Prudence Petitpas, by Maurice Maréchal
Prudence Petitpas - Fusils pour Macao (1967)

Maurice Maréchal was a Belgian comics artist whose presence in Tintin and Spirou could be described as modest. His sole comic strip was the humoristic mystery series 'Prudence Petitpas' (1957). While never quite as famous or beloved as other Belgian comics it was still a notable work for various reasons. The title character was an elderly lady, a rather atypical choice for a comics hero back then. Not just because of her age, but also since she was a woman. In fact, 'Prudence Petitpas' was the first Belgian comic strip to star a single female character. Another unusual fact about this comic strip was that is was one of the few titles to have run in Tintin as well as its rival magazine Spirou, though decades apart from one another. Last but not least: 'Prudence Petitpas' was once adapted into an animated TV series too.

Born in 1922 in Waremme, Maréchal was well into his thirties when he began working as a comic artist. He was a teacher in French and Spanish languages at the grammar school of Verviers (one of his students was René Hausman), and developed the concept for his comic series in his spare time. He presented it to his neighbour, the comic artist Raymond Macherot, who published the popular animal comic 'Chlorophylle' in Tintin magazine. Macherot helped Maréchal with the sketches of the first 'Petitpas' stories, and introduced his neighbour to the editors of Tintin magazine at Éditions Le Lombard in 1957. Prudence Petitpas and her cat Stanislas made their first appearance in Tintin in that same year, first published on 8 May 1957. Maréchal found a partner in scriptwriter René Goscinny, who had a fruitful production for Tintin at the time.

Prudence Petitpas
Prudence Petitpas et les voitures fantômes (1966)

The comic strip revolves around an old, friendly but gullible lady. She lives in the fictional village Moucheron where she solves crime in the manner of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Her best friend is Jojo, a young boy who often helps her out. Since Prudence is an old woman she is easily underestimated by criminals, but unfortunately by the local police force too. Inspector Robur Duroc is often sceptical about her deductions, while policeman Cyprien is more supportive and appreciative. The early episodes were short stories, but after Goscinny quit in 1960 Maréchal assumed full authorship, which led to longer adventures. To help him out with the scripts and backgrounds, Mittéï and his assistant Pierre Seron came to his aid.

Prudence Petitpas was a rather odd choice for a protagonist at the time of her debut. Female characters in European comics were often supporting acts, never the star of a series. Emile-Joseph Pinchon's French series 'Bécassine' (1905) was the most notable exception. In Belgium Zette in Hergé's 'Jo, Zette et Jocko' (1936) and Wiske in Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske' (1945) had starring roles, but still in combination with a leading male character. In that regard Prudence was the first genuine female protagonist in a Belgian comic strip. In the 1950s and 1960s many publishers of Belgian comics were very devout Catholics who disliked the idea of having women playing big parts in stories aimed at children. Whenever female characters appeared they had to be old or ugly (Bianca Castafiore in Hergé's Tintin, Madam Nero and Pheip in Marc Sleen's 'Nero') or prepubescent girls (Zette in 'Jo, Zette et Jocko', Wiske in 'Suske en Wiske', Petatje in 'Nero', Annemieke and Rozemieke in Jef Nys' 'Jommeke' and Grenadine in Jean Roba's 'La Ribambelle'). If a pretty woman had to appear, like André Franquin's Seccotine in 'Spirou', Queue-de-Cerise in Maurice Tillieux's 'Gil Jourdan', Susan in Pom's 'Piet Pienter en Bert Bibber' and Pompon in Franquin's 'Modeste et Pompon', they had to be desexualized with not too prominent breasts. Prudence got greenlighted because she fell into the first category. As an old woman she was devoid of sexual attractiveness. In that regard she proved that comics readers could accept a woman in a starring role and paved the way for more female heroes in Belgian comics, like 'Sybilline' (1965) by Raymond Macherot, 'Sophie' (1965) by Jidéhem, 'Isabelle' (1969) by Will, Yvan Delporte and Raymond Macherot, 'Yoko Tsuno' (1970) by Roger Leloup and 'Natacha' (1970) by François Walthéry.

cover for Tintin by Maurice Marechalcover for Spirou by Maurice Marechal

In 1967 Maréchal dropped his comic activities for a while to focus on his family and his job as a Spanish teacher. It wasn't until after his retirement that 'Prudence Petitpas' returned, but this time in Tintin's main competitor, Spirou magazine. A rare example of a comic strip which once ran in Tintin and Spirou at different moments in time. The character made occasional appearances in Spirou between 1984 and 1987 (with scriptwork by Maréchal, Didgé, Jiem or Mittéï), after which Maurice Maréchal retired completely. But Maréchal's spirited lady was not forgotten: an animated series of 52 episodes was produced by Odec Kid Cartoons and broadcasted in France and Québec in 2001. At the height of her popularity the comic strip was translated into Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian and even Arab.

Maurice Maréchal passed away in Polleur, Belgium, in 2008. Coincidentally, during the week of his death, Éditions Le Lombard published a compendium of Maréchal's work, called 'Prudence Petitpas mène l'enquête'.

Prudence Petitpas, by Maurice Maréchal
Prudence Petitpas in Spirou/Robbedoes issue 2570 (1987)

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