8FOLD/HCC: Nonfiction # 1, So I Wished Them Up

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Fri Feb 22 17:56:21 PST 2013


   Americans invented comic books, and they invented the genre that's not only dominated the form for most of the last century but also become synonymous with it. I am speaking of course of funny animal comics. And now with the advances in CG, and much to the chagrin of certain cinephiles, funny animal adventure stories ala Barks, Gottfredson, and Rosa completely dominate the summer blockbuster line-ups as well. The genre's worldwide spread is somewhat surprising given the indifference with which the comics are treated in Europe.
   Funny animals have always been too fanciful, too made-up, for our fellow humans who live across the pond. There, comics have always been dominated by nonfiction and realistic fiction: biographies, crime stories, confessionals, and superhero comics have always reigned supreme.

   In 1938, there was a sudden explosion in America of mystery men and black capes, followed in 1939 by its spread to Spain, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Nazi Germany. The lack of similar champions in France was conspicuous.
   One day in mid-1939, Paris-based comics publisher Pierre de Nemours was having dinner with one of his competitors, who had begun to translate non-fiction superhero comics from the United Kingdom. He paid twice as much per page as he did with original comics, but it was so profitable that he was planning on phasing out the original comics to concentrate solely on translations of superhero stories.
   De Nemours always ran a very tight ship, with low overhead and low but respectable profits. If he was to jump into this genre, he knew he'd need to borrow money to pay exorbitant royalties demanded by the foreign publishers. He also knew that other small publishers would be likely to do the same, that the market might become oversaturated and collapse, leaving him in debt. Rather than take that kind of risk, he took another, gambling that readers would be just as interested in comics about made-up superheroes.

   Or, as he put it much later, "The rest of the world had heroes, and we didn't. We needed them, so I wished them up." This not only glosses over the true financial motivations for his decision, but is also plainly untrue, as he didn't "make up" any of the characters that debuted in the first album of SOCIETE DE L'EGALITE. For this, he picked the writer that he paid and trusted in the least, figuring both that children would buy it even if badly written and that he would maximize his profit before the market collapsed.
   And it is true, Marc Demy, his writer, certainly lacked the literary qualities one associates with the great comics writers of the thirties and forties. His work was primal (some would say primitive), pell-mell, and prone to messy sudden reversals and anti-climax. And yet, Demy was endlessly inventive, springing forth not one superhero, but a dozen.
   The best of his champions were also the weirdest and also the most nationalistic. There was Botaparte, a robot who in the first album was possessed by the spirit of Napoleon, in the second merely thought he was, and by the fourth/fifth (about which more later) he was the "reincarnation" of the Corsican ogre. Then there was the four-person trifecta: bare-breasted Liberté, the only female character, who "freed" their enemies from the chains of their villainy through mind-control, yet was relegated to being the group's secretary; Fraternité, twin brothers who shared one mind between their two brains, allowing for incredible acrobatic feats of coordination; and Demy's masterstroke, Egalité.
   Egalité, the de facto leader of the Société dedicated to his name, always seemed to have a new power in every panel. He could fly, bend iron, was impervious to bullets, could see for miles, could set things on fire with his breath, breath underwater, read minds, hypnotize, travel back in time at will, explode and then bring himself back together, separate in multiple bodies, shrink, grow, chew off his hand and grow a new one made out of solid gold. Liberal and angry, like his creator, he would use his powers to right social wrongs in France. Also like his creator, he was Jewish, though given his publisher's anti-Semitism (another reason for Demy's low payrate) this was never explicitly stated.

   De Nemours teamed Demy up with a new artist, Marc Becker, whose slender yet muscular character designs are appealing despite the rough and sometimes rushed quality of the work. The two Marcs became fast friends, and in less than a month after meeting the first album was done. It went to press in August of 1939, and was a huge success, going through multiple printings.
   A second album was already underway when Germany invaded Poland in September. The Marcs scrapped the second album and started from scratch, pitting their Société against real-life German heroes (now rendered villainous). It was released on January of 1940; the third, which saw Egalité turn Hitler into a turnip that was eaten by rats, hit stands in April. Then, of course, came Case Yellow in May, Case Red in June, and with it, the armistice. De Nemours in despair burned the fourth album, which had already been printed, on the day Paris fell.

   With Paris occupied, it would seem natural for our story to end here. But it doesn't. The Germans, in fact, wanted the SOCIETE DE L'EGALITE albums to continue. It is unclear precisely who decided what, when, and why, but in December of 1940 De Nemours published a new, German-approved fourth album.
   The splash page found the Société de l'égalité only eleven-strong, with Egalité himself conspicuously absent. They are gathered before Hitler; venal, seething, and monstrous in the third album, here the Fuhrer is depicted almost as a god. The heroes jump at the chance to serve him, and to cooperate with the German heroes they had fought in the second and third albums. Together, they will root out traitors, dissidents, and degenerates who threaten France and the Reich.
   Chief among these enemies is Egalité. A coded and sympathetic Jew in the first three albums, he is now a monstrous Nazi cartoon of Jewishness that extends to a horrifying redesign by Becker. Now called the Eternal Jew, his vast powers are used to commit terrible, almost unthinkable atrocities. His eleven former teammates swear to exterminate him, and all his kind, from the earth.
   The fourth album sold more copies than the second and third combined, and indeed more than all that followed. It seems likely it wasn't because the children of Paris and it suburbs were buying what the album was selling. Remember, before the Internet, there were no spoilers, no reviews, no buzz; a kid saw the long-delayed newest album in his favorite series, and he plucked down his francs without question. Sales were down precipitously for the fifth album, or, rather, the fifth albums.

   For in certain stores, next to and in some cases instead of the full-colour fifth De Nemours album, there was a black-and-white anonymous album also numbered five. The black-and-white had a full-colour cover illustration by Becker, and the pages inside were also Becker's. And, then, of course, there was the story, which found the Société, led by Egalité, fighting Germans and Japanese. The story was clearly written by Demy for, as one historian told me over drinks, no imitator could write so poorly and inventively.
   A week after the black-and-white hit the stands, someone knocked on the door of Becker's apartment well after midnight. Marc Becker answered the door. Madame Becker, six months pregnant with their first child, recalled that the visitor looked German. He didn't come in; he asked Becker to come with him. Becker left the apartment and was never seen again.
   Becker had secretly worked on the "real" Demy-authored fifth album while working on the two "Nazi" albums. He knew that in doing so he had signed his own death warrant.

   At least, this is the story that Madame Becker and their son Paul have perpetrated during the post-war years. It is, sadly, untrue. In 1997, one and a half pages of the full-colour original fourth album (the one that was destroyed when Paris fell) were discovered. They corresponded exactly to pages in the black-and-white number five. And so, the black-and-white five was a reproduction of the lost number four. In fact, close analysis of the black-and-white five reveals that a saved colour copy of the lost number four was disassembled and used to make the black-and-white five. We know this because some of the pages look "torn" at the edge where the original's staples were pulled out, and because of the differences between it and the "true" black-and-white albums, numbers six and seven, where the blacks are black and the whites white with none of the grays that arise from making black-and-white copies of colour originals.

   Both number sixes, the De Nemours six and the Demy six, used Becker art on their covers. Inside, it was a different story. De Nemours hired a new artist who produced some brilliant art in the service of evil propaganda. His or her name we do not know, because he signed his name Marc Becker. The readers knew the difference, though, and when the seventh album came out, hardly anyone bought it.
   The sixth Demy also had a new artist, also unnamed. Some suspect it was Demy himself. Rough and unpolished, to my eye there are still moments of stark primitive beauty and evocative uses of silhouette and deep blacks. Like Demy's writing, it is endlessly inventive if not particularly well-executed.
   The Germans made sure the sixth Demy was difficult to find; the seventh was almost impossible. I spoke with a French historian who suggests that the seventh was never actually available for sale, but was circulated privately and secretly among Demy's friends. This certainly explains why it is the rarest of the albums, and yet the one that is almost always the best preserved when a new copy emerges on the market.

   There was not an eighth album from either publisher. De Nemours at that time was losing too much money, and whatever German decided it was a good idea to keep the SOCIETE DE L'EGALITE going decided it was not such a good idea after all. It is unclear why there wasn't an eighth Demy, but it is also unclear what happened to him after 1941. Did the Germans find him? Did he flee to another country? No one knows.

   I'd like to think, however, that he lived long enough to see the Battle of Ardennes. When the tide turned against the Germans, Hitler sent in what few German four-colours that weren't bleeding in Russia and hadn't fled to America to the front. Each hero was classified as his own Korps, such was their power. It is possible that this last desperate effort would have rendered the Wacht am Rhein a success.
   But then, out of nowhere, appeared twelve champions dressed in costumes of black and white. For one brief impossible hour, the Société de l'égalité was real. We need them, so someone wished them up. After that hour, they had disappeared, the German heroes have been utterly destroyed, allowing the allies to continue fighting, and, of course, to win.

   The albums, from either publisher, are not well-regarded in France. Most readers do not know about the black-and-whites; to them, the story of the Société de l'égalité is the story of Nazi collaboration. An attempt to revive the characters in the late fifties was unsuccessful and in fact resulted in death threats to the new publisher. Later attempts have been equally unsuccessful. No matter how many stories are written about the characters in heroic roles, no matter how many partisans speak to the glories, rough as they are, of the black-and-whites, these wondrous, strange, and idiosyncratic creations of the equally wondrous and strange Marc Demy will always be ruined by four stories that he never wrote.


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