Comics in Luxembourg, Part One: Luke Haas and The Pioneering M. Pitche

Comics from Luxembourg! Can you find Luxembourg on a map? Can you name the countries that surround it? Are you sure you’re not thinking of Liechtenstein instead? Or have you always thought Luxembourg was a fictional place, like Ruritania, the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, or Flin Flon? (Okay, one of those places is real; you’re online, look it up.)

Luxembourg is real, too, and unlike Fenwick, it’s a real Grand Duchy–in fact, the only Grand Duchy left, currently headed by Grand Duke Henri of Nassau-Weilburg. It’s a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy, and about the size of Rhode Island, or half the size of Prince Edward Island. It’s only been independent from the Netherlands since 1839. However, it punches above its weight in European politics: not only is its capital, Luxembourg City, one of the three capitals of the European Union (beside Brussels and Strasbourg), but it’s also home to the European Court of Justice. The country’s geographical position between France, Belgium and Germany was obviously extremely disadvantageous during the two World Wars, and thus Luxembourg had a powerful vested interest in leading the creation and maintenance of the multinational institutions that eventually led to the creation of the European Union.

Bordering on France and Belgium, of course, means that Luxembourg is right next to one of the epicentres of European comics production, and one of the most important comics traditions in the world. That’s the Franco-Belgian tradition of bandes dessinées, of course. But Luxembourg also borders on Germany, with a much weaker comics tradition; and the language that Luxembourgers speak at home, Luxembourgish or Lëtzebuergesch, is Germanic: it is somewhat comprehensible to speakers of German dialects in the bordering regions of Germany (the West Moselle Franconian dialects), though Luxembourgish uses more French loan words–which does not make it understandable for a Francophone.

Luxembourgers speak French, too, though, and that’s the main administrative language; so French literature and French media–including bandes dessinées–are easily accessible. And they also speak standard German. In fact, Luxembourg is unusual among multilingual countries in that it isn’t divided into linguistic regions: everyone learns all three languages (though not necessarily equally fluently; a majority of Luxembourgers speak better German than French, though they tend to value French more highly; see Gilles et al. 65-8), and they speak whichever one suits the circumstances. The government is obliged to serve you in whichever language you choose to communicate in. Almost everybody learns English in school, as well.

Facility in French and German aside, it’s the existence of Luxembourgish that creates a national culture that has resisted assimilation into any of the neighbouring cultures. In fact, the national motto, “Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn,” is Luxembourgish for “We want to stay what we are.” And so Luxembourg has a unique media culture, in terms of broadcasting and print–including a fairly long history of local comics. Though the influence of the Franco-Belgian industry is hard to miss, it’s not the only influence, and ultimately Luxembourg’s comics scene is all its own. That’s the subject of Comics in, aus und über Luxemburg (Comics in, from and about Luxembourg), by Luke Haas–thankfully written in standard German.

Luke Haas's Comics in, aus und über Luxemburg

Luke Haas’s Comics in, aus und über Luxemburg (Esch-sur-Alzette: Éditions Schortgen, 2007). My photo.

Not to be confused with the American actor Lukas Haas, Lucien “Luke” Haas, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 66, was an elder statesman of the Luxembourgish rock music scene, with a career spread across several bands and five decades. He published three books about rock in Luxembourg in the 1980s and ’90s; but he was also an avid comics reader, collector and sometime artist, and in 2007 he published this large, thick (almost 380 pages) and colourful tome. The publisher, Éditions Schortgen, specializes in art books and coffee table books, and as a result, Comics in, aus und über Luxemburg is absolutely sumptuous, with heavy, semi-gloss paper, and beautifully-reproduced images on almost every page. This is definitely the go-to book on the subject, and it’s unlikely to be displaced from that position any time soon. But Haas’s book is now over a decade old, and the internet has come a long way in the meantime as a research tool, so there are a few gaps and loose ends in the book.

Although the structure of the book is a tad capricious, Haas offers a good basic introduction to the history of comics, mentioning R. F. Outcault, for example, earlier British examples (but not Ally Sloper); Nowlan and Calkins’s Buck Rogers; Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth and Alex Raymond–and Osamu Tezuka–before jumping back to cave painting, hieroglyphics and Roman mosaics, the Bayeux Tapestry, and Gutenberg (14-19). Then it’s on to the European continental comics forerunners: William Hogarth, Rodolphe Töpffer, Christophe (i.e., Marie-Louis-Georges Colomb), and Wilhelm Busch (which leads us back to the Americans via Rudolph Dirks); and into the 20th century with Erich Ohser (e. o. plauen), Hergé, Disney, Lee Falk’s Phantom, and the DC superheroes (20-23). It’s clear that Haas knows a lot about the background and context. And that brings us to the history of comics in Luxembourg.

Among the forerunners of comics in Luxembourg, Haas includes the satirical paper D’Wäschfra (Standard German Die Wäscherin; English “The Washer-Woman”), which was published from 1868 to 1884–though it appeared under several titles, and from different publishers, to evade the censors (Haas 32). Many issues, however, had no illustrations at all besides the title page, so even rudimentary caricatures were few and far between; for the most part, the satire is verbal (the entire run of D’Wäschfra under its various titles can be found in digitalized form at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg; be warned that the site can be finicky, and doesn’t always load).

D'Wäschfra, first issue.

The front page of the first issue of D’Wäschfra, 16 May 1868, artist unknown. As with many issues, this is the only illustration in the four pages of the paper. Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg.

After D’Wäschfra ceased publication, there was no real successor until 1921, when De Gukuk (“The Cuckoo”) started, featuring the early cartooning work of the first notable Luxembourgish comics artist, Albert Simon (1901-1956). Simon would really come into his own, however, in his work for the Escher Tageblatt/Le Journal d’Esch from 1931 on and in A-Z: Luxemburger Illustrierte, a colourful illustrated weekly published from the end of 1933 until early 1940. But we’ll come back to him in Part Two. In the meantime, there is one relatively unsung pioneer of comics whose work was first published in Belgium, but who laid important groundwork for the comic strip in France as well; as it happens, he was also among the earliest comics artists published in Luxembourg. This is the Lithuanian-born Aleksas Stonkus, and his creation Pitche.

Little is known about Aleksas, or Alek, Stonkus; his birth and death dates don’t seem to have been recorded, and even his birthplace can’t be narrowed down to a specific city. He may have been one of the many émigrés who left the Baltic region during the upheavals of the First World War and the Russian Revolution–Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire, and then occupied by German forces, at this time. But whenever he left Lithuania, he ended up in Paris. He surfaces as an artist about 1930, already fully-formed, so to speak, in the Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique with his creation, then entitled Monsieur Pietje (or “little Peter” in Flemish). Pietje is a well-dressed, bald little man with a large nose and a square, almost Chaplinesque moustache. He often wears a bowler hat and white gloves, indicated by three lines on the backs of his hands. He looks something like Jeff without Mutt, but Pietje–like Stonkus’s drawing style–is neater and cleaner. In fact, Stonkus renders his characters in a clear, bold and sometimes almost abstract style reminiscent of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy (1933-82), though less severe and avant-garde than Bushmiller’s work became. Although the strip uses speech balloons liberally–Pietje’s frequent exclamation when things go wrong is “Misère de malheur!” (“Cursed bad luck!”)–in many strips the main humour is visual, and the dialogue superfluous.

After its debut in La Libre Belgique, the strip was then taken up by the French children’s paper Le Bon-Point, and over the next year spread to other French papers, including Les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, L’Ouest-Éclair, Benjamin and Pierrot. In moving from Belgium to France, the character was rechristened Pitche (still pronounced the same way); under either name, he became the first daily-appearing comics figure in the Franco-Belgian press, beating out André Daix’s better-known Les Aventures du Professeur Nimbus by four years. By the beginning of 1931, Pitche was poised to expand into Luxembourg by means of the bilingual and bi-weekly L’Illustré luxembourgeois/Luxemburger Illustrierte.

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Front page, L’Illustré luxembourgeois/Luxemburger Illustrierte, 10 Feb. 1931. When the paper first appeared in 1924, the title on the masthead was given in German first, then French. The titles switched places in the issue of 15 July 1926, and remained that way. Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg.

Already, Pitche had become popular enough that Jules Klensch, editor of L’Illustré luxembourgeois, could announce the strip’s arrival as a major coup and the artist as a star: in the bilingual blurb introducing Pitche to the readers, Stonkus is labelled as a “famous Parisian artist” no fewer than three times–once in French (Le célèbre dessinateur parisien) and twice in German (ein geistreicher und hervorragender Pariser Künstler; der hervorragende Pariser Künstler und humorvoller Karikaturist; “J. K.” 39). Klensch also emphasizes in both languages that L’Illustré has the exclusive Luxembourg rights to the strip, described as “this new kind of caricature, of Anglo-Saxon origin” (diese neue Art von Karikatur, welche anglo-sächsischen Ursprungs ist). At the same time, Klensch avers, Stonkus’s creation is “entirely his own” (ureigen); and yet Pitche is also redolent of French spirit and humour; bearing comparison to both Alphonse Daudet’s 1872 Provençal novel Tartarin of Tarascon and to Marcel Pagnol’s 1929 play Marius, set in Marseilles. (How the work of a Lithuanian-born Parisian can so specifically evoke the south of France goes unexplained.)

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“J. K.” (Jules Klensch), “Dans ce numéro commencent les aventures de Pitche,” L’Illustré luxembourgeois/Luxemburger Illustrierte, 10 Feb. 1931, 39 (the paper’s pages were through-numbered annually, rather than beginning from p. 1 with each issue). Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg.

The comparisons to great–and canonical–artworks are continued a few pages later in this issue, in an anonymously written essay entitled “L’Art d’Aleksas Stonkus,” in which a lengthy preamble declares, “That which distinguishes a great artist from other men is his ability to express clearly what the others sense distractedly,” going on to cite Victor Hugo’s 1859 poem “Les pauvres gens” (“Poor People”), Paolo Veronese’s and Rembrandt van Rijn’s depictions of Christ (1573 and 1630s, respectively), and Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1823 Missa solemnis in D major, before finally declaring Stonkus and Pitche worthy to rank among such company. This is not tongue-in-cheek: Pitche is being held up as great art, because while “each of his stories makes you laugh to the point of tears” (chacune de ses histoires fait rire aux larmes), Stonkus is “recounting the most spiritual matters” (aussi raconte-t-il les choses les plus spirituelles; 41).

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“L’Art d’Aleksas Stonkus,” L’Illustré luxembourgeois/Luxemburger Illustrierte, 10 Feb. 1931, 41. The caption under Stonkus’s portrait describes him as “seeming well preserved,” giving no indication as to his age, which the quality of the photograph also does little to establish. Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg.

The last quarter of the feature consists of an interview with Stonkus–the only interview with him that I know of, cited in the French Wikipedia article on Pitche (though it gives the wrong year for the appearance of the article, placing it in 1925 rather than 1931). Curiously, Stonkus’s remarks are introduced by describing him speaking “with the sadness particular to him” (avec cette tristesse qui lui est propre); it’s almost like Max Brod’s stylizing Franz Kafka into a kind of melancholy Buddhist saint.

“I feel vaguely how far I’ve fallen short of the mark,” Stonkus says (combien je suis éloigné du but; despite the fact that the article has just declared, “He never misses his mark”–Il ne manque jamais son but–literally in the previous paragraph). “As much as others may admire my caricatures, I deplore not having given them all the eloquence, all the beauty that is their due.”

“Laughter,” Stonkus continues, “is intellectual in its origin, the public likes to laugh at an ingenious comical idea, it likes to comprehend the thoughts that guided the artist’s hand. This is why I always take care that my pictures speak for themselves, and above all that the final image provides the story with an unexpectedly logical and amusing conclusion.

“I make my protagonist behave like an authentic human being; if, for example, I need to set Pitche into battle with a piece of sticky paper and show his superhuman efforts to free himself from it, I first carry out a little experiment on myself, so that I can portray it well.

“In a word, I live with the character that I draw, I share his pains and his distresses, and I love him like a child.”

One might think that this is hardly selling Stonkus’s comic strip as a laugh a minute, but it’s a relief to report that Pitche is funnier than its creator makes it sound. A few pages later, the strip itself makes its debut in L’Illustré luxembourgeois, under the bilingual title Les Aventures du délicieux Pitche/Pitche’s köstliche Erlebnisse (that’s right, in both French and German, Pitche is “delicious” for some reason–or rather, he is in French, while his “experiences” are in German):

Aleksas Stonkus, Pitche

Aleksas Stonkus, Pitche, L’Illustré luxembourgeois/Luxemburger Illustrierte, 10 Feb. 1931, 43. The paper published two strips biweekly until 25 June 1931; only one from then until 25 Sept., when the paper apparently folded. Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg.

As you can see, Pitche was published sideways on the page, which meant it was reproduced at the largest possible size; and for six months, two strips were published in each issue. Given that the strip was daily in its Belgian and French home papers, and had already run for a year, L’Illustré luxembourgeois need never have feared running out of strips; much less so when it switched to only one strip per issue in August of that year.

Like many comic strips, Pitche was essentially about one joke per strip, with little interest in continuity. Although M. Pitche was always the same character, his situation was dependent upon the gag du jour. He sometimes lives in a flat, sometimes in a hotel. If the joke requires him to be broke, then he is broke (making the rent is a recurring gag); if it revolves around his purchasing something, then he has the money needed. His job was equally flexible; in a rare burst of (still rather loose) continuity, he spends five strips attempting to become a cinema scenario writer (25 March-25 April), but otherwise he is itinerant: he goes from being a newspaper theatre critic (25 May) to a liveried footman (10 June) with no explanation–other than the repeated evidence that he is terrible at almost every profession he sets his hand to. Although he is always well-dressed, his class, like his origins or family background, remains a mystery.

So at this point, you may well be wondering: what does this have to do with German comics? This all looks very French, even if it is appearing in a bilingual newspaper. And that’s where something odd, but very Luxembourgish, comes in. Let’s take a closer look at the very first Pitche strip. I’ll turn it sideways to make it easier, especially if you’re using a tablet:

Aleksas Stonkus, Pitche

Aleksas Stonkus, “Pitche is wearing gold spectacles,” L’Illustré luxembourgeois/ Luxemburger Illustrierte, 10 Feb. 1931, 43. Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg.

Well, as in many episodes, this is above all, a sight gag. Pitche’s one speech balloon is pretty much superfluous: “Cursed bad luck! I sneezed too hard–behold, my solid gold pince-nez has disappeared into the water.” Cut to “an unexpectedly logical and amusing conclusion”; though for me, the thought that Stonkus might actually have tried this out in real life is much funnier than the strip itself. Your mileage, or knottage in this case, may vary. But the really odd thing is the German subtitle: “Due to a too strenuous sneeze, Pitche’s solid gold pince-nez falls into the sea. Pitche as a diver.” It doesn’t exactly translate the speech balloon, and it seems a bit stiff to subtitle the final panel, which is a sight gag. What is this, described video?

Every single Pitche strip in L’Illustré luxembourgeois is subtitled in this odd fashion–in some cases, a relatively straightforward sight gag with no dialogue becomes a full, stilted paragraph. Imagine a Nancy strip retold as one of Bertolt Brecht’s street scenes (if you googled “Flin Flon”–ooh, what a giveaway–you can google this one, too). But there’s no reason for such an alienation effect, so what purpose is it serving?

The answer is in the nature of Luxembourg’s multilingualism: this is pretty much the only feature in the paper that’s aimed at children, and when they’re at home, most of the children in Luxembourg would be speaking and thinking in Luxembourgish: “Kuck emol! Dem Pitche säi Brëll ass an d’Waasser gefall! Elo muss en dauchen! Hihihihi!”–or words to that effect. But once they’ve started school, they’re going to have to learn Standard German or Hochdeutsch, the language of “primary alphabetization” (Gilles et al. 77). And for that purpose, a near-pantomime strip, one that can be understood without language but can be glossed in the target language, is a perfect candidate. (After a few more years of school, the kids will learn how to read the French original.)

Sadly, Pitche’s pedagogical career in Luxembourg lasted less than a year. Although Romain Hilgert, in his history of periodicals in Luxembourg, can say only that the paper lasted until at least 1930 (Die Zeitschrift erschien mindestens bis 1930/Le magazine fut publié au moins jusqu’en 1930; n.p.), in fact the collection of L’Illustré luxembourgeois in the National Library extends to 25 Sept. 1931. At this point, the paper, and Pitche, appear to have vanished from the scene, or at least the Luxembourgish scene.

In France and Belgium, Pitche was popular enough that the publisher Hachette put out an annual collection–in French only–every year from 1932 to 1937. The strip itself continued until 1950; Stonkus is thought to have died shortly after, according to Lambiek’s Comiclopedia, but given the almost total lack of information about him, it’s possible that the strip ended when he died. Curiously, even Maurice Horn’s World Encyclopedia of Comics completely overlooks Stonkus and his child, Pitche, and names Daix’s Professeur Nimbus, which started four years after Pitche–and which, to my knowledge, has never been compared to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis–as the first daily French-language comic strip (630). And thus, as they say, passeth all the glory of the world.

To close off, some proof that Aleksas Stonkus did have some sense of humour about his work: In this episode from 10 June 1931, Pitche is working as a cartoonist whose inspiration has dried up. But there’s worse news–a burglar at the door! What to do?

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Aleksas Stonkus, “Pitche enlists help,” L’Illustré luxembourgeois/ Luxemburger Illustrierte, 10 June 1931, 163. The French dialogue–or rather, monologue–is wildly over-written, so that the German subtitles come off as more restrained than usual. Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg.

The entire run of L’Illustré luxembourgeois/Luxemburger Illustrierte is digitalized and available online under a Creative Commons license through the Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg on their “Luxemburgensia” page. Next time we’ll look at some actual home-grown Luxembourgish comic artists.

Bibliography

“Alek Stonkus.” Lambiek Comiclopedia. 19 Mar. 2018. https://www.lambiek.net/artists/s/stonkus_alek.htm.

Gilles,Peter, Sebastian Seela, Heinz Sieburg, and Melanie Wagner. “Languages and Identities.” Doing Identity in Luxembourg: Subjective Appropriations – Institutional Attributions – Socio-Cultural Milieus. Ed. IPSE – Identités Politiques Sociétés Espaces. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2011. 65-106.

Haas, Luke. Comics in, aus und über Luxemburg. Esch-sur-Alzette: Ëditions Schortgen, 2007.

Hilgert, Romain. Les journaux au Luxembourg 1704-2004. Service information et presse du gouvernement luxembourgeois, 2004.

Hilgert, Romain. Zeitungen in Luxemburg 1704-2004. Service information et presse du
gouvernement luxembourgeois, 2004. (This is identical with the above entry, only in German rather than French. Both editions are unpaginated.)

Horn, Maurice. “Professeur Nimbus, Le.” World Encyclopedia of Comics. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999. 630.

“Pitche.” Wikipédia. 30 Mar. 2018. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pitche.

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