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Comics - Maltreated, but Forever Young

by Caspar Wintermans in Films & Books , 01 mei 2010

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

The Adventures of Alix and Enak (Part I)

A cat has got nine lives, Alix Gracchus at least a hundred. In the story in which the comic hero makes his debut he escapes death exactly eighteen times. His enemies (and their name is legion) go for him with pointed weapons and sticks, a collapsing building threatens to pulverize him, wolves and crocodiles wish to devour him and ferocious mountaineers try to blind him using a red-hot poker.

All of this within the scope of 62 pages! Things are not made easier for Alix in the albums that have appeared since. The covers speak volumes: on most of them he is in mortal peril.
On the other hand the character is gifted with eternal youth. After twenty-eight episodes he has not noticeably aged. He remains a boy of about twenty who doesn’t need to shave and on whose body the numerous falls, lashes and attacks leave no permanent scars. The Roman of Gallic descent has an iron constitution, that much is clear. The same applies to his chum, Enak. The two are inseparable - “You’re always in each other’s company, that is generally known,” as a senator has it - and they share weal and woe; which begs the question just how much weal they actually share. Are we dealing with lovers here?

Alix’ Creator

Jacques Martin, the man from whose brain and right hand the couple has sprung, was born at Strasbourg in 1921. The city had become French again after the German defeat of 1918 which had marked the end of the occupation that had been the result of the French defeat of 1871. The medieval castles built in the region strongly tickled Jacques’ imagination and historical interest. Drawing ran in his blood; he filled his exercise-books with figures and landscapes, which deeply irritated his teachers. Artistic talent should be nipped in the bud (they believed), to punish him, therefore, they gave him unsatisfactory marks. Happily they failed to discourage their pupil.

His father was a pilot who had seen action at the front. In 1931 he got killed in a crash. Mrs Martin and her two sons were eligible to support from a fund set up to care for the next of kin of deceased airmen, but its trustees informed Jacques he would not obtain their wished-for permission to enrol as a student at the Parisian Académie des Beaux Arts.

Nobody can make a living out of art (they maintained), so Jacques, in spite of himself, trained to become an engineer. He got a job at an air plane factory, was forcibly employed during the war at the Messerschmidt factory in Augsburg, but on his return to his old place after the liberation it dawned on him that this was not the career he had been dreaming of.

Photo: Jacques Martin (1921-2010)

Martin emigrated to Belgium and joined the team of the comic journal “Tintin” where Hergé, whom he revered, swayed the sceptre. The job interview did not go smoothly, for the drawings he presented were not much liked. “Try to come up with something more original,” he was told. Back in his rooms in Brussels Martin sat down at his desk, and after ten minutes Alix was born.
The enthusiasm with which his employers received the first pages presented him with a problem. He did not know in the slightest how the story would end, yet its serial publication in “Tintin” had already begun on 16 September 1948; Martin had to hurry to meet his weekly deadlines, which explains why “Alix the Intrepid,” issued in 1952 in book form as the first album of the series, leaves something to be desired from a structural point of view. Nevertheless, the autodidact had pulled it off.

Embracing Roman Civilization

Alix’ adventures commence in Khorsabad in what is now Iraq. The year is 53 B.C. Roman soldiers, having captured the city from the Parthians, are making their entry. From the deserted royal palace the slave Alix is watching the troops. His acquaintance with them is not very pleasant. Wrongfully assuming that he had tried to kill their general they bind the boy at a pillar of the palace which they set on fire and then make off as quickly as they can in order to elude the advancing enemy.
For the first, but not for the last time (as we have said) Alix manages to escape death and embarks on the road that finally brings him to Rome where he is adopted by a patrician, Honorus Galla Gracchus. The latter is led by affection as well as remorse. He reveals on his deathbed that years ago he had only been able to vanquish a Gallic tribe by having recourse to a mean ruse.

The trapped chieftain, Astorix, was sold to an Egyptian slave trader, his infant son to a Phoenician one; the Roman has immediately recognised this child in Alix. “You bear a striking likeness to your father. Can you forgive me?” Alix is capable to do so and, moreover, fully embraces the Roman civilization. There is hardly any question of identity as far as he is concerned. In the second album, “The Golden Sphinx” (1956), he visits his native village, it is true, but he stays there only for a short time, hands over his authority to a cousin and travels to Egypt to carry out a secret mission at the behest of Julius Caesar (to whom he was introduced in the first story). Alix, a Roman agent: one can imagine how his fellow countrymen Asterix and Obelix would have judged him!

In Egypt Alix is confronted once again with his arch enemy, the cunning Greek Arbaces. He also meets the orphan Enak, a few years his junior. Martin had intended his appearance to be a one-off; a role for him in the third part of the saga, “The Cursed Island” (1957), had originally not been foreseen.

But the vox populi (the vox pueri, to be more precise) raised itself. When the serial was launched subscribers to “Tintin” bombarded the editors with letters begging for Enak’s return, and the editors instructed Martin to meet this request forthwith. The youthful - twenty-five-year-old - author had no choice. He transported Enak from Alexandria to Carthage where he was reunited with Alix.

Incidentally, Enak has to put up with a good deal in this tale. Thus he is almost sacrificed to Moloch-Baäl, the child-eating god who makes a regular appearance in the comic. From the terrifying statue’s yawning muzzle the flames are leaping, and Arbaces, whose idea it was to have the boy thrown into it, gives proof of sadistic inclinations.

“I’ve come to fetch you to be the focus of a wonderful party!” he shouts. “We’re going to sacrifice you to Moloch! You will be burned alive! Do you mind?” Poor Enak cannot answer. Luckily the “party” does not take place after all, for the executioner is killed in the nick of time by a soldier who - anachronistically - makes use of a cross-bow. “The Cursed Island” culminates in a volcano eruption that claims the lives of hundreds of supers, “good ones” as well as “bad ones.” Such a cataclysmic denouement forms no exception in Martin’s works. Often, when after 62, or, in later albums, 44 pages Alix leaves the scene, everything is reduced to rubble. And when lava streams, earthquakes and comet rains fail to appear, there is plenty of work for the undertaker nevertheless. On re-reading the comics I was struck by the amount of violence they contain.

A State of Half-Nakedness

Enak has a truly remarkable talent to slip, strain his ankle, fall from his horse or otherwise delay the common flight from the enemy at the most unseasonable juncture. Alix always pulls him through with touching dedication. He is, in the words of an opponent, “willing to give his life for that child.” Enak in turn takes his blond, sometimes unconscious friend in his arms to protect him from scum. Their comradeship has always strongly appealed to boys loving boys. The perusal of Alix’ adventures did not make me gay, it was the perusal of Alix’ adventures which helped to open my eyes to the fact that I belong to a sexual minority, a fact that offered no difficulties in Alix’ time.
I was in the third form of secondary school when I came to read “The Lost Legions,” “The Last Spartan” and “Iorix the Great,” and I vividly remember the fascination exerted by those magnificent drawings of gorgeous hunks whose lives were infinitely more exciting than those of the subjects of the recently enthroned Queen Beatrix.

The urgency with which Heraklion implored Alix to become his teacher I could well understand. Who would not love to be in the company of a hero without pimples who had the looks of an Adonis?

Illustration: Alix and Enak, bosom friends, persecuted in "The Last Spartan"

I quickly discovered that you could be assured that in every story, sooner or later, Alix is brought into a state of half-nakedness. The upper part of his body always gets bared when a foe tears his tunic: before a duel in the arena, during a nightly stay in a dungeon, or when a hurled lance pierces the ample fold of his sleeve and gets stuck in the wooden wall of the fortress whence he tries to escape. The circumstances under which Alix displays his beauty are therefore far from ideal, but the beauty displayed certainly lives up to the ideal of the Greeks.

Pushing the Boundaries

Jacques Martin, a practitioner of the “ligne claire” style also practised by Hergé and Edgar P. Jacobs, greatly admires the neo-classical painter Jacques-Louis David, who showed a similar predilection for the male body in an antique setting. It is interesting for the sake of comparison to look at his “Leonidas at Thermopylae,” a vast picture he finished in 1814.

It represents a group of semi- or fully naked, slightly chubby Spartans; their state of excitement originates in the military-political situation (the fatherland is being invaded by the Persians); but those who are susceptible to masculine charms will be agreeably touched by the sight of ecstatic youths embracing each other.

Illustration: A recurring motif: Alix torso bared, here in "The Lost Legions"

By means of a clever (or irritating) composition David takes care that most - not all! - private parts of the doomed soldiers are covered by mantles or swords; however, he does allow us to glance at a pair of shapely buttocks. During his lifetime the painter was subjected to a barrage of prudish criticism, and Martin, too, got into collision with the editors of “Tintin,” for as the years passed he began to show ever more nudity. The first bare boys’ buttocks are to be found in “Iorix the Great.” In this album Alix and Enak attend a bacchanal organised by the Thracian proconsul. True, Martin scrupulously prevents us to glimpse a single cock from the depicted catamites and their customers, yet it is obvious that the scenarist-draughtsman was pushing the boundaries. Two plates from “The Trojan Horse” (1988) touched a string with me when I saw them: Alix, Enak and Heraklion jump out of their beds at night when a scream of horror is heard, and they look out of the window, frightened.

They are not wearing pyjamas. That would have been utterly impossible in 1948, they year “Alix the Intrepid” was begun. In “The Lost Legions” (1965) Alix was still sleeping alone in his room in his Roman house and in spite of a heat wave was wearing a loin-cloth.

Martin went along with his times, which made his comics all the more thrilling.
Meanwhile his days at the studio of Hergé were over. He had been employed there for about twenty years; the artistic limitations imposed on him, the fixed working-hours and his colleagues’ complacency made him anxious to become independent.

Illustration: Alix in his bedroom with friends, naked, in "The Trojan Horse"

The huge international success of “Alix” and the “Lefranc” series, launched in 1952, enabled him to stand on his own feet. Martin’s reputation had been established. In the numerous articles devoted to him the question of the degree of Alix and Enak’s intimacy was also tackled. A. Provist thought that these speculations were nonsensical. In 1975 he rather peevishly wrote: “Some persons have wanted to see in [their] relation something else than a simple friendship. A few, led by their own phantasms [...], have got their teeth into that opinion. Wrongly. There is nothing of the kind going on here. There is affection between the boys, but merely such as there exists between two cousins or two brothers, without any sentimental fervour. They are orphans united by life, that is all.”

‘A Kind of Couple’

Provist believes to have found the evidence for his thesis in “The Tiara of Oribal” (1958). In this adventure Alix is set the task of restoring the rightful heir to the throne of a fictitious kingdom in the near-east and settle with a usurper, none other than Arbaces. The mission is almost accomplished when Enak falls in the hands of the enemy.

Arbaces orders the poor devil, bound at his ankles and wrists, to be suspended above some razor-sharp spears and threatens to cut the cords, thereby impaling the boy - unless the tiara, symbol of Prince Oribal’s regal dignity, is handed to him (Arbaces). Oribal is willing to give in to this blackmail, but Alix exclaims: “No, that may not be! We have sacrificed and risked so much. We have come so far... Surely this cannot be given up just like that! We must try the impossible!”

Alix in his bedroom on his own,wearing underthings, in "The Lost Legions"

These words, according to Provist, clearly show that Alix’ affection for Enak is not, after all, very great. He omits to record that during the same night Alix forces his way all alone in the heavily guarded capital in an effort to liberate his pal. “What foolishness!” comments Oribal on being informed of this expedition.

“One man against an entire army! He has no chance whatever! He can only get caught!” Foolishness, indeed. Extremely dangerous. But is it not written that one cannot have a greater love than this one, that you lay down your life for your friends? Alix gives proof of this love whenever Enak needs his assistance.

Jacques Martin himself declared in an interview from 1998: “They have become a kind of couple, which is a bit embarrassing, because without my realizing it, this has led to an ambiguity I neither wanted nor foresaw. I had introduced a boy [Enak], because under the circumstances a girl was problematic. But I’ve never been able to imagine that... It’s very strange.”

Does this settle the matter? Not at all. Elsewhere Martin has expressed himself in a completely different way about this “vexed” question. These quotations will come later.

(To be continued)

Photo: Jacques Martin at the age of 87 years



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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