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Unhappily Ever After

Winshluss at the Pinocchio book launch and exhibition at Foyles, London.

Deep-frozen Uncle Walt must be spinning at a rate of knots in his cryogenic chamber. Whatever would Disney make of his seminal, family-friendly animated cartoons, from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to his classic children’s book adaptations, being kidnapped by cartoonists and twisted into searing satires, raunchy romps and crazy graphic novels for adults? In fact, the ‘funny animal’ genre and bedtime fairytales have ceased to be just kids’ stuff for years.

Before Marvel’s Howard the Duck was forced by Disney’s lawyers to put on some trousers in the mid-Seventies, there was already a long subversive tradition embracing such notorious underground comix (x as in X-rated) as Air Pirate Funnies by Dan O’Neill and cronies, sued and halted by Disney, and Robert Crumb’s lascivious Fritz the Cat, animated by Ralph Bakshi. It goes back to the Fifties and Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder’s scathing Mickey Rodent in Mad, pointedly topical strip Pogo by Walt Kelly (a former Disney employee), and earlier still to Mickey and Minnie’s frolics, not long after their silver screen debuts, in the Tijuana Bibles of the Thirties, those anonymous sex-education parody booklets designed to fit in a pocket or one hand.

Winshluss signing copies of Pinocchio at Foyles.

One of the freshest and funniest to continue this Humor in a Jugular Vein, as Mad put it, is Winshluss, the pen-name of Frenchman Vincent Paronnaud, which comes from childhood garblings of his first name. Though forbidden to watch television by his Communist father, little Vincent would sneak into the living room at night to watch late movies with the sound turned off. Growing up as an avid comics reader in Pau, near the Spanish border in southwest France, he never went to art school, but at age 18 he was an energetic, self-motivated painter, singer, guitarist and cartoonist. In 1995 he drew for the fanzine Les Aventures de Miguel. The following year brought the launch of Ferraille (‘scrap metal’), a wild underground comix quarterly from Les Requins Marteaux (‘The Hammerhead Sharks’), which became a regular outlet and his introduction to future collaborator Cizo. It was here and at Le Dernier Cri, the extreme screen-printing radicals in Marseilles, that his first solo books appeared in 1999.

Winshluss has come a long way since, creating and editing comics, mounting stunning exhibitions, making gallery art and movies. As well as writing and directing his own productions, including the insane zombie comedy Villemolle, he has also collaborated with Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi on the Oscar-nominated cartoon adaptation of her graphic novel Persepolis and the imminent live-action version of her Chicken With Plums. His rising acclaim in the bande dessinée world was topped in 2008, when his deliciously disturbing reinterpretation of Pinocchio won the prestigious Essential Award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France.

So why has it taken till 2011 for his 200-page ‘tour-de-farce’ to be finally translated into English from Knockabout Comics and Last Gasp? Apparently some American publishers were a bit nervous about the Disney references, and perhaps also about the book’s outrageous yet outrageously hilarious black comedy. I met Winshluss, wiry, bearded and reflective over his cigarettes and coffee, when he was in London in March for the book’s publication and an exhibition of his original artwork at Foyles Bookshop. About his influences on Pinocchio, he told me, “I’m more inspired by the animated Walt Disney version than the original tale by Carlo Collodi. Pinocchio was one of the first cartoons I saw, from that era of great Disney movies when they kept some of the cruelty from the original stories. The characters, for example, were more ambiguous, and for me the children’s transformation into donkeys or the sequence inside the whale were really traumatic events.” There’s plenty of trauma in his “very freely adapted” version, in which the whale is replaced by an ordinary fish mutated by radioactive waste into the gigantic ‘Dogzilla’.

It turns out this is is not the first time Winshluss has remixed Disney’s 1940 animation gem. Back in the late Nineties, he and Cizo developed Monsieur Ferrialle as a perverse mascot for Ferraille magazine by splicing together a clunky ‘Super Robot’, inspired by his childhood reading of Robot Archie translated from the British weekly Lion, with an utterly amoral capitalist huckster. In one episode in their 2001 compilation, Monsieur Ferraille narrates the cautionary tale and appears in it as a metallic puppet magically brought to life. Typically, his first act is to fondle the Fairy Godmother’s breast, so she endows him with a Jiminy Cricket-style cockroach as his conscience. It’s not long though before the nagging bug gets squashed, freeing the puppet to claim to be over 18, start drinking, chat up Betty Boop and offer her his extended nose.

Front and back covers of the Monsieur Ferraille collection by Winshluss.
The idyllic countryside is transformed by the profiteering robot
into an industrial hellhole on the back cover.

In his latest topsy-turvy version, Winshluss has again made Pinocchio into a robot, dressed initially in red and yellow with white, four-fingered gloves like Mickey Mouse, but one who doesn’t speak, so he cannot lie, so his nose never grows. “Robots are a bit of an obsession of mine! But this Pinocchio is the absolute opposite of the unscrupulous Monsieur Ferraille, because he has no personality. Instead of an anti-hero, he’s a non-hero, something who moves the story forward and becomes the unwitting catalyst for all the mess around him. Wherever he goes, he seems to bring out people’s worst schemes.”

Devious scheming starts with Gepetto himself, whom Winshluss switches from kindly toymaker to a ‘certified inventor’, who drools at the money to be made from hawking his robotic breakthrough to the miltary. But his plans collapse after tiny Jiminy Cockroach, jobless, loveless, homeless, moves into Pinocchio’s brain. Fiddling with wires - “I’m sure with all this mess, there’s a way to get cable for free!” - Jiminy shortcircuits him and soon Gepetto’s bored, oversexed wife is making Pinocchio give her a “nose job”. The only snag is that Gepetto has installed a flame-thrower in the robot’s conk, resulting in an explosive climax. On his return, the horrified husband has to dispose of her barbecued remains and find where his lucrative invention has wandered off to.

The mirth remains macabre, as Winshluss contrasts his wordless visual storyteling of most of the book with the wordy, black-and-white interludes charting Jiminy’s steady decline. Winschluss admits, “His character as an unemployed loudmouth is quite autobiographical. I used to be like that myself, wanting to be a great artist, but doing nothing about it.” Despite setting up home inside Pinocchio’s head, Jiminy Cockroach brings no moralising guidance to his blank host, although he can provide some physical benefit. For instance, when the robot overheats, the insect has a brainwave -  “This Belgian beer will make an ideal extinguisher!”  - so he guzzles it and pisses onto the fire to put it out.

Pinocchio’s world is brilliantly illustrated in tightly edited silent panels, subtly coloured by Cizo and cohorts to look like old faded comic books, and in arresting full-page paintings, as rich as vintage animation backgrounds. On top of this is the genius of Winshluss’s writing in the way he plants clues that only entangle the plot later and keeps this familiar cautionary tale constantly unpredictable. So he drops Pinocchio into another Disney cartoon when he gets hoodwinked by the “The Sleazy Seven”, who are keeping their poisoned Snow White on life support. Stealing his suitcase of cash, the dwarves buy a black-market heart and perform a successful transplant, but their lewd advances so terrify their reanimated plaything, Snow White throws herself off a cliff.

Here Winshluss puts back the grim and the ‘grimly feendish’ into this Brothers Grimm fable. “My version is closer to the original stories, which were all about the child entering adulthood. Our vision of childhood is completely sanitised. There is nothing more cruel than a kid!” Almost everyone the voiceless, soulless Pinocchio meets seems driven by greed or lust or both, from the two trickster tramps, one in a top hat, the other a blind black man named Wonder, to the orphaned ‘Natural Born Loser’, whose dream of paradise on The Enchanted Isle turns sour when he and the other boys devolve into a savage werewolf army.

It becomes a potent brew as Winshluss mixes in two further yarns: the gritty murder mystery of Gepetto’s wife, pursued by a depressive detective with an Easter Island statue for his head; and the farmer and his wife, whose child died stillborn and who wind up adopting Pinocchio as their own when he falls from the stars like an infant Superman. It may be make-believe, but it’s a ‘happily ever after’ end of sorts for our non-hero; happier anyway than the fates of most of the other players, except for Snow White rescued by a blonde amazon surfer and the mechanical eyeball smitten by a snake.

As the author sees it, “What I address in my comics is the relationship of the individual with society and ultimately you realize that the individual has very little choice. I see the weight that society places on individuals and their reaction to it. I think what I try to do is very human. I have a rather low opinion of humanity, but not of the individual.” Moving from teenage maverick to multi-talented writer, artist and director, Winshluss seems like one individual who might make his own happy ending. “The bigger commercial sphere doesn’t necessarily pervert the little guy. Sometimes it works out. And after working for years in the underground for nothing, it’s definitely good to get paid something now!”

Posted: June 12, 2011

Photos © Etienne Gilfillan.


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