Marsupilami Reanimated: An Interview With Zidrou and Frank Pé

A new take on André Franquin’s iconic Marsupilami? Even from the mighty team of Zidrou and Frank Pé, I must say I had my doubts about Marsupilami: The Beast. The cover alone, with its portrayal of a much more realistic creature than Spirou’s pet, is enough to give one pause. This wonderfully unique cross between leopard and monkey, with its 28-foot tail, has always been resourceful and determined, but much more immediately loveable than the snarling, ready-to-pounce animal depicted here. And neither do the first 20 pages show any connection with the Marsupilami we know and love. In late November, 1955, a ship arrives in the port of Antwerp on a rainy night, with carnage in its cargo of jungle critters. The tone is foreboding, the artwork dark - much more in line with Jacques Tardi than Franquin’s cartoons. In this first section, all we get of the titular character is one silhouette, two panels of its tail, and a final distant “Hooba!”, its idiosyncratic call, as the camera fades away. Looking a bit deeper, however, links to a lineage are there. Nice touches too. The sea captain’s name is Tillieux, a nod to another great Belgian artist whose creations also appeared in Spirou magazine. Going even further, Maurice Tillieux himself was stationed in Antwerp in the navy. Aboard the vessel, another character is called Lepennetier, which is the surname of the comics writer best known as ‘Yann’. Yann himself wrote the Marsupilami series for Franquin’s Marsu Productions from 1989-1994, and one of his stories for Spirou, Le groom vert-de-gris, dealt with Nazi-occupied Belgium, a theme that will arise later in this story.

Marsupilami remains conspicuous by his absence, as we only see him a handful of times in the first 73 pages. But after we leave the harbor, Frank Pé’s mood and art grow lighter as the scene moves to Brussels, the stark tones shifting to softer greys of its rainswept streets. On page 30, there is a lovely Belgian city square which perfectly evokes the real thing, and the same goes for all the coming city scenes. Adding to the authenticity, characters will utter a smattering of Walloon words, thankfully defined in footnotes. Humor will take its time, but comes in later. In fact, the first page we see in this new section is one of a classroom laughing at the boxing scene from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. As the superintendent of the school barges into the room to berate the students and teacher for not being more academic, the film is paused on a close-up of Chaplin’s face, his eyes peering over the angry headmaster’s shoulder in silent wide-eyed commentary. Writer Zidrou takes his time introducing characters and themes, leaving you wondering, in a not unpleasant manner, what the heck the plot is. This is, after all, the first book of two. But as the story flows and builds, one begins to appreciate its slow spiral pace. For although we don’t know it yet, laughter -- as seen in the Chaplin classroom scene -- is part of the schoolmaster Mr. Boniface’s raison d’etre. Innuendo has even worked its way into his regular manner of speaking, and at times other characters will take this on too. I’ve never seen a napkin and napkin ring used to allude to "the act" before.

Next in the sweep of the city, we are brought to the outdoor market, where we are given more information via the gossiping of female fishmongers. This will also serve to introduce us to Miss Van Den Kroot, whose romantic life is included in such talk, as she had borne a son to one of the occupying German officers, and is now raising him alone. It is only after another interlude where the Marsupilami is spotted on the outskirts of town that we are introduced to this child, the loveable ten year old outcast François, whose heritage makes him the target of his classmates' scorn and abuse. Half-German, half-Belgian, François is out of place, just like the creature he is soon to encounter. Much to the chagrin of the boy’s mother, François has the habit of taking in stray animals - he is seen bringing home a baby boar to add to his collection of an albino mole, a deaf owl, a three-legged dog, a turkey (who thinks he’s a rooster and sounds the morning alarm), and an alcoholic horse, to name but a few among the menagerie straining the household costs of a single mother selling mussels down the market. But although their home may be ramshackle, this make-shift zoo is tended with love, revealing much of François’ character. You can guess what critter will find its way there next.

There’s a great double-page spread when we are finally introduced to Marsupilami proper, showing him at death’s door after his arduous journey from jungle to Antwerp, Antwerp to Brussels. Beginning the recovery process, Marsupilami soon, pleasingly, builds his famous nest. Other, more oblique, references to the original story include digs at Disney -- “that artist who draws mice” -- which in the 1990s reneged on its license contract for the character.

Mother and son set about trying to find out just what is this creature which has now joined their ranks. There is a very tender moment on the way back from the veterinarian’s office, when François is explaining the mysterious sounds coming from its covered cage to a tram full of annoyed passengers. His word balloons cover his mother’s face, and when he stops speaking, she is beaming a tender smile at him, full of love and pride. A more heartbreaking moment comes later for the three when -- after Marsupilami wreaks havoc in François’ classroom -- there is a raid on the Van Den Kroot house and its non-human occupants, and François yells “Mom, do something!”

Any doubts about resurrecting Marsupilami are long since banished by the heart shown in the writing and the artwork. It is the story itself that very much wins you over, with François being the true hero. As Part Two is yet to come, we are left with much unresolved, and I for one can’t wait to see how this tale -- filled as it is with the real human stuff of emotion, struggle, tenderness versus the forces of conformity, and humor in the face of sadness -- continues.

Frank Pé

In the meantime, writer Zidrou and artist Frank Pé were kind enough to answer some of my questions about their wonderful take on the character. Many thanks to Christopher Bradley of Europe Comics for providing the translation.

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AUG STONE: What does Franquin mean to you?

Frank Pé: Franquin was truly the best author of his generation. In my view, his artwork is on the level of [Albrecht] Dürer. He also embodied kindness, generosity, and extremely high professional standards.

Zidrou: Franquin nursed me. Franquin changed my diapers. Franquin watched over me on sleepless nights, kept watch over my dreams. Franquin… is the best.

When did you first discover Franquin’s work? When did you first read his Marsupilami stories? What is your favourite one? 

Frank Pé: As a child I read a lot of comics, thanks to magazines like Spirou and Tintin. Franquin occupied a special place for sure. His work gave off a particular warmth. Later on, I had the chance to meet Franquin and talk with him, and he didn’t disappoint. He was so endearing! Le Nid des Marsupilamis ("The Marsupilamis’ Nest") is his signature book, full of poetry and humor. Apart from that, Bravo les Brothers [from the Spirou et Fantasio series] is an absolute masterpiece: a wonderful short story where every line, every stroke is the mark of perfection.

 Zidrou: I’m Belgian. I grew up with comics everywhere around me, including Franquin. I received the first volume of Gaston Lagaffe, Gare aux gaffes, before I turned five (I learned to read at four and a half), which just goes to show! I discovered the Marsupilami through what you might call Franquin’s Taj Mahal, his Chartres Cathedral: by which I mean of course Le nid des Marsupilamis! That was around seven or eight - the perfect age! In my view, that book remains one of the ten best comics of all time.

Tell me about your feelings for Spirou magazine. 

Frank Pé: When I was younger, it was a weekly celebration, a truly magical reading experience for me.

Zidrou: When I was a kid, I was a Tintin junkie, the old weekly comics magazine. Every Thursday I traded it to my neighbor (whose name was Benoît, just like me) for his Spirou magazine. Later on, when Tintin started to fade, I switched over to Spirou. Spirou is also where I got my start as a writer, some twenty years later!

So reworking Marsupilami for your own story, it’s quite an audacious move, no? When and how did the idea come to you? Did you have any doubts about doing it? Or while you were doing it?  

Frank Pé: I wanted to develop a more “realistic” vision of the Marsupilami, in contrast with the humoristic style the character has always had. And that meant changing the context and the type of story too. Zidrou was the perfect partner for that: he is a master of emotion, his stories are captivating and incredibly touching. The publisher Dupuis loved our pitch, and we quickly set to work! The whole way, I really focused on making our Marsupilami a real, credible animal, like you might see in a documentary on TV! I never had any doubts, no - though the anatomy was a challenge! The oval-shaped head in particular was difficult to incorporate in a realistic way.

Zidrou: It was Frank who came to me with the idea. You don’t say no to Frank! My only “condition” was that we stay away from doing something too close to what we’d already done on our Spirou story (La lumière de Bornéo). I never felt like what we were doing was audacious. For an artist, an author, being different is not a question of audacity, but authenticity.

The artwork of your Spirou story, La lumière de Bornéo, is still in a more traditional ‘cartoonish’ style than the realism of your Marsupilami. Tell me about your choice to render Marsupilami more realistic than Franquin’s cartoon. 

Frank Pé: My desire to bring the Marsupilami to life in a realistic style also comes from my interest in wildlife drawing in general. For forty years now I’ve been drawing animals of all kinds -- lots and lots of them! -- and using this experience to bring an imaginary animal to life is a real treat for me!

Tell me about La lumière de Bornéo.  

Frank Pé: Since the aim of this Le Spirou de... collection is to give different authors the chance to share their own vision of the series, I wanted to freshen it up a little bit by bringing in certain contemporary themes -- like the destruction of our planet -- in a way that is poetic, somewhat fantastic, and unexpected (an ape that makes the most beautiful paintings in the world!). Along the way I also wanted to make the character of Spirou a bit more human.

Zidrou: Hm! It’s been long enough now since writing it that I’ve completely forgotten! I can just say that the story here really came from Frank, and I gave it structure. Almost as if I were adapting a novel.

You bring in some elements of Franquin’s Marsupilami such as his nest. How did it feel to work this in to an otherwise original story? Was there a feeling of satisfaction in bringing the story to a certain to a point where you could introduce the nest?  

Frank Pé: The Marsupilami’s nest is precisely one of the more “natural” elements of the character. It was important for us to include it because it reinforces the animal’s credibility, and his uniqueness. The nest also had to make sense in the context of our story. Since it takes place in the city, the poor Marsupilami is forced to make his nest from cardboard boxes and a few bits of string. Something like what a homeless person might have to do!

Zidrou: The nest had to be there. Both in order to link our work with Le nid des Marsupilamis, my holy grail, and to reinforce the Marsupilami’s animal side. I had considered coming back to the nest at the end of part two, but then I thought better of it, to avoid having something too “comical” at a moment when emotion had to take center stage (you’ll see!).

I loved the references to Tillieux and Yann in the opening scene. Especially considering that in real life Tillieux himself was once stationed on a boat in Antwerp. Tell me about working these in.

Frank Pé: In my view, I don’t actually see this story as an homage to the classic Marsupilami, as critics have often said. An homage implies an expression of respect and devotion. In this case, we’ve really taken every necessary liberty for our story. Not that that prevents us of course from including a few references to the generation of authors that gave us so much, and whom we can never thank enough!

Zidrou: Thank you. I wanted to avoid stuffing the book with too many references, so that any eight- or twelve-year-old kid could read it without having to know anything about Franquin, Yann, Roba, [Yvan] Delporte, etc. But why not work in a few little things for our more “experienced”, that is to say “white-haired”, readers?

Are there personal elements to the story for you?  

Frank Pé: Zidrou gave me the gift of crafting the character of François as an imaginary version of what I could have been at that age, surrounded by animals. Also, the story takes place in Brussels in 1955, the year I was conceived! So I tried to go beyond historical research to dig up the book’s atmosphere in my own earliest memories... practically from when I was in the womb! But seriously, all of this allowed me to have deeper “visions” of my work, rather than basing everything on objective facts and details. And that was invaluable for me!

Zidrou: In my case, not really. But I tried to make it so that Frank would really take pleasure in doing the art for this book, bringing to life the Brussels of his youth - even if it’s been fictionalized here. I wrote the scenes with young Franz/François as if he were the boy that Frank was, or could have been. The scriptwriter’s main job is to put himself in the service of his characters, but also in the service of the artist. A bit like composers might do for the performers of their songs. That said, when the writer has really done a good job, his or her mark will naturally come through, no matter what kind of story.

Frank, your love of animals is reflected here in François’ makeshift zoo.

Frank Pé: When I was a child, we didn’t really have a lot of animals at home, in fact. But I’ve always been drawn toward them, and that’s something that continues to this day. The way things are going, I’ll have to be buried along with some kind of animal remains, like a seal skeleton or wildebeest hooves!

Do you relate to the character of Francois, the hero of the story?  

Frank Pé: In all of my books, I love to blur the line between fiction and my own reality. In any case, I would say that to this day every project I have completed has been autobiographical to some extent.

What do you think Franquin would think of your Marsupilami?  

Frank Pé: This excellent question has been with me every step of the way in making this book. I often imagine Franquin looking over my shoulder while I draw. I dare to think that he and I could discuss things together as “pros.” But I know how demanding he was. So that’s something that pushes and motivates me... and also makes me smile, just the way he used to do. Franquin really shared a bond with his readers, and if I could manage to do the same, I would feel tremendously honored.

Zidrou: In fact, Franquin has already sent me one of his messenger robins (he communicates with the living through these little birds that he could draw so well) to tell me that he’s up there waiting for us on his cloud -- like a big puffy speech bubble -- to share a (Belgian) beer with Frank and me. As well as everyone else who worked on this book, in the shadows. To which I say: you bet!

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Part One of Marsupilami: The Beast is out now at Europe Comics.