Editors Notes: Kim Thompson on Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus, Part 1

Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus by R. Macherot

[In this installment of our series of Editors Notes, Kim Thompson interviews himself (in a format he's dubbed "AutoChat") about Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus by R. Macherot, now available to pre-order from us and coming soon to a comics shop near you. This edition is so epic, we've split it into two parts, with Part 2 appearing tomorrow! – Ed.]

Okay, Sibyl-Anne is being released kind of as the other half of a matched set with Gil Jordan, which I know you’ve been a fan of since you were a kid. I assume this is another childhood favorite you’re finally getting a chance to…

No, actually, as a kid I was never a fan of Macherot’s work. Never collected the books, never read most of the Sibyllines until recently — just not on my radar.

Okay, that wasn’t the answer I was expecting. Let me regroup. What made you change your mind? Is this one of the situations like American comics fans have with comics like Little Lulu or Sugar & Spike, which they consider “kid stuff” as adolescents and then belatedly realize how great they are as adults?

No, I don’t think so. I was a big fan of the Smurfs back then already, so I didn’t suffer from that particular anti-kid-stuff snobbery. And my love of Peanuts has been unwavering. It’s more that my peak collecting years of Franco-Belgian comics coincided with a nadir period for Macherot. It was like trying to get into Jack Kirby during his Silver Star years.

You’re going to have to explain that a little more, I think.

Yeah. This is going to go on for a while, sorry, but it’s complicated. Stick with me. I’ll throw in some pictures to keep you entertained while I drone on.

In the “golden age” of Franco-Belgian comics weeklies from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s (when Asterix exploded and brought Pilote into the mix), the two giants were pretty much Spirou magazine and Tintin magazine. As a quick analogy, the Tintin/Spirou relationship was about the equivalent of the DC/Marvel relationship in the 1960s: Tintin had the biggest of the big guns, namely Tintin (Superman) but was quite a bit stodgier, while Spirou had the more exciting equivalents of the FF and Spider-Man. So if you were a major Franco-Belgian cartoonist you pretty much ended up at one of those.

Macherot, as it happened, wound up at Tintin in the early 1950s, for which he created a bucolic funny-animal series starring a dormouse called Chlorophylle, whose most frequent nemesis was a rat called Anthracite.

from Chlorophylle by R. Macherot
Click to enlarge

That actually sounds a lot like Sibyl-Anne

Doesn’t it, though? Hold that thought. And while I would argue that Macherot was in a tie for second best cartoonist working for Tintin

I assume Hergé being the first, but who was he tied with for second?

E.P. Jacobs (Blake and Mortimer), of course. Anyway, the way these weeklies worked is they serialized stories at two pages every issue, and then collected them into the “album” format. (Spirou’s series were published by Dupuis, Tintin’s mostly by Le Lombard although a few had gone to the Tintin books publisher Casterman.) And there was a definite caste system at both magazines/publishers, based mostly on popularity and sales but I would have to assume also on politics. At the top of the heap you’d get cartoonists whose work would get published as hardcovers (48 or 64 pages), then there was an intermediate level where you’d get 48-page softcovers, and in Tintin magazine’s case a bottom level of cheap, skimpy-looking 32-page softcovers.

Now Macherot, for whatever reason, wasn’t treated that great at Tintin. In fact it may have been partly self-inflicted: He tended to vary his drawing style and approach from book to book (whereas the successful cartoonists would find one groove and stick to it), he had a certain dark, satirical sensibility that was at odds not just with his chosen “cute” funny-animal style but also with Tintin’s stodginess, and the end result was his books ended up on the cheap/skimpy end. So eventually he decided to jump ship to Spirou

Did this kind of thing happen often?

No. Cartoonists were pretty loyal, partly because they were on balance treated pretty well but also because the companies did more or less own the characters, so if you wanted to switch magazines you had to leave your characters behind. That was a big disincentive.

Like the U.S. comic books, then.

Yes and no. More like U.S. syndicated strips. Series were created by individual cartoonists and controlled by them, and for the most part they “owned” them enough that eventually contracts in the 1970s and 1980s allowed them to start switching companies (the first big case I remember was Morris taking Lucky Luke from Spirou/Dupuis to Pilote/Dargaud, but there was a flurry of it later), but in Macherot’s day if you moved you lost the characters. This is where Macherot’s creative restlessness stood him in good stead, though: He was actually kind of tired of Chlorophylle (he’d kept his interest up by playing with graphic styles and midway through radically reversing the fundamental concept of the strip by changing it from a Sibyl-Anne-style bucolic series to a fully urban “funny-animals who have an entire city and drive cars” strip and then back again — tinkerings which I’m sure did nothing to endear him to readers or his publishers) and wanted to try something new.

from Chlorophylle by R. Macherot
Click to enlarge

This is a long goddamn story, Kim. I just wanted to know about Sibyl-Anne!

I’m sorry. And we’re not there yet. Macherot’s career was a relatively complex one compared to most other European cartoonists of his generation, who once they found their defining series just kept drawing that for the rest of their lives. “Morris: Created Lucky Luke. Drew it for half a century. Moved from Dupuis to Dargaud. Died.” Anyway, Macherot went to Spirou, where they offered him the top-of-the-line 64-page hardcovers, freedom to do what he wanted, and he created Chaminou et le Khrompire, which as it turns out is one of the defining masterpieces of Franco-Belgian comics, and is both a huge leap beyond and summation of his previous work: It’s a secret-agent funny-animal thriller, very self-aware, with some off-kilter characterizations (Chaminou is a bit of an egomaniacal dandy and occasional screw-up) and some genuinely dark moments. (Macherot tended to go a little more graphic in the animals-eating-one-another premise than most cartoonists.) There’s a scene in it that conceptually duplicates the final scene in Freaks, one of the most horrific scenes in any movie ever made, and plays it for laughs. It’s just unbelievably bold for the time (1964), one of those art objects that seems unique and decades ahead of its time, like Night of the Hunter (one of Macherot’s favorite films, incidentally) or Kiss Me Deadly.

from Chaminou et le Khrompire by R. Macherot

Click to enlarge

I can see where this is going…

Yes, everyone hated it! The readers were baffled, the publishers were dismayed, and even Macherot’s fellow cartoonists including Franquin — to his discredit, I must say — didn’t care for it. My understanding is that the publisher actually was OK with giving the series a second shot, but Macherot had had the wind taken out of his sails (or sales, har har), and at everyone’s urging did what cartoonists tend to do — as you saw when we discussed Gil Jordan yesterday — which is fall back on a remake of his earlier work, and (also at the publisher’s urging) aim again for a younger audience. And so the bucolic mouse (actually dormouse) Chlorophylle begat the bucolic mouse Sibylline, and Chaminou went on the scrap heap. Dupuis did release the album but, with no follow-up stories forthcoming, allowed it to drift out of print and it eventually became one of the collectors’ holy-grail albums. As a final odd insult it appeared without Macherot’s name on the cover on the first edition because Macherot was used to Lombard’s technique of adding the author’s name and Dupuis would have the author add his own name to the cover layout, and it fell through the cracks.

So he came up with Sibylline

Congratulations, we’re thirteen hundred words into this and you’ve actually reached the point where you’re talking about the book. What are you, R.C. Harvey?

Ouch. But you’re right, this has gone on long enough. Let’s break it off here and tomorrow we’ll talk Sibylline now that the stage has been set, in agonizing detail. (And I left out stuff: I didn’t even mention Clifton.)