The Wild Piano, by Fred – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

The Wild Piano, by Fred. [Translated by Richard Kutner.]61QEi8btoPL
NYC, Candlewick Press/TOON Books, May 2015, hardcover $16.95 (45 [+ 1] pages).

The Wild Piano (Le Piano Sauvage) is Book 2 in the Philémon series by Fred (Frédéric Othon Théodore Aristidès, 1931-2013), serialized in the classic French comics magazine Pilote. The weekly strip was collected into 15 books between 1972 and 1987. Fred retired leaving Philémon’s adventures uncompleted, until he wrote/drew a 16th volume to finish the series just before his death.

Book 1, Cast Away on the Letter A, was reviewed here in January. I won’t repeat the gushing praise that I lavished upon it, but briefly: Philémon was/is a surrealistic cartoon strip in the tradition of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Philémon is a teenage farmboy in the French countryside of the 1960s-‘70s who falls down a well and has psychedelic adventures on the literal letters ATLANTIC of the Atlantic Ocean of a parallel world. Philémon, and Fred’s other works, were instant hits in France, reprinted so often that Fred was able to retire and live off his royalties. It is a sad commentary on the lack of interest in non-American cartoon art in America that the Philémon books are only now being published here after 40+ years. A Philémon live-action movie full of VFX, French-produced but in English, was announced as in pre-production in 2013.

As The Wild Piano begins, Philémon has returned from his fantastic adventures on the two letter A’s to his father’s farm in rural France, but without the Robinson Crusoe-like Mr. Bartholomew whom he met there. Mr. Bartholomew was lost on the letter-islands of the ATLANTIC forty years ago, and Philémon feels guilty about failing to rescue him. A new character is introduced: Philémon’s Uncle Felix, who turns out to be as sure of Philémon’s truth as his skeptical father is convinced it’s all the boy’s imagination. In fact, Uncle Felix is a deus ex machina; an amateur magician who conveniently knows all the other ways that Philémon can use to return to the ATLANTIC, since he can never get there by the same way twice.

Uncle Felix uses looking through a spyglass in reverse to shrink Philémon to infinitesimal size and drop him onto the A lettered on a world globe; but he misses and Philémon drops into the midst of the ocean. After meeting a water-walker and a balloonist flying over the ocean, Philémon is cast away on the letter N which turns out to be a giant N-shaped rubbery lawn. He is arrested by butterfly-winged guards for bouncing on the lawn, and undergoes a trial obviously inspired by the absurdist Red Queen’s trial (“Off with her head!”) in Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

1st edition, 1973

1st edition, 1973

Philémon is sentenced to duel a wild piano in an arena; a combination of a musical recital and a bullfight. Many other adventures ensue; Philémon finds Mr. Bartholomew again, and they return to France together through a wardrobe in Uncle Felix’s house.

The story could have ended here, but Philémon was immensely popular in Pilote. Fred promptly followed it with #3, The Suspended Castle, wherein Philémon and Mr. Bartholomew try to return to the first A but end up on the I instead. TOON Books has announced that it will be published in October 2015.

Here are the water-walker, the zebra jails, the fluttering butterfly-winged guards and judges, the duel in the arena between the tuxedoed Philémon and a wild piano (the original French “savage piano” would work better here), and more. Almost all the reviewers deservedly call Fred’s imagination “absurdist”. As with Cast Away on the Letter A, The Wild Piano is full of in-group visual references that, since this TOON Books edition is marketed for 8- to 12-year-old readers (comics are for kids, you know), are fully explained and illustrated in a six-page afterword. But The Wild Piano is a treat for comics fans of all ages, not just children.

Anthropomorphic animals? Well, there are the zebra-jails (hollow; their stripes are the bars), the vicious piano, the talking hat on page 35 – don’t nit-pick it; just enjoy it!

– Fred Patten