Note : I know I’ve mentioned it before in my Best 10 of 2012, but this book is too precious not to have its own time in the spotlight. So sorry.
In 1981, a new strip started in the quintessential French comics magazine, Métal Hurlant featuring a young ketje, or Brussels street kid, called Le Jeune Albert (Young Albert). Clear line (or atom style, depending on your sources) cartoonist Yves Chaland had previously created the character for his Bob Fish series, and now he gave him his own time in the spotlight, with a series of half-page strips in which Albert gives advice on all aspects of life : how to balance your nutrition, what to think of the death penalty or unionised labour, on bravery, etc.
His opinions and advice obviously had no serious intent : Chaland used Albert to lampoon similar columns in other magazines. As the series progressed though, the comic’s setting in late 1930′s Brussels became more predominant, and Chaland’s light hearted, albeit rather malignant tone changes towards a satirical evocation of what life was like in the city before the War, with its growing nationalism and royalism and general social situation on the decline; basically, the bedrock for Hergé’s Tintin.
But above all Albert is a young teen who starts to discover girls, and has a penchant for the broad romantic gesture : while the War is raging, he tries to win the heart of a young nurse by cutting off the tops of his fingers one by one. After the war, he is the epitome of the war bringing out the bad in people. Albert goes raiding abandoned houses, and rats out his fellow citizens for cheating on their rations.
It’s quite strange to be reading these stories in English, by a French creator, and still be amazed by the veracity of the hard-hitting humour. Even now the petty values that Chaland lampoons are still very much present in the Belgium that I know : pettiness, traditionalism, conservativism and a quite loose view of the law (if no-one’s hurt and nobody’ seen it, it’s OK).
Humanoids have done a terrific job in collecting all the Young Albert strips (which were unavailable for a long time) and reproducing them on a very large scale, giving each half-page strip its own stage. The colouring is beautiful, with half-tone colours like the ones from old magazines, which greatly befits the slickness of Chaland’s art. Finally, the translation is top-notch, and has retained all the subtle changes in style and the over the top formalism that Chaland so often used. I particularly liked, however, how certain Belgicisms were simply left as they were, which greatly contributed to the veracity of the book.
Young Albert is a big book,and it’s not cheap. However, Humanoids only produced 550 copies, and Le Jeune Albert is one of the essential comics of the late 20th century. so do yourself a favour, and shell out that dough. You will never regret it!
Yves Chaland – Young Albert. Humanoids, 2012.