Spirou & Fantasio volume 4: Valley of the Exiles


By Tome & Janry, colour by Stephane De Becker & translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-157-0

For the majority of English-speaking comic fans Spirou might be Europe’s biggest secret. The phenomenally long-lived character is a rough contemporary – and shrewdly calculated commercial response – to Hergé’s iconic Tintin, whilst the comic he has headlined for decades is only beaten in sheer longevity and manic creativity by our own Beano.

Conceived in 1936 at Belgian Printing House Éditions Dupuis by boss-man Jean Dupuis, his proposed new magazine targeted juvenile audiences and launched on April 21st 1938; neatly bracketed in the UK by DC Thomson’s The Dandy (4th December 1937) and The Beano (July 30th 1938). In America a small comicbook publisher was preparing to release a new anthology entitled Action Comics

Spirou was to be edited by 19 year-old Charles Dupuis and derived its name from the lead feature, which described the improbable adventures of a plucky Bellboy/lift operator employed at the glamorous Moustique Hotel (a sly reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique).

Spirou the hero – whose name translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous” in the Walloon language – was realised by French cartoonist François Robert Velter under his pen-name Rob-Vel for his Belgian bosses in response to the phenomenal success of Hergé’s carrot-topped boy reporter Tintin – a guaranteed money-spinning phenomenon for rival publisher Casterman.

The eponymous magazine launched with the plucky Bellboy (and his pet squirrel Spip) as the leads in an anthology weekly which bears his name to this day; featuring fast-paced, improbable cases which gradually evolved into astonishingly addictive high-flying surreal comedy dramas.

Spirou and his pals have reigned supreme in the magazine for most of its life, with a phalanx of truly impressive creators continuing Velter’s work – beginning with his wife Blanche “Davine” Dumoulin, who took over the strip when her husband enlisted in 1939. She was aided by Belgian artist Luc Lafnet until 1943 when Dupuis purchased all rights to the feature, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took over, introducing current co-star and foil Fantasio to the mix.

Somewhere along the way Spirou & Fantasio switched to journalism, becoming globe-trotting reporter and photographer, continuing their weekly exploits in unbroken four-colour glory. In 1946 Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the creative reins, adding a phenomenally popular magic animal dubbed Marsupilami to the cast (first seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952 and now a solo-star of screen, plush toy store, console games and albums all his own), crafting increasingly fantastic tales until 1969.

Franquin was in turn succeeded by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over nine stirring adventures which tapped into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times with tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

Even so, by the 1980s the boy Spirou seemed outdated and without direction; three different creative teams began alternating on the serial, until it was at last revitalised by the authors of the adventure under review here.

Philippe Vandevelde – writing as Tome – and artist Jean-Richard Geurts, best known to lovers of Bande dessinées as Janry, revisited, adapted and referenced the beloved Franquin era, reviving the feature’s fortunes and resulting in fourteen wonderful albums between 1984 and 1998. This one, from 1989 and originally entitled La vallée des bannis‘Valley of the Banished’ – was their ninth (and the 41st chronological collection of the evergreen adventurers).

Once their tenure concluded Tome & Janry’s departed and both Lewis Trondheim and the team of Jean-Davide Morvan & Jose-Luis Munuera took over, bringing the official album tally to fifty (there also are a bunch of specials, spin-offs and one-shots, official and otherwise) before in 2009 Fabien Vehlmann & Yoann (Yoann Chivard) were announced as the new “Keepers of the Flame”…

Valley of the Exiles! concludes the excellent two-part escapade (which began in Running Scared) with the roving reporters retracing the steps and uncovering the whereabouts of two explorers who had vanished in 1938 whilst attempting to climb a mountain and discover a legendary lost valley in the inscrutable, isolated Himalayan nation of Yurmaheesun-shan

Since 1950 that tiny nation had been subject to repeated invasions by rival super-powers and was currently a hotbed of rebellion, insurgency and civil war, but Spirou and Fantasio were utterly determined to solve the ancient mystery.

Thus they linked up with renowned eccentric Dr. Placebo: world renowned authority on medical condition Spasmodia Maligna and a man convinced that the only cure for the condition – prolonged, sustained and life-threatening synchronous diaphragmatic flutters (hiccups to you and me) – is to be scared out of one’s wits.

He sponsored a “medical” mission to find the lost valley and thus the lads, Spip and five disparate, desperate perpetual hiccup-sufferers crept across the Nepalese border despite the most diligent attentions of military overlord Captain Yi.

That formidable martinet was tasked with keeping all foreigners – especially journalists – out of the occupied country as it underwent enforced pacification and re-education, but thanks to native translator Gorpah (a wily veteran guide who once proved invaluable to another red-headed reporter, his little white dog and a foul mouthed-sea captain!) the daring band were soon deep in-country.

Only minutes behind were Yi’s troops in tanks, armoured cars and attack helicopters – which naturally provided plenty of opportunities for the annoyingly obnoxious singultus flutterers to be satisfactorily terrified – but there was still little evidence of a breakthrough cure…

Just as the fugitives found their first clue as to the site of the lost valley they were taken captive by native rebels. With still no hiccup cure found the beleaguered explorers attempted a daring later escape, but even as they all piled into a lorry a monumental storm broke out…

When one of their pursuer’s vehicles plunged over a cliff, the valiant escapees formed a human chain to rescue the driver but Spirou and Fantasio were washed away and lost in the raging flash flood …

In The Valley of the Exiles! the story resumes with the battered, weary duo entombed deep within a Himalayan mountain. Slowly, blindly they grope their way towards a faint light and emerge through ancient, barbaric idol’s head into the very place they’ve been seeking…

Utterly enclosed by peaks the Valley is an idyllic paradise, but its very isolation has led to the development of a number of truly unique species of flora and fauna. There are colossal carnivorous water lily-pads, ferociously determined man-eating turtles, electric geckoes, the seductive Hammock Flytrap and many more bizarre and potentially lethal creatures.

The one that most imperils the lost boys however is the diminutive Manic Midgie – a mosquito-like bug that carries the disease “raging hostiliasis”. Not long after one bites Fantasio, poor Spirou realises that his best friend has become a homicidal maniac determined to kill him and everything else in range…

The deranged lad soon goes completely off the deep end, and only luck and a handy itching-powder boxing glove plant prevents the reporter’s gory demise…

Wounded, hunted by his best friend and perhaps the only human in the apparently inescapable enclosed wilderness, near-despondent Spirou and Spip begin to explore their incredible prison and find a rough shack: proof that at some time other humans had been there.

Further investigation reveals it to be the last resting place of the lost explorers Siegfried and Maginot. The mystery of the 1938 expedition is solved – even though Spirou has no way of filing this scoop!

More worryingly, Maginot’s copious notes on the creatures of the valley offer some grim hypotheses as to the nature of the nature in this fantastic hidden gorge: creatures inimical to both the body and mind of man. Plants that cast illusions, murderous mammals that mimic harmless life, bugs whose bite produces madness…

Crazed beyond imagining – and burbling hilarious, fourth-wall breaking nonsense – Fantasio is determinedly hunting his old friend and the frantic chase drives the limping hero deep into a hidden temple where he uncovers the secret of a fantastic lost civilisation of Backik: a race banished by Mongol conquerors /to this distant valley. The reluctant settlers lived just enough for the manic-midgies to bring their unlucky lives crashing down into doom and disaster…

As Spirou lurches through the eerie tombs of the fallen Backiks Fantasio ambushes him and is ready to finish off his former friend when a mysterious figure attacks…

Some time later Spirou awakens in the warming sunlight of the valley, with deranged Fantasio securely bound beside him. Resolved to escape this fantastic trap and get his crazy pal back to civilisation and medical assistance, our red-headed hero begins to explore his best options only to feel the terrifying sting of a mosquito…

Packed with oodles of action and a host of incredible surprises and revelations, Valley of the Exiles is a truly splendid escapade, with thrills, chills, spills, a mountain of choice comedy moments and eccentric, surreal mysteries to keep readers spellbound.

This refreshingly engaging, lightly-barbed, action-adventure is a breath of fresh air in a marketplace far too full of adults-only carnage, sordid cheesecake titillation, testosterone-fuelled breast-beating, teen-romance monsters and cloying barbarian fantasy. Easily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with all the beguiling style and seductively enticing élan which makes Asterix, Lucky Luke, The Bluecoats and Iznogoud so compelling, this is another cracking read every bit as deserving of household name-hood as those series… yes, even that other red-headed kid with the white dog…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1989 by Tome & Janry. All rights reserved. English translation 2013 © Cinebook Ltd.