I’ve mentioned once or twice in these pages that DC: The New Frontier is my favorite superhero comic of the last decade and change. If there’s a BD equivalent to what Darwyn Cooke did with all those Silver Age characters — namely, stick them in a recognizable approximation of the era when they were created, take the political and social tensions of that time and place seriously, and reinterpret ideas that have had decades of accrued reinvention and updating and extremifying piled onto them with a classically-influenced but vividly personal art style — then Émile Bravo’s Spirou: Le journal d’un ingénu might be it.
Spirou is a very old Franco-Belgian comics character (almost as old as Tintin), who has been through numerous iterations himself — the classic period is usually considered Franquin’s run of the 50s and 60s, but new adventures were appearing into the 2000s — mostly set at the familiar slapstick pace appropriate to bigfoot cartooning, even when the stories got weird and included sci-fi, fantasy, and social satire. By contrast, Bravo’s trim proportions, deliberate pacing, muted color scheme, and patient working through of the sort of political and social nuance that would have been unimaginable in the children’s papers where the character was introduced gives this work an air of deeper realism than the character has ever taken on before, even when things got grim ’n’ gritty in the 90s.
But it’s still Spirou: his pet squirrel Spip causes havoc, his journalist friend Fantasio dresses up in outlandish disguises, there’s a dastardly plot that our hero is perfectly, if unlikelily, positioned to avert. But because it’s set in the summer of 1939, the plot is the Nazis preparing to invade Poland, and Spirou fails. Where Cooke drew from contemporary pulp fiction and noir film with his he-man heroes and dishy dames, Bravo draws on the subdued, ironic, equivocal tone of French literature and film of the 30s, giving us a boy hero whose desire to help others and see justice done far outmatches his ability to make it happen. It’s an inspired and deeply beautiful work, but because sixty years of publishing history lies behind it (he even indulges in a bit of continuity patching), much of its emotional and cultural impact would be lost on most of the English-speaking world. Which doesn’t mean that every time I look at a page I don’t start trying to work out translations that will fit into the closely-cropped balloons. If I had thousands of dollars to throw away on ill-fated publishing ventures, a shot at this would be one of my first efforts.