Remembering Roland Topor through his “Strips Panique”

The early comic strips by French surreal artist Roland Topor are now available in his book "Strips Panique."

The early comic strips by French surreal artist Roland Topor are now available in his book “Strips Panique.”


This is a good time to offer high praise for Amazon.com.
Not for Cyber Monday during this holiday shopping season, but for shrinking the world to a single page, in a sense — for making international shopping something that can be done without the aid of a plane ticket.
Now, I’ll admit that I love bookstores — spending hours checking out the shelves to see what I find. And it’s also true that bookstores like Barnes & Noble can essentially do the same thing Amazon.com can do — which is to order something for you if it’s not on the shelves.
But what I love about Amazon is the ability to scroll down the home page and check out their international sites in Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada — and France. It’s on that last page that I discovered something not being sold on American online retail sites. The book is called “Strips Panique,” and it was just recently published. The book is a tribute to the late author and illustrator Roland Topor, featuring some of his earliest published drawings. The book was put together by Topor’s son, Nicholas Topor, also a French artist.
While the book’s narrative is in French (and hence unlikely to ever be published in the United States), don’t let that discourage you. The drawings are easy to fully understand regardless of what language the book is in.
Until his death in April 1997 at the age of 59, Topor was a well-known artist, writer and actor in France and Europe — although his work was far less well known in the United States, and has unfortunately become even more obscure here since his death.
Topor is perhaps best known to American audiences for his first book, “Le Locataire Chimerique,” published in France in 1964 and in the United States and England two years later as “The Tenant.” Film director Roman Polanski turned the book into a movie in 1976, and in 2011, the New York City-based theater group Woodshed Collective turned Topor’s novel into a stage play. He also co-wrote the script and did the graphic designs for the 1973 animated science fiction movie “Fantastic Planet,” which like “The Tenant” is available on DVD.
His work does live on. Last September, Topor’s 1994 play “Winter Under The Table” was produced in New York City featuring a new translation from French to English by Eniko Imre for Pilvax Productions. Topor’s comedy about a man living under a table played at the Gene Frankel Theatre in Manhattan. There continue to be exhibitions of his artwork all across Europe.
“Strips Panique,” though, is something different entirely. The book is a collection of Topor’s graphic illustrations, dating from the 1950s on, that are a reminder of what a clever, and disturbing, artist he was.
Topor, it’s worth noting, was born in Paris in 1938 to a Polish-Jewish family. The Nazi invasion of France during World War II nearly cost the family their lives; a neighbor denounced the Topors to the Nazi authorities because they were Jewish, and the family had to go into hiding. Roland’s father had his children sent into the countryside to save them.
The family did survive both the war and the Holocaust, but after that horrific start to his life, it should come as no surprise that many of Topor’s drawings are violent, gory and sadistic. On the other hand, he had a sharp sense of humor and a quick wit.
Many of his drawings feature, in a sense, man’s inhumanity to man — people cruelly debasing and hurting one another. In other strips, single individuals are merely hurting themselves in extreme examples of outre masochism. His strips about Max Lampin — an ordinary man, wearing glasses — feature cartoons of a knife sliced into his head, a Christian cross likewise rammed into his skull, a noose around his neck and a giant face vomiting onto him.
But those are nothing compared to the illustrations Topor did titled “Erik, the little prince.” They feature the image of a very young boy, sketched in black and white …. and start with the child discovering a pool of red that is flowing toward him. He begins to play in the flowing red liquid. He continues to do so until he gets close enough to the source of the red … a woman, possibly his mother, lying dead on the floor, a sharp razor blade near her, and a deep cut in the side of her neck. This is one of the least horrific of the illustrations that follow.
Granted, that may sound like far too much to bear for anyone who prefers their comic strips to be cute and cuddly, the likes of “Garfield” or “Marmaduke.” Cute, Topor is not, and don’t even ask about cuddly. Instead, his cartoons reflect the kind of deeply felt cynicism that came out of Europe following two devastating world wars.
Topor’s other works reflect a similarly nihilistic view, with ghostly echoes of the Holocaust that he narrowly escaped. “The Tenant” is about a pleasant but shy young man, Trelkovsky, who desperately needs a new room to rent, and finally learns from a friend that one is available — but only because the current tenant, Simone Choule, threw herself out the window. When she dies in the hospital, Trelkovsky moves into the tiny apartment — but when he hosts a housewarming party for his friends and coworkers, neighbors complain bitterly about the noise they made and from then on, Trelkovsky is treated with hostility, as an outsider, a nuisance. It’s almost as if from Trelkovsky’s politeness and gentle manner, the neighbors sniff weakness.
Later on, when Trelkovsky refuses to sign a petition to evict an elderly woman and her disabled daughter from the building, his relations with his sour neighbors get considerably worse.
Even more oddly, the neighbors begin to suggest he take on some of the same traits as the former tenant. The concierge gives Trelkovsky her mail. The landlord asks him to wear slippers at night, as Simone did, since it’s much quieter. The cafe owner across the street serves him hot chocolate, which Simone drank, rather than coffee, Trelkovsky’s choice. Trelkovsky begins to wonder if this is all a coincidence — after all, what bizarre motive would the neighbors have for making him act more like Simone Choule? Then Trelkovsky remembers what happened to the former tenant, and he has a sinking, terrifying feeling they are trying to turn him into another suicide.
The book reflects the hostility that society inflicts on people who are perceived to be different — and while it was published in the mid-1960s, it has echoes of the Nazi war years as well — a chilling reminder of the days when being “neighborly” meant looking out for yourself, and to hell with everyone else.
In a similar vein, “Fantastic Planet” also explores the horrors of the Holocaust, through a radically different story. The film is set in the distance future, on a planet ruled in a ruthless, dictatorial manner by a master race of blue giants called Draags. They turn the tiny humans on the planet (known in the movie as Oms) into pets — or slaves, to be more precise — for their amusement. The Draags are intelligent, advanced — and cold and unfeeling. They refuse to allow the Oms to secure any kind of education — until one of the Om pets is able to learn from the electronic headsets that transit knowledge to Draag children, and he escapes to the wilderness, where he falls in with a pack of “wild” Oms. They plot to liberate themselves and all other Oms from Draag domination. The Draags then decide to exterminate the Oms with a poisonous gas and other inhuman methods– reflecting the same way that Hitler set out to exterminate the Jews. The fate of the European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, of Trelkovsky, and of the Oms, were all a Final Solution.
The movie also has echoes to the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe — the movie was made in an animation studio in Czechoslovakia just before the Soviet invasion.
No doubt about it, Topor had a pessimistic outlook in life, one that comes through in his books, movies, and illustrations. But he also had a brilliant way of creating for us a lasting reminder of just how unspeakably vicious and cruel man can be to his fellow man. Topor seemed to fully understand that it’s impossible to guarantee justice in this life, and that any of us can fall in with the mob mentality. It’s not a message everyone wants to hear, but still, mixed with his penchant for pitch black humor, it’s hard to deny just how talented he was.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..

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