Stories of Uncle Paul', 1951-1980), which had by then just started in the Belgian comics magazine Spirou. Charlier had written the first installments of the series, which were mostly drawn by Eddy Paape, through Georges Troisfontaines' World's Presse agency. The feature had debuted in Spirou issue #668, and Joly came on board in issue #695. The series was intended to educate young readers about various historical characters and events. All episodes have the same formulaic set-up. Oncle Paul, a wise, pipe-smoking uncle designed by Victor Hubinon, observes his young nephews playing. The children either have an argument or ask him a question about a certain topic. Paul then tells them about a historical character who once faced a similar problem or challenge, which is visualized through a flashback narrative. Many episodes end with Paul delivering a moralistic message to which the children respond with respect and gratitude. In later episodes this set-up was abandoned and Paul usually just tells the historical story straight ahead. Joly's first script in this vein was 'Comment naquit la Marseillaise', which was co-written by Charlier and drawn by Dino Attanasio.


Oncle Paul story about the battle of Fontenoy, with art by J.M. Cicuendez (Spirou #1630, 1969)

A great many artists have illustrated the 'Oncle Paul' comic during its long existence. The comic offered new artists excellent training ground to test out their skills in drawing technically accurate illustrations and following a not-too complex storyline. Whenever a talented young artist presented his work to the magazine's editors, he was handed an 'Oncle Paul' story as a try-out. Therefore, the series features early work by many prominent European comic authors (and also some less prominent ones), such as Dino Attanasio, Derib, Pierre Dupuis, Franz, Fred & Liliane Funcken, Gal (Georges Langlais), Jean Graton, Willy & Yves Groux, Marc Hardy, Herbert, Hermann, Willy Lambil, Gérald Forton, Malik, Jean-Claude Mézières, MiTacq, Guy Mouminoux, Arthur Piroton, Jean Pleyers, Claude Renard (actually Gill van Dessel), Jean Roba (together with Eddy Paape as "Robeddy"), Michel Schetter and Sidney. Spanish (agency) artists were also assigned with the artwork, such as José Bielsa, Roberto Gonzàlez Casarrubio, Juan Manuel Cicuéndez, José Lopez Fernandez, Carlos Laffond, José Laffond and Antonio Parras. Together with 'Buck Danny' by Hubinon and Charlier and 'La Patrouille des Castors' by MiTacq and Charlier, it stood out for being one of the few realistically-drawn comics in the otherwise more comically drawn Spirou magazine. Joly scripted most of the 1.200 stories during its three-decade run between 1951 and 1980.

Despite its decades-long run in Spirou, 'Les Belles Histoires de l'Oncle Paul' has never known an regular album series. Spirou's publisher Dupuis released twelve thematic collections with 'Oncle Paul' stories in 1954 and 1955. Seven volumes in the publisher's later collection 'L'Histoire en Bandes Dessinées' (1974-1977) were also dedicated to the series. Graton Éditeur collected Jean Graton's stories in three albums in 2004-2006, which were combined in one large volume by Dupuis in 2013. The small label La Vache Qui Médite released no less than 48 books in a small print run of 'Les Belles Histoires de l'Oncle Paul' from 2009 to 2013, while Pan Pan published 250 copies of a book with Mister Kit's work for the feature in 2011.

'L'Oncle Paul' inspired similar historically-themed comics, most notably in Spirou's rival magazine Tintin, who also started publishing one-shot educational comics from 1952 on, though without a recurring storyteller. Other magazines had more obvious rip-offs, such as 'Vader Kapoen Vertelt' by Buth, which was published in the Flemish children's magazine 't Kapoentje in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The only difference was that 'Vader Kapoen' had a moustache, while Paul has not. Another clear inspiration is Thom Roep and Co Loerakker's 'Van Nul tot Nu' (1982), which tells the history of the Netherlands through the character of a wise - once again pipe-smoking - old bearded man named Methusalem de Tijdt. Kamagurka and Herr Seele's 'De Vaderlandsche Geschiedenis' (2013) has Cowboy Henk - again with pipe - telling various chronological moments in Belgian history, but with more silly comedy. Because of its corny approach, 'L'Oncle Paul' was also an irresistible target for parody. Dutch comics artists René Windig and Eddie de Jong most notably spoofed the series as 'Uit den Verhalentrommel van Oom Wim' (Oom Wim is the actual Dutch name of the original character). Spirou magazine even ran several spoofs of the moralistic feature in its own pages in the early 1980s, when the wise uncle had obviously become too old-fashioned. Contributors were WillFrank Le GallDaniel GoossensDanyPhilippe BercoviciYves ChalandFrank Pé, Serge Clerc and Yann & Conrad, and the stories were collected in the book 'Les Histoires Merveilleuses des Oncles Paul' by Vents d'Ouest in 1986.


Winston Churchill comics biography with art by Eddy Paape (1958)

Apart from 'L'Oncle Paul', Joly also wrote other historical comics, such as a comics biography of Marco Polo for La Libre Junior in 1953-1954, which was drawn by Albert Uderzo and later Pierre Dupuis. With Charlier he scripted another biography about the Venetian traveler in 1963, this time for Spirou and drawn by Paul Ramboux. In Spirou, he also wrote biographical comic serials about British explorer Henry Morton Stanley (art by Victor Hubinon, 1953) and Winston Churchill (art by Eddy Paape, 1958). Joly's few non-historical comics were 'L'Arbre de Noël de Franz' (1957), a Christmas comic drawn by Benoît Gillain in Spirou, and the adventure series 'Tom et Nelly' (1956) by Albert Uderzo in Risque-Tout. Two new stories with the latter characters were written by Joly and drawn by José Bielsa for Spirou in the following year. Between 1980 and 1982 a new educational series appeared in Spirou named 'Histoire en Mille Morceaux', once again scripted by Octave Joly but drawn by a certain Doughty. The feature still had Oncle Paul as a mascot, but merely consisted of one-page historical anecdotes.


Histoire en Mille Morceaux (Dutch version from Robbedoes #2245, 1981)

Although the 'Oncle Paul' comic is rather corny by modern standards, Octave Joly has educated generations of young readers with his historical fun facts. He skilfully managed to craft readable stories full of accurate historical data in four or five pages. In an article in Spirou #2125 (1979) on the occasion of the 1000th installment in, Joly proudly recalled a kid winning the TV quiz show 'Quitte ou Double' with knowledge obtained from one of his stories! Joly always tried to give an objective look at history, but sometimes he did receive criticism. For instance, in the story 'Echec à l'Islam' (1953) he tried to neutrally chronicle a battle between Christians and Arabs, but the inopportune story title ('Failure of the Islam') resulted in several angry letters from North-African readers. To make up for it, he quickly wrote a story about an Arabic hero, followed by one about a heroic Jew, etc. Whenever he was asked by the editors of Spirou's Flemish counterpart Robbedoes to write a story about a Dutch or Flemish hero, he always had to pick one that wouldn't offend the French readers, and vice versa. Joly was even aware that the 'Oncle Paul' stories were a bit too serious in tone. In the aforementioned interview he acknowledged this, but added that the one time he added a little joke he immediately received an angry letter from a school teacher!

Octave Joly passed away in Brussels in 1988.

Octave Joly
Octave Joly was a big fan of the sea, and regularly wrote his stories on a boat

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