Les Aventures du professeur Nimbus:

09 Nov

Tightrope Walker During the Occupation – Part 1/4

by Antoine Sausverd

Translated by Annick Pellegrin

Edited by Harriet Earle

Original publication: Sausverd, Antoine. « Les Aventures du professeur Nimbus : Funambule sous l’occupation. » La Crypte tonique septembre – octobre 2013: 12-18. Print.[1]

Before World War II broke out, in France Les Aventures du professeur Nimbus were one of the most popular bandes dessinées of the 1930s. The gags of this strip feature an always elegant, glassed scientist, whose distinguishing feature is his sole hair, raised as question mark on his bald head. His absent-mindedness, which is nowadays legendary, was the source of many misadventures that made many readers laugh.

The history of bande dessinée would retain that it was the first French mute newspaper strip. It also marks one of its darkest moments. The German occupation that followed the defeat of 1940 would reshuffle the cards of the game in which professeur Nimbus was at stake. Broadly speaking, we know our history but today, it is possible, thanks to the various sources kept in the national archives,[2] to bring to light the then tumultuous relationships between the different actors at the origins of Les Aventures du professeur Nimbus: the press agency Opera Mundi, the artist André Daix and Le Journal, the first daily to welcome the strip in its pages.

US-Style Contract

Created in 1928 by Paul Winkler (1898-1982), Opera Mundi was a press agency of a new kind in France. It was inspired by the US syndicates, organisations that supplied local newspapers with various kinds of editorial content: articles, interviews and reportages in all fields. Opera Mundi signed a contract with the most important US agency, King Features Syndicate, in 1930. The contract enabled Opera Mundi to have exclusive access, for France, to an impressive catalogue of US comics: Walt Disney productions, Flash Gordon, Mandrake, The Katzenjammer Kids, Felix the Cat, Jungle Jim, Prince Valiant and many more series.

Winkler tried to convince the French press to welcome in its pages this new genre of comics. Some publications ventured shyly into publishing humoristic US series but the press was rather reluctant to welcome comics imported from the US. This lead Winkler to create an illustrated magazine in order to publish his own comics: Le Journal de Mickey, which was launched in October 1934; and it was, as we know, immensely successful.

Like many Parisian dailies, Le Journal was approached by the agency Opera Mundi that sought to place its comics. In the end, the daily was seduced by a mute strip titled “Les Avatars du professeur Stratus” [The Avatars of Professor Stratus]. The fact that it was the only French bande dessinée on offer had something to do with this choice… The strip was accepted on a trial basis and was published for the first time in the pages of Le Journal on 16 September 1934, with a title that was slightly modified to “professeur Nimbus” after a suggestion made by Jacques de Marsillac, the editor in chief of the daily.

The author of Les Aventures du professeur Nimbus was André Daix, whose real name was André Delachanal (1901-1974), an artist whose career had not really taken off until then. For the publication of this strip in Le Journal, Opera Mundi struck a deal with the artist, in which the latter agreed to deliver a “série de dessins comiques […] sous forme de bandes horizontales, six fois par semaine” [series of funny drawings […] in the form of horizontal strips, six times a week].[3] The pay rates were 50 francs a strip, that is 300 francs a week. It was also agreed that Daix would receive some benefit from the sales of collectibles and from sales overseas.

Two other points in the contract stipulated, on the one hand, that the title “professeur Nimbus” and the “droit au personnage tel qu’il a été dessiné” [copyright to the character such as he has been drawn] were the property of Opera Mundi, and, on the other hand, that Daix retained the right to be the sole and exclusive artist for Nimbus: the agency was free to “faire créer des séries d’après le même personnage par d’autres collaborateurs” [make other collaborators create other series based on the same character]. These collaborators could be chosen by the agency only if “pour une raison quelconque” [for some reason] Daix was no longer able to fulfil his part of this collaboration. Daix, for his part, agreed to submit his work “avec la même qualité tant au point de vue des dessins, qu’au point de vue des idées” [with the same quality as much in terms of the art, as in terms of the ideas].

The contract between Opera Mundi and Daix reproduced the terms of the those that existed in the USA between comic strip artists and syndicates since the beginning of the twentieth century: on top of their salary, the syndicate paid them interests that were proportional to the number of supports on which their series were placed. When successful, this system can be very profitable. However, the trade-off is that the artist usually generally gives up the copyright on his or her characters. The stop belonging to him or her and their destiny is no longer under his or her control.[4]

Originally designed for a young readership, professor Nimbus quickly won the hearts of readers of all ages. The paper hero became part of Le Journal’s identity, if not its mascot. The strip was a huge hit. In the archives of the daily, the readers’ letters bear witness to this. The short stories were regularly compiled into albums (published by Hachette) and licenses multiplied to adapt Nimbus to all manner of supports: toys, dolls, postcards, confectionery, wallpaper, moneyboxes, dessert plates… The bande dessinée was adapted to the stage and as an animated series. Distributed by Opera Mundi, the strip was soon published in French regional dailies, and even in some thirty countries, across the globe. The story of this editorial success could have stopped there.

The War, The Exodus, the Break-Up

World War II arrived when the strip had settled in a durable fashion in the press. André Daix was mobilised but continued to draw and Opera Mundi continued to supply the strips to Le Journal in a regular fashion. As France entered the war, Nimbus adapted to the news for the first time: starting in November 1939, the title of the strip was changed to “Nimbus est mobilisé” [Nimbus is Mobilised]. Bombing alerts, mobilisation, life in the barracks, on the front, in the trenches… the famous professor now wore the uniform without losing his humour. The series remained present in the pages of Le Journal until the latter fled Paris during the Exodus in 1940. The daily then moved to the Free Zone.

After the capitulation and the Franco-German armistice, Daix was demobilised on 11 July 1940. He wrote to Le Journal a few days later to offer once more his services: “Je me ferai un plaisir de continuer Nimbus sous quelques jours mais en accord avec Opera Mundi que je n’ai pu retrouver.” [I will be delighted to continue Nimbus within a few days but with the agreement of Opera Mundi that I have not been able to find.][5] He did not know that the press agency had also left the capital. Opera Mundi had moved its head office to the Free Zone and had settled in Marseilles. Paul Winkler, a Jew of Hungarian origin, moved to New York, before losing his French citizenship. His wife, Betty Dablanc, tried to bring the illustrated magazine of Opera Mundi back to life.

Daix wanted to contact the agency to work with it again, but also to claim payment of several invoices that had been left unpaid just before the war: the payment for the Nimbus strips that has been delivered in June 1940, publication rights for the strip in South America, others that the King Features Syndicate owed him, as well as his share of the profits on postcards to the effigy of the hero.[6] The amount due is estimated at approximately 35 000 francs.

In Paris, in September 1940, Daix met a representative of Opera Mundi who updated him about the agency, that had settled in Marseilles, and advised him of Winkler’s departure. The representative explained to him that Dablanc, Winkler’s wife, refused to pay him because the agency’s account books were lost during the exodus.[7] Daix refused to take up his collaboration with Opera Mundi as the agency had not paid the money that it owed him.

Il was not the first time that the artist complained about the agency. Before the war, the payment of his share on Nimbus collectibles was sometimes delayed or even forgotten. Moreover, the artist considered that he did not benefit sufficiently from the phenomenal fame that professor Nimbus enjoyed. Winkler was known to be a harsh businessman and Daix fought regularly in order to obtain a raise in the price of his strips. Tensions between Daix and Winkler arose quite quickly.

[1] The original text has been very lightly revised for inaccuracies and spelling mistakes.

[2] They are the archival fund of Le Journal (8 AR files number 430, 431 and 592), seized papers that belonged to André Daix (F 7 14962-14964) and the files of the process held against the artist after the liberation (Z6 / 86, file number 1311).

[3] Archives nationales de France (A.N.), 8 AR 430: a preliminary agreement was signed on 30 August 1934 by Opera Mundi and André Daix. The “final” agreement, taking up the same terms as the previous agreement was signed on 18 January 1935.

[4] Groensteen, Thierry. La Bande dessinée, son Histoire et ses Maîtres. Cibdi/Skira Flammarion, 2009, p. 203.

[5] A.N., 8 AR 592: Letter from Daix to the editor in chief of the Journal, Limoges, dated 15 July 1940.

[6] A.N., Z 6/86 number 1311: Letter from Daix to Opera Mundi, dated 20 February 1941.

[7] A. N., Z 6/86 number 1311: Letter from Daix to André Fayet, dated 20 February 1941.


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