Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Die Laughing by Andre Franquin

I've said this before, but I tend to read the outliers rather than the main works. I've mentioned it most often related to my penchant to read the collected nonfiction of novelists, often before I read any of their novels, but it applies in comics as well.

For example, let's take Andre Franquin. A towering figure of Eurocomics, the stalwart of Spirou for several decades, doing both the title character's stories and a series called Gaston Le Gaffe. I've seen his drawing; I'm sure I've heard of him multiple times. OK, so he's not been published terribly well or terribly often in the US - for whatever reason, Spirou hasn't travelled as well as Tintin or the Smurfs or Asterix. But, still, I have to believe that some of his most famous, representative work has been around in formats I could read over the past half-century I've been reading books.

Nope. What I saw first by Franquin was this 2018 book, which I read twenty-seven years after he died: Die Laughing. A collection of pitch-black (both in art style and material) mostly-unrelated comics from the '70s, mostly about death in all of its most horrible and appalling forms.

Sixty-six numbered cartoons - each of them originally appearing monthly, presumably as a palate-cleanser among happier, more colorful stories - all as black as pitch. Franquin draws his characters most of the time as black silhouettes against a white background; the effect is a bit like a old-fashioned puppet theatre with paper cut-outs, if you assume the theatre is of the Grand Guignol school.

These were timely cartoons in the 1970s, so the concerns - hunting and animal cruelty in general, the end of capital punishment, nuclear war, militarism in the big, and, for some reason, a lot of gags about hand grenades - are mostly of their time. They are all overstated for comedic effect; they are all exceptionally dark in tone. Main characters do survive to the end of their pages - actually fairly regularly - but it's not guaranteed, and, when they do, they often wish they hadn't.

Given how inky this book is, it's probably better in physical form than digitally, which is how I read it. On the other hand, I could pinch to blow up panels to try to figure out what the all-black figures were doing, which doesn't work with a real book. Comme ci, comme ça.

This is not a book one enjoys. The art is energetic and detailed - Franquin, I understand, was a great cartoonist, and his figures are cartoony and (ironically) full of life. But the matter is so grisly so much of the time, and all pitched as the '70s versions of these concerns, so the tone is often strident and it can seem beside the point forty years later. But it is powerful work by a major world cartoonist, in a very distinctive style.

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