It’s not always easy finding albums of bande dessinée in my town. I had searched for the graphic album of Le Groom Vert-De-Gris, with a scenario by Yann, and Dessin by Olivier Schwartz, since first I heard of it, with no luck. A few days ago I did finally find a copy -- as serialized in the periodical Spirou from 18 February 2009 to 8 April 2009. Yann’s one-shot adult reworking of the popular children’s series caused some controversy on the album’s release in May 2009. One critic accused Yann of anti-Semitism and disgusting sexuality, to which the author replied that the critic carped airily and condescendingly about his “sexual questions,” called him a “mental case,” and denied him the ability to think for himself. I would guess that sales hit the stratosphere when the controversy was aired on the internet.
The periodical Spirou was born in October 1944, shortly after the liberation of Belgium, while the comic Spirou et Fantasio was created by Robert Velter (known as Rob-Vel) in 1938, then passed on to Joseph Gillain (Jijé), followed by André Franquin (1924-1997) from June 1946. Franquin is not a household name in the west but on the continent he is second only to Hergé in popularity.
Spirou was a bell-boy at the Moustic Hotel, with a pet squirrel named Spip, while his friend Fantasio was a journalist for the newspaper Le Soir. The stories were for children and mixed humour with adventure. In recent years a parallel series was inaugurated and in the fifth story in that series, Le Groom Vert-De-Gris, Yann reworked the characters in an adult manner, introducing the characters to a real historical setting in Nazi occupied Belgium, with Spirou as a member of the Resistance hiding American airmen in his attic room at the Moustic Hotel. Part of the fun is searching for famous characters, real and imagined, among Schwartz crowded scenes. Smiling Jack appears, Bécassine, Audrey Hepburn, even Captain Haddock who shockingly practices water-torture on an enemy for the Gestapo. Fantasio has a sexual liaison with a German officer and Spirou burns a group of German pursuers alive and comments on the proceedings in a humorous manner. The entire story appears out of place in Spirou magazine, in which space is shared with innocent children’s fare like Lucky Luke, Mélusine and Cédric.
Olivier Schwartz clear line artwork is brilliant as usual. The Moustic Hotel is as much a character as Spirou and Fantasio. It's a majestic imposing building of impossible size, covered in Nazi flags, and scene of much of the action. As the Allies close in bomber planes attack the Moustic (in the window you can see a Gestapo torturer at work) and the story ends with the hotel in ruins and Belgium liberated. The hidden allusions to famous characters make the reader pay attention to the the details of drawing. The eye wanders through crowd scenes from front to back ending in two little characters in the corner looking at Anti-Jewish propaganda on the walls. In one nice scene in the American camp a soldier reads a Superman comic, the bright four-colors standing out in the sea of khaki. It’s a fantastic comic; nothing like it could even be imagined in the North American market. The title, Le Groom Vert-De-Gris, refers to the bell-boys' change from his usual red uniform to the khaki suit of the occupiers. Fantagraphics has begun translating various bande dessinée, such as Tardi’s war stories and Yann and Schwartz are hopefully deserving of the same treatment.