Achille Talon: Unadulterated Sesquipedalian Verbosity

Category: French
Last article published: 2 July 2019
This is the 48th post under this label
Achille Talon is a classic of French bande dessinée, but hasn't made much of a splash elsewhere because it is so language-focused as to be nigh-impossible to properly translate. Indeed, of the 50+ books published in the original French, only one has ever been fully translated into English (other languages fared slightly better, but I'm in no position to really comment on that). Just in the names themselves, we might detect the problem. "Achille Talon" is a play on Achilles' heel, but in English, the character is called Walter Melon, so yes, a pun, but it lacks the pompous literary allusion of the original. Similarly, his aristocratic fiancée Virgule de Guillemets (a virgule is a comma, guillemets are quotation marks) is translated as Magnesia in English. I don't get it. So if that small element can't really come across well, how would the same translators deal with the reams and reams of run-to-the-dictionary verbiage that comes out of Achille's (and everyone else's) mouths?
See, Achille Talon is a self-important, vain, suburban bourgeois, who sees himelf as a bit of a crusader and activist, above the lower impulses, but completely prone to them, usually shown as a fraud or a fool by the end of any given strip. I do say strips because his origins are in the one or two-page comic gag, and his books were collections of such until longer-form stories - usually in the mystery-adventure mold - were attempted. I have one of them, and while it shares the same sense of humor, I don't think it works as well. An odd fit. As the story goes, Pilote magazine editor (and Astérix writer) René Goscinny needed some filler for the mag and asked prolific writer-artist Greg (real name Michel Louis Albert Regnier, also writer on Chic Bill, Comanche, and some Spirou tales) to create something that could fill holes left by advertising drop-offs. Achille Talon was born (first appearing in 1963) and would become Greg's best-known and loved character, eventually spawning a short-lived animated show, his own magazine, and leave an indelible mark on French-language culture (even people who never read it still know of it). When Greg passed away in 1999, he'd already chosen successors who continued to produce Achille Talon stories, focusing on the short gags of the classic era.

So what's it like? The humor is actually balanced between sight gags and silent sequences, and explosions of florid language, filled with high-falluting vocabulary, puns, and breathless ellipses. It seems easy to forget sometimes that there ARE silent sequences because Talon is known for the language (and I've had friends who have adopted that mode of speech, it's even a "type" in improv circles), but they're there. Very often, Greg will play everything silently (with "speech" represented as rebus-like images in speech bubbles), then drop a huge talky word balloon in the last, large panel. Or the opposite - two pages in which the language accumulates more and more, crowding out the characters, and then bam, a silent or near-silent punch line. The plots frequently have Talon trying to make a point only to be hoisted on his own petard, or else having to face the absurdity of his attempts. Or trading barbed quips with his jerk of a neighbor Lefuneste, usually resorting cartoon violence in the end despite his noble aspirations (and against this character, at least, he can sometimes win). And Talon works at a spoof of Pilote Magazine called Polite Magazine, which allows Greg to exorcise work frustrations as well as play with the comics medium, have Talon address the reader directly and explain the mechanics of cartooning, etc. Ancillary characters (mostly Achille's beer-obsessed dad, because yes, of course he lives with his parents) get some spotlights on occasion too.
And as you can see, it's all done with a pleasant line, fun expressions, and the odd background sight gag. As a kid, I always had a strange relationship with Achille Talon. I certainly liked the art and the ironic twists, and appreciated the way it built towards a punchline (joke construction was an early interest of mine even if I didn't engage with it consciously - was also a Mad Magazine reader), but I feel like maybe my eyes glazed over a lot of the dialog, especially on successive readings. To the adult reader, the strip offers the joy of word discovery and kind of makes you want to introduce some of its vocab in your own speech, for fun, at the risk of sounding like an ass. But Achille Talon has something of the French (I might even say, specifically Parisian) character that is at a remove from, say, French-Canadians, and so even more remote for non-French-language readers. Maybe that's why there's little interest in other parts of the world.
Recommendation: If you can only read one, there isn't a great selection in English translation. In fact, I think you're pretty much stuck with Magnesia's Treasure (Le trésor de Virgule), which is one of the long-form adventures. If you can read French, then I would totally go for one of the gag collections, like Achille Talon Au Pouvoir.


Charles Izemie said...

Ooh – I don't have nearly enough Achille Talon, but now I feel like I ought to get a few albums more! I'm of course not a native speaker of French, but after reading enough pre-1900 literature, the délayage isn't too horrible, and my gosh, Talon is funny. (And wasn't 1960s Pilote a thing of beauty?)

Incidentally, as a subscriber to Spirou, I've noticed that Canada is reasonably well represented on its pages. Mort et déterré, an ongoing saga of a teenage zombie, is excellent, and Les Nombrils seems already something of an institution.

Is there something local you'd recommend?

Siskoid said...

I don't really know what's going on in Quebec - I don't live there - so local for me means an area where even French-language artists are likely to do their work in English, and even so get little traction. So I absolutely do not have anything to recommend, and that's on me.

Roger Nowhere said...

Achille Talon was published in Spanish and in Catalan during the 80s. I read it as a child and fondly remember some of his gags.
This guy could face Henry McCoy in a hecatombic titanomaquia of polysilabic ferocity!

Siskoid said...

And the Sixth Doctor makes 3.


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