Jean Graton was the “last sacred monster” of Franco-Belgian comics. But his commercial success did not always earn him the respect he deserved. A look back at the life of a cartoonist whose career has progressed at a rapid pace.
(BRUSSELS) The race is over for Jean Graton. The father of Michel Vaillant, the most famous racing driver in comics, died Thursday in Brussels at the age of 97, surrounded by his family.
“He had been ill for a very long time. He was in a nursing home and we couldn’t see him anymore ”, underlines Jean-Claude de la Royère, former curator of the Belgian Comic Strip Center.
It’s an understatement to say that Jean Graton was a big engine. Its commercial success bears witness to this. In more than 60 years, some 25 million copies of Michel Vaillant’s 79 albums have been sold around the world.
“It was the last sacred monster of Franco-Belgian comics. His friends and colleagues were called Goscinny, Uderzo, Charlier, Peyo, Roba, Franquin, ”said the press release published Thursday by the publisher Dupuis, who had managed the Vaillant brand since 2019.
Born in 1957, the Michel Vaillant series recounted the adventures of an intrepid French driver, standard bearer of a car brand owned by the Vaillant family. His victories are numerous on the circuit, but also off track. Because in addition to being an ace at the wheel, the character is a loyal and courageous man, a respectful son, a faithful husband, an understanding brother and a sincere friend.
Defects? Point. Quite the opposite of his friend, the American Steve Warson, who seems to have all the vices: fiery, angry, unrepentant don juan. Or his sworn enemy, “The Leader”, who will come to haunt him more than once.
Interesting: Graton does not hesitate to have his fictional heroes rub shoulders with real personalities, such as Jacky Ickx, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher or even Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve. In the episode Steve Warson vs. Michel Vaillant, Gilles Villeneuve even won the drivers’ championship.
The Graton machine
Born in Nantes in 1923, Jean Graton was raised by a father who ran a motorcycle club that took him to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, hence his attraction to motor sports. At 16, he entered the shipyard where he worked as a fitter, a job he hated and made him want to “do what [il a] envy, even if it means taking risks ”.
Attracted by comics, he moved to Brussels in 1947. From 1951 to 1953, he wrote for the magazine Spirou many Beautiful stories from Uncle Paul, where his realistic style can flourish. Then he is hired by the rival magazine, Tintin, where he will create the character of Michel Vaillant in 1957.
The first official album of the series, released 1959 (The big challenge), is quickly adopted by young readers, mainly men. It is the beginning of a long series of successes for Michel Vaillant, who will soon be adapted to the small and the big screen.
Graton designs the first eight adventures of the series on his own, with the help of his wife, Francine. But the demand is so strong that he hires a team of collaborators from The 8the pilot, in 1962. The Graton machine now operates on turbo. For Jean-Claude de la Royère, this “more industrial” choice marks a turning point in the adventures of Michel Vaillant. And would explain the snobbery suffered by the designer throughout his career.
Specialized journalists disdained Jean Graton. They considered him to be a popular, commercial designer.
Jean-Claude de la Royère, former curator of the Belgian Comic Strip Center
“For this reason, we hardly ever recognized that he was a good designer. Yet it had great layouts. He could draw anything, ”he adds.
The cartoonist retired in 2004, a year after the film’s release Michel Vaillant, co-written by filmmaker Luc Besson. He left his legacy in the hands of his son Philippe Graton, who wrote a number of screenplays. The character is also renewed in 2012 for a “new season”. Cars, more modern issues and values: Michel Vaillant is in the car for the XXIe century.
– With Agence France-Presse