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Les Schtroumpfs noirs

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The détournement has been a staple of comics for quite some time. We do not mean plagiarism or an unexpected use of characters in new situations. Comics have been plagiarized from the get-go (Töpffer, with Cham and Obadiah Oldbuck) and sexual subversions have been also around for long (Tijuana Bibles, Air Pirates). We are talking about a very specific, historically identified tactic, as the Situationists would say. Détournement is a politically-conscious form of utilizing the tools of the hegemonic spectacle of commerce and politics, tap into its power to objectify and concentrate attention, and give it a new purpose. In a simpler way, it’s to use the same elements that had been used before but giving them new meanings. More often than not, however, that purpose is to illuminate the very artificiality of the programmatic structure of those same tools and channels, eroding, in part, the normalized contents that are usually conveyed. In other words, a successful détournement will not only create a new text as also a new perspective upon the old text. But if I say in part, it is because corporations and institutionalised powers have the ability to absorb and commodify everything, including this détournement tactic, reshaping it as just another publicity vehicle. The name for that is recuperation. And it is quite effective.

A new book was to be found in Angoulême, this year, issued by La Cinquième Couche, by the same author who had brought us Katz, Ilan Manouach. The book seems to be a version of Peyo’s Les Schtroumpfs noirs, a precise imitation of that book : same cover, same stories, same number of pages, same format, and as close to the original in the quality of paper, its weight, and so on. But with one, single difference. This book was printed in one sole colour. Blue. All the parts that would supposedly be printed in all the other colours, black, magenta and yellow, have been printed too but in cyan. As the book’s presentation says, “The new CMYK is CCCC. Four plates of cyan.”

So instead of having blue Schtroumpfs (I’m sorry, but I refuse to use Smurfs unless I‘m referring to English editions) turning into black Schtroumpfs that try to bite blue Schtroumpfs so that they turn black Schtroumpfs, we have blue Schtroumpfs after blue Schtroumpfs to turn them into blue Schtroumpfs. Its Schtroumpficated ! And yet so Schtroumpfsimple… If you allow me to quote myself, this overall description of the narrative reminds me of the scene I have analysed in MetaKatz, in which instead of having a Jew Mouse shooting a German Cat under the order of a Polish Pig, we had a cat killing a cat under the orders of another cat. Where the original authors played upon actantial and figurative-chromatic differences, Manouach creates an operation that squeezes them into one, singular, shared, immanent plane.

However, I feel that in the case of this cyan version of Les Schtroumpfs noirs (let’s call it 4CS for short) we are not before the same sort of political intervention as in Katz. Such a dimension exists, to be sure, but I feel that here we’re closer to something that has much more to do with a specific “idea in comics”, to draw from Deleuze (“Qu’est-ce que l’acte de création ?”), which we will quote extensively in this text.

The first thing that comes to mind when we hold this book, and realize its materiality, its technical details, and its “feel”, is how impersonal it seems. It’s as if, despite the existence of an actual person, an “author”, who did all the steps necessary for the creation of this new book (scanning, colour-separation, colour-changing, printing, etc.), he had stepped out of the realm of authorial expression, and even of human expression, in order to discharge lines of depersonalised expression, as it were. In this case, the expressivity of the very materiality of the album’s four-colour printing. To a certain extent, this is a similar gesture to that which we discussed a propos Pascal Matthey’s 978. Both books come about as a pertinent inquiry into the material nature of conventional comics (within the European market, if you wish).

This is quite different from the exercises de salon that dry up as soon as their premise is presented, as it occurs with many of the Oubapian routines, especially the transformative ones, that act upon previously existing material. Some of which, moreover, whenever turned into longer forms, reveal their internal problems, or better still, reveal their own inefficiency as critical interpellations of the original, so that they make up something less than an ephemeral joke. Raté examples, for instance, are Tintin au Congo à poil and David Vandermeulen’s Ric Remix (otherwise, Vandermeulen is the author of the simply brilliant Fritz Haber). The former fails, I think, for merely tackling with a superficial aspect of the book, and even revealing a moralistic, if contrarian, stance, as if nudity was enough to shock the original readers. The latter for two reasons. Firstly, Ric Remix is based on Tibet’s Ric Hochet series, which became more and more depressingly mediocre where both narrative and drawing is concerned (his humorous Chick Bill was way better), and which, along with the likes of Jean Graton represents for me the worst in the so-called Franco-Belgium comics tradition, a type of production that reaches a sort of zero degree of analysable discourses (this is not absolutely true, but I feel it’s a rather dry text to explore). Secondly, and most importantly, because Vandermeulen seems to, at one time, be concerned solely  with superficial aspects — actions, mostly — and, by creating a short circuit with those same actions, but without recontextualizing and reconceptualising them, which in my view creates an effect of sameness, if slightly stretched narratively. At the end, then, and corroborated with the fact that the book was published by Lombard itself, and with the acknowledgement of Tibet, it falls within the “homage” category. A clin doeil, if there was ever one. Or even a recuperation.

I would argue that the purpose of the Schtroumpfs book is also somewhat different from Manouach’s take on Maus, the now gone and burn to cinders Katz project (survived by its meta-détournement, MetaKatz). It is not a critique of some kind, even one that would force us to look at the original book once again with fresh eyes, as it happened with Katz, and this even despite the fact that that could be surmised from its effect. It is also not a homage, even though one could also imagine it to be a part of the reasons that lead the author to do it (if we return to the book‘s official presentation, we will find the words “Majestic joy of pre-puberty heaven”). The fact is, the issue in Schtroumpfs is not one of “homage” or “disrespect”. The relationship of both authors, Manouach and Peyo, the détourneur and the détournee, the re-creator and the creator, the molecular and the molar (see below), is wholly irrelevant. And I would even go to the extent that what happens with the original work is not its re-inscription, whether positive or negative, in the texture of History (as, again, in Katz),  but rather a suspension of that same History. I will return to this point presently.

But before that, and paradoxically, some History. Although they first appeared as secondary characters in Peyo’s main series, Johan et Pirlouit, in 1958, the Schtroumpfs would soon take over the author’s attention, bringing him unprecedented fame and fortune (similar stories happened throughout the history of comics, one but has to think of George Herriman’s The Family Upstairs/Krazy Kat, or E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theater/Popeye). Starting with short stories, they would soon have their own long, album-sized stories, not to mention all the commercial derivatives that would come later, up to the absolutely appalling cinematographic versions of recent times. This book is precisely the first album that was issued, in 1963, representing and redrawing three stories that had been published in Le journal de Spirou, between 1959 and 1963. The stories are Les Schtroumpfs noirs, Le Schtroumpf Volant and Le voleur de Schtroumpfs.

Pierre Culliford, or Peyo, belonged to the famed Marcinelle school, along the likes of Franquin, Roba, Will and Tillieux. Many accounts have been written of what united historically, editorially and stylistically these authors (being the rotund forms of characters the most immediate recognizable trait, and launched, where the Schtroumpfs are concerned, with this very book, drawn in a slightly different way from the Spirou magazine version). However, suffice it to say that new readers should focus on the ears of every single character that has been drawn by this École. No matter who is drawing them, no matter what the genre is, the ears will always look like little puffed-up brioches. That shape, in a weird Bertillon-meets-Haeckel kind of way, is the foetus-like seed of the round characters that seem to be made of recombinable elements. The Schtroumpfs take that to a whole new level, repeating the same model over and over again with little, yet significant, individuation changes. Characters are defined by traits such as glasses, a twisted sense of humour, a knack for cooking, or being permanently pissed off, and so on. Their subject is dictated not by an totally embodied difference, but rather precisely by an identifiable “one-trait” applied on top of the perennial model.

Still, we have three special cases of embodied difference : age (and clothes’ colouring), with Grand Schtroumpf/Papa Smurf — which highlights the sameness of age of all of the other characters –, sexual difference, with Schtroumpfette/Smurfette — highlighting an unbridled, supposedly unmarked male-ness of all Schtroumpfs –, and the blackness of the “diseased” Schtroumpfs of this story (the origin of the “blackness” is the bite from an insect, apparently diseased itself). It is true that later stories would add other elements, like the baby, another female character, and so on, but it is of the same order as in the case of Disney characters, which only on a later date would introduce mommas and poppas, in a land where previously there were only asexualized uncles and nephews. We don’t wish to treat Peyo’s creation as if they were static and without historical developments, but Manouach’s book addresses a “classical” stage of the stories, that make up a certain imaginary present in the minds of old readers of the books (now in their late 30s to early 50s), and not the present state of the multi- and intermedia atomization of products.

The point is, Schtroumpfs seem to be moulded from a static model, which, originally, also places them outside of history (and outside of sexuality), transforming them into that which Bruno Lecigne called hypergémellité [“hyper-twinhood”]. In fact, Thierry Groensteen actually quotes this notion, as applied by Lecigne to the Schtroumpfs, when he discusses, in Système de la bande dessinée, one of the six ways how comics can sidestep “the presence of a recurrent character”, and specifying that this option “ruins identity”. Manouach’s book takes this a step further. By fusing every character together in the blue tint, it’s as if the hypergémellité regressed into a previous, undifferentiated matter, a cell soup, as it were, from which all Schtroumpfs are born, not the characters within their diegetic world (with all the illusions of a real space, a history, etc.), but the characters-as-lines-on-paper. Moreover, the diegetic objects they pick up and the backgrounds in which they move are also fused in this absolute ground. And still more : all the graphic matter, from speed lines to onomatopoeias, the caption and the speech balloons, the very letters and the lines of the panels, everything is melted into an (almost) absolute blue.

In some cases, the presence of white (the pants and hats of the Schtroumpfs, the white of the eyes of characters, the inside of the speech balloons, clouds, an illuminated surface, etc.) will invert the original meaning. For instance, in the confrontation between the blue and the black Schtroumpfs (page 18, panel 1), it is actually sameness that is revealed, not the difference (if we abstract from their different positions or the blacks Schtroumpfs’ angry grin). And in page 51 (the panel below), the hidden Schtroumpfs actually become more visible in Gargamel’s kitchen. This short circuits many of the elements of the story, which can lead to oppositional interpretations, especially addressing those that identify in this book a discourse that upholds imbued racist views.

This book has been translated and published all across Europe and elsewhere. It reached Portugal and Spain in the late 1970s as a book, for instances. Curiously, in the United States, although Dupuis published the series in English in Canada, and then Random House in the U.S. throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, this particular title would only be published it in book form in 2010 by Papercutz. Perhaps revealing its racially-conscious policies, and, following the change operated in the (in English, earlier) cartoon version, it changed “black” into “purple”. So it comes as no surprise that it has not lead to as much discussion as it had on Europe, especially after Antoine Buéno’s book, Le Petit livre bleu : Analyse critique et politique de la société des Schtroumpfs. We cannot address all the issues discussed in this book, as well as its methodologies, its textual choices and analyses which include some stretches of the imagination. Suffice it to say that we do agree that books have to be thought of as fully integrated in their epoch’s culture, but one should be also aware of counter-discourses of that same epoch, of the narrative and formal economy of the texts that may correct apparently simple readings, and avoid any decisions about the personality and intimate thinking of the author. In that, I like to follow Hugo Frey’s advise in avoiding either “excessive polemical dispute” or “commemorative activities”.

In comics, the fantasy of turning into another skin colour, especially from white to black – which is very different from the theme of passing, black as white — has been a common theme in comics throughout its history. Mark McKinney, in his articles and books, has addressed this often, with his excellent historic contextualization of Francophone comics. This “passage”, however, can have divergent roles. Spirou and Fantasio have been through such a change, in Le rayon noir, precisely to inquire into both contemporary racism and the series’ own blindness to race. In an infamous story, Lois Lane also “went black” for a moment, in order to “understand” the plight of black Americans in Metropolis, but this paternalistic story creates more problems than it solves. All of these “passages” were done in totally different contexts, and must be studied specifically, but generally speaking, even if one should avoid a knee-jerk reaction by deeming all as “racist”, they can come across as insensitive to the possibility of being offensive. After all, no matter how many people want to discuss these things as mathematical equation, where commutative properties hold true, the fact is, blackface is not whiteface. Not historically, socially, or politically.

In the case of the Schtroumpfs, dealing as it was with European symbolism and mythology, black appears as a symbol of corruption and evil, but that is precisely a reading that was then applied to people with dark skin. For our contemporary standards, it is somewhat shocking looking at that magnificent panel where the last resisting blue Schtroumpfs are preparing for the last stand, the final confrontation with the transformed black Schtroumpfs, and they cry “Les noirs ! ! Ils arrivent !” (pg. 17). Diseased black versions invading the utopia !

So is the transformation of this book into an unified blue plane addressing this particular issue ? Possibly, but that’s not the main point. And this is where Deleuze, and Guattari, can helps us by making us reading 4CS as undermining hegemonic views of identity through its own “becoming minor” within the medium of comics. The book is taking licences that are of the same order as the ones that have been taking place in other art forms for decades. Experimentalism is not new at all in visual arts, cinema, literature and theatre. But in comics, it is only very recently — apart from historically isolated, usually “outsider” cases, such as Martin Vaughn-James’ oeuvre — that experimentalism became a possibility for comics. And if the work of art is a “singularity without a concept”, writes Deleuze (Différence et répétition), we can see that 4CS is a singular gesture, not aiming at all in founding a path that can be followed by others (as some Oubapian exercises always already allow).

Allows us to quote extensively a seemingly unrelated experience. In 1976, the great Italian dramaturgist Carmelo Bene wrote one of his most famous plays, Romeo e Giulietta : storia di Shakespeare secondo Carmelo Bene. He changed Shakespeare’s original text by a very simple operation — in the sense of “choice”, “entry”, “first operational step”, just as simple is to “turn everything blue” — he subtracted Romeo from the play. That role vanished, that voice was eclipsed, that body evaporated

Another Bene’s play based on Shakespeare, “Richard III”, would be published in a French translation in 1978, in a volume, called Superpositions, accompanied by a short text by Gilles Deleuze, entitled, “Un manifeste de moins”. It is from this text that we draw some of the ideas that follow. By eclipsing the figure and the body of Romeo from the tragedy, refocusing it on Mercutio, and adding foreign material to the play, such as the playwright’s sonnets of Bellini‘s music, Carmelo Bene was working, at one time, on the audience’s memory of the famous play and on the possibility of replenishing the “textual holes” with a body of the present (in this case, that of the actor, his or her gestures, his or her voice, an actuality). Although Deleuze speaks of a “theatre of absence”, in the sense that such would be an act of subtraction of the stable elements of power, thus eliciting a new potentiality, an always unstable non-representative force, it is not an absence for absence’s sake. Bene actually used the word “score” instead of texts. And a score is actualised in its performance, its fulfilment in the present. The amputation of Romeo throws the play off balance (the French verb is basculer, underlining the importance of the mechanics of counterweights) in the direction of Mercutio. In the play, Mercutio, death-struck, refuses to die, and speaks of love, even taking over Romeo’s final monologue.

If Bene’s “adapted” play (the term is not precise, but let’s accept it), in Deleuze’s singular reading, is an act of resistance that undermines the power structures conveyed by the original play, it also emphasizes a greater love for the original text than the more conventional, power-sustaining versions of the plays. In “Qu’est-ce que l’acte de création”, Deleuze talks about an “idea in cinema”, which is different from an “idea in novel”, which allows both to understand that artists do not need philosophy in order to reflect, for they can reflect within their own art, and also that there are no non-embodied ideas, that can be adapted for this or that medium indifferently. An idea is always already “in a certain medium”. Manouach is following here an “idea in comics”. If we can read Peyo’s famous characters and stories and practices as standing for a “normalized” social-economic practice of (Franco-Belgium) comics, that is to say, a normative power (which we can also call hegemony or molar), then Manouach seems to create a molecular inflection on Peyo’s molar configuration, an act of resistance. By rewriting, he is not underwriting it. But once again, like in Bene in relation to Shakespeare, this gesture can be seen as both a desecrating and a loving act. A destroying, fiery hand holding its objects in order to love it better. True blue.

Apart from that operation at the level of the text, Bene also uses all the available apparatus of theatre to this end. Not only the verbal text that is spoken, cut and added, distorted or garbled then. It is also the lightning, the props, the space, the actors’ bodies and gestures, and so on. Manouach, as we’ve seen, seems to opt for a minimalist approach, in the sense that he works only on one plane, colour, but this will throw off the entirety of the original oeuvre. By focusing on one single mode (or is it system ?) of expression available to the intrinsically multimodal apparatus of comics, in this case, colour, Manouach actually acts upon them all : background and foreground disappear into one plane, extra-fictional world text (speech, narrative captions) and diegetic objects become enmeshed with one another, the multicadre seems to become more intense in its contrasting white and blues, of two or three intensities, and with ink marks bleeding through the other side. Bleeding blood, and blue blood, at that. Like Mercutio’s, dying but still speaking. Is this not a lovely image to describe also this very book ? A voice that refuses to die and that extends its last breath not downwards a death rattle but a last loving kiss ?

Theatre theoretician Mark Fortier has pointed out the problems or even misreadings of Deleuze on Bene, and especially called our attention that the promises that have been made by “minor literatures” have not been met. In fact, within the domain of comics, it feels as if these acts of resistance do not lead to a great effect. We’re quite far from the promises of the 1990s. Most readers interested in the maintenance of the status quo will dismiss these experiences as unimportant and most people not interested in comics at all will also dismiss it as “just comics”. This may lead to a dangerous conclusion that the actual, willing and knowledgeable readers of these works belong to a special class, one that accepts comics as an art form as free as any other. It is dangerous because it reeks of elitism. Then again, and once more quoting Deleuze, when he wrote “There is no work of art that does not call for a people yet to come” (“Il n’y a pas d’œuvre d’art qui ne fasse pas appel à un peuple qui n’existe pas encore”), does that mean that perhaps that readership is yet to come ?

Official website La Cinquième Couche
Chroniqué par in April 2014