Rule of the Jungle Ashcan 1: Solstice
The following is a brainstorming experiment for a potential new project I’m considering that I’ve tentatively decided to call “Rule of the Jungle”. This is not the “Surprise Book” that will become my main blogging project here this coming spring, but it could potentially run alongside it depending on whether certain factors come into play for me. Since this essay may or may not go into the final book, which may or may not actually happen, that’s why I’m calling it an “ashcan preview” of sorts. Or maybe it’s a “vertical slice” of themes and concepts I might be interested in playing with in the finished product. It was inspired by things I always think about at this time of year and interests I’ve always had and I’ve got a rough path to an outline at least, so we’ll see where this goes.
Everything nature does is a circle. The heavens dance around themselves.
The stars and their planets are round, and we visualize their circular orbits and rotations as the passage of time. Seasons change, and the sun rises and sets. Even life and death are part of this same great circle: We are born from other realms, incarnate in these forms, live out our mortal lives in communion with one another and return from whence we came. Even in the lands where the seasons do not appear to change as dramatically, a circle may still be drawn: Power comes from the four directions, and a compass is round. And life and death remain.
I am a child of the summer. Not literally, as this embodied form of mine was first physically born in December, which, fittingly for a Northerner whose birthright is the mountains and hinterlands, is close to midwinter in the Northern Hemisphere. But it is my favourite season; the season whose power I feel the strongest and that resonates with me the best. I do love the winter and have learned to appreciate its stark beauty, but I am ill-prepared to deal with its particular extremes and the dwindling warmth and sunlight brought upon by autumn takes a severe toll on me. But seasons only change from the perspective of a single vantage point: Part of nature’s cycle is that, from the viewpoint of the entire world, seasons do not change so much as they appear to move. Not just the animals, but entire energies appear to migrate in tempo with the orbits of the celestial bodies. From where I sit writing this it is the depths of cold and dark winter, but elsewhere it is summertime.
But only temporarily. For as the solstice approaches the seasons are about to move once more, with the North beginning to depart the dark half of the year, while the South begins to enter it. Perhaps that’s why, at this time of year, my thoughts turn back to the summer warmth and the lands where the sun shines always.
All of this is a long-winded and self-indulgent way of leading into the fact that I tend to associate the winter holiday season with tropical imagery just as much as I do the snow-covered evergreen trees outside my window. Part of this is also due to the stories I associate with this time of year: Perhaps you have specific memories of the works that were formative to you associated with specific places and times. Perhaps not, and that’s just one more thing that defines me as an eccentric. For me, the winter solstice period will always remind me of a series awash in tropical imagery that was an enormous inspiration on me that I first discovered during this season many years ago.
Marsupilami is a character initially created in January 1952 by Belgian cartoonist André Franquin for the comic series Spirou et Fantasio, which he was at the time helming (having inherited the series from his mentor, and Spirou’s creator, Robert “Rob-Vel” Velter”). Under Franquin, Spirou had changed from a comparatively simple series of gags for young audiences to an Adventures of Tintin and Snowy-style adventure serial, complete with globetrotting plots, international political intrigue, zany double-act humour between Spirou and his sidekick Fantasio and adorable animal mascot Spip the squirrel (a visual play on words, as “Spirou” is derived from the French words for “mischievous” and “squirrel”). Marsupilami himself was created as another sidekick to play off of Spirou, a fantastic jungle animal who vaguely resembles a cross between a cheetah, a monkey and a dog with a seven-meter long prehensile tail that can be shaped into any tool the situation demands.
Marsupilami first appears in the album Spirou et les héritiers, where Spirou and Fantasio have to track him down in the Amazon rainforest within the fictional South American country of Palombia as part of a challenge for Spirou to claim an inheritance. Marsupilami was inspired by several moments from Franquin’s life: Firstly he was based on the Popeye character Eugene the Jeep, whom Franquin had loved as a child, as well as an incident where Franquin saw an overworked bus driver and figured he could have used a prehensile rat-tail to help him out. Meanwhile, Marsupilami’s origin in the Amazon rainforest (the name “Marsupilami” refers to not just Spirou’s sidekick, but his species as well as any subsequent Marsupilami character, though girls tend to be called Marsupilamie) comes out of Franquin’s deep-rooted interest in environmentalism and conservation. The character proved to be a huge hit with fans and became a regular in the series while Franquin wrote and drew it, and when he left Spirou he took Marsupilami with him, creating a new publishing house called Marsu Productions to publish a comic book series about the adventures of a Marsupilami family living deep within the Palombian forest. The series started in 1987 and continues to this day, with a new entry every year.
It was also around this time that Marsupilami, who had since become a beloved cultural icon in Europe, caught the eye of the Walt Disney Corporation. Disney, under then-CEO Michael Eisner, reached out to Marsu for a cross-promotional deal that would see Disney making a Saturday Morning Cartoon Show based on Marsupilami as a way of introducing the character to overseas markets, many of whom had never heard of him. Although it wasn’t unusual for a European publisher in the late 80s and early 90s to try and break a continental comic book icon into North America (success had been seen with Marsupilami’s contemporaries Tintin, Asterix and Lucky Luke), this was an unusual way to do it. This deal would prove disastrous for both companies for a variety of reasons but, the end result of it all was that it was through Disney that I was introduced to Marsupilami, and it was Disney’s version of Marsupilami that I first fell in love with.
After stumbling upon the show one winter holiday I was instantly smitten, even knowing absolutely nothing about the character’s history or context (Disney refused to provide any). The show became a massive inspiration, even becoming one of the very few works of fiction I was compelled to write my own take on (don’t tell anyone, but, prior to becoming a professional writer, I probably wrote more Marsupilami stories than any of my original works). For me a tender part of this season always belongs to the jungle, and the year I went from Disney’s Marsupilami to Rare’s Donkey Kong Land all in the same December will be one I’ll always remember.
I was always predisposed to liking a cartoon show set in the Amazon rainforest (…even if Disney’s show seems to be set in Africa, but hey, I love Africa too). Growing up isolated from human society, I was instead surrounded by nature, and from a very young age I was keenly aware that this was the world to which I belonged to first and foremost. After my family got satellite television in the mid 1990s, I split my TV time fairly evenly between animated cartoons and nature documentaries, so when the two seemed to intersect that alone was enough to catch my interest. There’s a lot that can be said about Disney’s Marsupilami: It’s in many was a radical departure from the source material and yet, I would argue, it manages to maintain its essential spirit and, in some ways, even improve upon it. The quality of an average episode tends to range from “resonant masterpiece” to “unwatchably terrible”, its charming personality being the constant thread that keeps it together and above the crowd. The expectedly lush Renaissance-era Disney production lovingly brings Marsupilami’s vibrant and colourful world to life (especially in the shorts when they outsource to a particularly good animation studio), and it’s all set to what is, in my mind, one of the best scores Disney has ever done: An eclectic and piquant collection of world fusion experiments whose heartfelt and yearning sincerity speak for themselves.
For our purposes though, the most elucidating thing we could explore about Marsupilami in the context of our themes is what his narrative role is, how it changes between the adaptations and how the voice of nature manifests in the way it’s positioned. Franquin’s original Marsupilami has been described as a kind of “noble savage”, which is of course an archetype that is far from defensible, and one can see how that argument could be constructed looking at the way the characters bearing that name are portrayed across the various comics. Marsupilamis are mute, speaking only their trademark cry “houba” and are depicted as animals first and foremost, albeit cunning ones who are loveably goofy and have an endearing sense of humour. The central conflict in the original Marsupilami stories (moreso in the early albums of Maru Productions’ series than Spirou et Fantasio) could thus be construed as being about an innocent animal blissfully unaware of the vices of the human world, yet whose paradise is constantly in danger of being encroached upon by it. In his role as “Defender of the Forest”, the Marsu series Marsupilami is roused to protect this pristine jungle home and paradise from outside corruption.
Disney’s Marsupilami, by contrast, is a far edgier and more worldly character. He can talk, unlike his relatives, thus rendering “houba” a (nonsensical) catchphrase and giving him a more defined personality. That personality is, at first glance, fairly typical for the early 1990s context into which he emerged: Comparisons can be drawn very easily between this Marsupilami and SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog, possibly the ur-example of the Mascot with Attitude for the environmentalist age. But where Sonic’s ecological themes always felt a bit half-formed and tacked on (Sonic is an eco-warrior more or less because it was expected he would be, given he’s an animal who fights a mad scientist who builds Giant Death Robots), with Marsupilami this is at the very heart and core of the series’ identity. Disney also turns Marsupilami into a classic cartoon Karmic Trickster: While in the comics he tends to only react when he has a personal stake in matters, here he seems to have a preternatural ability to show up exactly when and where the primary antagonist needs to get knocked down a few pegs, the best example being the utterly sublime “Working Class Mars”.
In another fun touch, this jungle is far from an untouched wilderness, in spite of it literally being referred to as a “tranquil, unspoiled jungle sanctuary” in one short. Whereas Palombia was an attempt to create a constructed world that could plausibly pass for any number of real-world South American countries (which inevitably leads to unfortunate implications), here, smack in the middle of the primordial rainforest, there appears to be a hotel, a golf course, a hospital, a Gothic castle and even an office building. Furthermore, the watering holes are lakeside resorts and public swimming pools for the animals, all of whom bizarrely seem to enjoy the regular arrival of an ice cream truck. Despite being not at all grounded in reality this, combined with Marsupilami’s own constant use of odd and counterintuitive slang, actually becomes a far better metaphor for the true relationship between humans and nature. In truth, all of life has always shaped and influenced all else in life. Everything has an effect on everything else, and everything adapts as it needs to.
In this way, Disney’s Marsupilami becomes, just like Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä and Haruka Takachiho’s Kei and Yuri, an embodiment of the natural rhythms of the universe as they manifest on a human level. Through dedicated workers like these, nature acts unconsciously to ensure the changes that must occur come to pass and the state of constant Becoming is preserved. Tapped into their source energy, they are neither fully of the human world or the eternal one, and yet they also belong to both. Much as we all do, but sometimes we need guidance from those more aware of this truth than we are to remind us.
But as we enter another anniversary of both Marsupilami and my own personal association with him in this day and age, André Franquin’s well-documented knee-jerk distrust of any form of authority is starting to look appealing and ahead of its time. And with the Marsu Productions comics now at long last starting to receive English translations well, well after their Franco-Belgian contemporaries and about 30 years too late, perhaps there’s never been a better time to Marsupilami his fair due.
December 21, 2017 @ 9:30 am
The stars and planets are not spheres, they are oblate spheroids. Their orbits are not circles, they are ellipses. With the seasons you yourself admit that they only apply that neatly to certain parts of Earth. The rest of the essay is interesting but such imprecise generalizations for the sake of the argument just rub me the wrong way.
December 21, 2017 @ 9:55 pm
I worked in astronomy and astrophysics once.
This is why I no longer do.
December 24, 2017 @ 10:59 am
I really like this type of essay from you Josh; I was a fan of Soda Pop Art when I discovered it, and don’t really get into the vide-game stuff, but your enthusiastic and personal appreciation for semi-obscure pop culture is always a blast.