Comic review: Spirou, Hope Against All Odds - Part 1
Spirou: Hope Against All Odds - Part 1, Story and art by Émile Bravo
Spirou, like many characters in long running children's adventure comic series, is essentially ageless, or at least never seems to get older. Since the series has been running since 1938, it would be a bit odd for the main character to still be wearing a hotel bellboy outfit when he is over 80 years old. Even though the series originates from this very period, it still comes as a bit of a surprise however to see Spirou and indeed Belgium, since the series originates from there - getting ready for the grim reality of WWII.
The sense of a culture shock is even more pronounced since Émile Bravo establishes a rather more serious and sober tone to its historical background than the Stasi hi-jinks behind the Iron Curtain in 1989 of the previous Spirou adventure Spirou in Berlin. "This isn't an adventure Fantasio. This is war", as Spirou observes half way through Part 1 of Hope Against All Odds.
It's not just that the tone here is markedly different but Bravo's artwork also comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with the cartoony aspect of series through its celebrated classic Franquin run between 1947 and 1969 or the successful run by Tome & Janry run on the series through the 1990s. What is immediately surprising from the first panel of Hope Against All Odds is how it evokes the classic clear line style of Hergé. It's a style, with just a little more grit, that suits both the period and the more serious tone of this new adventure.
Continuing on from his exploratory pre-war volume Spirou: Diary of a Naive Young Man, the tone is set with a few seemingly harmless everyday incidents that nonetheless hint at the spirit of the times. Spirou meets a young man who wants to join the police force to instill a little bit of discipline in a society that he feels is becoming a little bit decadent. While at the Moustic hotel, where Spirou indeed works as the bellboy, the doorman seems to believe that his uniform confers some authority on him, as he tries to eject Spirou's visiting friend Fantasio, who has enlisted as a soldier, stationed at a border stronghold and currently on furlough in Brussels.
While there is the usual comic value to be found in the kind of trouble that Fantasio brings, the story takes a more serious turn when Spirou receives a letter that has arrived for him from his German sweetheart Kassandra who has returned to Russia after working as a maid at the hotel. She has been arrested and due to be extradited back to Germany and handed over to the Nazis because of the German-Soviet pact, accused of being a Communist. As she also has a Jewish mother, Spirou finds out that the situation could be more serious than he imagined, but there's worse to come as the Germans are only months away from invading Belgium.
Spirou is traditionally an all-ages series, read by children and by children who have grown up with it. It's fascinating however and educational to see some of the background of what it was like living in Europe at the time that the series originated at the beginning of WWII. Émile Bravo doesn't however give up on the humour either as Fantasio provides plenty of opportunity for that, although here his incompetence as a soldier leads to some unexpectedly serious consequences. Although it's a little broad, the characterisation of Spirou's earnest benevolence and Fantasio's rather more self-absorbed nature is well-observed and in this context provides plenty of contrast to balance the tones of the story which is surprisingly nuanced on the causes and reality of war.
Although considerably different from the traditional comedy Spirou adventure, rather more serious than usual and projected as a four-volume epic, the first 96 page Part 1 of Hope Against All Odds suggests that this Émile Bravo run on the series is surely likely to be regarded as a true classic. Maybe there's something of a nostalgia in seeing artwork that reminds one of Tintin, but the story's visual aspect flows beautifully, capturing the period, the situation and the characters exceptionally well. It's superb writing too, often using the aforementioned little background incidents and exchanges to throw light on undercurrents and attitudes that are developed later and with remarkable subtlety. And as Spirou leaves for Berlin in search of Kassandra at the end of Part 1, I think we can see the ominous and gripping direction the story is heading.