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In Search Of The Atom Style:

Part 1

If you find yourself in, or even near, Belgium this summer you must go and see an exhibition I have curated: In Search Of The Atom Style. The exhibition runs from June 5 to September 20, 2009, and is being held at the Atomium at the Square de l’Atomium in Brussels.

SO WHAT IS THE ‘ATOM STYLE’?
Welcome to a celebration of the exceptional contemporary comic artists who are continuing to make the « Atom Style » such a vibrant artistic movement. While the «Atom Style» is constantly changing, relevant and truly international, its roots lie in the Fifties - in the modernism exemplified by Expo ‘58, the dynamism of Belgium’s comics culture and the era’s spirit of optimism about the future. On these walls you can enjoy nine different projections, like the nine spheres of The Atomium, which spotlight seven leading innovators of the «Atom Style» and two selections of further artists. All of them interconnect to form one "live" network which mirrors the concept of this monument.

The « Atom Style » existed back in the Fifties, although it had not yet been given a name. It was not until 1977 that Joost Swarte, the first artist featured here, devised the concept. Earlier that year, the Dutch illustrator had already come up with the phrase « De klare lijn » (The Clear Line) to describe the outlined drawings and rigorous clarity of Hergé and his followers in the « Brussels School » in Tintin weekly. Swarte was well aware that another comics movement, to which he also belonged, was then harking back to the graphics, designs and decors of the past, and particularly the Fifties, as found in the « Marcinelle School » of Spirou weekly. In a humorous dialogue published in a Dutch magazine in 1977 he first named this movement « Atoomstijl » or « Atom Style ».

Swarte used his pompous art historian Anton Makassar to lecture the uncultivated workman Pierre van Genderen about this concept. As evidence, Makassar enthuses : "You can find beautiful examples of Atom Style in Belgium. The repercussions of this style are in many of the albums published by Dupuis." Makassar insists that "Still today, variations on the Atom Style are being invented", praising the Belgian Ever Meulen and the Spaniard Javier Mariscal, both included here. In a brilliant twist of revisionist history, Makassar even claims that "...the superb ‘Atomium’ monument is named after this style"!

Swarte clarified his concept still further in 1980 in a fake newspaper article on the title page of his 30 x 40 Futuropolis collection. Again, with Makassar as his mouthpiece, he decries the boring normalisation of European design of the period and extolls instead the « Atom Style » as « a style that plays with design », « the Contemporary Art Deco of 30 years ago » and « a style - like several others - which from time to time is reanimated for a moment, when fashion needs it ».

That « moment » never really ended. Suddenly, we are in the 21st century and we are living in the future. Now more than ever, we need the playful vision and liberating spirit of the « Atom Style » to help us look back to the futures that might have been, and look ahead to the futures still to come.


The Atomium in Brussels hosts the exhibition.

THE ORIGINS OF THE ATOM STYLE
In our search for the origins of the Atom Style, five forward-thinking geniuses of the “Marcinelle school” of Belgian comics stand out for their defining role. After the tragedy and austerity of the Second World War, Jijé (alias Joseph Gillain), mentor to André Franquin and Will (alias Willy Maltaite), followed by Jidehem (alias Jean De Mesmaker) and Maurice Tillieux,  understood that it was time to embrace modernity and give their readers new hopes and dreams, many of them American dreams. Spirou and Fantasio use the most advanced gadgets and cars, while Modeste and Pompon, and Monsieur Choc in his debut in Tif and Tondu, live with chic interior designs from the latest showrooms. These artists, working mostly for Dupuis, tuned into these changing times of rock’n'roll and the space race, adding tailfins and streamlining their vehicles, adorning walls with modern art, imagining striking buildings now possible in concrete. Their exuberant albums demonstrate the thoroughly modern becoming part of the everyday.

Among the millions who read these albums were the children who would grow up to revive and reinterpret them in the early 1980s and help establish the Atom Style. Critical to this was the meeting in 1980 in the comic shop Chic-Bull in Brussels between three young Parisian artists and collectors, Yves Chaland, Serge Clerc and Luc Cornillon, and the twin brothers Daniel and Didier Pasamonik, whose publishing house Magic Strip specialised in reprinting Belgian BD classics. The Frenchmen had started revisiting their favourites in new comics of their own, which went deeper than nostalgia, pastiche or appropriation, to create respectful, witty reinventions. Out of this encounter developed Magic Strip’s revolutionary collection of clothbound, two-colour hardback albums, appropriately named Atomium 58, to which Chaland, Clerc and Cornillon contributed the first three stories. This collection would become a catalogue for the Atom Style.

The postmodern times of the Eighties were clearly not the same as the modern times of the Fifties. Our faith in the future had proved naïve. But the Atom Style gave us an alternative and antidote to the disappointments after May 68 and the "No Future" of punk, and provided the perfect visuals to "New Romantic" fashions and music. Now in turn it is the object of nostalgia and cult status, but it is still very much alive, inspiring further generations of artists in Europe and beyond to enjoy the freedom to "play with design" in their comics.

In our search for the origins of the Atom Style, five forward-thinking geniuses of the "Marcinelle school" of Belgian comics stand out for their defining role. After the tragedy and austerity of the Second World Four, Jijé (alias Joseph Gillain), his three precocious protegés - André Franquin, Will (alias Willy Maltaite), Jidehem (alias Jean De Mesmaker) - and Maurice Tillieux understood that it was time to embrace modernity and give their readers new hopes and dreams, many of them American dreams. Spirou and Fantasio use the most advanced gadgets and cars, while Modeste and Pompon, and Monsieur Choc in his debut in Tif and Tondu, live with chic interior designs from the latest showrooms. These artists, working mostly for Dupuis, tuned into these changing times of rock’n'roll and the space race, adding tailfins and streamlining their vehicles, adorning walls with modern art, imagining striking buildings now possible in concrete. Their exuberant albums demonstrate the thoroughly modern becoming part of the everyday.

Among the millions who read these albums were the children who would grow up to revive and reinterpret them in the early 1980s and help establish the Atom Style. Critical to this was the meeting in 1980 in the comic shop Chic-Bull in Brussels between three young Parisian artists and collectors, Yves Chaland, Serge Clerc and Luc Cornillon, and the twin brothers Daniel and Didier Pasamonik, whose publishing house Magic Strip specialised in reprinting Belgian BD classics. The Frenchmen had started revisiting their favourites in new comics of their own, which went deeper than nostalgia, pastiche or appropriation, to create respectful, witty reinventions. Out of this encounter developed Magic Strip’s revolutionary collection of clothbound, two-colour hardback albums, appropriately named Atomium 58, to which Chaland, Clerc and Cornillon contributed the first three stories. This collection would become a catalogue for the Atom Style.

The postmodern times of the Eighties were clearly not the same as the modern times of the Fifties. Our faith in the future had proved naïve. But the Atom Style gave us an alternative and antidote to the disappointments after May 68 and the "No Future" of punk, and provided the perfect visuals to "New Romantic" fashions and music. Now in turn it is the object of nostalgia and cult status, but it is still very much alive, inspiring further generations of artists in Europe and beyond to enjoy the freedom to “play with design” in their comics.

JOOST SWARTE 
In our "Magnificent Seven" of Atom Style artists, the first and foremost has to be the Dutch illustrator Joost Swarte, who gave this movement its name. He began by studying industrial design but was encouraged to change careers and pursue comics instead when he discovered the uninhibited, uncensored, "sex, drugs and rock’n'roll" comix (or X-rated comics) by America’s counterculture rebels of the late Sixties and early Seventies, notably Robert Crumb. Through these imports, Swarte delved into their influential predecessors in early 20th century American newspaper strips, such as George McManus and his Art Deco masterpiece "Bringing Up Father". In a similar way, Swarte and other members of Holland’s underground scene, notably Marc Smeets, looked back to their own cultural touchstones and above all to Hergé. Swarte transforms the virtuous boy Tintin into the moody adolescent Jopo de Pojo, elongating his short ginger tuft into a rocker’s slick, erect quiff.

One criterion which Swarte sees as identifying Atom Style artists is that they "...take pleasure in rediscovering the graphics of the Fifties." His passion for this period of his youth comes through clearly in many elements of his masterfully composed spacious interiors: a vintage jukebox, a striking vase, Abstract and Cubist paintings, elegant light fittings and electrical appliances, those sculptural cacti, the very palette shape of his panels. The Fifties also fill his bustling street scenes, from the chrome bumpers of the cars to the innovative architectural forms made possible by new building materials.


Left: The new Swarte comics collection to be published by
Fantagraphics Books.
  Right: The Comics Journal #279
featured an in-depth interview with Joost Swarte.

Swarte’s images seamlessly combine the focus of "The Clear Line" to refine every element down to its essential contours in a uniform trait, with "The Atom Style", which seems to be less an artistic style to be adopted, and more an attitude, a state of mind, or as Swarte sees it, "... the taste for inventing things in a positive direction." Swarte, however, wittily tempers this optimism by adding amusing details: a spilt drink, an unplugged hairdryer, a suicidal cat and a constipated dog, and above all his usually far-from-idealised protagonists. Perhaps he’s suggesting that reality can never quite live up to the advertisers’ promises or urban planners’ utopias and that, however sophisticated our homes, cities and lifestyles become, we will inevitably remain imperfect, chaotic and wonderfully human.

JAVIER MARISCAL
Born in Valencia, Javier Mariscal grew up with the sun, the Mediterranean, and street festivals like San José, in which locals build huge, colourful sculptures of cardboard and paper, or "fallas", some realistic, others crazily exaggerated, and set them all on fire. As a boy, he would make a little falla each year. Quitting his graphic design studies in Barcelona after two years, he was 23 when he began pouring his raw, streetwise vitality and liberated self-expression into his earliest hippy comics. These truly "underground" publications were quickly targeted by General Franco’s repressive censorship, which forced Mariscal to flee to Ibiza for two years. Everything changed after the Spanish dictator’s death in 1976, and comics and other artforms flourished in a new climate of freedom.


This is one of three brand-new Atom Style illustrations
specially created for the exhibition by Javier Mariscal.

Mariscal’s fame soon started to spread abroad. After translating one of his comics in the Dutch anthology Tante Leny, Swarte visited him in Barcelona in 1978 and they became firm friends. In Swarte’s opinion, "Mariscal is very vivid, he’s life itself. His strips are just the way he is - going out, having laughs, going to the seaside to see the sun, have dinner, meet nice girls. His spirit is very optimistic." This infuses Mariscal’s comics and covers, many for El Vibora, the flagship of new Spanish adult comics launched in December 1979. In Mariscal’s mix-and-match, high-and-low worldview, everyday settings of supermarkets, petrol stations and kitchens are refashioned with modernist aesthetics and cartoonish eccentricity. Disney meets Kandinsky in his Mickey Mouse-inspired critters Fermin and Piker, Los Garriris, who ride their Vespas or go to the beach with their fishing dog Julian.

Comics and illustration are only one facet of Estudio Mariscal’s versatile output, as major clients have enabled him to turn his fanciful design ideas from print into real products and buildings. These range from fabrics, furniture (his Duplex stool is an Eighties design icon) and decors for bars, clubs, shops and hotels, to the famous 1992 Olympic mascot Cobi the dog, adapted into comics and animation. He has also found success in the contemporary art world, notably his 2005 sculpture Crash!, a true-to-scale reproduction of an exploded 1959 Chevrolet Impala, rich in symbolism about how the future is no longer what it used to be. For this exhibition he has made a special new piece in "The Atom Style." Mariscal is an unstoppable force, able to bring his natural spontaneity to almost anything.

DANIEL TORRES
Another son of Valencia, like Mariscal, Daniel Torres studied Fine Art and Architecture there and made his comics debut in El Vibora magazine in 1980. His first influences were the classic American adventure strips born in the Thirties: Flash Gordon, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy. Then came his discovery of Hergé, Jacobs and other Belgian masters which spurred him to change magazines in 1982, joining Cairo, a new forum for the Franco-Belgian "Clear Line" and "Atom Style" revivals and their Spanish peers. It was here that Torres began finding his distinctive voice on the retro-future thriller Opium. Sir Opium is a Fu Manchu-type villain in top hat and tails who terrorises an extraordinary retro-future metropolis. Torrres fills it with huge Fifties-style automobiles, real shark-finned gas-guzzlers, which cruise past towering buildings resembling gigantic jukeboxes or festooned with eye-catching logos and hoardings.


Cover to the Roco Vargas collection,
published by Dark Horse.

Torres progressed to his first full-length story in colour, Triton, serialised in Cairo in 1983. For this he introduced his ongoing hero Roco Vargas, a retired space pilot, who is trying to live a discreet life as science fiction writer and nightclub owner Armando Mistral. Not surprisingly, Vargas gets called back into service to save the planet from alien invasion. Torres designs every glamorous detail blending classical and modern references. His next project is Sabotage! for Magic Strip’s Atomium 58 collection. For this conspiracy caper about North Vietnamese spies trying to steal a revolutionary car engine, he switched from his cool, sharp pen-lines to bolder, more sensuous brush-strokes. This process of constant, careful refinement has been his approach ever since on successive Roco Vargas mysteries - The Whisper Mystery, Saxxon, The Faraway Star, and others -  as he deepens his leading man’s character, background and personal life.

The dazzling draughtsmanship of Torres is greatly in demand in Spain and beyond and has illuminated a plethora of other projects from his graphic novels, and children’s books about the dinosaur Tom to posters, paintings and illustrations where he can experiment more liberally with refracted Cubist-inspired collages. As well as being inspired by Meulen, Chaland, Clerc and other "Atom Style" masters, Torres is also paying tribute to his own Spanish forebears, such as favourite comic artists Benejam, Opisso and Josep Coll from the Fifties. These are further proof that the sources of the "Atom Style" are to be found far and wide.

To be continued in part 2…


EXTRA: JOOST SWARTE & ATOOMSTIJL
Here’s my translation of Joost Swarte’s satirical dialogue from the Dutch anthology Tante Leny Presenteert in 1977 in which he first coined the term "Atoomstijl". Among the other names suggested, all surrounding his main Atoomstijl logo are: Neo-Modernism; The Year 2000; Modern Futurism; New Barbarism; Neo Futurism: Futurist Modernism; Contemporary Art Deco; The Belgian Frontier; Miscellaneous/Diversico.

Anton Makassar [a pun on the word anti-Makassar, the cloths put over heads of chairs to protect them from hair oil]:
Have I heard right somewhere that Art Deco applications were actually discovered in the period between 1920 and 1940?

Pierre Van Genderen:
Make sure Albert Speer doesn’t hear about that.

A.M.:
Haven’t you come to fix my TV, Pierre?

P.v.G.:
That’s why you had me come here. Weren’t you complaining about the modern designs you’re getting on your TV programmes?

A.M.:
Yes, Pierre, do something about this.

P.v.G.:
Of course, sir.

A.M.:
To return to Art Deco, of course it didn’t stop in 1940. Before and during the Second World War, people in Germany suffered from style. The parents of Deco were discredited, as if they carrying out acts of barbarism. This barbarism of twisted skyscrapers, as well pre-War Futurismm are perhaps, actually at the source of the « Atom Style » deco of the post-War… industry aimed at satisfying human needs grew according to the American model and many designers had the chance to stand out from the crowd with their bizarre designs… Red, black and dirty yellow lamps in the shape of tulips, perforated or not, tables for your TV in the shape of an artist’s palette with splayed feet. Intelligent designers sold their creations to manufacturers as if they were dealing with functional, attractive products desired and bought by many. I have a fine example in my collection. A wire chair, the sort you no longer see in rooms for guests and teenagers. You can find beautiful examples of Atom Style in Belgium. In many of the albums published by Dupuis you find this style is reflected. Bureaux de change at the border, demolished ages ago, used to be built in the Atom Style. And the superb « Atomium » monument is named after this style. Still today, variations on the Atom Style are being invented.The illustrator Ever Meulen does it superbly. A groupe of male and female illustrators in Paris, operating under the name « Bazooka », are doing the same. But one of the finest examples without doubt is the work of the Spanish artist Mariscal (and he’s not the only one in that country!). Look at the cover he’s created for the colletion of comics « El Sidecar » (pronounced as : El-sigh-dee-kar).

P.v.G.:
Well, Mister Makassar, you clearly know a lot of stuff about this subject.

A.M.:
Quite! I could also introduce you into the ways of Art. Have you ever heard of Matisse? Or Kandinsky?... Actually, how far have you got with my television?

P.v.G.:
It’s working. You didn’t have an antenna. Fortunately, I found some sort of chair which, used like an antenna, can still be of service to you. Perhaps the piece of fabric left over from it might come in handy as a tie if you cut it up properly.

A.M.:
But I wear bow-ties, Van Genderen!... Bow-ties!

Posted: May 31, 2009

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ATOM STYLE
EXHIBITION

Brussels ‘09
Atomium
Brusel TV
Youtube

THE SEVEN SPOTLIGHTED
‘ATOM STYLE’
ARTISTS

Joost Swarte
Ever Meulen
Javier Mariscal
Yves Chaland
Serge Clerc
Daniel Torres
François Avril

OTHER
‘ATOM STYLE’
ARTISTS

Ted Benoit
Paul Rivoche
Rian Hughes
Antoio Lapone
Grégoire Bouchard
Woodrow Phoenix
Laurent Cilluffo
Reinhart (Croon)

EXHIBITION
REVIEWS

Le Soir
Actua BD

INTERVIEWS:
Paul Gravett,
Woodrow Phoenix
& Garen Ewing

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Daniel Torres
Euro Comics
Exhibitions
Javier Mariscal
Joost Swarte

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