Papyrus volume 3: Tutankhamun, the Assassinated Pharaoh

By Lucien De Geiter, coloured by G. Vloeberghs & translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1- 905460-84-7

British and European comics have always been happier with historical strips than our American cousins (a pugnacious part of me wants to say that’s because we have so much more past to play with – and yes, I know they’re responsible for Prince Valiant, but he’s an exception, not a rule) and our Franco-Belgian brethren in particular have made an astonishing art form out of days gone by.

The happy combination of familiar exoticism, past lives and world-changing events blended with drama, action and especially broad humour has resulted in a genre uniquely suited to beguiling readers of all ages and tastes.

Don’t take my word for it – just check out Asterix, Adèle Blanc-Sec, The Towers of Bois-Maury, Iznogoud or Thorgal to name but a few which have made it into English, or our own much missed period classics such as Olac the Gladiator, Dick Turpin, Janus Stark, Heros the Spartan or Wrath of the Gods; all far too long overdue for collection in album form, I might add.

Papyrus is the magnificent magnum opus of Belgian cartoonist Lucien de Gieter. It premiered in 1974 in legendary weekly Spirou, running to more than 30 albums, a wealth of merchandise, a television cartoon show and a video game.

De Gieter was born in 1932 and studied at Saint-Luc Art Institute in Brussels before going into industrial design and interior decorating. He made the jump into sequential narrative in 1961, first through ‘mini-récits’ (fold-in, half-sized-booklets) inserts for Spirou, starring his jovial little cowboy ‘Pony’, and later by writing for art-star regulars such as Kiko, Jem, Eddy Ryssack and Francis.

He then joined Peyo’s studio as inker on ‘Les Schtroumpfs’ (The Smurfs) and took over the long-running newspaper strip ‘Poussy’.

In the 1960s De Gieter launched South Seas mermaid fantasy ‘Tôôôt et Puit’ whilst Pony was promoted to the full-sized pages of Spirou, deep-sixing the Smurfs gig to expand his horizons working for Tintin and Le Journal de Mickey.

From 1972-1974 he assisted cartooning legend Berck on ‘Mischa’ for Germany’s Primo, whilst applying the finishing touches to his latest project: a historical confection which would occupy his full attention and delight millions of fervent fans for the next forty years.

The annals of Papyrus encompass a huge range of themes and milieus, blending Boy’s Own adventure with historical fiction and interventionist mythology, gradually evolving from traditionally appealing “Bigfoot” cartoon style and content towards a more realistic, dramatic and authentic iteration, through light fantasy romps – leavened and flavoured with the latest historical theories and discoveries – starring a fearlessly forthright boy fisherman favoured by the gods to become a hero of Egypt and friend to Pharaohs.

As a youngster the plucky “fellah” was blessed by the gods and given a magic sword courtesy of the daughter of crocodile-headed Sobek.

The lad’s first task was to free supreme god Horus from imprisonment in the Black Pyramid of Ombos thereby restoring peace to the Double Kingdom, but his most difficult and never-ending duty was to protecting Pharaoh’s wilful, high-handed and safety-averse daughter Theti-Cheri – a princess with an unparalleled gift for seeking out trouble…

Tutankhamun, the Assassinated Pharaoh is the third Cinebook translation (17th in the series and originally released in 1994 as Toutânkhamon, le Pharaon assassiné), skilfully blending fact and fantasy into a strange and disturbing tale of grave robbery, unquiet ghosts and madness…

It all begins with a squabble between the Mayor of the City of the Dead and his equivalent civil servant for the City of Thebes. The vast desolate region of imperial tombs, sepulchres and lesser burials is being systematically ransacked by blasphemous thieves and, whilst aforementioned Executive of the Interred Paur claims the sacrilegious raids must be the work of roving Bedouins, Thebes’ Mayor Paser posits that the defilers’ knowledge of the sites indicates they must be Egyptians… perhaps even some of Paur’s workers or tomb guards…

Bored with the interminable bickering, Theti-Cheri drags away Papyrus and court jester Puin to join her father’s lion hunt in the deep desert. Amidst the hustle and bustle the jolly dwarf is left behind and forced to frustratingly follow on his astoundingly smart donkey Khamelot.

Naturally this leads to him being attacked by the self-same decrepit man-eater Pharaoh is trying to eradicate, and as Puin frantically flees the hungry cat he sees chariot-borne scout Papyrus save a fellah from brutal grave guards.

The grateful peasant is a plant however and secretes a golden tomb treasure on the boy hero before knocking him out…

When Papyrus comes to he is surrounded by soldiers and accused by Paur’s captain Rhama of tomb-robbing. A crowd of suspiciously incensed citizens even try to stone him to death and Pharaoh has no choice but to have the boy imprisoned for trial.

However, before the doughty lad can gather his wits, Paur attempts to assassinate him with snakes and then kidnaps him from his temple cell, hiding the drugged and unconscious form in a secret access shaft to the grave of tragic boy king Tutankhamun

Falling through into the tomb proper, Papyrus’ spirit is accosted by the ghost of Ankhsenamun and discovers from Tutankhamun’s beloved child-bride that his own peasant great-grandfather played a major role in the tragic romance and short, complex reign of the murdered Boy-King…

As Papyrus learns the incredible, unpalatable truth about the legendary ruler’s fate, in the physical world Puin and Khamelot have informed Theti-Cheri of the plot and the impetuous Princess has rushed to the site and subsequently trapped herself in the tomb whilst gold-crazed Paur’s men close in to murder everybody who knows of the Mayor of the City of the Dead’s perfidy…

However the blasphemous bandits have not reckoned on Pharaoh’s cunning perspicacity or a certain donkey’s loyal ingenuity…

This is another astounding amazing adventure which will thrill and enthral fans of fantastic fantasy – although some of the finer points of Pharaonic marriage customs might distress fainter-hearted parents and guardians – and De Gieter’s clever merging of gothic romance, ghost story and archaeological revelation make for a particularly impressive treat..

Papyrus is a brilliant addition to the family-friendly pantheon of continental champions who marry heroism and humour with wit and charm, and anybody who has worn out those Tintin or Asterix volumes would be wise beyond their years in acquiring all these classic chronicles.
© Dupuis, 1994 by De Gieter. All rights reserved. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd.