Monday, January 14, 2013

The Adventures of Freddy Lombard


Chaland Anthology #1: Freddy Lombard
Written by Yves Chaland with Yann Lepennetier
Art by Yves Chaland
Humanoids/DC Comics (2004)

Chaland Anthology #2: Freddy Lombard  
Yves Chaland (Story & art)
Humanoids/DC Comics (2005)

Yves Chaland
I picked up these two paperback volumes of the Chaland Anthology series for $5 apiece at the Daedalus Books & Music warehouse outlet on Monday because, well, the ligne claire-style artwork - while admittedly derivative of Belgian artist Herge (Georges Remi), who pioneered the Franco-Belgian "clear-line" (or "Atomic") style in his Tintin comics - was so beautiful.  The stories themselves are not so beautiful, being almost an afterthought, though one at least tackles topical fare by setting Freddy Lombard's adventures against the backdrop of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution that was put down by Soviet tanks ("Holiday in Budapest").

I had never heard of the artist who created these works, Yves Chaland, but later learned he was born the same year as me, 1957, and would have been my contemporary if not for a tragic car accident in 1990 that cut short his promising career at age 33. Besides Freddy Lombard, Chaland also created the characters Bob Fish, Adolphus Claar, and Le Jeune Albert (Young Albert) in the 1980s for the weekly comics journal Spirou.

The Adventures of Freddy Lombard were the only works by Chaland
 to be released in English and were published here in two compilation albums - Vol. 1 containing the first three adventures ("The Will of Godfrey of Bouillon," "The Elephant's Graveyard," "Comet To Carthage"), and the Vol. 2 containing the last two ("Holiday in Budapest," "F.52") -  by Humanoids/DC Comics. They were initially released in hardback in 2003 and later in softback editions in 2004 and 2005.

Shop and compare: Freddy vs. Tintin

Yes, Freddy is an blatantly obvious Tintin clone. But unlike Herge's Tintin adventures, Chaland's Freddy Lombard stories are much more adult in nature, much looser in terms of narrative arc (stories tend to fizzle out at the end), and feature three morally sketchy characters - the beautiful Dina, the muscular Sweep (whose balding pate reminds me of Carl Anderson's mute comic character Henry or perhaps Harold of Purple Crayon fame), and the titular Tintin-esque Freddy Lombard (who sports a blond tuft of hair in place of Tintin's signature carrot-top but still favors "plus four"-style pantaloons) - who aren't exactly "good Scouts."

The Heroic Trio: Sweep, Freddy and Dina

The backstory is that they are Gypsy-esque slackers who sponge off the largess of Freddy's uncle as they travel the Continent and beyond, always struggling to find employment and make ends meet.

As an example of Chaland's mature approach to the Lombard adventures, look no further than "Holiday in Budapest" (a title right up there with the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia" for ironic effect) and the sexual tones of its subplot involving Sweep and horny Russian operative Svetlana. In the strip shown below, the first panel showing Sweep's head entering Svetlana's coat like a  train entering a tunnel (itself a very sexual image!) is truly fantastic; I would frame this one panel as picture on my wall, as this is the one image most evocative of Chaland's style.

Svetlana wants Sweep to flex his love muscle.

Svetlana: "Where are my lovely young cheeks of bygone days?"

Svetlana calls Sweep her "Caucasian stallion," which must be a reference to the then-Soviet Union's Caucasus region because Sweep is, for some reason (printer's error?) actually inked with brown skin in this adventure (which is kind of confusing).

Some of the stories veer into downright creepiness, especially Chaland's final story "F.52," which features a "retarded child" and a married couple who may be either kidnappers or pedophiles.

"Ha! ha! She's a unicorn!" Notify the Better Parenting Council!

"This kid is retarded. Look at me, I'm normal!"

"F.52"'s oddball characters and dialogue make me think it could have sprung from the pages of Daniel Clowes' Eightball, especially in its cruel depiction of the retarded girl and her sadistic "parents" (wards? kidnappers?) on the flight.

And Freddy isn't always the protagonist in these narratives (I'd be hard-pressed to call him a "hero" - certainly not in the Joseph Campbell sense of the term) (now both Tintin and Snowy would qualify as Campbell heroes!), sometimes taking a backseat to his muscular pal Sweep and the even-keeled Dina.

Chaland's natives are restless - and stereotypical
The two examples cited above are from the Chaland Anthology #2, which I liked better than the stories in Chaland Anthology #1 and which includes over 30 pages of bonus material, including covers, short stories, and concept sketches.

But if you thought Herge's Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo) was politically incorrect, your mouth will drop in Volume #1's tale "The Elephant's Graveyard," which features Sub-Saharan Africa natives drawn in a borderline-racist big-lipped style.

At least Herge's long-suppressed Congo adventure was written in the 1930s when the Congo was still under Belgium's (cruel and exploitative) colonial rule and must be viewed in the context of its times; there's no such "plausible deniability" excuse for Chaland's 1980s depictions of Africans.

"The Elephant's Graveyard" is actually the second part of two interconnected stories (the first concerns the trio's trip to Africa to track down some rare glass photographic plates for an eccentric collector). (OK, did I mention how sketchy the narrative arcs are?)
Still, despite the confusing storylines and sometimes questionable taste, there's no denying the visual appeal of this artist and his characters. Tintin still rules the Franco-Belgian comics roost as far as I'm concerned, but the "Tintin-grown-up" adventures of Freddy and his pals are well-worth a look, too.

In parting, here's a very good overview of the Chaland aesthetic from Read About Comics:

If I had to sum up the Freddy Lombard stories as quickly as possible, it would be “what if Tintin grew up?” Like the lead character in Hergé’s famed Tintin graphic novels, Freddy Lombard travels the globe with action and adventure close behind… but there’s a more adult sort of sensibility to Chaland’s stories. Maybe it’s Freddy’s attitude of slumming his way through life, all the while still ending up in fantastic situations and adventures. Chaland’s anti-hero still brings a great deal of tension to his stories, though. The final album, F.52, was so tense that I found myself breathlessly turning the pages at 2am, unable to put the book down even though I really could have used the sleep.

As good as Chaland’s stories got the further he went along, it’s the art that had originally caught my eye. Chaland’s clean lines will once more evoke the name of Hergé. There’s a certain amount of menace that I found in Chaland, though, that I don’t remember in my friend’s Tintin albums. Maybe it’s the stories themselves, but Chaland is able to make just about any situation menacing, from a trip into the jungle to tanks rolling through Budapest. Everything is painstakingly drawn, and it’s easy to see why Chaland’s often referred to as an “artist’s artist”; the number of people who were picking the Chaland Anthology line in French who couldn’t read a single word says something about the power of Chaland’s gorgeous inks. As an added sidenote, the rich colors in these albums (especially the reds and purples) are really gorgeous, bringing an added dimension to the work.

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