Visual Storytelling - T. Benjamin Larsen's Blog

André Franquin

One of my greatest childhood heroes was the Belgian comic-book-artist André Franquin. Doing the research for this piece I found that he is mostly unknown in the English speaking world. I feel sorry for all of you and find it almost unbelievable that no major publisher have had the good sense to publish his work in the English-speaking world. Okay, rant over, let’s get back to the great man himself:

Le journal de Spirou

André Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium in 1924. According to the man himself he was always drawing and while he only got about a year of actual drawing lessons before these were cut short due to the war in Europe. His talent was obvious however and eventually he wound up working for the Belgian magazine Spirou, a comic magazine that was the original home of several European comics (perhaps most notably Peyo’s The Smurfs). Spirou was the name of the Magazine’s title character a red-haired bellboy. The character, as well as his best friend Fantasio and pet-squirrel Spip was invented by Robert Velter.

Champignac and The Marsupilami

When Franquin joined the magazine the series was being handled by Jijé but despite his well proven talent his efforts with the series do come across as a poor man’s version of Hergé’s Tintin. Jijé himself grew tired of Spirou and Franquin was called upon to continue the series, in the middle of a story no less - without a script to work from!

The Marsupilami

The young Franquin managed admirably and it wouldn’t take long before he more or less redefined the series. In a manner similar to Carl Barks’ work with Duckburg, he really defined a world and expanded character rooster that has remained with the series ever since. His most eye-catching character was definitely The Marsupilami, a fantasy animal from the imaginary south-american country Palombia. More important to the evolvement of the series was the invention of The Village Champignac. This quintessential french village would be the starting point of many an adventure and the home to many of Franquin’s new characters, most importantly The Count of Champignac. The Count, or Pacôme Hégésippe Adélard Ladislas de Champignac (yes I did look it up) fast becomes a close friend of Spirou & Fantasio. In addition to his noble lineage he is also an eccentric scientist and as we all know, eccentric scientists = high adventure.

Gaston Lagaffe

Eventually Franquin, like Jijé before him, grew tired of Spirou and passed it on to a younger artist (Fournier). While Fournier and later Tome & Janry kept the series well alive, it never reached the same constant brilliance as it had done during Franquin’s reign. Franquin himself continued to draw and write, concentrating on his own characters. Fantasio’s lazy, clumsy but equally kind and inventive subordinate Gaston Lagaffe seemed to receive the maximum attention. Unlike Spirou and Fantasio, Gaston was way too lazy to ever embark on any expeditions or fantastic journeys, perhaps a result of Franquin himself growing older. In 1997, at the age of 73, André Franquin passed away.


Based On The Graphic Novel

Films and comics (by any name) are two of the strongest and best known types of visual storytelling. They are also related in many ways and inspiration between the two are many and seem to go both ways. Some of the most successful films ever owe their existence to the comics they are based on. The apparent similarity between the storyboards used by filmmakers and the panels of a comic-book can mislead though. These are two distinct art forms with their own strengths and weaknesses and any story told has to be done so in a manner befitting its chosen medium. Finding inspiration in the original media is fine, carbon copying it is not. Obvious as this may seem it is something that several filmmakers have sinned against.

Sin City

Sin City (2005) was a success both commercially and among critics. Lauded for its closeness to the Graphic Novel and for the 'fresh' look. Safe to say, no film has ever been closer visually to its paper counterpart. As a piece of storytelling however, I found it to be something of a failure. This is bound to irritate some since the film has a huge following. It seems particularly popular among fans of Frank Miller's Graphic Novel. The thing is though, that all the cleverness and energy used to make the film look like a comic prevents me as a viewer from getting into the story. In many ways it feels like watching an overlong Music Video. I appreciate the effort and the technical quality but as every shot draws attention to itself I find it impossible to stop admiring the technical bravura and get into the narrative. So while the filmmakers (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller) deserve praise for their willingness to experiment I sincerely hope this style will not be adopted on a grand scale. Thankfully there are filmmakers that use more of their energy to adapt the material in a way that fits the silver screen.

Batman Begins

A reset of the Batman franchise, Batman Begins was released in the same year as Sin City. Writer/Director Christopher Nolan (and co-writer David S. Goyer) effectively mined the Batman canon crafting an effective and strongly structured story. It was shot, not to mimic a comic, but in a manner that utilized the strengths of its chosen media. While parts of the imagery (the noir-ish look, the bat silhouette etc.) was clearly inspired by the comics, it never betrayed the cinematic-narrative. It delivered an experience that pulled me as a viewer into its universe and didn't let go until the ride was over. While it could be argued that the execution was less creative than Sin City's it clearly worked better as a film...


Will Eisner

Childhood Heroes

Comic-books are without a doubt one of the most successful forms of visual storytelling. Yet it's a subject I haven't tackled in this blog so far, save from a couple of self-made attempts used as illustrations.

I grew up on comics and for a large part of my adolescence the only thing I dreamt of was to become a comic-creator. My biggest idols of that period was probably the French/Belgian masters Franquin, Uderzo & Goscinny. This first comic-oriented blog post is however dedicated to another one of my heroes: Will Eisner.

The Spirit

Eisner's most well known character is probably The Spirit. A noir-styled, masked crime-fighter. The stories often border on the absurd and it is often quite hard to predict just where Mr. Eisner is going until you actually finish the last page or the last panel.

Opening page from a Spirit-story. Copyright © Will Eisner.

As you can see from the image above, the drawings are of a slightly caricatured nature and the page layout is extremely dynamic. Yet the composition always seems to lead your eyes in the right direction avoiding the distractions you find in some other comics. In lack of a better word I'd call the look "modern" which in this context is meant as a compliment, especially since the original Spirit stories were all made between 1940 and 1952(!)

Beyond the Bedroom

Eisner is generally considered to be one of the comic-creators who really managed to elevate the art of comics beyond the bedroom of teenage boys. His achievements are probably best witnessed in his graphic-novel A Contract With God (available at Amazon). A piece of work that demonstrates just how potent comics can be when tackling more serious material than cape-wearing guys in leotards beating up bad guys.

Of course Eisner himself was well aware of the possibilities that existed in the art form and wrote two books on the subject. I highly recommend both Comics & Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative to those of you with a larger interest in the subject.

His Spirit Lives On

Sadly Will Eisner passed away in 2005 so we won't see any new work from the master's hands. His legacy lives on however and through researching this blog I found that a film about The Spirit is scheduled for release next year. What makes this project really interesting is that the director/screenwriter of the film is none other than Frank Miller(!)

Link: Official Will Eisner site.


Genesis of the MacBook Air

OK, this one is probably akin to "Lennon lives, McCartney is dead" but hey, this is my blog and I can write what I want. And as it happens I'm still not quite done with Apple's new portable, the Macbook Air.

As I wrote in my last post I have a hard time seeing the potential market for this product, but perhaps this is just the way Apple planned it? The ultra-thin enclosure and solid-state drive is new stuff for Apple and maybe, just maybe, they're not 100% confident that everything will run smoothly with this first generation product.

So, to avoid risking extreme expenditeur and an outright scandal, it would make sense to roll out a product that only sold in relatively modest numbers. This would give them a lot of valuable feedback about how this stuff works in the real world.

Perhaps it all started something like this:


Underdog attack!

OK, first a small confession. I'm something of a Mac-head and yes I do love a lot of their products. Apple have always used the fact that they're "different" for what it's worth. As "standard" Windows-PC's, at least traditionally, have been about as exciting as.. cricket (sorry cricket-fans) this makes a lot of sense. Apple's current campaign "I'm a mac" continues the trend and I believe this is a strategy that makes a lot of sense for a smaller company. People instinctively root for the underdog and there is something to be said about having a product that differs from the masses as well.

So why doesn't Microsoft do the same thing with their Zune-player? Now, I haven't seen one of these yet, but reckon they must be OK. Having Microsoft's deep-pockets, media-interest and advertisement-budgets could well help it to become something of a hit. It's not an iPod and for some people it seems that's the most important specification any MP3-player could have...