A haggard, silhouetted man stumbles across a snowy landscape. The terrain is vastly black, a blank white curve of snow accentuated by black night sky only a solid layer of ink can provide. The stumbling man casts a more energetic figure as he crests the seemingly endless snowbank. The lively and frantic mark-making that composes his form wobbles with a will to live, yet these fragile splotches also droop and fray with exhaustion like broken twigs or maybe frozen snot dribbling out of the cartoon guy’s big schnozz. Our unnamed hero curses of his inevitable death in the ice hell that is his life, when in the distance, bright lights appear that suggest an end. Our man rejoices – could this be civilization? No. The lights are a pack of hungry wolves, whose jet black bodies replace the dark of night in a brutally minimal panel, our small man cowering in the corner of the frame. Horrible death cannot be avoided, and dreaming otherwise will only worsen the punishment –a charming gag. It’s meant to be funny, which you can tell because these are cartoon characters, appearing in a funny book.
Fanciful little jokes like this fill the pages of André Franquin’s late 70’s serial Die Laughing, the punchline usually being the annihilation of a person, place, or planet. These comics originally appeared in French as Idees Noires, and the darkness of this nom-de-plume is literal. Franquin was a pioneering cartoonist at the children’s magazine Spirou, and in this late career, essentially mature reader serial, he boldy (or perhaps cheaply) ditches appealing primary colors for stark black and white. And it’s heavy on the black – just about every strip is swallowed up in yawning darkness, as hefty as can be managed in Franquin’s springy cartoon style atomique. Every character is hatched, shaded and silhouetted so intensely as to suggest everyone has taken a dip in Franquin’s inkwell. Cynthia Rose’s introduction to the English edition posits Die Laughing as a pivotal work in the development of French humor comics, and the influence of its style will be evident to many reader’s – the caricatures found in an issue of Fluide Glacial certainly have more in common with this book than, say, Gil Jordan: Private Detective. But today’s kings of the magazine rack cannot replicate the hefty darkness of Franquin’s world, a world which is always on the verge of drowning in its vivid muck.
Franquin’s jokes are destructive in their whimsy, taking aim at the whole of humanity. The introduction paints this vein of gallows humor as the product of depression, but I’m not sure this is self-evident. Slapstick, after all, has a fairly universal appeal, and in cartoons there are few limitations on a sick imagination. Can Looney Tunes be explained away as the fruits of depression? Can The Far Side? Maybe. But it does give me some pause to carve a tortured artist out of a comedy institution. The loudest voices in the promotion of alternative comics would always prefer to find a new Robert Crumb than a new Gary Larson. But I digress.
Franquin’s targets occasionally betray a humanitarian streak, taking aim at poachers (in several ingenious gags, a new brand of gun gets the poachers to take aim at themselves!), arms dealers, and other merchants of death Franquin clearly has no tolerance for. Yet in spite of these moments of earnest political outrage, Franquin does not present himself as an arbiter of justice. There are people who are bad sure, but everyone else is clueless, and they’re all going to get their heads squished in like a big inky pimple. In one memorable spread, a plot of land hurtles through the darkness of space while a husband urges his wife to go inside. The pair come off as a genuinely tender, sympathetic couple, but their qualities are small in comparison to the vast nothingness enveloping them. Franquin does not hate these people, but they are not exactly loveable – they’re charming because they are about to die, just like we will someday!
This conceit of shared doom is what makes Franquin’s satire so satisfying. Franquin does not put himself or anyone else above the calamity he plays for laughs. A common defence a bad comedian might make for a tasteless joke is that they “make fun of everybody equally.” This rarely proves true, and when it does it is likely at the expense of the art. In Franquin’s case, it is not that he makes fun of everybody equally, rather that in his jokes no-one is safe. The suffering fool is there to be laughed at, sure, but don’t think for a second you’ll be able to outrun the hungry wolves.