Review by Peter Duncan
A few months ago, I reviewed three books from Europe Comics, a publishing company that is making the very best of contemporary European comic albums available in English in digital form. All three were chapters in multi-book series and at the time I commented that two of them had me hooked.
Just published is the third volume of one of those series. Spirou – Hope, Against All Odds Part Two, part of a four-volume depiction of the Nazi occupation of Belgium told through the eyes of Spirou, one of the most popular characters in the history of Franco-Belgium comics.
Spirou, which means Squirrel or mischievous in the Walloon language, was created in 1938 by Robert Velter. The character was a young lift operator at the fictional, Moustique Hotel, named for the publisher’s flagship magazine and the star of a simple one page gag strip that graced the cover of a brand new comic that bore his name.
Unusually for the French language comics market, publisher Dupuis, own all rights to the character after buying them from Velter, who used the pen-name Rob-Vel, in 1943. Since then, the Spirou strip has been passed from creative team to creative team but, retaining a spot in the weekly, Le Journal De Spirou, which continues to be published to this day.
It was Andre Franquin, who took over the strip in 1946, who set a tone for the strip that has remained unchanged ever since. He added a revolving cast of popular supporting characters and wrote longer comedy-adventure serials, competing more directly with his rival, Tintin. Indeed, Spirou even followed his compatriot into the field of journalism, making the comparison even more obvious.
Spirou’s adventures have always been more light-hearted than Herge’s creation and, despite moving through many different creative teams since, all but followed pretty much the formula set by Franquin.
In 2006, Dupuis began a second series of one-off Spirou albums, allowing for more experimentation with the character. One of the creators selected for the project was French cartoonist Émile Bravo, who was part of the Paris-based Atelier Nawak group of comic writers and artists.
Hope, Against All Odds Part Two is the third album of a four-part series by Bravo, taking a unique approach by placing an adolescent Spirou in a realistic and terrifying version of war time Belgium but keeping something of the low-key nature and tone of early adventures.
The first volume, The Diary of a Naïve Young Man, deals with the days leading up to the declaration of war. We see glimpses of the divisions in Belgian society through the games of children – and get something of a history lesson when Polish and German diplomats meet to discuss the fate of Danzig.
We also meet Dewilde, Spirou’s Polish girlfriend, and see his friend, Fantasio, called up to the army. We even find out that Spirou’s only reading material is Le Petit Vingtaine, the Catholic magazine that featured Tintin.
In the second volume, Hope, Against All Odds Part One, the war has started, and we watch tension build as neutral Belgium awaits the invasion of German forces.
Throughout the series, Spirou’s own adventures are low-key and inconsequential. Huge events are represented by the minor impacts on the life of a teenager who does not quite understand what is going on around him andbecome all the more horrific as a result.
The third book, the just published Part Two, ramps things up even further. Now jobless and facing homelessness, Spirou, and his friend Fantasio walk the streets of a city now fully under German control.
They witness the deepening of divisions and a new cruelty in their city. As anti-Semitic regulations embolden the Belgian Fascist movement and ‘the good people’ are either silenced through fear or feel able to reveal their own unpleasant nature.
The two friends discover physical abuse of children at a church-run orphanage – and see the chilling impact of the German occupation, as shopkeepers and police officers abandon their Jewish friends in the name of “being careful.”
We see things in Brussels change slowly, with little horrors building one upon another as we move towards a truly horrific climax.
Slowly, piece by piece, the Jewish neighbours of “good people” are dehumanised, from the notice on a gate that a public garden is forbidden to Jews, or the messages appearing on shop windows declaring that shop-keeper is “not a Jew.”
Eventually, Spirou and Fantasio come up with the idea of making money through a puppet show that they put on, first at the orphanage, and then in nearby towns and villages. In their innocence, the boys create a show that allows each side to draw different conclusions as to what they are watching.
Members of the VNV (The Belgian fascist movement) see symbols of the crimes of “Internationa Jewry” in what is, effectively, a Punch and Judy show, while others see a call to arms for the resistance.
In reality, Nussbaum was a German-Jewish artist who, together with his wife, hid in an attic in Brussels after escaping from a transport train that was taking him from a French internment camp to Germany. “The Prisoner,” painted while in hiding, has become an iconic image and his story, which has a tragic and inevitable ending, is well known in both France and Belgium.
And here we see Bravo’s genius. By including Nussbaum in the story, he uses the background knowledge of his readers to build tension. Throughout the series, at least to date, Spirou has not seen the true horror of the events unfolding around him. Bravo builds an increasing feeling of unease and fear by contrasting the innocence of Spirou as to what is going on around him, with what we, his readers, know is to come.
His light touch with dialogue and gentle humour develops a genuine affection for Spirou and his friends that must be all the greater for readers who have grown up with the characters. His artwork harks back to early serials by Franquin, and to most British readers will recall the style of, Herge’s Tintin, albeit with a more muted colour palette and an ‘old-fashioned’ page layout with four rows of small panels on each packed page.
It’s only towards the end of book three that Spirou gets any notion of just what it is that is going on. Even then, we, the readers, are way ahead of him. Bravo leaves us with three stunning and heartbreaking pages that turn the adventure on its head and promise that Book Four will be something quite different in tone.
Bravo’s Spirou books are stunning achievements. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this review, but, in a way, that is what the books are all about. We all know the horrors of World War Two and the atrocities that we will see in the pages of Book Four. We know what happened to some of the real-world people in the books.
Bravo shows us the cost of inaction, how easy it is to “go along” with what is expected of us and the terrible consequences that can arise. It shows the importance of “little betrayals” as they chip away on freedoms and morals and lead to unthinkable evil. He forces us to ask the question, “how would we act in the same situation?”
• Spirou: The Diary of a Naïve Young Man and Hope Against All Odds Parts 1 & 2, by Bravo are available as digital editions from Amazon, Comixology and directly from Europe Comics
Summer 1939, Brussels. The orphaned teenager Spirou is working as a bellboy at a fancy hotel, living in a small apartment with his pet squirrel, Spip, and taking his first steps into the land of romance with a girl whose name he doesn’t even know. Meanwhile, the world is rushing headlong towards war. Conflict is not inevitable, however, as Polish diplomats have agreed to meet the Nazis at Spirou’s hotel in a last-ditch effort to prevent war. Communist spies, Nazi ambitions, and ridiculous reporters can’t stop Spirou’s naïve mind from outsmarting them all – and possibly saving the world! If only he can get a little help.
It seemed inevitable that Europe would once again be in the dark clutches of war, and now that conflict has broken out, Spirou must face its horrible reality while staying true to himself. He does his best to maintain his friendship with Fantasio, even as the latter enlists in the Belgian army. And when Spirou meets Felix, a German‐Jewish painter, his eyes are opened to the plight of the Jewish people and the dangerous situation in Europe and beyond. On top of all that, Spirou’s girlfriend Kassandra has been lost in the confusion of the war. In the first of four volumes, the orphan bellhop’s adventures will take him all across war-torn Belgium, discovering the world as it falls apart around him.
The dark days of war are not getting any brighter in occupied Brussels. Spirou and Fantasio are on the brink of hunger and homelessness, but their ingenuity and gumption allow them to survive. While our two heroes are bringing what joy they can to the children of Belgium, the iron fist of the Nazis is tightening its grip on the country. The villainy of the oppressor hits close to home as Spirou’s friends start becoming its direct victims. We know how the war ends; unfortunately for Spirou, he does not, and in its midst, his virtue and good intentions might lead him straight to the worst of its horrors.
Felix Nussbaum was murdered some time after 20th September 1944 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. A German painter of the New Objectivity, both he and his wife Felik Platek lost most of their works to arson in 1932 in a fire at his studio. They left Germany in 1933, as persecution of Jews in the Nazi era began, hiding in an attic in Brussels when Belgium was invaded, after escaping from a transport train that was taking him from a French internment camp to Germany.
Betrayed, he and Felik were among the last Jews transported to Auschwitz, arriving on 2nd August 1944. He was listed as a camp inmate and and it is assumed he died before the camp was liberated on 27th January 1945.
Committed to honouring these last surviving words of the painter, uttered as he was transported to the concentration camp, the Felix Nausbaum Foundation is endeavouring to ensure that Felix Nussbaum is finally accorded the international recognition he deserves.
Felka Platek was the wife of Felix Nussbaum, a Polish painter who was murdered on 2nd August 1944 on arrival at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
The Felix Nussbaum House in Osnabrück has the largest collection of her work with two oil paintings and 28 gouaches. Sadly, like her husband, much of her work was destroyed in an arson fire in Nussbaum’s studio in Xantener Strasse in Berlin in 1932