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I meant to write some words on the passing of the great Belgian cartoonist last week earlier, but then figured that since I was going to Paris over the weekend, I’d pick up a couple of his classic comics to reacquaint myself with some of those stories that meant so much to me as a kid and which I’ve only ever read in Danish translation. To my not inconsiderable indignation I discovered, however, that the French-language market, despite overflowing with product these years, apparently still can’t support extensive reeditions of its classics. It appears that only very little of Macherot’s work is in print, and none of it was available at the otherwise reliable stores I frequent in the City of Lights.

On the other hand such utter mediocrities as Jean Graton’s Michel Vaillant, Tibet’s Ric Hochet and Eddy Paape’s Luc Orient are available in archival editions. It’s depressing. Macherot is a
a master on the level of his distinguished colleagues Peyo, creator of Johan et Pirlouit and the Smurfs, and Morris, the co-creator and artist of Lucky Luke. His best work is not only immaculately crafted, but intelligent, personal, fun and not a little unsettling.

The evident lack of current appreciation for his work may in part be due to the puzzling dearth of funny animals in Franco-Belgian comics. An integral, defining part of American comics and cartooning, anthropomorphised animals are conspicuously absent from comics written in the language of La Fontaine. Don’t ask me why. I’ve never quite understood how certain superficial genre trappings can make such a difference for an audience, regardless of the more fundamental qualities of the work in question. Why was the bathetic, smarmy and mostly unfunny The Lion King one of Disney’s biggest grossing successes in recent history? There are surely several reasons, amongst them probably what remains in the picture of Tezuka’s superior paragon, but it seems to me obvious that animals played a part.

But I digress. Macherot made funny animal comics, and while Disney must certainly have been an inspiration, his art has more in common with the aforementioned La Fontaine or such modern masterpieces of the fable form as George Orwell’s Animal Farm. His first and arguably best series Chlorophylle thus right out the gate presented a story of small animals struggling against an encroaching horde of black rats, whose brown shirts are only just left to the imagination. (Chlorophylle contre les rats noirs, published in the magazine Tintin in 1954). With the war still fresh in memory, Macherot crafted for kids of all ages a gripping allegory of fascist oppression, almost epic in tenor and fully on par with Peyo and Yvan Delporte’s similarly themed masterpiece of the Smurf cycle, Le Schtroumpfissime (1965).

When it comes to Chlorophylle (1954-71), I’m something of a purist in favour of the early works that take place in the Belgian countryside, but several of the later books, set in Croquefredouille — a miniature society mirroring our own, but populated by animals — definitely have their qualities. Their political undertones are generally deftly handled, never getting in the way of suspenseful yarns that at times veer into the slightly, but delightfully absurd in their humor. And the fact that these animals, or at least the ones that don’t subscribe to the self-imposed vegetarianism of the general populace, eat each other becomes even more unsettling because of the setting.

His other main series for Tintin, Clifton (1959-63) — about a British detective — was something of a departure in that it featured human characters and, while entertaining, decidedly less interesting than his other work. It was quickly taken over by other, rather capable but conventional hands and ran for a good while. I’m less conversant with what eventually became his main series, Sibylline (1965-85), which was ostensibly geared more for girls (which is why I, stupidly, didn’t pay as much attention). Here, Macherot’s taste for the absurd occasionally broached the surreal and he clearly did some of his most imaginative work on this series, even if the later episodes are forgettable.

Sibylline was created for Tintin‘s more energetic and contemporary competitor, Spirou, to which Macherot moved in 1964. But he started out there with what is hailed amongst connoisseurs as his masterpiece, Chaminou et le Khrompire (1964). It is indeed his most sophisticated work. It features a secret agent cat in a traditional mystery tale, but it is almost acerbic in its satire of modern society and the spectre of war haunts the proceedings, as so often in Macherot’s work. Only one episode appeared, but it was later revived under lesser hands, with the creator supervising their work.

During the course of the 80s, Macherot gradually turned his attention to painting, but his legacy remains tied to these masterful fables, with their pessimist worldview, their wry humour and their high adventure. His comics live, despite what one might think upon entering a Parisian comics store…

Image from Chlorophylle et les conspirateurs (1956). The arch-villain Anthracite and his thugs suddenly have a mutiny on their hands…