Cast Away on the Letter A – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer, submits this review:
Cast Away on the Letter A, by Fred. [Translated by Richard Kutner.]
NYC, Candlewick Press/TOON Books, September 2014, hardcover $16.95 (45 [+ 1] pages).
I have been waiting for over forty years for this book! In the 1960s and early ‘70s, before I concentrated upon Japanese comics and furry literature, I was an obsessive fan of French-language cartoon albums; bandes dessinées. I did not only buy those that came to Los Angeles; I mail-ordered them from Paris and from Brussels. I also got the three major weekly magazines; Spirou, Tintin, and Pilote.
In 1965, Pilote began serializing the work of a new cartoonist: Fred. There was nothing quite like it, but it was in the same surrealistic, psychedelic league as Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay, The Kin-der Kids by Lyonel Feininger, and Krazy Kat by George Herriman. Fred became an instant star among the creators of French-language comics. His greatest work was the Philémon series, 15 volumes from 1972 to 1987. Other memorable works, short series or single albums, were (titles translated) The Little Circus; The Bottom of the Air is Fresh; Timoléon (three volumes); Okay, I’m Coming; Hmm; and The Story of the Crow in Tennis Shoes.
All this time, the author was praised as FRED! The Fred! Fredissimo! The Fred of Freds! It was no secret that his real name was Frédéric Othon Théodore Aristidès, but everyone called him Fred. He won numerous awards under that name.
Philémon was unfinished, but Fred, long in retirement, roused himself to draw a final 16th volume to wrap everything up. It was finished in February 2013. Fred died two months later.
Now TOON Books is publishing the Philémon series in a smooth English translation, starting with the first album. Whether all 16 will be published probably depends upon how well the first sell, and the French bandes dessinées like Tintin and Astérix have an ominous history of poor sales and short runs in America. Still, Cast Away on the Letter A is one of the best in the Philémon series. If this doesn’t sell, then there’s no hope for the others.
Philémon is an imaginative teenager, living with his no-nonsense father Hector on a farm in the 1960s French countryside. The grumpy Hector never believes Philémon’s fantastic stories. Philémon’s regular companion is the pessimistic donkey, Anatole, who talks to Philémon – but only when nobody else is around.
One day, the farm’s old pump breaks down, and Philémon’s father orders him to get water from their ancient well, which hasn’t been used for years. Philémon, accompanied by Anatole, finds that the well has a bottle with a message calling for “Help!” floating in it. Philémon climbs down the well rope, falls into the water, and is sucked downward into a salty ocean, emerging in a world with two suns in the sky, where the Americas and Europe are really separated by an ocean with the giant letters ATLANTIC between them. Philémon becomes cast away on the first A, where he meets Mister Bartholomew, a Robinson Crusoe-like hermit who has been searching for the way back to France, and Friday, Bartholomew’s grumpy centaur servant. They have many adventures before Philémon gets home again, alone. Naturally, Hector does not believe him.
In the following albums – The Wild Piano (coming from TOON Books in May 2015), The Suspended Castle, Voyage of the Unbeliever, and the others – Philémon returns to the world of the magic ATLANTIC (or, being French, ATLANTIQUE). He finds Mr. Bartholomew again, and has adventures sometimes with Mr. Bartholomew and sometimes with new characters. The Philémon stories were originally serialized in Pilote, one page per weekly issue, and you can still tell in this album that the pages almost always end with minor cliffhangers.
In France, Pilote and Fred’s work was published for older adolescents and adults. In America, Cast Away on the Letter A is published as a children’s album. The story contains many ingroup references, such as a shipwreck scene that is Géricault’s famous 1819 painting Raft of the Medusa. In this American children’s edition, all of the references are footnoted and explained. Hmmm, as Philémon would say.
The true glory of Cast Away on the Letter A is Fred’s imagination, both literarily and artistically. The back-cover blurb draws comparisons to Carroll’s Wonderland and Baum’s Oz; both worlds of adventurous imagination that seem to the reader to be only partially explored. There are two suns in the sky, exploding clock-plants, Mr. Bartholomew’s palatial “hut”, a unicorn, inimical shipwreck lights, fully crewed giant ships-in-bottles, and a giant labyrinth. This does not include all of the fantastic background plant and animal life.
For those wondering where the anthropomorphic animals are, there are Anatole the donkey, the centaur Friday, and the talking unicorn. Still, Cast Away on the Letter A is more for the fan of fantasy art and imaginative fantasy literature – of all ages! – than the furry fan specifically.
But try it! You’ll be hooked. – Fred Patten