What Will Become of Their Hero, Gaston Lagaffe?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is one of the world's most beloved anarchists, a gentle saboteur of the status quo who is against parking meters, cops, office routine and most other things that pass for the trappings of modern civilization.

Like many of us, deep in the most secret recesses of our hidden self, Gaston Lagaffe would rather sleep than work. He dreams grandly of improving society, but his plans, without fail, go awry.

"He is a child in an adult world," his "father" once said.

During his four decades of existence, Gaston, a cowlicked, turtleneck-clad bungler who emerged from the prolific pen of Belgian cartoonist Andre Franquin, has become one of the most popular and best known fictional denizens of the French-speaking world.

So it was with a touch of sadness that many Europeans awoke earlier this week to the news: "Gaston is an orphan."

That's how French radio on Monday announced the death of Franquin, 73, in a hospital near Nice, after a heart attack.

So celebrated, so ubiquitous has Franquin's most famed offspring become that it was enough to mention his first name for tens of millions of Europeans to understand instantly. For some Paris newspapers, the death of Gaston's maker was the top story of the day.

Gaston may be virtually unknown in the United States, but for two generations of Europeans, the hapless but happy office worker (whose last name, "Lagaffe," means "blunder" or "boo-boo") came to incarnate quiet revolt against rules, traffic lights, the wealthy, the military, job supervisors, social dictates, peer pressure and all other pressures of contemporary life.

He is "anarchistic and a poet, good for nothing, a genius of the useless," said Laurent Joffrin, a writer for the Paris daily Liberation. "In a France and Belgium devoted to growth and efficiency, Gaston dynamites all of the idols of the moment: marketing, management, productivity and profitability, all of the conformities of production."

Instead, the comic strip anti-hero sows havoc at the workplace with his pet sea gull and cat, his sharp-needled cactus plants, and with his zany inventions that end up creating more problems than they solve or are simply pointless (example: a machine that makes smoke rings for nonsmokers).

Not surprisingly, Gaston's human parent, who was subject to periods of dark depression and complained last month of increasing insomnia and nightmares, didn't believe in human progress.

"It's cruel," Franquin told an interviewer several years ago. "For with age and despite moments of happiness, I am convinced that man will never be civilized. He will destroy himself. But we mustn't say so too often--we mustn't spoil people's lives."

Franquin described himself as "nothing but a grown-up kid who draws." But he was highly respected by his contemporaries. Fellow Belgian cartoonist Georges Remy, who created the globe-trotting young reporter Tintin, once said of Gaston's inventor: "He is a great artist, alongside of whom I am only a poor draftsman."

As fate would have it, Franquin and Remy attended the same school in Ixelles, Belgium, as boys. Franquin came from an upright bourgeois family, with a stern banker father who wanted him to become an agricultural engineer. Years later, he remembered a childhood painfully devoid of laughter.

*

In 1945, the same year Belgium was liberated from the Nazis, Franquin's drawings were first published in the Belgian magazine Spirou. One of his first original creations, the Marsupilami, was a singular beast that looked like a gentle-faced leopard with an enormously long tail that could serve as a mighty club.

On Feb. 28, 1957, Gaston was introduced to Spirou readers. Long before the phrase "the system is down" became a catch phrase for the downside of all of our modern gizmos, Gaston's misadventures were making it clear that not only is technology the solution, it's often also the problem.

Gaston devised a dizzying array of weird inventions with catastrophic side effects, or no effects at all. A musical instrument stripped wallpaper off walls; sky rockets used to clean chimneys shot down aircraft passing overhead. In his most recent Gaston album, Franquin unveiled an anti-holdup device that fired thousands of ball bearings in all directions to trip up thieves.

"The problem, obviously, is to put them away afterward," Franquin said.

Before ecology became a political movement, Gaston was lovingly tending to his pets and plants on company time--with disastrous consequences for office efficiency and cleanliness. He also became an anti-militarist, Franquin explained, because an editor at Spirou was too enamored of drawing swastika-spangled Messerschmitts.

The heavies in Gaston's life include Monsieur De Mesmaeker, a self-important, cigar-smoking tycoon whom Gaston invariably prevents from closing deals, and a mean, kepi-topped gendarme bent on ticketing Gaston's rickety jalopy.

Franquin carried Gaston's campaign for blithe freedom into real life. At his workshop in Ixelles, in the Brussels suburbs, he lived surrounded by photos from the Vietnam War and designed posters for Amnesty International, UNICEF and Friends of the Earth.

"He didn't like authority, stupid authority," recalled Jean-Marie Moyersoen, managing director of Marsu Productions, which published the most recent Gaston album. Moyersoen was talking about Franquin, a close friend, but might have meant Gaston as well.

(It is unclear whether Gaston will be continued by another cartoonist or will die with Franquin.)

*

In French-speaking nations, young Lagaffe is one of the best known personages of fiction. There are Gaston T-shirts, greeting cards, plastic figurines, dolls, cigarette lighters. His expression of incredulous astonishment at an unpredictable world--"m'enfin!" (roughly: "What the . . .? ")--has become part of contemporary French.

Sixteen Gaston albums--a total of about 950 full-page "gags," or episodes--have seen the light of day. The most recent, the first album published in 14 years, went on sale last month, and all 650,000 copies were snapped up.

Over the years, Dupuis, the Belgian publisher that issues the bulk of Franquin's work, has sold a staggering 28 million Gaston albums in Belgium, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada. Five million more have been printed in languages as varied as German, Danish, Spanish, Finnish, Greek, Italian, Indonesian, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish.

Gaston, however, has never made it into English. "English publishers told us it was too French and that it wouldn't work," said Christine Van Houtte, spokeswoman for Dupuis publications. "The same thing for the United States."

In 1992, Walt Disney tried turning out 25 six-minute cartoons of the spotted, long-tailed Marsupilami for CBS. "When we went to Disney, [Chairman] Michael Eisner said, 'Marsu could be the next Mickey Mouse,' " Moyersoen recalled. But Franquin found the Disney adaptation too bland.

Gaston has never caught the imagination of Americans because they feel too loyal to their employers and other organizations they belong to, Moyersoen theorizes.

Contrast that with Lagaffe: When a supervisor upbraids him for sleeping at his desk, Gaston wants overtime pay for those extra hours.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°