Today is the one-hundredth anniversary of Jijé’s birth. So let’s take a look at one of the most influential figures in Belgian comics history, and one of the most important in the history of Spirou.
Born Joseph Gillain on (quick calculation…) 13. January, 1914 in Gedinne, Belgium, he began his art career at a young age, studying painting, sculpture, and ceramics, and as a teenager making religious murals, book illustrations and eventually comics for Catholic newspapers. He began working for the Journal de Spirou shortly after its launch, with his first comic for the magazine, Freddy Fred, appearing in April 1939. Jijé quickly gained a reputation as a productive and versatile comic artist, strongly influenced by Hergé, and he delivered comics to several different magazines and newspapers at the same time, among them one of his first famous series, Blondin et Cirage.
The outbreak of WWII disrupted the supply of comics from the US, and eventually from France, and Jijé was tasked by the Journal with filling in the gaps: drawing improvised conclusions to Superman and Red Ryder adventures, creating new series to replace those no longer available, and filling in for Rob-Vel and Davine on the magazine’s title series: Spirou. At times during the war, Jijé illustrated almost the entire magazine by himself (with the help of an assistant, Will).
In 1943, as communication with Rob-Vel in France was getting more and more difficult, Dupuis Publishing bought the rights to Spirou from its creator, and Jijé took over the comic permanently. His biggest contribution to the series was the introduction of Spirou’s faithful companion, Fantasio. This character, who had already appeared in magazine columns and a marionette show, was originally the creation of Jean Doisy, the editor and main writer of the Journal. Doisy also co-created another of Jijé’s famous series, the detective/adventure comic Jean Valhardi. In this series, Jijé began to develop a more realistic style that would become one of his characteristics.
After the war, while only just past thirty himself, Jijé was well established as one of the premier comic artists in Belgium, and he began mentoring many talented young artists, forming the core of what would be known as the Marcinelle School. Will, Franquin and Morris (along with Jijé, the “gang of four”) all worked in his studio and stayed in the Gillain home during 1947, and in the following year Jijé took his family and protégés with him to America (though Will remained behind), on a trip that was part inspired by the idea of working for Walt Disney, and part by fear of Soviet invasion and nuclear war. Their journeys through the US and Mexico have become a legend in continental comics history, and was recently the subject of of a fictionalized account, Gringos Locos by Yann & Schwartz.
Jijé was always interested in religious and biographical subjects for his comics, and in order to pursue these interests he had already handed over his most famous series to other artists: Valhardi to Eddy Paape, Blondin et Cirage to Victor Hubinon, and Spirou to Franquin. However, he did not quite manage to let go of them, and at various points took back each of the series. His main comic after the war, though, and probably the one he is most famous for, was Jerry Spring, a western series created not long after he returned from America. Apart from being well-regarded in its own right, Jerry Spring also launched the career of Jijé’s assistant on the series, one Jean Giraud, and served as a major influence on his own western comic, Blueberry.
Joseph Gillain died on 20. June, 1980. For much of his later career, he was somewhat overshadowed by the successes of his former students and assistants. However, from the late seventies he was embraced by a new generation of artists, such as Joost Swarte and Yves Chaland, who recognized him as a major representative of the ligne claire and more dynamic atoomstijl. Dupuis published his (nearly) complete works in 18 volumes from 1991 to 2004. Of his current disciples, Alec Séverin is perhaps the most dedicated.
Dupuis plans to mark the anniversary year with several publications, including a kind of biography and a collected edition of Jerry Spring. Here at Spirou Reporter we will also put a special focus on Jijé’s Spirou contributions, with a number of featured comics throughout the year. Happy birthday, Jijé!