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Review time! with Pinocchio

Here’s a big thick European comic. We all love those, right?

Pinocchio is a graphic novel by Winshluss (not his real name, obviously), colored by Cizo (also not his real name, again obviously), with coloring assists from Frederic Boniaud, Thomas Bernard, and Frederic Felder, and published by Last Gasp and Knockabout. It costs thirty dollars, but it’s a giant-sized comic and it’s 188 pages long, so it’s a pretty good deal. Plus, it’s European. Those Europeans sure know how to make good comics, right?

Pinocchio is copyrighted 2010, but I’m not sure when Winshluss wrote/drew it, because apparently it’s taken some time to make it to our shores, because publishers were worried about the insidious reach of that evil corporation that owns Marvel getting their panties in a bunch about it. As if they own the damned character. Why would they react poorly? Well, Pinocchio is a twisted, darkly humorous, sexually charged novel that presents the familiar characters from the children’s classic in far less-than-flattering ways. But, when you think about it, the original Pinocchio was a bit twisted, too, so what the hell, Disney?

The premise of the book remains more or less the same. A man named Geppetto builds a boy, but this one is constructed out of metal and therefore is, naturally, a robot. Geppetto wants to sell the design to the army, as Pinocchio (who’s never actually named) contains all sorts of hidden weaponry. Before he can, however, Pinocchio kills Geppetto’s dissolute wife (who uses the robot, briefly and fatally, as a sex toy) and wanders off. So begin his adventures! Meanwhile, a drunken Jiminy Cockroach has taken up residence inside Pinocchio’s head, and Winshluss checks in on him every so often.

The narrative is built rather well – the book begins with a guy dumping toxic waste into the ocean, which will eventually create Dogzilla, the creature that swallows Geppetto and later Pinocchio. After that, we get a suicidal guy looking through the window at a woman working out and playing Russian roulette with his cat (he survives, but the cat doesn’t). Who this guy is doesn’t become apparent until much, much later. Winshluss, meanwhile, has fun following Pinocchio around – the robot boy never speaks and is largely oblivious to those around him, which allows everyone to use him as they will. Two hobos sell him to a toy-making factory that uses child labor. Pinocchio ends up with seven rather short gentlemen who are keeping a young sleeping lady in their house (and, of course, having their way with her). She wakes up and escapes, leading to further adventures. Meanwhile, our erstwhile hero gets onto a blimp, where a punk kid is stowing away. The punk kid takes Pinocchio to the Enchanted Isle, which turns out to be a poorly-run kingdom that is about to experience a coup d’etat. Pinocchio gets himself hanged, which doesn’t bother him at all, and we see the course of the new dictatorship from the perspective of his gallows (which happens to be a giant candy cane) as months pass by, the dictator rises and falls, and Pinocchio eventually moves on because the rope holding him breaks. Pinocchio ends up in Dogzilla and is reunited with Geppetto, who then takes him back to the army, where Pinocchio goes on a killing spree (thanks to Jiminy Cockroach, who unknowingly triggers it when he “repairs” some circuitry in Pinocchio’s head). Separated from Geppetto again, Pinocchio is shot into the moon, then drops to earth in the barn of a couple whose first baby died in childbirth. They take him in and he becomes a “real boy,” although even this “happy ending” is tinged with foreboding.

Winshluss does a marvelous job connecting every single character with each other, so people we thought we would never see again show up at strange times. He doesn’t only tell the story of Pinocchio, but of Geppetto, the two hobos, the punk kid, the “seven dwarfs,” the sleeping lady, and the Russian roulette-playing man. They all have their part to play, and the most interesting part of the book is to speculate how Pinocchio is the unwitting catalyst of so much change in their lives, both good and bad. This book almost functions as an example of sensitive dependence on initial conditions – otherwise known as the butterfly effect – as Pinocchio moves through the world, changing so much but remaining static himself. The book, plot-wise, is quite odd, as Winshluss doesn’t really care about narrative structure. The book is straight-forward, to be sure, but Pinocchio’s inert presence at its center turns this into a wild, absurdist masterpiece, with Jiminy Cockroach, a frustrated writer in his own right, providing cynical commentary as he struggles to write instead of drinking himself into a stupor. He’s a miserable and misanthropic bastard and doesn’t even provide much comic relief (unless I have a much different sense of humor than Winshluss does), but his oddball adventures provide an interesting contrast to Pinocchio – while the robot is passive for one reason and effects change that way, Jiminy is passive for other reasons and effects no change whatsoever – the final image of the book is him returning to his dissolute lifestyle after seeing some hope for change. Pinocchio’s path to a nirvana is different, and he may not stay for different reasons, but the underlying point of the book seems to be that one can’t change who one is and one shouldn’t even try. People are trapped in their roles, and even a force of nature like Pinocchio can’t change events too much.

Winshluss tells the story beautifully, too. More than half of the book is wordless, so his art needs to tell the story well, and it does. It’s intricately drawn, with a great deal of detail in each panel and each page, facial expressions that run the gamut of human emotions, and nice stylistic shifts as well. Pinocchio’s adventures are in gorgeous color, while Jiminy’s life inside Pinocchio is rendered in black and white and simpler pencil linework. Intermittently we get a full-page panel done in (presumably) some kind of colored pencil (it doesn’t quite look like paint), breaking up the narrative with a stunning freezeframe of art, even though Winshluss manages to tell part of the story is these images as well (the most notable being the ones in which Pinocchio hangs, inert, while the dictator’s regime rises and falls behind him). When he draws “Snow White’s” fate, he also switches to colored pencils, the better to contrast the “fairy-tale-ness” of the artwork with the grim reality of her journey. For flashback scenes, the pencils are not as rough as in the Jiminy Cockroach pages, but rougher than the “present” pages, which adds to the nostalgia associated with them – an impression made greater by the sepia tones used to colors them. In many ways, this has a very “underground comix” feel to it, with caricatures and raunchiness and many “ugly” people, but Winshluss is a better artist than many, and the way he and the colorists shift easily from rough to lush pencils is breathtaking and raises this book above what I consider “underground comix.”

The last time I got into the stereotypical portrayal of a black character, I got in some trouble, so let’s just say the one misstep is the black hobo and leave it at that. Yes, a few other characters in the comic have full lips, but the fact that the only black character is portrayed stereotypically is something that I’m simply going to mention and move on. So let’s do so!

Pinocchio is a wild and wacky comic with a lot of dark undertones and beautiful artwork. It’s certainly a spiritual if not a direct descendant of the original story, and that means it’s a lot more twisted than the Disneyfied version many Americans are familiar with. While Winshluss takes potshots at easy targets (the military, organized religion), he’s also showing us a dangerous and downright creepy world where any innocence is crushed and only the aloof robot can make it out alive. Even the happy ending can be seen as a brief calm before the inevitable tragedy. Pinocchio is a wicked comic, but its nastiness makes it compelling, its artwork makes it stunning to behold, and it’s quite the experience to read.

13 Comments

Not really underground, but the book is definitely an alternative comic, published by a very small french editor Les Requins Marteaux (so much that it is having financial trouble right now, please buy their books!).

Funny thing is that it made the book a sort of “last white hope” at Angoulême 2009. By far the favorite book at the event was the then current Spirou book by Émile Bravo, which had won pretty much all Best Album awards it had disputed at the time. But awarding a Best Album award at Angoulême to a mainstream book? Heresy! Yet they couldn’t give it with a straight face to any book at least not as good as that Spirou, so Pinocchio won it (Spirou got one of the “Also-ran” awards).

Mainstream books at France just can’t win…

Thank you CBR, I am going to get this when I get paid.

I’ve missed these reviews and interviews with authentic creators.

The number of stupidhero updates are ridiculous.

A bit of balance won’t kill you.

Pedro: I always appreciate you letting us know about the way things shake down in Europe. It sounds like critics in Europe are often as nutty as those in the States!

Stuart: Well, you’re welcome. I think that we focus on superheroes just because they’re so prominent, and people like talking about them. I do think we do a decent job with balance, but you may disagree. I know I have a bunch of non-superhero books to review, so they’ll keep coming!

Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin

August 24, 2011 at 9:22 am

I guess it’s not really important, but I always wondered why is it that most of the time Americans speak of Europe, they make it sound like it’s a single unified country?

You mean it isn’t? :)

I think it’s just shorthand, because I know this is French, for instance, but I also know that Europeans often work in different countries and absorb some of the sensibilities of that country. So you can have creators who are Spanish but work in France, and then it becomes slightly more difficult to describe them. It’s certainly some lack of cultural knowledge on my part, but I also don’t want to make blanket statements about creators I’m not extremely familiar with (God forbid I call someone French when they’re actually – gasp! – Belgian!!!!!). I do the same thing with Asian creators, and I probably shouldn’t.

Of course, culturally, the U.S. is a lot more polyglot than lots of commenters give it credit for, so there’s that, too!

Europe hasn’t an unified comics industry – hardly that!

I can give a few pointers.

The French-belgian comics industry easily the most powerful of the bunch. The french-language market (counting France, Belgium, parts of Swiss and Canada and a few other french-speaking countries) is the world’s second largest after, of course, the japanese. But even inside it there are distinc characteristics. The oversized color albums stereotypical of the french-belgian production are a belgian invention and dominant in the french-speaking parts of Belgium itself (to the exclusion of almost everything else!), while France has diversification in formats and is far more open to foreign stuff (not just manga, but comics from everywhere in the world). Of course, you CAN find the diverse stuff in Belgium itself and the oversized albums are also big sellers in France, but having been in both countries the distinction is quite visible.

On the other hand, the dutch-speaking part of Belgium (and Netherlands) have a very different comics industry. Color albums are also the rule, but they are smaller (about the size of an US comic) and much cheaper. They usually compile newspaper-published strip series (most quite long-lived), so they are usually much longer series than their french-language equivalents. For example, Lucky Luke, one of the longest “french” series has a bit over 70 books, while Suske en Wiske, the biggest “dutch” series has over 300! Those books are quite cheap (some 5 euros apiece, but they have over twice as many pages as an US comic, usually without ads) and widely available. A pity most of them aren’t translated to any language besides dutch – not even french!

Italy has a completely different industry. Disney rules there and has a big influence on the modern italian artist (check for example the Marvel-published series Sky Doll). Pretty much all comics are incredibly cheap (2 euros for 100+ pages, digest-sized!) and sold in newsstands. The more adult italian comics are usually B&W and have an ENORMOUS Milton Caniff influence (Hugo Pratt, himself Caniff influenced, is also a big influence). Series are usually done by rotating creative teams (no one can do 100+ pages a month!) and can be VERY long (western series Tex has over 600 published issues!). Italy has also a long tradition of erotic comics.

Spain has nowadays a much reduced domestic production, having been hard hit by competition with both US comics and manga. Comics used to be short, anthology-published affairs, with the kids’ stuff resembling a cheaper version of the french-belgian kids’ comics and the adult stuff more alike to the harshest italian comics. Most spanish creators now work for french, italian and even US publishers.

I don’t need to speak about UK comics, I think. They are very different from most of the continental Europe comics, which, until VERY recently, were rarely published there. Local UK production has also been suffering from competition with US comics and manga and loss of talent to US publishers.

Not much to say about the rest. Germany has a very small local production for a country of its size. It does consume a lot of translated foreign stuff. Scandinavia is ruled by Disney and, surprisingly, Phantom comics (yeah, the Lee Falk character!). Eastern Europe has a large presence of italian comics (thanks to the efforts of Erwin Rustemagic), but not much else. Portugal is a hunting ground for french-belgian comics. And that’s pretty much it.

Every country DOES have a small, underground comics production, with varying degrees of sucess. But the large industries are those from France, Belgium and Italy.

Yeah, there are differences and at least with mainstream one can usually easily spot which are Italian and which are French comics, even if there is some migration of talent e.g. Hugo Pratt, a strong presence in Italian fumetti still today, did his Corto Maltese stories to a French publisher. It is true that Spain has not really developed a larger industry and several people from there are working for companies in other countries…and that what local stuff there is is pretty close to French comics…though several with rather harsher, punkier vibe.

Germany is probably a good language to know if one wanted to read anything from anywhere in the world, because they publish a lot of translations (in comics France might do more, in regular books German was at least some time ago the most translated-into language in the world…) but yeah, the local production is not particularly big.

Also worth notice is that there is a change in preferred formats, in the countries without big industries the relative importance of both underground and strip format becomes bigger, especially here in Finland album-length stories are something of a rarity while comic strips tend to get all the attention…

AS, there was a large Spanish comics industry a few decades ago, but it was hard hit by competition with translated foreign stuff.

And French is indeed the best language to learn if you want to read comics from all over the world. Also french editions are usually some of the world’s best (expensive too, it must be said). For example, the french edition of Alex de Campi/Igor Kordey’s Smoke is much better (and surprisingly cheaper) than the US edition.

Of course, that’s assuming that you can aquire french-language editions with ease. Not a problem if you live in Europe or even Canada, but it may be much more complicated if you are on the US.

Pedro and AS: Thanks again for the information. Man, you’re making it harder to lump all European comics together as a whole. Consarnit! How am I supposed to be a snotty American if you keep dropping the knowledge?

As for Smoke, Pedro, what the heck? How is the French version better? Is the translation different? Is it larger and therefore the artwork pops better? Man, that’s weird, because the English version is pretty darned good.

Hardcover, better paper and cheaper!

Story is the same, I assume. Can’t say anything about the translation, not having read the original. I wrote Alex de Campi and she told me the french edition was well translated (she knows french herself), so I believe her.

Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin

August 25, 2011 at 3:19 pm

@Pedro Bouça

“Eastern Europe has a large presence of italian comics (thanks to the efforts of Erwin Rustemagic), but not much else.”

That’s not quite right. There is a very long and productive comic book tradition in Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, hailing to the 1930s. The scene really flourished after World War II, during the socialist Yugoslavia. Newspapers and youth magazines dedicated large sections to comic books. Some of the authors (like Andrija Maurovic, Jules Radilovic, the Neugebauer brothers, Miki Muster or Bane Kerac) produced capital works of the medium. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the wars caused a huge shock for the comic book market. A lot of young and talented authors (Igor Kordej, Danijel Zezelj, the late Edvin Biukovic…) had to look for work elsewhere, in USA, France or Italy. Yes, the Italian comic books are very popular, but they have been present long before Rustemagic. Rustemagic’s role was greater after the wars. His involvement as a comic book agent helped reintroduce some of the Italian and French titles, thus revitalizing the market, somewhat.

Thanks, Akaky. But I knew that there was a comics industry on pre-war Yugoslavia (although I’m not really knowledgeable about the details), that had been destroyed by the war. I was thinking more on present-day terms.

Much like Spain, the current comics industry in most Former Yugoslavian countries is greatly diminished in terms of local production, with few exceptions (Stripburger, for example).

Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin

August 26, 2011 at 11:34 am

Yes, there are a few notable exceptions. Some authors are working for local publishers, magazines and alternative publications, thus keeping the scene alive. And they’re producing some high quality work. Zoran Smiljanic, Iztok Sitar and Tomaz Lavric in Slovenia; Darko Macan, Stef Bartolic and Frano Petrusa in Croatia; Bane Kerac and Aleksandar Zograf in Serbia; Filip Andronik in Bosnia, etc.

Also, comic book publishing is really flourishing. Tons of translated comic books from all over the world are being released every year.

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