Comic review: Marsupilami - The Beast by Zidrou and Pé
Marsupilami: The Beast - Part 1
Script by Zidrou - Art by Frank Pé
Revisionism and new dark origins for long-running characters have been all the rage in American comics since the mid-to-late eighties, redefining superheroes to reflect the rather more serious reality of the times we are living in. The classic French series appear to have avoided that up to now, but in reality it's been done in more subtle ways with each team bringing something new and of the time, whether it's through Blutch taking on Tif et Tondu (Mop and Mopus) or Emile Bravo reconsidering the origins of Spirou in the context of the war years in which the series originated. You would probably think that Marsupilami is no more likely for dark origin revisionism than Mickey Mouse, but here are Zidrou and Frank Pé with Marsupilami, The Beast.
Marsupilami was created by André Franquin during the most famous run of Belgian children's comic book series Spirou in the 1950s and 60s. Something seemingly part leopard and part long-tail monkey - Marsupilami is an essentially harmless creature albeit one that was prone to meddle and shake up Spirou and Fantasio's advntures with anarchic playful behaviour and a very long dexterous tail. He went on to have his own comic book series outside of Spirou and was even turned into a Disney cartoon.
Revisited for a new two-part story, Marsupilami: The Beast does indeed take a more realistic dark grim origin tale for the beloved character, one that we can recognise from modern day trafficking, but which also touches on Belgium's colonial past. Here, Marsupilami is part of a consignment of animals shipped in illegally to the port of Antwerp in Belgium in 1955. The shipment has faced delays on account of technical problems, leaving the animals to basically fend for themselves in suffocating heat. There's not many left from the inevitable carnage that occurs, and what is left is not pretty.
The choice of period is also significant of course for revisiting the actual origins of the creation of Marsupilami, who first appeared in the Spirou series in 1952, and like Emile Bravo setting his epic Hope Against All Odds Spirou series in Nazi occupied Belgium, Marsupilami's arrival in the country and his journey to Brussels can't help but reflect attitudes of the time. While Spirou and Fantasio grew up during the war years, Marsupilami's arrival comes in the post-war years, but the history and legacy of what happened not so long ago still remains fresh for many people.
Glimpsed as a half-seen twisted creature lurking in the shadows, slouching his way towards the city, this is not a happy-go-lucky bouncy Tigger-type Marsupilami, but a far more ominous monster that is rearing its head in Brussels. The beast is found almost dead by François a young boy who has a habit of bringing home damaged animals. François is bullied at school over the fact that his mother consorted with the enemy and his father was a German soldier. It would be worse if they knew his real name is Franz. He is protected as much as possible by his teacher Mr Boniface, who has a crush on his mother, Jeanne van den Kroot, a fishmonger.
Although there is merit in the idea, Zidrou script for The Beast lacks originality and is unfortunately heavy with such clichéd characters and situations, seeming to owe more to the American tradition than the Franco-Belgian. Even the cartoony realism of Frank Pé's artwork recalls Todd McFarlane's Image years on Spawn (with a dark Sam & Twitch opening). Unquestionably it looks terrific, but for the larger part of Part 1, it's mostly a case of style over substance, but perhaps Bravo's Spirou has set too a high bar for anything else to come close for me. The final pages of this first part however are masterful, flowing and impressive, showing a gathering pace that suggests that there is potential for this to go somewhere much more exciting in Part 2.