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Three French Pioneers Invade the States in Gringos Locos

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Can Gringos Locos recapture the magic of the American roadtrip legendary Belgian creators Franquin, Morris and Jijé undertook in the late forties?

Their US trip has long been the stuff of legend in European comics circles with the details of their story seemingly lost in the mists of time. Published by Dupuis, writer Yann and artist Olivier Schwartz’s Gringos Locos only adds to the weight of the myth. With Morris cast as a womanizing dare-it-all, Franquin as a shy introvert secretly smitten with Jijé’s wife and Jijé as an artist seemingly struck with ADD and of questionable morals; it’s not difficult to see why people had some problems with the presentation of Gringos Locos.

In the wake of the 1945 recession, a new economic downturn hit the country in 1948 after President Truman’s economic “Fair Deal” reforms took place. It was this year that three Belgian comic artists decided to invade the United States in order to dazzle Walt Disney with their drawing skills and secure a job at the Disney Studios. These creators came later to be accepted as the pioneers of the French-language bande dessinée:  André Franquin known for Gaston Lagaffe & the Marsupilami; Maurice de Bevere better known as Morris, the creator and artist of Lucky Luke and lastly Jijé, a creative and energetic know-it-all who drew the smash hit Spirou in its early beginnings. It was unfortunately also the year that Disney fired a large part of their staff in order to make ends meet.

And thus starts off the trip towards Mexico with the trio including the wife and four kids of Jijé in tow. Jijé being driven by the conviction that the rise of communism in Europe will be its downfall, Morris for the chance to escape the spectre of success of Lucky Luke by which he feels creatively restricted and Franquin because... well seemingly because he had nothing better to do and was convinced by Morris. Characterizations which tend to be quite controversial at the least. 

First serialized in the Spirou magazine, readers were quite enthusiastic but people who had intimate knowledge of the creators presented in Gringos Locos were outraged. The triumvirate of Belgian creators were barely recognizable they said and especially the daughter of Franquin and son of Jijé have openly distanciated themselves from Gringos Locos; their actions even leading to a temporary hold on the publication of the volume. With over 35.000 copies stuck in storage, Dupuis finally decided to release the album this year accompanied by a detailed interview with both heirs and their reasons for distancing themselves from the project. In the same volume is also an interview with Yann who outlines his research for Gringos Locos and how his personal interviews with Franquin en Morris led to the reworking of several anecdotes found in the comic. 

How accurate exactly Gringos Locos in the end turns out to be is forever lost in time and Yann isn’t exactly helpful when he adds the John Ford quote from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ The only real fault is in the misrepresentation of the creators involved. Both heirs of Franquin and Jijé state that they don’t find anything remarkably recognizable in the characters of all involved. In an adventure story that promises to shed some light on a legendary trip of even more legendary creators, the least you can do is respect the audience and represent the creators truthfully and honestly. It leaves a bitter taste in a comic that is build on name recognition meant to draw readers in so you can get to know these creators of some of your favourite comics more intimately.

All this controversy does not take away from the fact however that Gringos Locos is a very entertaining and rollercoaster of a comic. Yann writes a script with a lot of comedic beats that rolls along smoothly. His overindulgence on the comedic side does detract from the character side of things and it is regrettable that he does not invest much time in character development. He relies a bit too much on the recognizability of the gringos locos and upon inserting a ton of in jokes including even the first look at an embryonic Gaston Lagaffe. 

The drawings of Olivier Schwartz handle the fast pace well. He injects his elongated figures with wild body movements and a lot of slapstick referencing in spirit both Spirou and Franquin’s talent for bodily contortions. His clean and energetic linework is enhanced by some accurately placed spotted blacks that unfortunately goes a bit unnoticed by the rather lackluster and quite literal colouring job.  

Becoming almost the stuff of unpublished legend themselves, Gringos Locos by Schwarz and Yann is despite its many faults an entertaining and adventurous yarn about three pioneers of the French-language comic scene that find themselves looking not only for a job in a new land but also seem at a loss as how to overcome the shadow of their own success.

Gringos Locos by Schwarz & Yann is published by Dupuis in French. It is a full colour softcover counting 50 pages and retails for €15.50. Preview pages in French are available at the publisher's website.

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