By Jean Roba & various translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
Known as Boule et Bill on the Continent (at least in the French speaking bits, that is; the Dutch and Flemish call them Bollie en Billie), this evergreen, immensely popular cartoon saga of a dog and his boy debuted in the Christmas 1959 edition of Spirou.
The perennial fan-favourite resulted from Belgian writer-artist Jean Roba (Spirou et Fantasio, La Ribambelle) putting his head together with Maurice Rosy – the magazine’s Artistic Director and Ideas Man who had also ghosted art and/or scripts on Jerry Spring, Tif et Tondu, Bobo and Attila during a decades-long, astoundingly productive career at the legendary periodical.
Intended as a European answer to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Boule et Bill quickly went its own way and developed a unique style and personality, becoming Rosa’s main occupation for the next 45 years.
He crafted more than a thousand pages of gag-strips in a beguiling, idealised domestic comedy setting, all about a little lad and his exceedingly smart Cocker Spaniel before eventually surrendering the art-chores to his long-term assistant Laurent Verron in 2003.
The successor subsequently took over the scripting too, after Roba’s death in 2006.
Jean Roba was born in Schaerbeek, Belgium on July 28th 1930 and grew up reading a lot of American newspaper strip translations and reprints. He was particularly fond of Rudolph Dirks and Harold H. Knerr’s Katzenjammer Kids and after the War began working as a jobbing illustrator before adopting the loose, free-wheeling cartooning style known as the “Marcinelle School” and joining the Spirou crew.
He followed Uderzo on Sa majesté mon mari and perfected his craft under Franquin on Spirou et Fantasio before launching Boule et Bill as a mini-récit (a 32-page, half-sized freebie insert) in the December 24th 1959 Spirou.
Like Dennis the Menace in The Beano, the strip was a big hit from the start and for 25 years held the coveted and prestigious back-cover spot. Older British fans might also recognise the art as early episodes – (coincidentally) retitled It’s a Dog’s Life – ran in Fleetway’s legendary anthology weekly Valiant from 1961 to 1965…
A cornerstone of European life, the strip has generated a live-action movie, animated TV series, computer games, permanent art exhibitions, sculptures and even postage stamps. Like some select immortal Belgian comics stars, Bollie en Billie have been awarded a commemorative plaque and have a street named after them in Brussels….
Large format album editions began immediately, totalling 21 volumes throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These were completely redesigned and re-released in the 1980s, supplemented by a range of early-reader books for toddlers. Collections are available in 14 languages, selling in excess of 25 million copies of the 32 albums to date.
As Billy and Buddy, the strip returned to British eyes in enticing Cinebook compilations from 2009 onwards: introducing to 21st century readers an endearingly bucolic late 20th century, sitcom-styled nuclear family set-up consisting of one bemused, long-suffering and short-tempered dad, a warmly compassionate but painfully flighty mum, a smart, mischievous son and a genius dog who has a penchant for finding bones, puddles and trouble…
Originally released in 1974, Une vie de chien was the 9th European collection, and here simply serves to further explore the timeless and evergreen relationship of a dog and his boy (and tortoise) for our delight and delectation. This time however, we’re left in no doubt as to who is running the show…
Delivered as a series of stand-alone rapid-fire gags, quips and jests, the progress and behaviour of seven-year old Billy is measured by carefree romps with four-footed friend Buddy: indulging in spats with pals, dodging baths, hunting and hoarding bones, outwitting butchers, putting cats and school friends in their place, misunderstanding adults, causing accidents and costing money; with both kid and mutt equally adept at all of the above.
Buddy is the perfect pet for an imaginative and playful boy, although the Machiavellian mutt is overly fond of purloined food and ferociously protective of boy and bones and his ball. The pesky pooch also cannot understand why everyone wants to constantly plunge him into foul-tasting soapy water, but it’s just a sacrifice he’s prepared to make to be with Billy…
Buddy also has a fondly platonic relationship with tortoise Caroline (although this autumnal and winter-themed compilation finds her again largely absent through hibernation pressures) and a suspicious knack for clearing off whenever Dad has one of his explosive emotional meltdowns over the cost of canine treats, repair bills or the Boss’ latest impositions.
Taking pride of place in this tome are numerous close escapes from kids intent on involving the dog in their crazy games of cowboys, hunting encounters, pranks and practical jokes, strange romantic encounters (with cats and other lower life forms) …
Unwise intrusions onto film sets abound this time and there are more brushes with belligerent birds, adoring girls, impertinent mannequins and voracious fleas (or at least so the humans think), as well as hitchhiking hilarity and an embarrassing almost-accident involving ancient automobiles and crusty dowagers.
The onset of snow season brings fresh confrontations with the neighbour’s cat Corporal and, humiliating ice-capades, skid patches and sliding competitions, snowball wars, indoor blizzards and the unique experience of romantically-inclined sleepwalking tortoises as well as Buddy’s debut as a soccer referee for schoolboy games and more displays of the dog’s social pulling power and food-procuring acumen.
Gently-paced and filled with wry wit and potent sentiment, these captivating funny pages run the gamut from heart-warming to hilarious, silly to surreal and slapstick to satire: a charming tribute to and lasting argument for a child for every pet and vice versa.
This is another splendidly enticing and engaging family-oriented compendium of cool and clever comics no one keen on introducing youngsters to the medium should be without.
Original edition © Studio Boule & Bill 2010 by Roba. English translation © 2013 Cinebook Ltd.