By Edmond-François Calvo, Victor Dancette & Jacques Zimmerman (Abi Melzer Productions)
In Acknowledgement of the upcoming Comics in Conflict event at the Imperial War Museum this weekend – see our Noticeboard for details – I’m going to be reviewing a few intriguing and hopefully pertinent classics beginning with this tragically neglected cartoon masterpiece…
As the European phase of World War II staggered to its bloody and inevitable conclusion, the enslaved nations began to reclaim their homelands and various national prides in a glorious wave of liberation. All over the Old World long suppressed stories and accounts, true or otherwise, began to be shared. During France’s occupation publishing was strictly controlled – even comics – but the Nazis couldn’t suppress creative spirit and many conquered citizens resisted in the only ways they safely could.
For sculptor, artist, caricaturist and social satirist Edmond-François Calvo (26/8/1892-11/10/1958) that was by drawing. Watched by his adoring apprentice-artist Albert (Asterix) Uderzo and inspired by the Gallic graphic giant Daumier, the venerable creator of such joyous anthropomorphic classics as ‘Patamousse’, ‘Anatomies Atomiques’, ‘Les Aventures de Rosalie’, ‘Monsieur Royal Présente’, ‘Grandeur et Décadente du Royaume des Bêtes’ and ‘Cricri, Souris d’Appartement’ worked quietly and determinedly on his own devastating war-effort secret weapon.
He latterly specialised in sparkling, socially aware and beautiful family-friendly strips such as ‘Moustache et Trottinette’, ‘Femmes d’Aujourd’hui’, ‘Coquin le Petit Cocker’ and a host of fairytale adaptations for Tintin, Baby Journal, Cricri Journal, Coq Hardi, Bravo!, Pierrot Âmes Vaillantes and Coeurs Vaillants.
Beginning as a caricaturist for Le Canard Enchaîné in 1938 Calvo eventually moved into strip stories, but also had to moonlight with “real” jobs such as woodcarver and innkeeper. By the time France fell to the Germans in June 1940 he was working for Offenstadt/S.P.E. press group, contributing ‘Le Chevalier Chantecler’, ‘D’Artagnan’, ‘Les Grandes Aventures’, ‘Robin des Bois’, ‘Les Voyages de Gulliver’ and the initial three chapters of ‘Patamouche’ to Fillette, L’Épatant, L’As and Junior plus ‘La Croisière Fantastique’, ‘Croquemulot’ and ‘Un Chasseur Sachant Chasser’ to Éditions Sépia.
Most of this material was produced under the stern scrutiny of the all-conquering censors – much like his comics contemporary Hergé in Belgium – but Calvo also found time to produce something far less anodyne or safe.
With both Editor Victor Dancette and writer Jacques Zimmermann providing scripts, and beginning as early as 1941, Calvo began translating the history of the conflict into a staggeringly beautiful and passionately vehement dark fable, outlining the betrayal of the European nations by literal Wolves in the Fold.
After years of patient creation – and presumably limited dissemination amongst trusted confreres – the first part of La Bete est Mort! – ‘When the beast is raging’ was published in 1944, followed a year later with the concluding ‘When the animal is struck down’. Both were colossal hits even before the war ended and the volumes were continually reprinted until 1948 when the public clearly decided to move on with their lives…
The story is related in epic full-page painted spreads and captivating, luscious strip instalments and the smooth, slick glamour of Disney’s production style was co-opted to deliver the list of outrages to be addressed and a warning to the future, with each nation being categorised by a national totem.
The French were rabbits, the Italians hyenas and the Japanese monkeys. Britain was populated by bulldogs, Belgium by lions, Russia by polar bears and America by vast herds of buffalo…
Hitler’s inner circle of monsters got special attention: such as Goering the Pig and Himmler the Skunk, but so did the good guys: General de Gaulle was depicted as a magnificent Stork…
A fiercely unrepentant but compellingly lovely polemic by a bloody but unbowed winning side, The Beast is Dead was forgotten until republished in 1977 by Futuropolis. This particular English-language, oversized (225 x 300mm or 9 inches x 12) hardback edition was released in 1985 and includes the introduction from a Dutch edition; a dedication from Uderzo and a monochrome selection of Calvo’s wartime and post-war cartoons.
Magnificent, compelling radiant, hugely influential (without this there would never have been Maus), astoundingly affecting and just plain gorgeous, this modern horror tale of organised inhumanity is out of print but still available if you look hard and since an animated film adaptation was begun in 2005, hopefully there’s a new edition in the works too.
© 1944-1945 Éditions G.P. © 1977 Éditions Futuropolis. © 1984 Abi Melzer Productions.