Yoko Tsuno, by Roger Leloup
Yoko Tsuno #22 - 'La Jonque Celeste'.

Roger Leloup is one of the few comic authors whose career is centered around one single series. After several years of doing assistant work for legends like Hergé and Jacques Martin, Leloup launched his signature series 'Yoko Tsuno' (1970-present) in Spirou magazine. The series was at the vanguard of female emancipation in European comics, starring a strong, independent Japanese woman who works as an electrical engineer. The episodes alternate between science fiction stories in faraway galaxies to adventures set on earth with supernatural elements, but all share the overall themes of friendship and loyalty, as well as a meticulous documentation by their author.

Early life and influences
Roger Leloup was born in 1933 in the Walloon town Verviers, where his parents ran a hair salon annex perfume store. The young boy had a vivid imagination. Captivated by an advert for Nivea skin cream which hung in the store, the kid swapped the letters in his mind to "Vinea" and because of the brand's blue boxes, he figured the cream would give you a blue skin color. This childhood memory served as an inspiration when his hero Yoko Tsuno met an alien race under earth's crust decades later... Leloup developed a fascination for the technology of airplanes and trains during World War II. He read most of the comic magazines post-war Belgium had to offer, but as a youngster he was mainly captivated by science fiction novels by such writers as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, as well as the magazine Science & Vie. The idea of a world controlled by technology and a life submitted to biological conditioning became important ingredients of his later comics stories. The German Romanticism in a book collection of Rhine legends has also left a lasting impression. His knack for perfectionism is further typified by his other hobbies, such as model making and the study of insects. With his keen eye for mechanics, Leloup served as tank operator during his military service.

Leloup's cross-sectional view of the Carreidas jet, published in Tintin/Kuifje #50 of 1966.

Assistant to Jacques Martin and Hergé (1950-1969)
Aiming at a career in advertising art, Leloup enrolled at the Institut Saint-Luc in Liège, where he also took courses in painting. By 1950 he broke off his studies after meeting Jacques Martin, one of the staples of the comic magazine Tintin with his historical adventure comic 'Alix'. Martin hired Leloup as his first assistant, and a couple of years later the team was reinforced by Michel Demarets, who was also from Verviers. Leloup's initial task was coloring Martin's 'Alix' pages, but after a while he also did background art for both 'Alix' and Martin's contemporary series 'Lefranc'. In a 1991 interview with Dutch comics news magazine Stripschrift, Leloup said he hated drawing classical temples, since they didn't interest him. However, he continued his job  well through the 1960s.

The young artist was more at ease with his other assignments. In 1953 both Leloup and Demarets followed Jacques Martin when he joined Studio Hergé. Leloup became the team's aircraft expert. Hergé assigned him to make the technical illustrations for editorial sections about the history of aviation and automobiles (1954-1957), and to draw vehicles and some backgrounds in 'Tintin' stories. Most notably, Leloup helped Bob de Moor with the airplanes in the redrawn version of 'L'Île Noir' ('The Black Island', 1965), and he also designed the airplanes in the new 'Tintin' story 'Vol 714 pour Sydney' ('Flight 714 to Sydney', 1966-1967). For a spread in Tintin magazine he even made a cross-sectional view of Laszlo Carreidas' private jet, which was featured prominently in the story. Another complicated drawing was the gag in 'Les Bijoux de Bianca Castafiore' ('The Castafiore Emerald', 1963) where Professor Calculus is kicked into a wheelchair and then rolls off the stairs against a doctor who is about to get seated in his car. As a little inside joke Leloup gave the 2 CV Citroën of the Thompson Twins the same mineralogical placque as his.

Peyo's Schtroumpfs, drawn by Roger Leloup.

Assistant to Francis Bertrand and Peyo (1966-1970)
In the second half of the 1960s, productivity slowed down at Studio Hergé. Leloup continued to work for Martin, but also found time to do background art for Francis Bertrand after hours. Now working in a comical style, he assisted Francis on three adventures of 'Monsieur Bouchu' (1966-1967) in J2 Jeunes. The two men also cooperated on the 'Jacky et Célestin' episode 'Un Barbu à Disparu' (1967-1968), published in weekly Le Soir Illustré. The two heroes Jacky and Célestin (1961-1968) were created by Peyo, and their previous adventures had been drawn by Will, Jo-El Azara and François Walthéry. Leloup was proposed as the series' new artist when Francis left the team, but eventually the comic was cancelled altogether. As one of the followers of Jacques Martin's rendition of the Clear Line drawing style, Roger Leloup might've been the most unlikely person to draw Peyo's famous Smurfs. But by 1970 he was hired to help out with a new production of 'Smurfs' gag pages in commission of Dutch women's weekly Margriet. The gags also appeared in Spirou magazine and were collected in the album 'Histoires de Schtroumpfs' (1972). Leloup however only drew three pages, some plotted by Raoul Cauvin, as he grabbed the opportunity to launch his own comic series in Spirou.

'Le Trio de l'Étrange' (1971).

Yoko Tsuno (1970)
The concept of 'Yoko Tsuno' had its origins in the defunct 'Jacky et Célestin' series. Leloup wanted to expand the cast into a trio through the introduction of an Asian girl with a specialization in electronics. The first sketches of Yoko Tsuno dated from December 1968. Contrary to popular thought the character wasn't named after Yoko Ono, but film actress Yoko Tani, best known for a side role in the film 'The Quiet American' (1958) and recognizable to French-language audiences for playing villainesses in French crime movies . When 'Jacky et Célestin' was cancelled, Leloup replaced the duo with Vic Video, who acts as the voice of reason, and Pol Pitron, the series' comic relief. Dupuis gave Leloup the opportunity to develop a new series with his trio, after receiving a request by a German publisher for a new science fiction series. Leloup made the first ten pages of the story which would become 'Le Trio de l'Étrange', but it took a long time before the Germans gave their go. Instead, Spirou's editors paired Leloup with Maurice Tillieux as scriptwriter to make some short stories starring the trio's female member. Therefore, Yoko made her solo debut in the short story 'Hold-up en hi-fi' on 24 September 1970. Tillieux wrote two more short stories for Leloup, which mostly dealt with criminal use of high-tech equipment. The series got its definitive shape when Leloup retook full control and 'Le Trio de l'Étrange' (1971) began its serialization in Spirou. Yoko, Vic and Paul formed a TV crew making a documentary about a river, when they encounter the Vineans, an ancient alien civilization with blue skin colors living in exile under the earth's crust. The Vineans and their advanced technology returned in many of the following stories, and the Vinean girl Khany and her baby sister Poky became the first in Yoko's long line of loyal female friends.

Tender moment between Yoko and Vic in 'Le Feu de Wotan'

At the outset the series was built around a trio, but Vic and Paul were quickly reduced to secondary characters while Yoko took center stage. 'Yoko Tsuno' was part of a wave of female lead characters which populated the pages of Spirou magazine from the mid-1960s on, such as Raymond Macherot's 'Sibylline' 1965), Jidéhem's 'Sophie' (1965), while 'Yoko Tsuno' and François Walthéry's air hostess 'Natacha' both debuted in 1970. Of all these series, 'Yoko Tsuno' embodied the spirit of emancipation and feminism the most. Leloup created a strong independent Asian woman, who lived and worked in Europe. The expat, as we would now call her, was furthermore a specialist in electrical engineering, an unlikely job for a female character in that time period. Yoko was also not a comic hero in the traditional sense. She is not infallible and therefore one-dimensional, but a human with emotions and doubts. 

Yoko Tsuno #7 - 'La Frontière de la Vie'.

The second serial, 'L'Orgue du Diable' (1972), brought the trio to Germany for the first time, where they learn about a legendary, destructive infrasonic instrument named the Devil's Organ. Leloup was fascinated by the romance and mysteries of Germany. Several adventures of 'Yoko Tsuno' were therefore set in this country, including the stand-out episode 'La Frontière de la Vie' (1977), about a little girl who awakens from a 30 years hibernation in suspended animation. In 'Les Trois Soleils de Vinéa' (1976) Yoko accompanies Khany to investigate the habitability of her home planet Vinea. From then on, Leloup alternated his earthbound stories with adventures set in outer space. The dangers of artificial intelligence and the misuse of advanced technology are recurring themes, but the warm friendships and Yoko's loyalty form the backbone of the series. Besides Vic, Pol and Khany, Leloup created many new friends for Yoko over the course of the years. The German organ player Ingrid Hallberg, the fourteen-year old time traveler Monya, the spirited pilot Emilia and the Vinean nursery androids Myna and Angela reappeared many times after their initial introductions. Yoko's roots were first explored in the episode 'La Fille du Vent' (1979), in which she helps her father in Japan. The request of a Chinese publisher to bond Yoko with his country resulted in the episode 'Le Dragon de Hong Kong' (1986). It introduced Rosée du Matin (Morning Dew), Yoko's adoptive daughter who can control a dragon with her flute. The young girl gave Leloup the opportunity to further deepen Yoko's character by giving her an important resonsibility. The author dedicated the album to his own adoptive daughter, the Korean Keum-Sook.

Yoko Tsuno #16 - 'Le Dragon de Hong Kong' (1986).

Perfectionism and realism
Roger Leloup takes great care in crafting believable technology-driven alien worlds and robotic creatures, and is known for using meticulous documentation. He personally visited many of the locations where Yoko's adventures take place to absorb the ambiance and take tons of photographs. This can be seen in the almost photorealistic depictions of Bali ('Le Matin du Monde', 1988), Hong Kong ('Le Dragon de Hong Kong', 1986), Cologne ('L'Or du Rhin', 1993) and Bruges ('L'Astrologue de Bruges', 1994), among other places. The author, however, permits himself some artistic freedom. Fans were confused why they couldn't find the graveyard near the German town Rothenburg ob der Tauber from 'La Frontière de la Vie' (1977)? It didn't exist, as Leloup used a Brussels site as inspiration. The mayor of the German town Sankt Goar once told Leloup that tourists asked him where they could find the Devil's Organ from 'L'Orgue du Diable' (1972)? Leloup also invests a lot of time in Yoko's personality. He talks about her as if she were from flesh and blood, and in the aforementioned Stripschrift interview Leloup stated that Yoko gives him purpose. Such an emotional connection between an author and his creation is unique in the comic industry, and is in Spirou perhaps only equalled by Alain Dodier and his PI 'Jérôme K. Jérôme Bloche'.

Yoko Tsuno #20 - 'L'Astrologue de Bruges'.

Since the debut of 'Yoko Tsuno' Roger Leloup remained loyal to his signature series. With the exception of the first short stories in collaboration with Maurice Tillieux, Leloup always refused working with assistants. He solely provides scripts and artwork, both the pencilling and inking, although Béatrice of Studio Leonardo takes care of the coloring. Well in his eighties, Leloup continues to make new adventures and expand Yoko's universe. He further deepened her younger years in the novel 'L'Écume de l'Aube' (1991). It was published in the collection Traveling of the publishing house Duculot, which also released an earlier sci-fi novel by Leloup, 'Le Pic des Ténèbres' (1989). Yoko and Paul furthermore hosted a section about remote controlled model airplanes in Spirou called 'Planeurs téléguidés' (1978-1980). Attempts to adapt 'Yoko Tsuno' in an animated series were ill-fated, as the results couldn't meet with Leloup's perfectionist standards.

Yoko Tsuno #8 - 'Les Titans'.

Besides in French and Dutch, Yoko Tsuno's adventures have been published in Chinese, Danish, Finnish, German, Greek, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. The third 'Yoko Tsuno' album, 'La Forge de Vulcain', was awarded the Prix Saint-Michel in 1975. Leloup's sci-fi novel 'Le Pic des Ténèbres' won the Grand Prix de la Jeunesse Science Fiction in 1990. The author was named Officer in the Walloon Merit in 2015. On 27 June 2009 'Yoko Tsuno' received her own comic book mural in the Avenue des Déportés 82 in Waver, Belgium. On 28 July 2011 another mural depicting her was inaugurated in the Rue Terre Neuve / Nieuwland in Brussels, as part of the Brussels' Comic Book Route. On 29 June 2018 yet another mural was revealed at the corner of the Rue Aux Laines / Rue Peltzer de Clermont in Verviers, Belgium. 

Roger Leloup was a strong influence on Rafael Morales

Yoko Tsuno #18 - 'Les Exilés de Kifa'.

Series and books by Roger Leloup you can order today:


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