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High Gear: An Appreciation of Maurice Tillieux

In 1978, while drawing his story "Un Amour déçu", Yves Chaland was so struck by the news, he inscribed into page one’s final panel “Merde Tillieux est mort! Tout fout le camp!” (‘Shit Tillieux is dead! Everything is going away!’). The story was printed in Métal Hurlant as is, and then later in Captivant, Chaland and Luc Cornillon’s tribute to the golden age of comics. Captivant also contains the story “Max Carter contre les gangsters” (Max Carter vs. The Gangsters), an homage to Tillieux’s style. Cornillon recalls, “Chaland was a huge fan of Tillieux. He knew all of his work by heart and he used to draw very close to the style of Gil Jourdan (Tillieux’s most famous character)”. Chaland’s unusual interjection is still remembered today by many French and Belgian comics readers, and for Dutch artist Hanco Kolk it was the first time he heard the great Belgian comics creator’s name. “It was like ‘Woah! Who’s this Tillieux?’ I looked him up and saw how excellent his work was, I could really understand why Chaland was such a fan.”

Yves Chaland's "Un Amour déçu"

Maurice Tillieux died on 2 February 1978 after his car crashed into a wall a few days earlier. Chaland himself, equally as obsessed with cars, would also meet his end 11 years later in a an automobile accident. Cornillon points out that “Tillieux died like he used to draw his stories”, being as they are chockful of car chases and car accidents, cars, cars, cars. Tillieux combined his considerable talent with his passions -- cars, gangster stories, detective novels -- to bring a strong cinematic vision to the page. Not only visually; he also had an impressive ear for dialogue, a cut above what was happening in comics at the time, elevating his work to be quite unique and respected, a wonderful mix of adventure and humor. Stephen Desberg (I.R.$., The Scorpion), who got his start in the business collaborating with Tillieux towards the end of the latter’s life, acknowledges: “One of his greatest qualities was the dialogue. How the characters -- whether they’re gangsters, or denizens of the nightlife, or just the general public -- talk to each other. A little bit slang, but slang that anyone can understand. Very funny. I had so much respect for him, he was really a great artist and writer, both. He was recognized as one of the great writers but he was not a star like Goscinny or Franquin. His work wasn’t as popular, but the people who knew about it compared him to Hergé and Franquin.” Indeed, as Brigitte Hermann points out, his style could be seen as sitting in between those two great artists, more realistic than Franquin, more humorous than Hergé. In the Dossier Tillieux, published in 2001, Tillieux’s friend and collaborator François Walthéry adds, “He was a formidable storyteller. I truly believe he could have lived off his writing. However, drawing was very important to him too. It shows in his albums, he loved to draw.”

Born in Huy, Belgium on 7 August 1921, Tillieux has often been mistaken for French. After all, most of his stories are set in France and he spent a great deal of time there, traveling and living in Paris, Toulouse, and Le Var. Desberg agrees, “He was more French than Belgian in the way he talked, and with the cars.” Tillieux would settle in Overijse, Belgium, where in a 1977 interview with Brigitte Hermann at his home (published in a Tillieux tribute issue of Walthéry’s zine Les Amis de François Walthéry), he explained, “My family is originally from the north of France. A small town near Lille. I have always loved France. There is an atmosphere there that suits me.” In the same interview, Tillieux claims to have stopped reading comics at the age of 12, being mainly influenced by “second-rate detective films that, at the time, only arrived in Belgium and not France” before moving on to novelists such as André Gide and Marcel Aymé. During the Second World War, Tillieux would publish three detective novels himself, only the first of which, Le navire qui tue ses capitaines ("The Ship That Kills Its Captains"), appeared under his own name. He was briefly in the navy, attending the Navigation Schools in Ostend and Antwerp, stationed on a ship but never sailing. The nighttime harbors must have made at least an unconscious impression on him as he would later brilliantly render such shady scenes in his comics. Bas Schuddeboom from the Lambiek Comiclopedia admires, “he certainly brought the ‘noir’ into the generally so colorful ‘School of Marcinelle’!”

Tillieux got his start in comics working for Brussels artist Guy Depière’s Bimbo and Jeep magazines, drawing stories like Jonas et Zénobie. After Bimbo folded, publisher Fernand Cheneval asked Tillieux if he would like to contribute to Héroïc-Albums. The result was the adventures of commercial navy officer Bob Bang. Joost Swarte notes, “Bob Bang reminds me of Dick Tracy, so Tillieux knew what was going on. You see the influence of Hergé quite clearly in the subjects of his stories and in his style. It’s more clear line drawing at that time, and there are characters in the older comics that are directly inspired by Hergé.” Indeed, Bob Bang himself looks a bit like Tintin, and a doctor in one story bears more than a passing resemblance to Rastapopoulos. After Bob Bang, Cheneval wanted more realistic stories, American cowboy comics being what was selling, so Tillieux set about drawing in the style of Fred Harman and Milton Caniff. And when the publishing house wanted to change direction yet again, Tillieux found a style and character set that would suit him well for years to come. Félix, starring a young detective and his two sidekicks, lasted from 1949-1956, with Tillieux not only writing the scripts but providing all the artwork himself for a complete monthly story. Tillieux would tell Brigitte Hermann, “I think I put a beret on Félix’s head instinctively because I lived in Toulouse, where they all had little berets. But there was a good reason for his glasses. I had a lot of difficulty drawing the eyes, so I realized that if I gave him glasses we could not see the eyes. It was enough to show his emotions by moving his eyebrows. It was much easier!”

When Héroïc-Albums folded in 1956, Tillieux moved to Dupuis, home of Franquin, for whom he had enormous respect. He would be quoted as saying, “Franquin is the artist!” Tillieux created Marc Jaguar for Dupuis’ short-lived Risque-tout before finally moving to their main magazine, Spirou. Tillieux was keen to continue Félix, but Dupuis nixed the idea. So Tillieux simply took the core Félix trio and appropriated them into a new cast. His wife suggested the name ‘Gil Jourdan’ for this new young Parisian private investigator, neater than his disheveled predecessor and now sans beret and eyeglasses, and thus his greatest creation was born. Félix sidekicks Allume-Gaz and Cabarez would turn into Libellule and Inspecteur Crouton. Due to the enormous amount of work and limited time available, many of the Félix scripts were reworked into Gil Jourdan and other later adventures. Luc Cornillon laughs, “Maybe if he hadn’t died he would have used those same stories for a third time. But they got better each time, with better dialogue.”

Gil Jourdan is considered the pinnacle of Tillieux’s work, and rightly so. Here all his distinctive qualities come together. His dialogue is crisp and snappy, evocative of the way people actually speak - with playful, antagonistic banter, characters cracking jokes, and plenty of wordplay. There is a very human way his characters react to each other’s words and jokes, usually with humorous annoyance or impatience, making the stories ring all the more real. While children can certainly appreciate the pages, adults will find much more in them. Luc Cornillon emphasizes, “It was very different from anything that was written for kids at the time. They were very good stories and more fun than any other artist was doing. Tillieux was the only one who was doing that kind of thing.”

Tillieux’s love of motor chases and accidents continues to fill Gil Jourdan’s adventures. Joost Swarte admires, “Just after the war the French cars were beautiful and Tillieux knew how to draw them.” The PI’s office features toy models and posters of vintage automobiles, and, although he will upgrade to a Ferrari in the final book, Jourdan himself starts out driving a blue Peugeot 202 before moving on to a red (then yellow) Renault Dauphine. Hanco Kolk explains, “The Dauphine is a really nice car to draw, really round. Friendly and French, the French Volkswagen, if you will.” It is fitting then that Tillieux’s most admired album is La Voiture immergée (‘The Drowned Car’), the third in the Gil Jourdan series, published in English by Fantagraphics in 2011 as Murder by High Tide. The story was inspired by Noirmoutier off the Atlantic coast of France, where the only way to reach the island is to traverse a nearly three mile sandbank that is flooded twice a day by high tide. Into this foreboding remote setting, which Tillieux had visited himself, the artist weaves a tale of secret codes, sabotage, and murder. Its nocturnal scenes are especially lovely to behold, stormy twilight colors adding to the air of menace. Joost Swarte recalls, “La Voiture immergée is a beautiful, fantastic story and I remember when I read it I was deeply impressed by the atmosphere.”

Atmosphere was something Tillieux was a master of, and it was a quality important to his style. He told Brigitte Hermann, “I liked to portray an ambiance. It's not always easy to draw, but I thought I could do it. And that's the reason why every time we pass a car crusher or an old abandoned factory, all my friends -- Roba, Franquin, Peyo -- say 'Hey, it's a Tillieux décor!’ Every time I did a Gil Jourdan, it was because I liked doing it and the subject, I didn't give a damn if it wasn't commercial, because if I wanted to, I did it. I always started from this principle.” The fifth Gil Jourdan book, L’enfer de Xique-Xique (released by Fantagraphics as Ten Thousand Years in Hell) was inspired by the trucks building the highway behind Tillieux’s house. In the story, Jourdan & co. find themselves having to escape a South American prison camp situated at the end of a 600 kilometer road in the desert. Tillieux explained, “I found vehicle problems funny and used them in the stories. Trucks that sank, couldn’t start, or had to have the wheel removed, the axle replaced, etc.” With his usual self-deprecating humor, he laughed, “Spiritually, it doesn’t fly very high! It's not Kafka.” It might not be The Metamorphosis, but these are still entertaining stories, and wonderful to look at.

‘Cinematic’ is a word often applied to Tillieux’s work. He was great at camera angles, and playing with light and shadow. Besides Franquin, Tillieux considered Hergé to be the other great European artist, stating “Hergé was the first to make a series where the drawing is more important than the text. Where the composition of the movement is exactly as in the cinema: the sequence is explained solely by the drawing, without any words.” Swarte notes, “There’s a lot of realism in Tillieux’s backgrounds and the cars, but the way the characters behave and gesture is based in reality but more stylish. Hergé always said if you show something in direct relation to reality, people will think the story is real.”

Those ‘second-rate detective films’ must’ve had an influence on Tillieux too, as mobsters like Joe the Syringe, Tony the Martini, and Frank the Ace populate his pages. Stephen Desberg explains how unique this was at time. “It was a really curious style to talk about gangsters. All the other ‘serious’ series would be adventure, not really gangster stories, especially in France. It’s very real when you read the stories, you really feel like you are there or in a French movie. Many French films from the 50s and 60s would feature gangsters like Tillieux would in Gil Jourdan, the way they talk and their underworld lives. Tillieux was very good at that, he knew what he was talking about. Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, those guys would do serious movies but they could also do funny stuff. Tillieux was really close to that, I would say.” This extended to Tillieux’s real life persona, fond as he was of wearing tinted glasses and smoking cigarettes, appearing every bit the villain. François Walthéry would even use him as the model for a hitman in the Natacha story, La mémoire de métal.

Longtime Tillieux fan Roby Joffo says that books #3-10 of Gil Jourdan are the best of the series, though only #3-6 have been published in English, a labor of love by the late Kim Thompson. In the same volume as Murder by High Tide, Fantagraphics reprinted the next adventure, #4, Les Cargos du Crépuscule, as Catch as Catch Can. The science behind this prison break story is a little fantastically far-fetched, but as we only find this out at the end, it doesn’t interfere with our enjoyment of the wonderfully rendered pursuit through countryside, sewers, and disused docks. Tillieux is fond of using the last couple pages of each story to sum up motives and technicalities not fully explained along the way, but, as Thompson himself notes, “isn't the final deduction/reveal almost always the least interesting part of the plot?” Thompson was well aware that translating further books might not be cost-effective, but a second Gil Jordan (the ‘u’ of his surname dropped in translation) volume appeared in 2017, containing stories #5 and #6. Number five is the aforementioned Ten Thousand Years in Hell, accompanied by Boom and Bust (original title: Surboum pour 4 roues, a more literal translation being ‘surprise party for four wheels’). Personally, I find Boom and Bust to be the best of the four translated stories, in terms of the way the plot unfolds and how the characters interact with one another. It begins with a two page car chase through the streets of Paris, before taking in an armada of stolen vans, an anonymous threat to a country gentleman living above a series of secret tunnels, and the Society For French Explosives. There’s also another body of water rising to obscure a roadway, during which Gil loses his newly acquired yellow Dauphine in the flood. The wisecracking Crackerjack (English name of Libellule), always ready with a joke and to supply his own laughter to it, quips: “I’m getting used to the fact that every time we buy a new car, it drowns!!” There are sixteen Gil Jourdan adventures in all (the final four being drawn by Gos, aka Roland Goossens) but sadly their being rendered into English stopped with Kim Thompson’s death.

Maurice Tillieux with friends and harmonicas, 1970's. From left to right:
François Walthéry, Tillieux, Jean-Claude Fournier. Photo copyright Gérard Guégand

Tillieux would claim that working always came quite easily to him, that he was never bothered by the problem of confronting a blank page. He found making comics to be “a profession that must be done seriously, but without taking it seriously, without getting a big head. Basically, it's a fun job, that's all. We entertain people.” For the most part, he was not tied to any script while he worked. He would start with an idea and a theme and “embroider from day to day”. Walthéry elaborates, “He was one of those great scenario writers who usually didn’t know the outcome when they started. They could barely tell the story to their editor at Dupuis, who, luckily, trusted them.” Obviously when he wrote for other artists, which he did quite a lot in later years, a script was necessary. While after Gil Jourdan he would create the gag series César et Ernestine for Spirou, drawing on his own experiences with both his three year old daughter and an annoying neighbor, he would also write scripts for other artists’ series such as Walthéry’s Natacha, Will’s Tif et Tondu, and collaborating with Francis (Francis Bertrand) for Marc Lebut et son Voisin (‘Marc Lebut and his Car’) and Arthur Piroton for Jess Long. An interesting consequence of Tillieux working without a script is that when its home magazine, Risque-Tout, ceased publication, he never went back to the seven published pages of the second Marc Jaguar story he had begun. Without any notes to go on of where Tillieux might have taken the comic, Etienne Borgers and Walthéry were keen to complete it, and in October 2018 Les camions du diable (‘The Devil’s Trucks’), with a script by Borgers and art by Jean-Luc Delvaux and Walthéry, was published by Dupuis. Tillieux’s original Marc Jaguar story, Le Lac de l'homme mort (‘Dead Man’s Lake’), had been reprinted earlier in the year. French publishers continue to publish collections of Tillieux’s work with Editions de l'Elan releasing ‘Intégrale’ editions of Félix and Bob Bang, along with his detective novel, Le navire qui tue ses capitaines.

Stephen Desberg remembers Tillieux as “a great guy. A little bit shy. He had a great sense of humor, but you wouldn’t see him smile a lot. He was somewhat enigmatic. He would tell jokes but he wouldn’t laugh so much himself. That was his way.” His interview with Brigitte Hermann shows Tillieux to very modest and funny, often self-deprecating, at one point laughing “I never draw well!”. His friend and collaborator Walthéry recalls, “He had an imposing stature when you first met him... but he quickly erased all this to show his sympathy and his humor.” These qualities combine in his work to make interesting and fun stories written and drawn with great talent. Joost Swarte has a nice final word: “I don’t think a young artist can do the same dynamic stuff as Tillieux. He’s one of a kind.”

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All unattributed quotes are from the 1977 interview with Brigitte Hermann.

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