With the success of the weekly magazine Le Journal de Mickey in France, and the popularity of the weekly Adventures of Tintin in Le Petit Vingtième, many new comic magazines or youth magazines with comics appeared in France and Belgium in the second half of the 1930s. In 1936, the experienced publisher Jean Dupuis put his sons Paul and the 19-year-old Charles in charge of a new magazine aimed at the juvenile market.
First appearing in April 1938, it was a large format magazine, available only in French and only in Wallonia. It introduced two new comics, the eponymous Spirou drawn by the young Frenchman Rob-Vel, and Les Aventures de Tif (later to become Tif et Tondu) written and drawn by Fernand Dineur, and printed American comics such as Superman, Red Ryder and Brick Bradford. On 27 October 1938 the Dutch edition named Robbedoes appeared as well.
Second World War
Spirou and Robbedoes soon became very popular and the magazine doubled its pages from 8 to 16. After the invasion of the Germans, the magazine gradually had to stop publishing American comics. They were at first continued by local artists and later replaced with new series. When Rob-Vel no longer had the possibility to send his pages from France to Belgium on a regular basis either, his series was continued by Joseph Gillain, a young artist who had previously worked for
Petits Belges and used the pen name Jijé. Together with Dineur and
Sirius (pen name of Max Mayeu), they filled the magazine with a number of new series and increased the popularity of it even further.
Near the end of the war, due to paper shortages, publication had to be stopped anyway, with only a few irregular almanacs to keep the bond with the readers intact and to provide work for the personnel to prevent them being deported to Germany.
The golden years
The period 1945–1960 has been described by critics as the golden age of Spirou magazine and of Belgian comics in general, partly incited by the 1946 appearance of the successful competitor Tintin magazine. Spirou resumed publication only weeks after Belgium was liberated, but now on a much smaller format. Jijé was the main author, providing pages from multiple series each week. Some American comics reappeared as well. Jijé started out a studio, where he schooled three talented apprentices, Will, André Franquin and Morris; known as the "Bande à quatre", "Gang of four", they began laying the foundation for the Marcinelle school that marked the magazine for decades.
In 1946 and 1947, the team was joined by some of the main contributors to Spirou for the next decades, including Victor Hubinon, Jean-Michel Charlier and Eddy Paape. After a few years, these artists started their now classic series like Buck Danny by Hubinon and Charlier and Lucky Luke by Morris, while Franquin took over Spirou from Jijé. Gradually, the American comics and reprints were replaced by new, European productions, and by the 50s, nearly all the content was made especially for the magazine. Charles Dupuis remained editor-in-chief of the magazine until 1955 when he appointed Yvan Delporte to that position, so he could himself focus on his increasing interest in the publication of the magazine's series' albums.
The golden ages culminated in the 1950s with the introduction of more authors and series like Peyo (Johan and Peewit in 1952, The Smurfs in 1958), René Follet,
Marcel Remacle, Jean Roba (with Boule et Bill), Maurice Tillieux (with Gil Jourdan) and Mitacq. In 1954, Jijé created the realistic western comic Jerry Spring, and in 1957 Franquin introduced the anti-hero Gaston Lagaffe. The authors of the magazine, many of them pupils of Jijé, were grouped stylistically in the Marcinelle school, the counterpart of ligne claire exhibited by the artists grouped around Hergé in Tintin magazine (the main competitor for Spirou).
By 1960, the magazine had achieved a fixed structure and had grown to 52 pages, mainly filled with new, European (mainly Belgian) comics, coupled with some text pages (interaction with the readers) and adverts. Most of the comics were long-running series which were regularly published as albums of 44 or 64 pages, generating a constant source of revenue for the artists and the publisher. In the next decades, the sales of albums would become the main focus, reducing the importance of the magazine which became more of a breeding ground for new talent and series.
Rejuvenation in the 1960s and 1970s
In the early 1960s, the main changes were the strong editorial work of Delporte, who kept the magazine vibrant despite the more or less fixed series, with numerous supplements, games, and experimental layouts. The magazine demonstrated the pleasure that had gone in creating it, and maintained a strong reader base despite the growing competition from more adolescent and adult French magazines like Pilote. Some of the main authors (Jijé, Franquin, Will, and Hubinon) temporarily started working for other magazines, with Morris the only major name who definitely left the magazine. Their replacements, like Berck, had trouble filling the void.
Around 1959–1960, the first mini-récits (lit. mini-stories) appeared. This was an experiment in which the middle pages of the magazines could be removed, which the reader (armed with a pair of scissors, a stapler and some patience) could fold into a small comics magazine of its own. Several artists were allowed to hone their skills inside these mini-récits before moving on to larger pages, and until the 1970s, more than 500 mini-récits were produced, series that debuted in this format include The Smurfs by Peyo, Bobo by Rosy and Deliège,
Degotte among many others.
Only in the early 1970s a number of new success series and authors appeared . The main contributor for the next decades was Raoul Cauvin, a lithographer who worked as a cameraman for the Dupuis animation studios and wrote stories for series like Musti. He became the main story writer for Dupuis, with major series like Sammy with Berck, Les Tuniques Bleues with Lambil, and later Cédric with
Laudec and Agent 212 with Daniel Kox, among many others. Other important new authors were François Walthery with Natacha and Roger Leloup with Yoko Tsuno, together with Isabelle by Will evidence of the new wave of adventurous female-oriented comics of the decade.
A commercial failure but artistic success came along in 1977, when Delporte created the more adult supplement
Le Trombone Illustré, which appeared inside Spirou for thirty weeks, and showcased new artists like Didier Comès, Enki Bilal, Claire Bretécher, F'murr, Grzegorz Rosinski, and
Frédéric Jannin, next to more established authors like René Hausman, Peyo, Roba, Marcel Gotlieb, and Franquin, who started his third major series, Idées Noires.
The early 1980s had Spirou and Robbedoes searching for a new, appealing identity, with new formulas, more adult comics like XIII by William Vance and Jean Van Hamme or Jeremiah by Hermann. Most artists of the first generation were no longer active, and the productivity of many artists of the second generation slowed down as well. New talents were Tome and Janry, the new team for the Spirou et Fantasio comic, Bruno Gazzotti (Soda), François Gilson (Mélusine), Bercovici,
Zidrou, André Geerts, Bernard Hislaire, Midam (Kid Paddle), Frank Pé,
Marc Hardy and Luc Cromheecke.
Robbedoes had a severe reduction in the number of readers, and was first reduced to 32 pages (with Spirou growing to 68), before it finally disappeared in 2005.