Natacha: Flying Bellhop

19 Jan

by  Philippe Capart

Translated by Annick Pellegrin

Edited by Lise Tannahill

Original publication: Capart, Philippe. “Natacha : Groom de l’air.” La Crypte tonique nov/déc 2012: 28-34. Print.[1]

Peyo’s Gang

Peyo, Franquin, Will, Tillieux and Roba, the creative nucleus of the magazine Spirou, were buddies. Stuck at their drawing tables for long days, they occasionally needed to get together and often went out as a gang. However, Gos specifies: “But it was their… they were friends amongst themselves, as for us, we were a generation below, hey!”. There were drinking parties that sometimes made Mondays a difficult day for the team. According to Gos,

François [Walthéry] understood psychology better than I did, he had said to me “For God’s sake! Don’t come and show your drawings on Mondays, he may have partied hard on the Saturday and still be headachy, it’s not the right time to show him what we’ve done! I never show him anything on Mondays, I show him on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.” François, he’s a “clever peasant” as Peyo used to say.

With the success of the Smurf products, Peyo took on the role of sales representative, he was often away from his studio, taking part in festivals and negotiating contracts all over Europe. The boss didn’t like it when his assistants worked on pages without his supervision. His artists, with the shop left to them and with no income, had to go and find work. It was Gos, the lettering artist who had become Peyo’s scriptwriter since Vicq’s passing away, who travelled to the editorial offices. Past the inevitable stage of short stories, Boubou le puma [Boubou the Puma] and Roland la Bricole [Orlando Handyman], Gos looked for a way to streamline the work and find a contract for a series in instalments, in order to reach, one sweet day, the gold that is the album. The base of the work was shifting from the press to the book.

During their exchanges, Gos and Yvan Delporte[3] agreed on an escapist series focused on a flight attendant. Gos was hesitant to draw her:

Nicole, my wife, told me: “If you take on Natacha, you will suffer like no-one should suffer for women, you’re not used to it, you will have to draw planes, cars, and your Scrameustache, it will never see the light of day. Give this to François, otherwise no-one will write scripts for him, and he does girls really well.

In 1967, Gos wrote the whole script and submitted it to the editorial offices: “Delporte said “ok…” and he added: “you’ll tell François to draw her in such a way that people will want to make her tumble over on the couch!!”” (laughs)

Natacha has caused more than just ink to flow!

In the first two volumes, made to measure by Gos, Walthéry obediently applied what he had learned from Mittéï, Will and Peyo. There was a three-year gap between the submission of the script and its release in the magazine Spirou because Walthéry had to alternate between Natacha and Benoît Brisefer… It was the new editor-in-chief, Thierry Martens, who pressured the artist to complete the first adventure. Gos admitted: “That is why I ended up not working on Natacha anymore. I had to wait for him to finish in order to get paid.”

Following a disagreement with Peyo, Gos left the studio in 1969 and it was Marc Wasterlain who replaced him. An atypical artist: son of a doctor from a small town along the French border, trained in bande dessinée in a Brussels private school and assistant to Dino Attanasio, a regular at avant-garde gallery cocktails and a fan of nice cars, recently back from a boho stay in Amsterdam.[4] Wasterlain recalled his arrival at the studio: “I was brought in like a fly in the ointment”. His graphic style was unique, with a strong tendency towards the baroque.

Living in Brussels, Wasterlain and Walthéry spent time together outside the studio. For the nth time, François dragged him to see a movie by a director whose work he was enthusiastic about, Sam Peckinpah on the forefront of the poster, in order to comment an interesting angle or the effectiveness of an action scene. A fan of the US artist Jack Davis, François guided Wasterlain to Brussels’ English bookstore, a rare stockist of the magazine MAD. He shared his enthusiasm for the great US authors. “François always had a teacher-like side to him” said Wasterlain amused. Peyo’s health issues slowed down the activities in his studio, the two authors mixed their drawing styles in the Benoît Brisefer album Lady Adolphine, with Walthéry taking care of the puppets and Wasterlain taking care of the backdrop and the props. Wasterlain and Walthéry, who had never really managed to fit into the Smurfs mould set by Peyo, became independent. Wasterlain, accompanied by Delporte, went and offered Bob Moon et Titania[5] to the editorial offices of the rival magazine, Tintin, whilst Walthéry invested himself completely in Natacha.

François quite liked a certain freedom that he didn’t have when he worked with me. Now I understand it much better, you have to give him an idea, let him develop it, even if you come back to the dialogues later.

“You’re a damn good man, sister!”

It was Étienne Borgers, an industrial engineer whom they had met during their military service in Germany, who would set fire to the series. The two friends had tastes in common: bande dessinée, music, cinema. Walthéry, taken up by the publication schedule of the magazine Spirou and without a scriptwriter, borrowed a new police series that his friend had started. Borgers:

I told him: “Come on, you have a character who is a bit “child-like”, mine is “noir” and it’s going towards rather hard things, without being horribly violent, but it is starting to ruffle some feathers! This story isn’t gonna work and in Spirou, do you realise??” François said “yes, but it’s action-packed, I love it! I want to change genres”.

The news convinced Martens, the editor-in-chief, who was a fan of noir stories. One small transformation, a minor one according to Walthéry: the main character had to be changed from a man to a woman.

During a holiday together in Denmark in 1972, when the two friends were working on the story, Borgers, a fan of shooting ranges, brought character and precision to the firing arms:

I’m the one who made him correct the firing arms from the beginning, because already in his other adventures, when he had shown me the first albums… I quite liked them but he drew revolvers like bananas and submachine guns like syringes.

Sam Peckinpah’s film, The Getaway, was still fresh in their memories and Steve McQueen’s slide-action firearm would naturally fit into the cast. The story respected the unity of time and place. Walthéry set the story in his city, Liège, cast Tillieux as a gangster, changed the cars into ammunition and immersed Natacha in a nightmarish night pursuit that smelled like disco and shotgun shell. It was speed that carried the story, an impression that was reinforced by the delay in drawing the plates. During the creation of the story, Walthéry left Brussels to return to Cheratte-Hauteurs: “It was a time that was very hard for me. I had lost my father who had Alzheimer’s disease. He was 62 years old. So I took it out on the drawings!!”.

The artists from the older generation, Tillieux and Franquin, and the younger ones, Bernard Hislaire, Frank Pé, Darasse, Renoy were all enthusiastic about the story La Mémoire de métal [The Memory of Metal]. His scriptwriter was also delighted: “That’s him 100%!!” Walthéry: “I’d put everything into this album. Tillieux had thought I’d overdone it at first, he had said “It looks like a final battle!””. He suggested: “Don’t bother!”. Walthéry learned from his elder to spare his efforts and effects. The professional bande dessinée artist is more a marathon runner than a sprinter. What matters is lasting the course. Forty years later Walthéry is still going strong. Lesson well learnt!

“To play off key when you’re really a talented musician, you’ve got to accept that money is your conductor!!”

Philippe CAPART was born in Brussels in 1973 to a physicist father and a ceramist mother. Fascinated with static and animated images, he creates animated cartoons and comics, and undertakes research on the animation studios C.B.A., T.V.A. and BELVISION; he has published widely on this theme. In 2011, he created the shop-magazine La Crypte tonique, which focuses on narration through images. Capart likes to mix the sacred and the profane, the old and the new, the dead and the living.

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

[2] On the French and Belgian markets, the hard cover album, with one hero throughout, started to supersede, for ego and economic reasons, the ephemeral magazine and “revue” spirit.

[3] Translator’s note: Delporte was then editor-in-chief of the magazine Spirou.

[4] For more information on the author, see Poelaert, Eric, Jean-Michel Vernet, and Gilles Ratier. Wasterlain: une monographie, 2012. Print.

[5] Wasterlain, Marc. Bob Moon et Titania: une base sur la Lune. Beersel (Belgium): Pan-Pan, 2009. Print.; Wasterlain, Marc. En avant Mars. Beersel (Belgium) Pan-Pan, 2010. Print.

[6] Famous line from the detective Sam Spade addressed to his secretary Effie Perine, in the noir novel The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, 1930.

[7] See La Crypte tonique Jan-Feb 2012.


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