Editors Notes: Kim Thompson on Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus
Friday, 10 June 2011

Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus by R. Macherot

[In this installment of our series of Editors Notes, Kim Thompson interviews himself (in a format he's dubbed "AutoChat") about Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus by R. Macherot. This was originally serialized in two parts on Flog! The Fantagraphics Blog. – Ed.]

Okay, Sibyl-Anne is being released kind of as the other half of a matched set with Gil Jordan, which I know you’ve been a fan of since you were a kid. I assume this is another childhood favorite you’re finally getting a chance to…

No, actually, as a kid I was never a fan of Macherot’s work. Never collected the books, never read most of the Sibyllines until recently — just not on my radar.

Okay, that wasn’t the answer I was expecting. Let me regroup. What made you change your mind? Is this one of the situations like American comics fans have with comics like Little Lulu or Sugar & Spike, which they consider “kid stuff” as adolescents and then belatedly realize how great they are as adults?

No, I don’t think so. I was a big fan of the Smurfs back then already, so I didn’t suffer from that particular anti-kid-stuff snobbery. And my love of Peanuts has been unwavering. It’s more that my peak collecting years of Franco-Belgian comics coincided with a nadir period for Macherot. It was like trying to get into Jack Kirby during his Silver Star years.

You’re going to have to explain that a little more, I think.

Yeah. This is going to go on for a while, sorry, but it’s complicated. Stick with me. I’ll throw in some pictures to keep you entertained while I drone on.

In the “golden age” of Franco-Belgian comics weeklies from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s (when Asterix exploded and brought Pilote into the mix), the two giants were pretty much Spirou magazine and Tintin magazine. As a quick analogy, the Tintin/Spirou relationship was about the equivalent of the DC/Marvel relationship in the 1960s: Tintin had the biggest of the big guns, namely Tintin (Superman) but was quite a bit stodgier, while Spirou had the more exciting equivalents of the FF and Spider-Man. So if you were a major Franco-Belgian cartoonist you pretty much ended up at one of those.

Macherot, as it happened, wound up at Tintin in the early 1950s, for which he created a bucolic funny-animal series starring a dormouse called Chlorophylle, whose most frequent nemesis was a rat called Anthracite.

from Chlorophylle by R. Macherot

That actually sounds a lot like Sibyl-Anne

Doesn’t it, though? Hold that thought. And while I would argue that Macherot was in a tie for second best cartoonist working for Tintin

I assume Hergé being the first, but who was he tied with for second?

E.P. Jacobs (Blake and Mortimer), of course. Anyway, the way these weeklies worked is they serialized stories at two pages every issue, and then collected them into the “album” format. (Spirou’s series were published by Dupuis, Tintin’s mostly by Le Lombard although a few had gone to the Tintin books publisher Casterman.) And there was a definite caste system at both magazines/publishers, based mostly on popularity and sales but I would have to assume also on politics. At the top of the heap you’d get cartoonists whose work would get published as hardcovers (48 or 64 pages), then there was an intermediate level where you’d get 48-page softcovers, and in Tintin magazine’s case a bottom level of cheap, skimpy-looking 32-page softcovers.

Now Macherot, for whatever reason, wasn’t treated that great at Tintin. In fact it may have been partly self-inflicted: He tended to vary his drawing style and approach from book to book (whereas the successful cartoonists would find one groove and stick to it), he had a certain dark, satirical sensibility that was at odds not just with his chosen “cute” funny-animal style but also with Tintin’s stodginess, and the end result was his books ended up on the cheap/skimpy end. So eventually he decided to jump ship to Spirou

Did this kind of thing happen often?

No. Cartoonists were pretty loyal, partly because they were on balance treated pretty well but also because the companies did more or less own the characters, so if you wanted to switch magazines you had to leave your characters behind. That was a big disincentive.

Like the U.S. comic books, then.

Yes and no. More like U.S. syndicated strips. Series were created by individual cartoonists and controlled by them, and for the most part they “owned” them enough that eventually contracts in the 1970s and 1980s allowed them to start switching companies (the first big case I remember was Morris taking Lucky Luke from Spirou/Dupuis to Pilote/Dargaud, but there was a flurry of it later), but in Macherot’s day if you moved you lost the characters. This is where Macherot’s creative restlessness stood him in good stead, though: He was actually kind of tired of Chlorophylle (he’d kept his interest up by playing with graphic styles and midway through radically reversing the fundamental concept of the strip by changing it from a Sibyl-Anne-style bucolic series to a fully urban “funny-animals who have an entire city and drive cars” strip and then back again — tinkerings which I’m sure did nothing to endear him to readers or his publishers) and wanted to try something new.

from Chlorophylle by R. Macherot

This is a long goddamn story, Kim. I just wanted to know about Sibyl-Anne!

I’m sorry. And we’re not there yet. Macherot’s career was a relatively complex one compared to most other European cartoonists of his generation, who once they found their defining series just kept drawing that for the rest of their lives. “Morris: Created Lucky Luke. Drew it for half a century. Moved from Dupuis to Dargaud. Died.” Anyway, Macherot went to Spirou, where they offered him the top-of-the-line 64-page hardcovers, freedom to do what he wanted, and he created Chaminou et le Khrompire, which as it turns out is one of the defining masterpieces of Franco-Belgian comics, and is both a huge leap beyond and summation of his previous work: It’s a secret-agent funny-animal thriller, very self-aware, with some off-kilter characterizations (Chaminou is a bit of an egomaniacal dandy and occasional screw-up) and some genuinely dark moments. (Macherot tended to go a little more graphic in the animals-eating-one-another premise than most cartoonists.) There’s a scene in it that conceptually duplicates the final scene in Freaks, one of the most horrific scenes in any movie ever made, and plays it for laughs. It’s just unbelievably bold for the time (1964), one of those art objects that seems unique and decades ahead of its time, like Night of the Hunter (one of Macherot’s favorite films, incidentally) or Kiss Me Deadly.

from Chaminou et le Khrompire by R. Macherot

I can see where this is going…

Yes, everyone hated it! The readers were baffled, the publishers were dismayed, and even Macherot’s fellow cartoonists including Franquin — to his discredit, I must say — didn’t care for it. My understanding is that the publisher actually was OK with giving the series a second shot, but Macherot had had the wind taken out of his sails (or sales, har har), and at everyone’s urging did what cartoonists tend to do — as you saw when we discussed Gil Jordan yesterday — which is fall back on a remake of his earlier work, and (also at the publisher’s urging) aim again for a younger audience. And so the bucolic mouse (actually dormouse) Chlorophylle begat the bucolic mouse Sibylline, and Chaminou went on the scrap heap. Dupuis did release the album but, with no follow-up stories forthcoming, allowed it to drift out of print and it eventually became one of the collectors’ holy-grail albums. As a final odd insult it appeared without Macherot’s name on the cover on the first edition because Macherot was used to Lombard’s technique of adding the author’s name and Dupuis would have the author add his own name to the cover layout, and it fell through the cracks.

So he came up with Sibylline

Congratulations, we’re thirteen hundred words into this and you’ve actually reached the point where you’re talking about the book. What are you, R.C. Harvey?

Ouch. But you’re right, this has gone on long enough. Let’s break it off here and tomorrow we’ll talk Sibylline now that the stage has been set, in agonizing detail. (And I left out stuff: I didn’t even mention Clifton.)

Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus by R. Macherot

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.

Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus by R. Macherot - detail

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.

Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus by R. Macherot - detail

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.

Sibyl-Anne Vs. Ratticus by R. Macherot - detail