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Okay, so yesterday you summed up all of Macherot’s career pre-Sibylline. He spent a decade at Tintin magazine, was lured to Spirou, his first Spirou series tanked — look, I did it in 16 words instead of thirteen hundred…
Yeah, yeah. You’ll thank me later. Anyway, Sibylline didn’t start off auspiciously. The first two episodes were oddly violent housebound Tom-and-Jerry style riffs with a cat tormenting the mice. The third was both more Chlorophylle-esque and more promising: Macherot relocated the main mouse characters to the country and did a nice little riff on protecting a sparrow from some malevolent crows. But with the fourth — which comprises the first 20 pages of this book – Macherot suddenly found his groove. He surrounded his two main mice with a supporting cast and little country village, he introduced an ongoing villain, and for the next 120 pages he was as much on his game as any cartoonist has ever been.
“For the next 120 pages”? That implies…
Yeah, I’ll be getting to that. Anyway, the four stories that comprise the two albums (of which Sibyl-Anne vs. Ratticus is the first) are I think his absolute top, even edging out Chaminou.
So why do you like them so much?
First, and most obviously, there is the art: It’s just flawless. Second, I think in these books his delineation of character is great — better even than Hergé’s. In pretty much every comic at the time, the protagonist was boring and colorless, supported by one or more “wacky” sidekicks. As he had done with Chaminou, Macherot stood this on his head by packing Sibylline with character traits, not all of them pleasant: She is frankly a bit of a bitch…
Or a “shrew”…
Exactly — she pushes her poor “fiancé” around like the lump that he is, she’s egocentric and boastful, and she has a hair-trigger temper and is easily offended. But she’s also fiercely loyal and courageous, and downright adorable. One cannot overstate how radical (and a female, too! very rare for European kids’ comics at that time) this characterization was. And the other members of her little group are sharply drawn too: The cowardly, cunning and mercantile crow Floozemaker, the good-hearted but slightly thick porcupine Verboten, and in his own way, the peevish but eternally “Yes-dear”ing Boomer. Add in the fiendish but ironically aware of his own limitations Ratticus, and the odd supporting characters like the irked fireflies, and it’s this fantastic dynamic that Macherot, who was a terrific comedy writer — look at the scene where the rabbit is trying to climb a tree and the captured rats take malicious glee in psyching him into repeatedly falling out of the tree, or Sibyl-Anne’s periodic eruptions of anger against Floozemaker (including when he’s shrewdly negotiating hostages at the end) — was able to use to his best advantage. Add in a carefully structured, sprawling animal war plot and the whole “Ratticus” cycle is just a gem.
Before we continue, why did you change the character’s name? Especially such a piddling change.
Macherot (who was a genius at names too) clearly picked the name “Sibylline” because in French all the vowel sounds in it are sharp “ee” sounds, like a mouse squeaking: See-bee-leene. In English they aren’t, and I have this perhaps weird prejudice against using names where the pronunciation is open to debate: I could see English language readers being confused as to whether to rhyme the name with “clean” or with “fine,” or even trying for the French pronunciation, like Americans who insist on saying “Tangtang” for Tintin and "Ah-stay-REEX" for Asterix, which grates on me. “Sibyl-Anne” is virtually identical, but with zero pronunciation latitude. As a bonus it’s perfectly Googlable with just a few random real “Sibyl Anne” facebook pages cluttering up the hits, it has a nice rural flair to it, and besides, “Anne” is my wife’s middle name.
I also changed the rat’s name from “Anathème” which just didn’t seem villainous in English, if you use the English word it becomes “Anathema” which sounds like a great name for a psychotic lesbian James Bond villain but not so much a male rat. I had Sibyl-Anne’s fiancé Taboum as Kaboom until the Araki movie came out, and switched it to Boomer. Floozemaker, I just changed a vowel from the French Flouzemaker for clarity, and Verboten, which is just the best name ever for a cop, I left alone. The fat rat king Ratticus deposes was called “Gudu” in French which didn’t really work well in English either, but I think “Gorge” is pretty funny as a punning name for a gluttonous king.
You keep on harping about the 120-page, two-album “Ratticus cycle” as being so great. What happened after that?
What happened then is that Macherot got hit with a massive, crippling clinical depression. And unlike Hergé and Franquin who managed to control their depressions (in fact each jiu-jitsued his depression into a masterpiece, but that’s another story), it did immediate, massive damage to his work. His drawing, from what I understand largely as a result of his medication which literally impaired his motor functions, went into a steep decline and he had to rely on someone else to write his stories – a guy called Paul Deliège, a perfectly decent Spirou “house” writer, who cranked out several Sibyl-Anne pastiches for Macherot to put into pictures. And in fact — to loop back to the beginning — this was exactly the period when I was reading Spirou magazine. Looking back these stories have their own charms, Macherot is almost never terrible, and Deliège really gives it the ol’ college try (and I respect the fact that one story ends with an Inglourious Basterds-style mass live incineration of all the villains, fully in keeping with Macherot’s darker instincts) but the work was substandard enough that I never got into it. (Even worse was Mirliton, a series of unrelentingly crappy short stories and gags about a cat written by another Spirou “house” writer, the mostly hacky Raoul Cauvin, which is probably the worst thing done by a great European cartoonist. It was clearly just to keep Macherot busy and earning money, although granted it’s not the worst thing to appear in Spirou.)
Macherot eventually climbed out of his depression, or got to the point where he could control it pharmacologically. He started writing his stories again and his art picked up, but it was never quite the same. The later Sibyllines are a little like ’90s Peanuts (or maybe Jack Kirby’s ’70s return to Marvel — or the last, weird years of Dick Tracy or Steve Canyon) — more obsessive, looser, darker (many of the stories are outright horror stories), the linework and lettering increasingly erratic. And not surprisingly, reader and publisher support trailed off and after a while Dupuis stopped releasing the work in albums. In fact, the last few hundred pages of Sibylline were never released in general-market album form (the final two stories, which are really eccentric, were released in a special limited edition a few years ago) and the entire series was allowed to lapse out of print. Insult kept being piled onto injury as Le Lombard let all his Chlorophylle work go out of print, and Chaminou had been licensed to another publisher who published it in a bizarre half-ass form split over two albums because they couldn’t cope with any album over 48 pages, let it go out of print, and this story is now tied up in litigation between Macherot’s heirs and this last publisher so it too is out of print. (Speaking personally this was a pain in the ass because it’s cost me hundreds of dollars to assemble even a partial collection of Macherot work through eBay, and some of the books are simply too expensive even for me.)
The good news is that an enterprising Belgian cartoonist called André Taymans purchased the rights to Sibylline, released several charming new Sibylline stories of his own as well as one of Macherot’s, and beginning this year is releasing a complete Sibylline, digitally remastered and scheduled to include those hundreds of pages of never-reprinted stories. Which is a godsend because we’re using his restored files for our edition. Like their U.S. brethren, Franco-Belgian publishers have been going on a binge of repackaging classic material in “Intégrales” and everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that someone will now do the same for the Chlorophylle material, and if the Chaminou rights get resolved I’m sure someone will be ready to publish that. Including me!
Which brings up the question, and please God make it a short answer: What are your follow-up plans for Macherot if this one is successful?
First, the sequel which finishes up the “Ratticus” cycle (Sibylline et les abeilles is the French title). Second, if the rights get resolved, Chaminou. I’d love to one day do a Chlorophylle but that really hinges on a European publisher getting it back into print and creating digital files for it. That said, even if Sibyl-Anne vs. Ratticus ends up being the only one we manage to do, I’ll be satisfied with that. It’s a quintessential, enduring masterpiece of Franco-Belgian kids’ comics, up there with Tintin in Tibet, The Smurf King, the Spirou Zorglub two-parter, and Asterix and Cleopatra. I simply could not countenance its remaining unpublished in English.
Do you think it will sell in the American marketplace?
I’ve heard from some knowledgeable people who think it’s lunatic to even try, but in some ways it may be more accessible than the “human” Franco-Belgian comics (like Gil Jordan for that matter). I’m convinced that there are aspects of the Franco-Belgian stylization that rub American readers the wrong way (which is why they don’t respond to Franquin) which are mitigated by the funny-animal dodge. I have an elaborate theor—
Thank you, we’re done here.