Old comics live longer: Humboldt's legacy

The cartoonist Flix lets the Marsupilami stray through the German capital of the 1930s. His beautiful tail disturbs even brown shirts.

A comic

Mimmi and the Marsupilami visit the Berlin Victory Column Comic: Carlsen Verlag

In 1801, in the deepest jungle, somewhere between Paraguay and Colombia, the researcher Alexander von Humboldt sensed a new species when he discovered the elongated “ding” with its black and yellow spots. A snake with fur? That would be a sensation, something like that has never happened to him before! But then the supposed snake turns out to be the many meters long tail of a larger animal. "Oh noooo - a monkey!", spoiled by numerous discoveries, the German is disappointed. Von Humboldt packs the cuddly little animal into one of his many boxes in order to stuff it later.

This time he is wrong with his assessment: it is not an ordinary monkey, but a rare marsupial. The scientist, who travels South America in the company of Aimé Bonpland, forgets the “thing” in the midst of his many “souvenirs”. The box ended up unopened in the warehouse of the Berlin Natural History Museum. It was not until 1931 that the animal, miraculously revived, escaped from its cage and set about making Berlin in the 1930s unsafe.

Can this be? Is that historical? Was Humboldt really the discoverer of the fabulous, highly intelligent species we now know as the "Marsupilami"? Until now it was thought that it was not discovered until 1952 by two adventurers named Spirou and Fantasio.

Genealogy of mythical animals

Comic fans have the necessary specialist zoological knowledge: Of course, the Marsupilami, the black and yellow marsupial with the eight meter long tail and a great sense of humor, is a mythical creature. In 1952 it appeared for the first time in the Belgian's "Spirou and Fantasio" adventure "An Exciting Inheritance". Andre Franquin (1924–97) up, who left a lasting mark on the comic series about Spirou, who is wearing a red hotel bellboy's livery, and in the process developed a dynamic style that caught on.

Franquin's Marsupilami was an homage to another comic book mythical animal, the "Jeep" from EC Segar's "Popeye", whose name is composed of the Latin word "marsupial" (marsupial) and the French "ami" (friend).

The funny-anarchic Marsupilami found Spirou in the jungles of Palumbia, a fictional country in South America. In the story "Ein Nest im Jungle" (1960), Franquin even attempted a (pseudo)documentation of the animal species, which at the same time represented an apt parody of animal films. In 1987, Franquin developed his own Marsupilami comic series, which is very popular with children because of its slapstick humor (the last one appeared with Carlsen "Chaos in Jollywood", drawn by Batem).

Several cartoon adaptations and a feature film (2012) followed. Last year, French artist Frank Pé and screenwriter Zidrou attempted a more serious, realistic reimagining called The Beast (also published by Carlsen).

Loving adaptations

The latest interpretation, "The Humboldt Animal", is from by the German draftsman Felix Görmann alias Flix, who was born in Münster in 1976), who was the first German comic artist to draw a Spirou volume in 2018, "Spirou in Berlin". Even here, the Berliner-by-choice showed himself to be a clever storyteller, who weaved numerous allusions to Franco-Belgian and German-German comic history into his story, which was set in the period of reunification.

"Humboldt's animal" is made no less lovingly: the odd little animal that loves to fight, who prefers to utter the sound "Huba-huba" and can come up with numerous gimmicks thanks to its overly long multi-purpose tail, ends up with little Mimmi Löwenstein, who lives with her mother lives in a Berlin apartment building – complete with a despotic caretaker and an extremely unfavorable neighborhood.

Since Mimmi doesn't like being alone, the friendly neighbor Mr. Otto takes her to his new workplace in the Natural History Museum. An ideal playground! When the hobby zoologist Mimmi meets the Marsupilami, the two become best friends – and turn Janz Berlin on their head.

Flix develops a warm-hearted and turbulent story with a hint of social criticism: Mimmi's single mother labors at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport – at the time the busiest airport in Europe. Due to the lack of a husband and probably also because of her Jewish origins, she is exposed to the malicious whispering of her neighbors every day. Mimmi's missing father is replaced in the course of the story by his friendship with (male) Marsupilami.

Appropriately enough, Mimmi and the jungle creature also get lost in a nightclub called "Jungle".

The dark days of National Socialism are already looming on the streets of Berlin. The Marsupilami, always good for a joke, intuitively stirs up such unpleasant contemporaries, for example, throws a troop of brown shirts overboard without them being able to understand what is happening to them.

Greetings to colleagues

Flix dedicated more subtle allusions to his artistic ancestors, who were current at the time of the action: A larger panel showing figures around an advertising column is reminiscent of the now legendary book cover of the Illustrator Walter Trier on Erich Kästner's "Emil and the Detectives" and also Erich Ohser's (known as eo Plauen) "Father and Son" stories from the 1930s can be discovered in the highly detailed panels.

Appropriately enough, Mimmi and the jungle creature also get lost in a nightclub called "Jungle" - a reminiscence of the revealing nightlife of Berlin in the 1920s as well as the discotheque of the same name from the 80s. Of course, a bellboy resembling the comic character Spirou should not be missing, who opens a car door at the "Hotel Zoo" through which the Marsupilami slips.

A good idea for the draftsman is also to set the story in winter, so that he can get atmospheric impressions of his Berlin: next to the Natural History Museum, an icy Spree or a busy street on Alexanderplatz.

The polymath Alexander von Humboldt, who plays a leading role in the introductory chapter, is cheekily portrayed as a foppish braggart who collects cultural assets without remorse so that he can later present them in his museum. Flix thus creates a link to present-day Berlin, in which the debate about colonial art looted in the Humboldt Forum continues to simmer.

But his adventurous and funny comic offers one thing above all: excellent reading fun. "The Humboldt Animal" fits well into the cosmos of the Belgian publishing house Dupuis, which brought forth Spirou, Fantasio, the Marsupilami and numerous other characters such as "The Smurfs" or "Lucky Luke", which children and adults alike enjoy to this day.

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