by Jordi Costa
When the first volume of the complete edition of Fred’s Philémon, edited by ECC, came out I couldn’t understand what on earth were people doing wasting time in the streets, walking, having a beer, chatting away… Didn’t they know that this dimensional gate to a never-ending universe of wonders had just arrived in the bookshops? I couldn’t conceive a happier state than locking myself up within four walls, with the blinds down, in front of that volume, on the pages of which seemed to parade all the colours and shapes in the universe (and in other worlds: the possible and impossible), the best way of travelling without leaving a fixed point.
In the presentation text that, maybe following an heterodoxy so typical of Fred’s works, is included at the end –and not at the beginning– of the book, Jorge García places author and work under a Georges Perec quotation –the origin of which I would love to know: is it from Things? From Life. A User’s Manual?–. In it, the popular oulipist gives faith of his encounter with Fred’s universe and, in fact, confirms the paradoxical wisdom in it contained: “In a comic book, you see a tall guy with long hair and a pullover with blue and white stripes; he is riding a donkey. In the balloon coming from its mouth –it’s a talking donkey– you can read: Whoever wants to be an ass, can be a donkey.” I didn’t know about that Perec/Philémon connection at all, and I had never been able, up to now, to read Fred’s magnus opus, but that crossroad between the playful and cheery avant-garde of the Parisian cartoonist and one of the most honourable representatives of OuLiPo is revealed as something not only significant, but maybe even inevitable, because both currents share the same gold-bearing substrata. The members of the OuLiPo –or Workshop for Potential Literature– stood out in the art of self-imposing absurd forced rules in order to test their capacity to invoke emotion and wonder: novels written without the letter e, combining verse games in rudimentary analogic machines to create a poetry set for insatiable readers, playful variations on the same trivial situation… It all served the purpose of letting the imagination fly free of the rigidity of the conceptual corset the oulipists tried to lock it in.
The imaginary universe of Philémon is also based on an apparent paradox: that of a relentless surrealist logic. Philémon moved from being the chronicles of the delirious adventures of a scatter-brained young man who continuously detected fantastic deviations in his everyday French countryside world, to proposing an intricate architecture of unreal things. In his first appearances, Philémon, alongside his donkey, Anatole, and under the reproachful look of his rationalist father, although with the complicity of an uncle also keen on delirious flights, came across subterranean circuses, clown invasions and sudden changes of scale thanks to a magic spyglass. In 1968, his already unstable universe was revolutionised not by the discovery that under the street’s cobblestones there laid a beach, but by the confirmation that under the literal world, the impossible was camouflaged. In The Cast Away from Letter A, Fred began to build a new mad coherence for his imaginary universe taking a simple idea, but with an amazing heart: Philémon discovered that map nomenclatures really existed, petrified, in the real world. So that you can understand this: the verbal expression “Atlantic Ocean” that is written across the corresponding zone on world maps and reproductions of the Earth globe equalled, in the world drawn by Fred, a stone island per letter. Inside each of these isles, the plastic and fable-prone effervescence of the artist found its ideal medium, imagining a terrestrial cosmogony sculpted with one after another poetic occurrences. Philémon became, thus, the ideal log book for that impossible trip from letter to letter through an Atlantic Ocean that became a never-ending succession of encounters with the extraordinaire. In time, Fred questioned even the geography of his own medium: the comic book page of four cartoon strips per page, often mutated in trompe l’oeil and labyrinth that added even more strangeness to the scene and challenged his characters with progressively more difficult surroundings to adapt to.
The Cartoon Stolen here belongs to The Wild Piano, the second episode of this definitive cycle of the adventures of Philémon, published for the first time in album form in 1973. Ready to rescue the well-man who went AWOL after having told the secret of the letters in the maps, Philémon abandoned in this adventure his everyday surroundings to enter his uncle Barthelemy’s Earth globe: there he found traveller’s able to walk over the water of the ocean, camped under the sea during a ferocious tempest, jumped on board of a balloon that could have perfectly been featured in Julius Verne’s and Karel Zeman’s dreams and fell to a land whose inhabitants had developed butterfly wings to avoid the most restricting prohibition in their territory: stepping on the grass. Any time Philémon broke the law, a trial condemned him to dealing with a furious animated piano. Waiting for the ritual celebration, the perplexed hero was locked up in a zebra-cell, a concept that will only let you imagine a small percentage of Fred’s wild visual imagination. The image, yes, is gold, but what really calls our attention on this cartoon isn’t so much that penal zebra, but the balloon that an off-screen voice pronounces when Philémon shouts: “A zebra! I’m inside a zebra!” That “And?” holds a true declaration of principles, a philosophy for life, the only way of dealing with mystery and surprise. And, of course, a reading guide to follow Fred’s unpredictable surprises, as an author who didn’t only try to amaze, but to educate us in the sensible acceptation of the nonsensical.
With this article, the section STOLEN CARTOONS says goodbye for a while. Its author has to embark in other tasks that require the time he devoted to these writings and much more. He will be back if at O they’re so keen so as to allow him to. Meanwhile without any fuss or mood alteration, let’s keep on accepting the improbable.