By Jan Baetens
French Cartoon Art in the 1960s and 1970s
Pilote hebdomadaire and the Teenager Bande Dessinée
Launched in 1959 by René Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, partially in reaction to the unfair labor conditions offered by the then leading comics magazines, Pilote is considered today the publication that made the bridge between traditional children and adolescent comics magazines such as Tintin or Spirou and adult comic journals such as Fluide Glacial and Métal Hurlant (which will even develop a US sister publication). As the publication that translated and creatively appropriated some material of Kurtzman’s MAD magazine, Pilote also played a vital role in the transatlantic dialogue between US nonmainstream, if not underground production, and the new European comic artists.
Although there exist quite some studies on the journal, the study by Wendy Michallat is the very first one to rethink its history in a broader perspective, not just that of comics culture, but that of culture at large. And the result is absolutely breath-taking. First of all because Michallat gives a very detailed yet nuanced and well written overview of the various periods of the magazine, whose history is one of nearly permanent crisis and eternal attempts to relaunch new formats and formulas in a publication niche that was much less profitable than it was often thought. Second, and most importantly, because the author succeeds in doing what other studies fail to do, namely explaining the systematic changes in the magazine’s policy.
This explanation is not an a posteriori enumeration of hits and misses, but a scrupulous examination of the various contextual aspects that influence the zigzag transformations of the journal. As such, Michallat’s study is a model for all those who would like to write the history of a mass media form. More particularly, it takes into account issues such as:
- The need to come up with a concept that is ‘in sync’ with social and political expectations (in this case the obsession with “education” in postwar France, which helped turn away from the pure entertainment of comics and introduce a more text-oriented magazine).
- The competition with similar titles, which cannot be reduced to a matter of style and content, but has a lot to do with distribution networks and good or bad relationships with backing groups in society.
- The legal constraints that burden the necessity to always change even a winning formula, in this case, the (in-)famous law of 16 July 1949 on Publications for Youth, censoring all publications depicting crime, violence and moral debauchery (initially a measure of protectionism, for the law helped ban all American import, it rapidly became a dangerous arm in the hands of all those eager to police this type of publications).
- The necessity to find a place in the existing mediascape, for instance via new forms of collaborations with newspapers and radio stations (at that moment, just after the invention of the transistor, the dominating medium in youth culture).
- The obligation to adapt to a rapidly changing cultural environment, for instance by taking into account that the comics medium during the sixties gradually became an important vector of the counterculture.
- The challenges raised by the internal changes of the magazine format itself, torn between different and always unstable logics, as revealed for instance by the emergence of the comics album as the new hegemonic format.
- The labor conditions within a collective enterprise such as a comics magazine, which has to find a balance between the creative freedom offered to its collaborators and the basic obligation to make money (we shouldn’t forget that May 68 did not start in May 68, but had been prepared by a decade of growing unease with a mainstream culture that was no longer capable of keeping its great promises of the postwar period).
The great achievement of Michallat is that she shows the complex interaction between these (and many other) dimensions, which prove often mutually incompatible. She does so in a way that retells the whole story as if we were in the driver’s seat, facing problems as well as opportunities and having to take decisions whose consequences remain unsure. This approach gives the reader the impression that she is making history herself, including when it comes down to find an answer to failures and dead ends (even if the magazine will last till 1989, its life as a weekly ends in the early seventies, which is also the moment in which its influence in the field is reduced to almost nothing).
 Nicolas Labarre, Heavy Metal, l’autre Métal Hurlant. Bordeaux: Bordeaux UP, 2017, see : https://www.noosfere.org/icarus/livres/niourf.asp?numlivre=2146594729).
 On this dramatic change, see the exhibition curated by the GREBD research group of the University of Lausanne: https://wp.unil.ch/grebd/evenements/expositions-du-grebd/