Obituary: Andre Franquin

"The father of Gaston Lagaffe is dead!" "Franquin's last gaffe!" These were two of the huge headlines splashed across the front pages of yesterday's French press. The great Belgian cartoonist and humorist Andre Franquin, whose books sold by the million, an entertainer beloved of both young and old, had finally succumbed to a sick heart and chronic depression.

For this zany storyteller was a man haunted by sinister anguish, that he tried in vain to counter by laughing at his idees noires ("dark thoughts" or "the glums") in a stream of surrealist fantasy. Belgium is Europe's most original country, its weird enchantments recently most convincingly portrayed in Alex van Warmerdam's films and the Belgian television documentaries Strip Tease, all magnificent tributes to the beautiful strangeness of Belgian life, in which geniuses like Paul Delvaux and Rene Magritte, as well as the Cobra group, found so much of their visual and literary inspiration. Andre Franquin belongs with them.

He was born in the fairytale city of Brussels. His was a respectable bourgeois family - always a fruitful breeding-ground for nonconformists and subversives. His staid father, who worked in a bank, intended his son to be an agronomic engineer, the sort of career that Andre's cartoon stories were to satirise and mock. He attended the same school in Ixelles as his friend Herge, the father of immortal Tintin. He was later to say of Franquin: "He's a great artist, beside whom I'm only a wretched draughtsman."

Herge's drawing was neat and clean, his scenarios wordy. But Franquin's line was thick, bold, vivid and always extreme in its comic distortions. Among other fellow cartoonists of the Charleroi school like Morris, creator of Lucky Luke, and Robert Velter, the originator of Spirou, Franquin soon stood out as the leading talent.

They all worked at the CBA Studio in Brussels and, when that folded, moved to the publisher of comic books, Dupuis, in Charleroi - another entrancing Belgian city, the setting for some of Simenon's finest books. They contributed to the weekly comic Spirou, and in 1946 Franquin was commissioned to take over the character who gave his name to the comic, and in which we follow his hilarious misadventures as an incompetent page at the Hotel Moustic. It was all wildly funny, and a great hit in both Belgium and France.

Franquin's first original creation was a black-spotted animal with a face somewhat like a gentle tiger's, but with an abnormally long tail that could be used as a powerful weapon. He called it Marsupilami, and it greeted an astonished then utterly delighted public in 1952. Disney made an animated version in 1992, but, as might be expected, the bland treatment of his creature did not meet with its maker's approval.

Marsupilami's speech was mainly onomatopoeic, like the exclamation "Houba!" that Franquin copied from the jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie: he would use it between solos to help him get his puff, and it can be heard on "live" recordings. The creature proved an enduring success. His frenzied contortions were copied from Brussels tram drivers who had to take money, give change, punch tickets, ring starting bells and close doors, all at top speed.

In 1955, Franquin created a typical couple, Modeste and Pompon, whose dinky home is a museum of 1950s popular arts and crafts. Their friends and relations are gently but pitilessly satirised.

But it was in 1957 that Franquin gave birth to his most celebrated character, Gaston Lagaffe, the last part of whose surname tells us what kind of scrapes he gets into. Indeed, he is always committing gaffes. He is a Belgian equivalent of the boy in Mad cartoons, but infinitely more subtle and inventive in his madness, and his ears are more outstanding, while his potato nose covers almost his whole face, and his ragged clothes are a sight to be seen. On his feet are a huge pair of disintegrating espadrilles. He is one of the ninth art's most endearing characters.

Gaston has some of the qualities of his maker, just as the name "Modeste" describes Franquin's own inoffensive and retiring nature. For Gaston is a gentle subversive, an anarchist whose plans to improve society go comically wrong. In a set of inspired gags, Franquin shows him inventing machines of no use to anyone, like the one for making smoke-rings for non-smokers. But he is on the side of the angels, as Franquin was: witness his posters and cards created for the benefit of Amnesty International, Unicef and Friends of the Earth. Gaston was a hippy before his time. The last volume of his antics appeared in December 1996, and sales have already reached one million.

Like Gaston, Franquin loved sleeping, but in recent years his dreams became painful in their hectic horror. He published black-and-white cartoons illustrating his idees noires and his tormented dreams.

Now Andre Franquin has entered that demented darkness he inhabited all his life, with a smile, a joke, and a host of comic cartoon immortals to keep him eternal company.

Andre Franquin, cartoonist: born Brussels 3 January 1924; died Saint- Laurent-du-Var, Midi 5 January 1997.