Even after 70 years of adventures, Spirou remains a somewhat enigmatic figure.
Who is he? Where does he come from? Does he have any family, and if so, where are they?
I'll attempt to answer these questions, or at least give you the different answers various writers have offered.
In this post I present the creation of Spirou and his constant companions, Spip and Fantasio. I also show samples of what the series was like in the very early days.
I should point out from the outset that a lot of the information and several of the scans in this post are taken from InediSpirou, an excellent French-language fan site that focuses on un-republished material. The Early History of Spirou and Creation of Fantasio articles have been particularly helpful.
The Birth of Spirou
In 1938, the Belgian family publishing house Dupuis wanted to create a weekly magazine for kids, with comics, puzzles and stories, to complement the company's existing entertainment magazines for adults, Le Moustique ("The Mosquito") and Les Bonnes Soirées ("Good Evening"). Jean Dupuis decided to call the new magazine "Spirou," which is a dialect word for squirrel, but also a slang term that means a bright, lively boy. He asked the French comic book writer and artist Rob-Vel (Robert Velter) to come up with a character and series by that name. (He had never heard the word before.)
Rob-Vel had worked as a purser on Atlantic cruise ships, and his inspiration for the character came from the cabin boys he used to sketch back then. The ship became Moustic Hotel (in reference to Le Moustique), and the hero a hotel bellhop.
In the caricature on the left, Rob-Vel reconstructs the brainstorming process that led to the Spirou character. The outcome can be seen below in the first one-page story: "The Birth of Spirou."
The grown-up in me questions whether paying some magical artist (who bears a passing resemblance to Rob-Vel himself) several thousand francs to make a boyservant was the most cost-effective way to solve the hotel's problem, but the publisher certainly got their money's worth. Spirou magazine was soon a great success, selling some 50,000-70,000 copies every week.
It also appears that Spirou had to be cut out of the canvas with scissors before he could swoop out into the "real" world. That's a bit disturbing to me. While this "original origin" almost certainly isn't canon any more (Spirou continuity only really starts about ten years later, with Franquin's Il y a un sorcier à Champignac), Morvan and Munuera riffed on a similar observation in their 2005 story L'homme qui ne voulait pas mourir ("The Man Who Would Not Die"):
Munuera has also done this nice cartoon tribute to the same story:
Each week, Rob-Vel would do a one-page Spirou gag for the front page. These are the two that followed after the first issue:
The French pun here is somewhat untranslatable. It uses the double meaning of "canard" as a duck and to play a trick on someone. By the way, it looks like Spirou was originally blond, not the redhead he later became.
Sorry about the quality on this one. I only had so much to work with. Notice that Spirou has taken his unwilling guest's cigar in the last panel.
In these early stories, Spirou usually plays the role of troublemaker full of badly-thought-out ideas (much like Gaston would do much later, when Spirou had become a more mature and morally upright character). He's also something of a delinquent: He smokes, he drinks beer, he cheats (with the help of a never-before-or-again-seen twin brother; I guess the painter must have made another copy!) and he gets into fights. It's actually quite surprising how much the moralistic, deeply conservative and Catholic Dupuis firm let him get away with back then!
This character – created and drawn by a Frenchman – is also a fierce Belgian patriot and fan of the military (remember that this was in the run-up to World War II).
Anyway, I personally think the comic worked pretty well as a one-page gag series, but when Rob-Vel abandoned that format after less than 30 pages and turned it into an ongoing adventure serial, I find that it becomes pretty much unreadable. There is no overall plot or momentum to the stories, just week after week of "but then, but then..." Still, one of these arbitrary plot twists would give Spirou an important new element: a companion.
An Unusually Intelligent Squirrel
In June 1939, as adventure-serial heroes tend to do (especially when they are ripping off Tintin's Cigars of the Pharaoh), Spirou found himself in an Egyptian tomb. One with a Rube Goldberg-like torture device driven by a squirrel running in a wheel: Spip had arrived.
|In the first panel of the following week's installment, Spirou sets Spip free, and they have been together ever since. (How does he know that he's called Spip? Beats me!)|
Given that "Spirou" means squirrel, it certainly makes sense for him to have one as a pet, helper and friend. From the very beginning Spip shows extraordinary intelligence, and quite soon (maybe here, it's hard to tell) he starts to speak.
World War II made it difficult for Rob-Vel to continue the series, and after a lot of back and forth, the Belgian artist Jijé (Joseph Gillain), already an important contributor to Spirou, takes over the series.
The Secret Origin of Fantasio
It's often said that Jijé created Fantasio, but that's not entirely accurate.
In addition to comics, the Journal de Spirou included prose columns, puzzles and games, and membership updates for the various clubs started by the magazines (more on that below).
|The magazine editor, Jean Doisy, wrote much of this material, including a joke/quiz column full of intentional mistakes that readers had to spot, called "Can you find the errors?" He signed this column, which first ran on June 8, 1939 (incidentally, the same issue where Spip first appeared) "Fantasio."|
So Fantasio's role as an employee of and contributor to Journal de Spirou and other Dupuis publications (particularly prominent in the Gaston series) goes back to the very beginning, before he was even a comic book character!
In the example to the right, Fantasio gives a potted account of World War I, ending with the allies capitulating to the Kaiser.
The magazine ran a fan club called Amis de Spirou ("Friends of Spirou"), or ADS. It became massively popular with young boys, and there's a fan site for it even today. But there were also many other clubs sponsored by Spirou magazine, among them a puppet theater troupe called Le Farfadet ("The Sprite" or pixie). There were puppets for most of the heroes of the comics running in Spirou, as well as one for Fantasio, whose column had become quite popular.
Doisy wanted to give Fantasio a concrete representation and introduce him into the comic. InediSpirou makes the argument, which I can't quite follow, that the puppet master shown on the book cover below (standing to the left behind Spirou), drawn by Jijé in 1942, is meant to be Fantasio, and that this is the first depiction of the character. I'm sure they are right. In any case, visually he bears no resemblance to his later incarnation. (Notice also the Amis de Spirou banners and the S-shaped membership pin on proto-Fantasio's necktie.)
In the comic itself, Fantasio debuted as a character with a one-page appearance in the first story Jijé did after he took over the series for good, Le Pilote Rouge, published in a special album in 1943 (at that point the war had made the publishing schedule of the regular magazine quite erratic):
It was too much of a pain to scanlate this, but I've summarized it below:
Spip is complaining that Spirou has just been reading issues of Spirou for the last two days, which is no fun for him (he likes to look at the pictures, but – being only a squirrel – he can't read the articles). When he thinks about all he's missing out on, it makes him cry. Spirou gets excited about something, and Spip says he's going as crazy as Fantasio.
... Who just pops his head in: "Cuckoo! I take that as a challenge!" Spip says he was only joking, and complains about Spirou. (In this story, Fantasio and Spip can apparently hold conversations with each other. Later on, other characters can't hear or understand what Spip says.) Fantasio – determined to keep breaking the fourth wall – goes off on a tangent about Friends of Spirou, but Spip interrupts him to ask about his mismatched footwear.
Puzzled, Fantasio says that it appears to be a football boot, but he's not sure why he's wearing it. He looks it up in his notebook: "Here! Football boot... Used, if necessary, to kick the behinds of disagreeable persons (for list, see volume 3, paragraph II, page 12). I am a man of order, Spip! I never forget anything." Volume 3 of his notebook is therefore in his left trouser pocket, where he always puts it... except he forgot to put on his pants! He runs off to do so, but comes back still in his underwear (this one's for you, nezchan!). Meanwhile, Spirou is becoming ever more worked up about the aviation story he's reading, and decides to go out and become a pilot. He just needs to buy a helmet and goggles...
That's it for Fantasio in this story, but starting with the next one he becomes Spirou's constant sidekick, a friendship that has lasted now for some 65 years.
In the next entries (EDIT: I originally said there'd be one more entry, but I think I'll split it in two) I will post excerpts of the various revisionist origin stories that have been told over the years, including the popular Li'l Spirou and the recent Journal d'un Ingenu.