Spirou 5: The Marsupilami Thieves
Cinebook (English), 64 pp.
Having captured a Marsupilami in the jungles of Palombia, Spirou and Fantasio feel bad about putting the fabulous creature behind bars, and make plans to free it from the zoo. Before they get a chance, however, the animal is stolen, believed dead. Spirou and Fantasio have to chase the Marsupilami Thieves through Europe, finally coming to a showdown at the Circus Zabaglione.
For its fifth Spirou release, Cinebook jumps back to André Franquin’s classic run on the series, starting with one of his early albums: The Marsupilami Thieves (Les voleurs du Marsupilami), from 1952. Franquin, of course, is one of the great comic creators of the era, easily on par with Hergé (Tintin) or Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge). However, I have to admit that I don’t consider this to be among his better works. (This review contains minor spoilers.)
When he began The Marsupilami Thieves, Franquin had worked on The Adventures of Spirou & Fantasio for six years. Most of his stories had been shorter, standalone episodes, but with his last two (There’s a Sorcerer in Champignac and Spirou and the Heirs) he had tried his hand at album-length narratives, though he still fell back on dividing them into several distinct parts. In The Marsupilami Thieves, Franquin is still working out how to tell longer, unified stories, and starting to introduce the continuity and recurring characters that would come to define the universe of the series.
The story springs from Franquin’s concern about the treatment of animals. An admirer of exotic creatures, he was drawn to the zoo and the circus, but repulsed by the way wild beasts were kept in captivity and often ill-treated. So having had Spirou and Fantasio capture a Marsupilami in Spirou and the Heirs, Franquin wasn’t sure what to do with it. The obvious thing once it had served its purpose in the story was to put it in a cage in a zoo and forget about it, but the author didn’t like that ending. Alternatively, the heroes could return it to the jungle where they found it; but they had just been to Palombia, and Franquin, who preferred to make each adventure as different as possible from the last, didn’t think it was a good idea to send them straight back there. The solution came in the form of an idea by his old friend, Georges “Geo” Salmon (who is credited under the pseudonym Jo Almo): Have the Marsupilami be kidnapped by a circus, so that Spirou and Fantasio have to rescue him. Who knows, it might even stick around for future adventures…
The commitment to animal welfare is apparent in the depiction of the Marsupilami languishing in captivity and in the portrayal of the unsympathetic circus director, but Franquin and Almo’s script steers clear of politics in favor of a light – perhaps even slight – adventure. (The mildness of the social criticism is demonstrated by the fact that a sequence from the album was later repurposed into a circus promotion.) Where the two preceding albums feature high excitement, with mysterious events, fantastical creatures and incredible inventions, the setting and plot here are more prosaic: Spirou and Fantasio try to catch a plane at the last minute, they tangle with customs agents, they go to a football match and to the circus. Still, out of this not entirely promising material, Franquin manages to create some great set-pieces that provide the clear high-points of the album.
It’s a shame that the story tying them together is so weak, with a number of plot holes and flaws in the logic glossed over. (To take just a minor one: Although Circus Zabaglione is a touring circus, it spends weeks or months on end in the same town.) The characterization does involve some interesting ambiguities, like the fact that Spirou and Fantasio were themselves planning to steal the Marsupilami from the zoo, and that they go on trying to steal him back from the circus rather than alerting the authorities. The title, then, could just as well refer to the heroes as to the villains… and in fact, the actual Marsupilami-napper is portrayed rather sympathetically. However, this attempt at nuance tends to weaken the central conflict, and leads to several jarring lapses in motivation. The ending is particularly egregious in this regard, and so abrupt as to leave an unsatisfying number of loose ends.
Fortunately, with a Franquin album you can always count on the art. Rather than spending too many words trying to describe it, I’ll just refer to the images, where you can see his talent for yourself. Obviously Franquin’s style, while already very recognizable at this stage of his career, is not yet mature, and remains quite simplistic compared to the work he would come to do at the top of his powers. Nevertheless, this is one of the masters of Franco-Belgian comics beginning to come into his own, and the dynamic illustrations are one of strong points of the album.
Even aside from the fact that The Marsupilami Thieves is not, in my opinion, as good an album as the two immediately preceding it (or the ones that follow, for that matter), this is an odd place for Cinebook to start publishing old-school Spirou. The Marsupilami Thieves is a pretty direct sequel to Spirou and the Heirs, and begins practically mid-sentence. The story also relies on some details from There’s a Sorcerer in Champignac as a plot device, even telling readers in an explanatory panel to refer to the earlier album. Awkward, since Cinebook hasn’t published it yet.
However, taken on its own, the English edition is quite decent. It features a solid translation by Jerome Saincantin, following the original French closely. The lettering is relatively good, although the dialogue font chosen uses the “crossbar I” throughout, giving it something of an amateurish look. Shouts and sound effects are in a bold font that is relatively close to the original lettering, but suffer from flattening all the curved paths and evening the letter sizes, creating boxy blocks of text that are neither particularly expressive nor attractive. Still, the simplification is understandable, as doing it properly would be much more time-consuming.
The album is, as usual for Cinebook, printed on matte paper and bound in soft covers. My only real complaint is that the paper is rather thin, so that whatever is on the back of the page is often faintly visible through the page you’re trying to read. No doubt the paper weight and the corner-cutting when it comes to some of the lettering are ways to keep costs down, and I’m happy to accept it if it can get the album in the hands of more readers.
Finally, Cinebook has included one notable extra: a three-page afterword that presents the history of the series, from Rob-Vel to Yoann & Vehlmann. While fans won’t learn anything new, it’s a nice intro for new readers. Another page shows the five Spirou albums already released, as well as the upcoming titles Spirou in Moscow and The Rhinoceros’ Horn. The publications are starting to add up!
As it happens, this is not the first time this album has been released in English; it was published in India in 2007 by Euro Books (a subsidiary of Egmont), under the title The Marsupilami Robbers. That makes a side-by-side comparison possible, and the assessment is definitely in Cinebook’s favor. The two albums are physically similar, except that the Euro Books version is printed on glossy paper. While this can lead to glare (glossy vs. matte is very much a matter of taste), the paper at least doesn’t suffer from the see-through problem in the Cinebook edition. Euro Books has also added a character intro page (like in Asterix), with Spirou, Fantasio, Spip, the Marsupilami (which they, for some unaccountable reason, have renamed “Beastie”) and the Count. However, the Indian version is inferior where it most counts. The translation is often stilted and sometimes bizarre, and the lettering is truly abysmal. It puts the minor shortcomings of Cinebook’s new edition in perspective.
Comparison of Cinebook’s and Euro Book’s versions with the originals.
This is not the album I would personally have chosen to start off publishing Franquin’s Spirou with, but there are certainly others who rank it higher. Regardless, Cinebook deserves credit for finally making one of the great, classic Franco-Belgian comics widely available in English, and for doing it rather well. It’s a great way to mark the 75th anniversary of the series. Here’s hoping to see the following albums in the not-too-distant future: It only gets better from here!