Gaston's very first (silent) appearance in 1957
André Franquin who was then in charge of Spirou et Fantasio, the primary series of Spirou magazine, first introduced the character Gaston in issue n°985, published February 28, 1957. The initial purpose was to fill up empty spaces in the magazine and offer a (comically artificial) glimpse of life behind-the-scenes at the paper. His arrival was carefully orchestrated with a teasing campaign over several months, based on ideas by Franquin, Yvan Delporte and Jidéhem, with mysterious blue footprints in the margins of the magazine.
For the Spirou issue N°1000 cover, Franquin drew 999 heads of Spirou, and one of Gaston, and the first Gaston full-page gag was featured in a bonus supplement.
In the context of the fictive story evolving at the magazine offices, the man behind the footprints, Gaston, finally turned up for a memorable job interview, telling the bemused Spirou that he didn't remember with whom or for what he had been called. Fantasio, functioning as the magazine's opinionated face of signed editorials, subsequently announced in a formal communiqué that Gaston would be the first "Hero-without-a-job". Gaston's blunders continued during a stressful and frustrating period for Fantasio, pushing him to go on a 4-week strike and eventually a vacation, initiating the story Vacances sans histoires.
From Spirou issue n°1025, the single-panel gags were replaced with Gaston strips running at the bottom of the editor's pages, signed by both Jidéhem and Franquin. These ran until 1959 when Gaston acquired a weekly half-page, which lasted until the mid-60s when the Gaston Lagaffe gags grew to full-page.
A full length comic featuring Gaston has not yet been published in English. In 1971 4 gags of Gaston were published in the Thunderbirds Annual 1971. Gaston was christened Cranky Franky for this series. In the early 1990s Fantagraphics translated about a half a dozen gags into English and Gaston was rechristened Gomer Goof for this one.
Spirou et Fantasio appearances
Gaston's first Spirou et Fantasio
Gaston's first cameo in a Spirou et Fantasio adventure took place in Spirou issue n°1014 (19 September 1957) as he graced two frames of Le voyageur du Mésozoïque (French: "The Traveller from the Mesozoic Era"). He is first seen "on the streets of the capital" riding a bicycle while reading a newspaper, obliviously littering papers, and then appears two frames later, bruised and dazed, dragging his deformed bike, having ridden into the middle of ongoing traffic.
His second cameo occurred in the early panels of the story Vacances sans histoires (fr: "Quiet Holidays") (later included in the album Le gorille a bonne mine) which was published between November 1957 and January 1958. Gaston appears at the start of the story when, cycling and lighting a cigarette at the same time, he runs past a red light and very nearly gets hit by Spirou and Fantasio's Turbot I sportscar. Towards the end, he is again cycling, this time down the wrong way of a one-way street, when he actually gets hit by the new Turbot II. More surprised than anything else, stretched out on the front of the car, he simply tells Spirou and Fantasio that they are requested back at the Spirou offices.
Gaston was given a larger part in the following adventure, La Foire aux gangsters ("The Gangster's Fair", included in the book Le nid des Marsupilamis). Here, Gaston hinders Spirou's investigation into a baby's kidnapping. Spirou's search leads him to a fairground and Gaston, who just happens to be there, keeps approaching him. When Spirou, desperate to keep a low profile, whispers to Gaston that they "don't know each other", he keeps insisting that they do or else suggesting that it is Spirou who looks like someone he knows. When Spirou recovers the baby, the kidnappers approach Gaston, who they know was previously talking to Spirou, and he, quite innocently, offers to show them the way to Spirou's house for what he thinks will be a pleasant social evening. Fortunately for Spirou and the little victim, Gaston keeps getting his directions wrong and he and the gangsters end up in a dead-end, surrounded by police and in jail. In the final frame (of the book version) Gaston is released from prison, to the scornful glances of the passing public.
In 1961, Franquin and Yvan Delporte wrote a radio serial "Les Robinsons du rail" (French for "The Railway Robinsons"). In this story, Fantasio is sent to cover the inauguration of the first nuclear powered train and, since no-one else is available, is compelled to take Gaston with him for assistance. Needless to say, with Gaston on board, things start to go wrong and the train is soon speeding out of control, leaving Spirou and the train designer the task of sorting things out. The serial was broadcast on Belgian radio in 1961. It was later published in Spirou magazine in 1964 and as a book, but in text form with Franquin and Jidéhem contributing just a few illustrations.
Gaston also appeared in Franquin's two final Spirou et Fantasio stories, published in Panade à Champignac. He is featured in the opening pages of the title story, and plays a central role in Bravo les Brothers in which he offers Fantasio a troupe of performing chimpanzees as an unwanted birthday present.
Gaston does not appear in QRN sur Bretzelburg (published in 1961-63), but in one scene Fantasio is about to endure painful agony by torturers in a totalitarian state. He thus decides that the best thing to do is to focus on emptiness and think of Gaston.
Jean-Claude Fournier succeeded Franquin as artist and writer of the Spirou and Fantasio series with Le faiseur d'or, published in 1969. Kidnapped by gangsters, leading scientist the Count of Champignac is forced by them to come up with a means of helping them with their plans. Thinking of Gaston, he comes up with the kind of recipe that the office idiot would devise, but the resulting and disgusting mixture does have the results that the gangsters wanted, much to the Count's annoyance.
When Tome and Janry took over the series a couple of references to Gaston were made in La jeunesse de Spirou (Spirou's youth) where a scam artist is publishing a faux number five album of the Gaston series. And during the tale about Spirou's childhood Gaston's car is seen parked in front of the publishing company.
More recently a reference to Gaston was made in the album "Au source du Z" (The source of Z) by Morvan and Munuera, when Spirou uses the time shifting machine he remarks that the experience is yucky, almost as bad as the Champagne that Gaston made out of fermented potatoes. Later in that album when Spirou has to use the time shifter once more he remarks that it's time to take a sip from Gaston's Champagne again.
Focus on Gaston
For a period, Franquin had trained his assistant Jidéhem to take over the strip in due time, but Jidéhem felt no affinity with the character and remained the background artist. Franquin inversely grew tired of Spirou et Fantasio (a series he had not created himself, but inherited from Joseph "Jijé" Gillain in 1946) and decided in 1968 to resign the job, and concentrate on the increasingly popular Gaston. Gaston's antics appeared in Spirou from 1957 to 1996, a few months before Franquin's death in 1997, although new material appeared only sporadically after the early 1980s.