In Search Of The Atom Style:
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.
In Part 1 of this article I discussed the origins of the Atom Style together with a closer look at the work of Joost Swarte, Javier Mariscal and Daniel Torres. Now read on…
From The Clear Line To The Atom Style
Born in Lyon on 3 April 1957, Yves Chaland spent a childhood illuminated by reading Spirou magazine. After studying at the Saint-Étienne School of Fine Arts, he is published in the magazine Métal Hurlant. While this monthly, founded by Moebius and Druillet, was initially devoted only to science fiction, it soon opens up to all sorts of graphic experiments. Major names emerge: Frank Margerin, Dodo and Ben Radis, Serge Clerc, Ted Benoit… a generation who reinvigorate French comics. Chaland, following Joost Swarte’s lead, helps to unlock further the Franco-Belgian style but, paradoxically, recaptures its timeless elements to give it a fresh, thoroughly modern look. It’s an astonishing piece of work, because it establishes the status of Belgium’s great authors as true ‘classics’, not just nostalgic but very much alive.
While Joost Swarte and Ted Benoit modernise the style of Hergé, and Floc’h that of Jacobs, Chaland takes his own path by referring back to the masters of the «Marcinelle School.» After Captivant (Captivating), in which he and Luc Cornillon pastiche the comics of the Fiftes, Chaland publishes first Bob Fish (1980) and then Freddy Lombard (1981) in which he makes clear references to Franquin and Tillieux. Not long after, he is entrusted with the character Spirou, with Cœurs d’Acier (Hearts of Steel) (1982) but his ambitions are misunderstood and the series is abruptly cancelled and left unfinished.
by Yves Chaland
Chaland’s masterpiece in the Atom Style is without a doubt Adolphus Claar (1983), which relates the adventures of the director of a factory which reconditions 23rd century machinery with uncooperative robots. His drawing is dynamic, precise, inventive and inspired, projecting into the future the aesthetics of the Fifties, particularly of Spirou et l’aventure (1947) by Jijé and Spirou: Radar le robot (1947) by Franquin.
by Yves Chaland
Chaland then produces several quite different works, with Le jeune Albert (1985) and the continuation of the Freddy Lombard series (three volumes until 1990). Tragically, a road accident on his return from a family holiday on 18 July 1990 ends his young career. With barely ten or so albums, Chaland’s influence is profound and international. "Yves Chaland: Visionary of Europe’s Atomic Age" was the title of the news story of his death in The Comics Journal : "He leaves us stories marked by clarity, grace and spirit," wrote Ken Steacy about him.
For those Chaland fans who don’t speak French, The Club Les Amis de Freddy (that’s Chaland’s quiffed adventure hero Freddy Lombard) have published a limited edition of 75 copies of the first issue of their smart, enthusiastic 24-page, A5-landscape fanzine in English for 7.5 euros each including post and packing. Chaland’s old accomplice Luc Cornillon provides the front cover, a detail from a postcard showing Freddy being fêted by crowds of admirers. Main features cover Chaland’s underexplored partnership with the Bayard Presse children’s bi-monthly Astrapi, stretching from 14 illustrations for an ecology article in No. 33 in 1980 through to the cover and a 16-page detachable booklet “Les secrets d’un film” in No. 279 in 1990. You’ll need some luck and some Euros to hunt down these elusive treasures.
Following this comes a revealing four-page 2008 interview with L’Association co-founder and cartoonist Stanislas. Before L’Asso’s Lapin anthology, Jean-Christophe Menu used to put out Le Lynx à tifs and I remember being so impressed when he unveiled their 6th issue, in a hardback album edition spotlighting and cover-featuring Chaland. Other features here include an interview with publisher, agent and Chaland fan Michel Lagarde; the solution to the mystery of a spurious Chaland pseudonym; and a crossword puzzle for “Chalandologues”. Anyone with an interest in “Chalandology” is sure to delight in this modest but smartly designed, well-researched journal.
Stanislas’s closing comment touches a chord:
“Sometimes, when I work and face some difficulty, I think ‘How would Chaland have done this?’. And it helps me. Where would his work be today? It is a big question for which I will never have any answer. But I am sure he would have achieved really big things.”
A Synthesis Of The Atom Style
Ever Meulen definitely stands out among those authors with the most universal appeal to both the intellect and the senses. For Meulen, the Atom Style is an art for living. When he published his first drawings in the mid-Seventies in Tante Leny magazine in Holland and in Curiosity Magazine in Brussels, most observers were struck by a truly unusual aesthetic shock: his Clear Line was coming from another dimension, one where design was being used with elegance. His universe referred as much to Hergé, Jijé and Jacobs, as to Giorgio de Chirico, Escher, Magritte, L’Art nègre, Picasso or Raymond Loewy.
by Ever Meulen
He owes his career to Humo, a TV magazine published at the time by Dupuis. It’s here that he shows a wide range in his graphic palette and a mastery of typographic techniques which excited Joost Swarte (the Dutch artist was living in Brussels at the time, in an apartment designed by Horta on the avenue Brugmann). Also among his followers were Yves Chaland and Serge Clerc, who were amazed to find in the Belgian capital Hergé, André Franquin, Ever Meulen and Swarte, the latter pair engaged by the early Eighties in exchanging their brilliant modern ideas.
Meulen’s working method was inspired by Hergé‘s, a process of successive tracings (there a few real ‘originals’ with Meulen), meticulously refined before being inked. Ever Meulen is well-known for being slow and perfectionist. Attentive to the tiniest of details, he is a true master of the whole graphic process and never fails to keep a precise control on his output. He is obsessed in case all his efforts, his tireless labours, the perfectionism and refinement of each project are let down by some production glitch.
by Ever Meulen
Art Spiegelman has made no secret of his admiration for the Belgian artist whom he has published in his magazine Raw as well as in The New Yorker, the weekly magazine on which his wife, Françoise Mouly, is the artistic director: "His lines quietly call attention to themselves and to the flatness of a plcture plane that buckles and warps into a profusion of visual puns and graphic rhymes…"
Ever Meulen has created a synthesis of the Atom Style, which this ‘libertine of graphics’, as Bart De Keyser describes him so well, has raised to the highest level. So when the Pasamonik brothers launched their famous Atomium 58 collection, Ever Meulen was the obvious choice to come up with its logo.
Jazz, Rock & Strong Alcohol
Serge Clerc is the perfect incarnation of the Atom Style author of the Eighties: he is influenced both by the great classics of Belgian comics and by the American Dream. Recruited at the age of 17 by Jean-Pierre Dionnet, he would come to symbolise in his own right Métal Hurlant, a magazine created in 1975, rooted in Science Fiction and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Initially quite malleable, Serge Clerc had picked up on the modernist trends in Ted Benoit’s work and was sufficiently close to Yves Chaland to tune into his nostalgic vibes for the Belgian school of comics. On Serge’s desk, books by Moebius lay open next to books by Jack Kirby and Jacobs. Clerc captured the exceptional mastery and fantasy of the French artist’s SF worlds, the vitality and power of the American artist, and finally, the infallible sense of composition of the artist from Brussels. Add a touch of Will Eisner and the recipe is perfect.
But the young illustrator, quite sensitive and frank, perceived that a little taste of something was missing : a extra soupçon of soul. Jean-Pierre Dionnet was certainly his Jedi Master in terms of SF and comic books, but the person who made the most significant impact on him was without doubt Philippe Manœuvre, star editorialist for Rock & Folk, the guru whose bitingly intelligent articles had introduced the French to the latest in rock music, alongside the whole explosion in the greatest French rock bands. Thanks to him, Serge Clerc dresses in a black suit and stays up for lots of late nights. He fills his comics with bars, musicians and pin-up girls.
His meeting with Yves Chaland leads him towards the Atom Style. He discover the Flemish artist Ever Meulen, the Dutchman Joost Swarte and their ironic aesthetics. Serge Clerc comes up with a musical variation on their themes: sexy dancers and nightclubbers lost in the small hours of the morning, loaded on jazz, rock and strong alcohol, pour out of his slick brush. His insouciance and his sad love affairs (the whole story of Nest of Spies in Alphaplage derives from that period) provide his inspirations. Foreign editions of Métal Hurlant (in America, Germany, Italy, Spain…), but equally his illustrations in the key London music paper, New Musical Express, bring him worldwide fame. His universe continues to inspire plenty of artists to this day.
The Pictorial Atom Style
Born in 1961 in Paris, François Avril is part of that generation bedazzled by the Clear Line. When Joost Swarte publishes Modern Art in 1980, Avril is 19. Failing by one point to get into the Decorative Arts course, he signs up instead for Applied Arts. A fellow student is Charles Berberian. He discovers Métal Hurlant and in particular Yves Chaland, Serge Clerc, Loustal, Margerin…Following them, Floc’h and Ever Meulen… He creates his first comics for Je Bouquine, from Bayard. It’s here that he comes across a certain Yves Chaland. The author of Bob Fish is already the most emblematic artist of his generation. Avril soon becomes a close friend. Almost daily exchanges with the artist of Freddy Lombard open up new artistic horizons for him: French illustrators from the Thirties like Gus Bofa and The Spider Group; the great American classics: George Herriman, Will Eisner, Cliff Sterett, etc.; the great Belgian masters, led by Ever Meulen…
In 1985, Avril teams up with his cohort Charles Berberian to produce his first book : Sauve qui peut published by Carton in Lyon. Berberian and Chaland direct him to the publishers Magic-Strip in Brussels. For them, in their Atomium 58 collection, he publishes his first solo album, Doppelganger SA. After this he changes his style. His line becomes increasingly "playful with design" and gradually moves away from the Clear Line and more towards the Atom Style. His evolution reaches a turning point with the death of Yves Chaland in a tragic car accident on July 18th 1990. In October of the same year, François Avril travels to New York. The energy of the American metropolis recharges him with its aesthetic impact. Since then, his illustrations often have a rhythm to them based on rows of buildings and their horizontal and vertical lines.
The fact that, early in his career, his graphic style clings too closely to the Clear Line tradition means that eventually he has to make it more radical : his Hergé-like drawing breaks loose and takes on a freedom of line reminiscent of such Twenties illustrators as Chas Laborde or Pascin. Like Raoul Dufy, Avril separates his colours from his drawing with a lightness of touch ; he creates a dialogue between areas of white and large blocks of colour. His characters become lost in big urban landscapes broken up by lines. Abstracted, they resemble barcodes, as in certain illustrations in his book Paris - Tokyo - New York - Bruxelles.
THE INTERNATIONAL ATOM STYLE
Starting in the Eighties, the infuence of the Atom Style quickly spread: across Europe in translated magazines and albums; across the English Channel to British publications NME (New Musical Express) and Escape; and across the Atlantic to North America in the pages of Raw, Heavy Metal and other titles. These four representative artists demonstrate some of the distinctive responses to the Atom Style as it became international.
by Ted Benoit
From Ray Banane to Blake & Mortimer, Frenchman Ted Benoit is justly famed as a founder of the modern Clear Line renaissance, and yet he never stops experimenting and has referred to the Atom Style on several occasions. For example, his Bingo Bongo series for Métal Hurlant clearly connects to Joost Swarte’s satirical approach. In 1977 Swarte also hailed the photo-derived punk art of the Bazooka Gang as another facet of the Atom Style. Benoit describes his portrait of Shirley Temple as a sample of his "crypto-Bazooka period".
by Paul Rivoche
The Atom Style was a major influence on one of North America’s most striking comic books of the early Eighties, Mister X by Canadians Dean Motter and Paul Rivoche, about an enigmatic architect of a metropolis gone mad. For Rivoche, "the profound, simple strengths and innocent joys of graphic lines and flat colour, as found in The Atom Style, are a refuge, a touchstone, to which I gladly return, as often as possible." It informs much of his work, from superhero TV cartoons to covers and stories of Superman, Will Eisner’s The Spirit and his own SF graphic novel.
reinterpreted by Rian Hughes
When young Londoner Rian Hughes discovers Serge Clerc’s rock illustrations in the NME and the Atom Style through Escape co-editor Paul Gravett, he recalls, "it was the first time I’d seen comics display an awareness of art and design history." Spotted by Magic Strip, he achieves a dream in 1987 when his first album Science Service, written by John Freeman, joins their Atomium 58 Collection. In 1990, in Dare by Grant Morrison, Hughes revives Britain’s shining Fifties SF hero Dan Dare to bring down a Margaret Thatcher-like dictator.
Born in Turin in 1970, Antonio Lapone is an Italian illustrator with an eye for glamourous beauties and all things Fifties. Coming from advertising, he discovers Chaland through an Italian edition of The Elephants’ Cemetery. He breaks into French comics in 1999 and goes on to draw three cases since 2002 of A.D.A. (Antique Detective Agency) written by Pierre Vanloffelt for Paquet Editions, and writes as well as draws a biography in comics about American vocal group The Platters.
ONE STYLE THAT WILL NEVER GO OUT OF STYLE
One quality of the Atom Style which Joost Swarte stressed is its playfulness about design in all its forms. This last quartet shows how much artists still play creatively on their personal projects. Their invention suggests that there is no risk of the Atom Style going out of style.
Montreal is both the birthplace of Grégoire Bouchard and the location for his graphic novels. In Planet Twist in 2001 he charts the "mythic and fabulous history" of The Jaguars, local music legends from the early Sixties, when Catholic Quebec was still living in the Fifties and discovering rock’n'roll and rebellion. Bouchard also blurs fact and fantasy in the alternative nostalgia of To Distant Worlds in 2008. The first of four parts, this is a dense, poignant memoir of his tired, retired pilot Bob Leclerc, who saved us from Martian invaders in 1959 and longs to fly again.
Raised on American Saturday morning cartoons, Woodrow Phoenix is a prolific, versatile British artist, typographer and storyteller. Emerging in Escape in the Eighties, he and co-writer Ian Carney unleash Pants Ant and other nutty creations from 1998 in the American comic Sugar Buzz. Solo, Phoenix devises dextrous Donny Digits in 2009 for British weekly The DFC. "The Atom Style celebrates possibility and optimism, intelligence and style, the impossible made mechanically inevitable, through the electric power of the line."
An illustration from The Boston Globe
by Laurent Cilluffo
Born in Lille and based in New York, Laurent Cilluffo has carved a remarkable career in illustration especially in America, where he started working in 1993, notably for The New Yorker. In 2006 he collaborated with writer Fabrice Colin on World Trade Angels from Denoël, hailed as one of the most powerful comics about the 9/11 attacks. Cilluffo remixes his love of Art Deco and purified minimalism into children’s books and Deco City, a forthcoming graphic novel and animated film with writer Steve Ross.
After its world tour, the Atom Style comes home to Brussels in the spritely cartooning of local lad Reinhart Croon. Born in 1971 in Leuven, he grows up with Flemish weekly Humo, home to Meulen amd Swarte, and studies at the Saint Luke Institute, where he discovers Chaland, Mariscal and more. Developing into a witty, widely published editorial illustrator, Reinhart brings a breath of fresh air to newspapers with his daily strip Hunker Dunker. The Atom Style blossoms anew in this quirky, tender family sitcom.