Spirou, the classic period
Spirou is the longest-running and without doubt one of the most iconic European comic magazines. While its direct competitor Tintin was famous for its serious, realistic stories, Spirou stood out for its humor and freshness.
A family effort
The magazine was the brainchild of Jean Dupuis, owner of a Catholic printing firm in the Walloon town of Marcinelle, near Charleroi. Born in 1875, Jean Dupuis had started the business at the age of 20, when he installed his first printing press in the kitchen of the Dupuis family home. The firm had well established its name in Belgian households in the 1920s with their family magazines Bonnes Soirées and Le Moustique, as well as the Flemish counterparts De Haardvriend and Humoradio. By 1937 the idea arose to start a third magazine, aimed at children.
From the second issue of Spirou, 1938
Since the firm was a family effort, the entire Dupuis clan came together for a brainstorm session regarding the name and the mascot of the magazine. The name was picked from a Walloon phrase for squirrel, spirou, which also means as much as a young tearaway. The Parisian artist Robert Velter (Rob-Vel) was assigned to give the character its looks. Velter made him a bellboy, who literally came to life from an artist's canvas on the frontpage of the first tabloid-sized issue on 21 April 1938.
Also present in the first issue was 'Bibor et Tribar', another Rob-Vel creation, the melodramatic strip 'Les Aventures de Zizette', created by Velter's wife Blanche Dumoulin and Velter family friend Luc Lafnet, and 'Les Aventures de Tif' by Fernand Dineur. The bald Tif was accompanied by the bearded Tondu a couple of weeks later, and the classic duo 'Tif et Tondu' was born. Most of the early comics were of American origin however, such as 'Superman' by Siegel and Shuster, Fred Harman's 'Red Ryder', 'Brick Bradford' by William Ritt and Clarence Gray and Chester Gould's plainclothes detective 'Dick Tracy'. A Flemish equivalent of Spirou called Robbedoes was launched in October of the same year.
Survival during World War II
The outbreak of World War II caused the mobilization of several of the firm's labourers, but also of its main artist, Rob-Vel. Paper shortages and postal problems between France and Belgium were other issues that had to be dealt with. Since Jean Dupuis was in exile in London, his sons Paul and Charles Dupuis and son-in-law René Matthews were put in charge of the day-to-day business.
One of the most valuable resources proved to be Joseph Gillain, a.k.a. Jijé, a local artist from Dinant. He had been with the magazine since 1939, drawing stories like 'Le Mystère de la Clef Indoue' and 'Trinet et Trinette dans l'Himalaya'. But by 1940 he not only continued the title comic when all contact was lost with the Velter family, but he also drew fill-in episodes of the American comics, while additionally drawing weekly installments of his own series 'Valhardi' and the comic biographies of Don Bosco and Christopher Columbus.
Jean Valhardi (1943-44)
Despite the war, the circulation was nearly doubled between Summer 1941 and Autumn 1942 from 85,000 to 152,000 weekly copies. Another mainstay was added to the team of local artists with the arrival of Sirius and his Jack London-inspired hero 'L'Épervier Bleu'. In 1943, the German Propaganda Abteilung wanted to assign a German administrator to the publishing house, which Dupuis refused. A publication stop was decreed by the oppressor in the Summer of that year. Dupuis managed to by-pass the ban by publishing the books 'L'Espiègle au Grand Coeur' and 'L'Almanch 1944' in the following months, but the Germans saw through the plan.
Spirou had a large and loyal fanbase however, which can largely be attributed to the unoffical editor-in-chief Jean Doisy, a.k.a. Le Fureteur (Snuffeltje in Flemish). The communist Doisy, whose real name was Georges Évrard, was the driving force behind the "Amis de Spirou" and their camps, code of honour and secret language. He had even written hidden messages for the Resistance in his editorials! During the publication ban he kept the Spirou spirit high through the puppet shows starring the magazine's main heroes performed by André Moons and his Farfadet Theatre.
Start of the Golden Age
Shortly after the Liberation, Spirou came back stronger than ever on 5 October 1944. Joseph Gillain guided a new team of artists into a new era what was to become the magazine's Golden Age. The young André Franquin took over the adventures of Spirou and Fantasio, a character that originated in Doisy's editorials but was turned into Spirou's loyal sidekick by Jijé. Gillain also handed over his other series to his pupils, while he concentrated on his gospel in comics format, 'Emmanuel'. Eddy Paape was handed 'Jean Valhardi' and Victor Hubinon drew a new story with 'Blondin et Cirage'. Also, Dineur left 'Tif et Tondu' in the capable hands of the young Will, while Morris created his world famous cowboy 'Lucky Luke'.
Another important contributor became the World's Press agency in Liège, that was started by Georges Troisfontaines in 1946. Troisfontaines had written Spirou's aviation section under the name Georges Cel since 1939, and now aspired to become the main supplier of editorials and realistic comics to the magazine. The first was the aviation comic 'Buck Danny' by Victor Hubinon and Jean-Michel Charlier, that remained a regular feature in the magazine's pages until 2007. The agency also started the educational series on history, 'Les Belles Histoires de l'Oncle Paul' (1951), of which Charlier and Octave Joly were the main writers. Many artists made their first steps in the comics field in this series in the following decades, such as Hermann, Jean Graton, Dino Attanasio, Liliane & Fred Funcken, Arthur Piroton and Derib.
It was with this new team of talented artists that the magazine went into its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. Several wonderful series appeared during this period, of which many have become classics of European comics. Franquin's 'Spirou' stories are widely considered masterpieces. Charlier proved himself a master in realistic adventure comics - besides 'Buck Danny', he also created the boy scout comic 'La Patrouille des Castors' with MiTacq and the journalist 'Marc Dacier' with Paape, but also comics biographies of 'Surcouf', 'Stanley' and 'Mermoz'.
Gil Jourdan by Tillieux
Other notable arrivals were of Peyo with 'Johan et Pirlouit' in 1952 and of Maurice Tillieux with 'Gil Jourdan' in 1956. Jijé resumed his work with new stories starring 'Blondin et Cirage' and 'Jean Valhardi' and also created the western hero 'Jerry Spring' in 1954, while Sirius visited all periods in world history with his 'Timour' dynasty. And let's not forget Marcel Remacle with 'Vieux Nick', Gérald Forton with 'Alain Cardan' and René Hausman with his attractive nature comic 'Saki'. Franquin and Jidéhem illustrated a great many cars of the time for the 'Starter' section.
Peyo's Johan et Pirlouit
Heavy competition came from Tintin, a magazine built around Hergé's hero, published by Le Lombard in Brussels since 1946. It was an unwritten rule that artists working for either one of these magazines should not work for the other. Just like their readers, the artists were also loyal to their employer, with a couple of exceptions. Both Franquin and Will left Dupuis for Lombard at one point or another during the 1950s, but they quickly returned due to the more serious atmosphere with the other magazine. Other departures were more permanent. Artists like Paape and Graton found a steady home in Tintin with their series 'Luc Orient' and 'Michel Vaillant', while Raymond Macherot left Tintin to find a more fitting home for his funny animal worlds in Spirou, for which he created 'Chaminou' and 'Sibylline'.
The days of Delporte
The recovering economy paved the way for Dupuis to publish most of its important series in book format after publication in Spirou. An extra comics magazine called Risque-Tout was added in 1955, but proved less successful than its big brother and was cancelled in the following year. The cheerful mood of Spirou on the other hand was further enhanced through the inventive and innovating leadership of editor-in-chief Yvan Delporte and man-of-ideas Maurice Rosy. Delporte was a great supporter of crazy ideas, and the unexplained arrival of a lazy beanpole in the magazine's editorial pages marked the birth of one of the most remarkable anti-heroes of comics history, 'Gaston Lagaffe'. Furthermore, the 'Gaston' strip, drawn by Franquin and Jidéhem from 1957, gave a hilarious fictional look behind the scenes in the magazine's editorial offices.
Delporte and Rosy were also the masterminds of the so-called 'mini-récits'. These small comic stories were printed in the middle of the magazine and could be folded into mini comic booklets. Many characters that later appeared on the regular pages had their first appearance in this section, most notably 'Boule et Bill' by Jean Roba and Peyo's 'Smurfs', who had been previously introduced in the 'Johan et Pirlouit' comic. But also 'Génial Olivier' by Jacques Devos, 'Bobo' by Maurice Rosy and Paul Deliège, 'Sam et l'Ours', by Lagas and Deliège and 'Le Flagada' by Charles Degotte also became regulars for decades to come.
Where the 'Oncle Paul' stories were a training platform for artists in the realistic style, the mini-books were a useful introduction of young humorists. Several anonymous employers of the publisher's lettering and art studios got the opportunity to publish their own work in the mini-books, such as Serge Gennaux, Charles Degotte, Deliège and Louis Salvérius. A very productive artist for this section was Noël Bissot who drew a great many untitled stories featuring many memorable recurring characters.
Spirou continued its successful formula throughout nearly all of the 1960s. New series were launched, such as 'Benoît Brisefer' by Peyo, 'Foufi' by Kiko and 'La Ribambelle' by Roba until "disaster struck" in 1968. That year is often referred to as the end of the golden era and the start of the decline. By then, Delporte quit his job as editor-in-chief, while Franquin handed over 'Spirou et Fantasio' to Jean-Claude Fournier from Brittany to spend all his time on 'Gaston'. Peyo became more and more involved in the merchandising deals regarding his Smurfs, and Morris took his 'Lucky Luke' comic and moved over to Pilote.
The long history of the magazine and its publisher is carefully researched by Christelle and Bertrand Pissavy-Yvernault. The first book of their 'Véritable Histoire de Spirou' covers the years 1937-1946 and was published in January 2013. The book contains testimonies by the people involved and their relatives, and reveals new facts that shed light on several mysteries that still surrounded this largely uncovered period of the magazine's existence.