Comic review: Spirou, Hope Against All Odds - Part 2
Spirou: Hope Against All Odds - Part 2, Story and art by Émile Bravo
Part 1 of the latest Spirou adventure Hope Against All Odds really packed a punch, returning a classic children's comic book series back to the original period of its creation in Belgium in 1938, just as the country was about to be invaded by Nazi Germany. Without losing any of the charm or character, even borrowing a little from the clear line Hergé style of the period, it managed to deal seriously and subtly with attitudes and complex undercurrents that it can be difficult and misguided to understand or judge from a distant time.
But on one level at least it's made clear that whatever the prevailing attitudes of the time and whatever compromises needed to be made, ordinary people suffered and struggled under the Nazi regime. Before it gets to the atrocities that occurred - which we mustn't underestimate as something quite extraordinary for a Belgian children's comic series - Émile Bravo spends a large section of Hope Against All Odds - Part 2 detailing - in an unsurprisingly humorous but still unexpectedly effective way - the basic privations of living from day to day in a city, Brussels, that has been turned upside down by the arrival of war.
For Spirou his hotel has been destroyed by a bomb and the former bellboy (Bravo inventing a convincing origin for his trademark costume) is unemployed. His friend Fantasio, who somehow managed to always get things badly wrong, first with the military, then back in his regular career as a journalist inadvertently writing articles for a Nazi sympathising newspaper, is now also in difficult circumstances and wanted by the Gestapo. A planned ominous train journey to Germany at the end of Part 1 is put off for the moment as the boys take on a travelling puppet show in order to put food on the table and pay the rent while using their shows to make subtle commentary about the adverse circumstances.
The fact that the puppets feature Spirou and Fantasio has a subtle edge to it, referencing the fact that the children's comic book back in the day fulfilled the same function for its young audience. Or I assume so since although I've been a fan of the series for a long time, I haven't read or explored its early history. It might seem like a pointless diversion, a considerable drop in pace from the advances into war made in Hope Against All Odds - Part 1, but again the author very cleverly and with great subtlety hones in on the privations of ordinary people, their difficulties living under German occupation and the various ways and means that they would use not just to get by but also resist.
And inevitably the drama heats up as public awareness grows of the severity of the situation, the dangers faced by ordinary people, arrests on the street and suspicious behaviour of strangers keeping everyone wary and on guard. Even more sinister are the yellow stars that Jewish citizens are forced to start wearing, and news that their friends Felix and Felka share from illegal BBC radio broadcasts telling of forced labour camps and rumours of extermination that just can't be true. The true horror of that is initially through Spirou's fear that his sweetheart Kassandra is in one such camp, but the situation inevitably gets worse and closer to home. The relating of all this is handled with remarkable storytelling skill and great sensitivity.
I don't think I gave enough credit in my review of Part 1 to the artwork of Émile Bravo. It's more than just a Hergé pastiche and wonderfully expressive of the period. Spirou and Fantasio's different types of character are also well-defined; humorous exaggeration in the case of Fantasio, a more understated handling of the virtuous and naive Spirou without making him bland. But secondary characters are all fascinatingly interweaved, showing the divisions in society and how individuals from the varying social, cultural, economic and geo-political complexities of the Belgian nation respond to the situation. Everything from the pacing and storytelling to the period character and detail is just wonderful, astonishing in how it deals with such complexities with clarity, precision and simplicity. Despite the apparent lack of action for long periods, the drama never flags and the artwork compellingly draws you in.
Projected as a four-volume series, following on from an initial introductory volume Spirou: Diary of a Naive Young Man, the 96 page second volume of Hope Against All Odds confirms the impression that this is an absolute classic in the making.