Typically dressed in a red bellboy outfit, Spirou is, along Tintin, the quintessential Franco-Belgian comics character. Created in 1938 as the flagship of the eponymous periodical, he is a symbol of the “Golden Age” of francophone comics, especially identified with the contribution of André Franquin.
Already with the popular magazine Le Moustique under his belt, printer-turned-publisher Jean Dupuis sought to provide a younger audience, then a relatively untapped field in Belgium, with both entertainment and Catholic moral values, while being attentive to the local context. Stemming from the mining city of Marcinelle, Spirou is Walloon for squirrel – hence his pet Spip – but also refers to a brave and loyal but turbulent young boy. In this context, Dupuis invited Rob-Vel, a Parisian cartoonist, to draw this title character. Spirou was “born”: a hotel manager looking for a bellboy asks a painter for help, who magically brings to life his paper creature by sprinkling it with some eau-de-vie. This first page symbolizes the status of the character, owned by the publisher and successively entrusted to various artists. The early stories first developed in a folkloristic Belgian context, which would recede to the background as the hero, in order to enlarge the narrative span of the serial, sets out to travel the world.
Besides this title series, Dupuis’s Spirou magazine published original material as Dineur’s Aventures de Tif, and translations of American comics, as Superman or Red Ryder, redrawn by Jijé. The magazine actively fostered reader involvement by developing its own readers club, Amis de Spirou, and hosting a letters page, both features successfully animated by Jean Doisy through his editorial character Fantasio. This character was integrated into the Spirou adventures later on by Jijé when, during World War II, the closed borders prevented Rob-Vel from sending his pages to Marcinelle. A jack of all trades, Jijé drew a dozen of Spirou stories, while simultaneously developing other series, before handing it over to André Franquin in 1946.
Imitating Jijé’s style in his first stories, Franquin would develop his own drawing style: a controlled brushline retaining the spontaneity of sketching, and a very dynamic representation of movement, inherited from his background in animation. Franquin made the longest and most significant contribution to the series, creating its stories until 1969, famous for introducing new characters that would become indispensable in Spirou’s world, as Count Champignac, the extraordinary creature Marsupilami, would-be worldmaster Zorglub, or Fantasio’s malevolent cousin Zantafio. Despite the success of the stories, Franquin grew increasingly dissatisfied with his work on a series he had not created. Prioritizing Gaston Lagaffe, introduced in the margins of the Spirou magazine in 1957, Franquin completed his contribution to the Spirou et Fantasio series with two unconventional stories: Bravo les Brothers happens entirely within the Lagaffe universe, and the final Panade à Champignac drives the series, in a faux end page, into a narrative dead-end. During Franquin’s run, the magazine thrived with other bande dessinée series, such as Peyo’s Les Schtroumpfs or Tillieux’s Gil Jourdan, representative of the so-called Marcinelle School, featuring a rowdy humor and a dynamic style, contrasting with the ligne claire aesthetics and bourgeois ideology of the Tintin-associated Brussels School.
In the 70s and 80s, the Spirou magazine would sway between commercial and artistic agendas. Jean-Claude Fournier continues the Spirou et Fantasio series in the footsteps of Franquin, but with an explicit political and environmental undertone, in tune with the concerns of the time. However, Dupuis wanted to increase the appearance of the Spirou character in the magazine. After dismissing Fournier, the early 80s witnessed three simultaneous Spirou projects, by Broca and Cauvin, by Tome and Janry, and by Yves Chaland. Such a commercially-driven logic would be briefly counterbalanced by critical, dissident ideas. Yvan Delporte, an editor-in-chief who left his mark on the magazine by his risk-taking and innovation (and co-creator of Gaston Lagaffe), launched in 1977, with Franquin, Le Trombone Illustré, a short-lived, stapled insert in Spirou, presented as a counter-cultural “clandestine” magazine, which claimed a more opened approach. In more timid proportions, editor-in-chief Alain De Kuyssche released in the 80s the similarly minded Les Hauts de page, satirical drawings by Yann and Conrad filling the top margins, providing biting satires of the popular series published on the same pages.
Tome and Janry would win over the production of the Spirou et Fantasio series until 1998, with Machine qui Rêve, which tries out a somewhat postmodern style, toning down much of the usual humor and pursuing a narrative ambiguity about dream, reality, and cloning. Failing to seduce a large audience, Dupuis dismissed the duo. Only six years later, in 2004, after the publisher was controversially bought by its competitor Media Participations, did the series return, with the Morvan and Munuera team working on four albums that attempted a thematic and stylistic modernization. It was met with little success, not to mention the aborted manga project with Hiroyuki Oshima. Fabien Vehlmann and Yoann have taken over the still ongoing series. In 2006, Dupuis released the collection “Le Spirou de…,” which gives a free pass to other artists in creating alternative takes on Spirou. The most critically praised title so far was Émile Bravo’s Journal d’un ingénu, which offers a critical look at the character’s “origins,” tackling issues of socio-cultural identities and the history of comics.
While albums have largely replaced comics magazines, Spirou is one of the few remaining titles today and still a regular fixture in press shops and mail boxes. In 2013, Dupuis lavishly celebrated the 75th anniversary of Spirou, drawing attention to the longevity of the characters despite its ups and downs.
— Benoît Crucifix
See also: Franquin, André; Gaston Lagaffe; Jijé; Marsupilami