Interview with Pierre Nicolas
Pierre Nicolas is one of the two most important French Disney comic book artists along with Claude Marin. He drew for 27 years the mythical French series Mickey à Travers les Siècles (Mickey Through Time) and created the studio that helped re-launch Le Journal de Mickey after the war.
Can you tell us about your career before entering Disney ?
Well, I was not very gifted for studies and those were interrupted by the war. I was born in 1929. So, in 1939 I was 10. At that time, I had to go into the Zone Libre (the part of France not yet invaded by Germany). I thus had to interrupt my college studies for 3 to 4 years. You could not make up for that after the war.
As I had always drawn, I was tempted to become an artist. My mother who had studied at the Beaux Arts, encouraged me to pursue that career. I entered a school of drawing with all kinds of special authorizations as I was too young. I was under 13 when I entered the school of Arts Appliqués (Applied Arts), during the Occupation (invasion of France by Germany), but within the Centre de Jeunesse (Youth Centers) organized by Petain - to prevent young people to wander in the streets. There I started studying art. Then I tried to enter the Ecole Eftienne that teaches the industry and art of books, everything that has to do with publishing. I had again to get some special authorizations as I was not yet 14. There were also some young men that were already 18, that had completed their college studies and that entered the school to avoid being forced to worki in Germany. There were people that were 22 and guys like me that were not even 14. That was a bit odd.
There I did lithographs. I was still willing to draw. I had to letter, but what I really wanted to do was to draw. When war was over, I illustrated a first book, that was Salambo by Gustave Flaubert. It had just fallen into the public domain. A publisher had managed to get hold of a stock of paper (that was a very difficult thing after the war) He got that through Monaco, as he was born there. I was 15 years old when I did that thing. It was my first book. Then I did various odd jobs like funny drawings and that sort of things.
Then, as all the artists of my generation, I entered the studio of Paul Grimault who was preparing La Bergère et le Ramoneur, his major animation feature. It did not go that well, since after 2 or 3 years Grimault was a bit playing Penelope. I mean by that that after a team had worked for over a year on animating a character, he would come over and ask for everything to be changed. It was like that for everything.
His best friend who was financing the movie at the time got fed up and stopped providing him with money. I heard that more than 100 million French francs had been invested in the movie. That was a huge amount.
As Grimault was part of the Groupe Octobre, a kind of avant-garde intellectual association, that included Jean Marais, Cocteau and others, he had many relations. He managed to get the State to finance the movie and poured an other 150 to 200 millions in the movie. The movie was released but Grimault did not like it, so he started spending an other 30 years working on it before finally releasing more or less the same thing but under the name Le Roi et l'Oiseau (The King and the Bird).
In the meantime, I had spent 3 years there. Had met all the artists of the time in a great atmosphere. We were located in Neuilly (a very elegant suburb in the west of Paris), rue Labordère in a beautiful house with a marvelous garden. That house no longer exists. The bad part of the deal was that a third of my salary was never paid. But we were 60 people to suffer the same situation.
Then it went petty fast. The company having gone bankrupt, everybody was fired, apart from a small team that did advertising. I joined that unit but I also started looking for a job and applied in a company that was making animated cartoons. They were based rue Galilée, close to the Champs Elysées. They saw my portfolio and told me that they were doing things much too simple for me and advised me to try applying at Disney which was very close by and run by Armand Bigle. Under normal circumstances, I never would have dared applying but I went anyway.
Bigle was not there At the time Bigle wanted to re-launch the Journal de Mickey, but the secretaries did not know about it. They told me that "in France no position is to be taken. Since you do not speak English, we will type a letter for you to send it to Burbank." That was at the end of 1951 or early 1952.
I received an answer from Burbank recommending me to Bigle. So I had left Bigle to come back to Bigle.
The answer was coming from a person named Frank Taillet who told me that he would not recommend that I come in the US, as I would only get a short term job there. However, said he, he knew that in France Le Journal de Mickey was to be re-launched and my profile was close to what they were looking for as I knew the publishing and printing processes, advertisement and cartoon animation.
I therefore started working on the Journal de Mickey, in Bigle's apartment with a couple of other guys. The beginnings were a real struggle. We let the rumor say that we were around 40, but were in fact only 3 or 4. As you know, the new Journal de Mickey appeared in 1952.
We had to include some French creations as we had to please a bit everybody in France: left-wings parties, the Church, the patriotic parties, the Ministry of Education and many other people, to release a new magazine. It would have been bad for us not to have at least some French creation and at the time, most of the material was coming from the US. Hence, the first interior page was drawn by Tenas who was chief of the Belgium studio and was running Mickey Magazine (the Belgium equivalent of Le Journal de Mickey).
With the issue 15 of the Journal de Mickey, the story Le Tour de France de Mickey came to an end and was followed by Mickey à Travers les Siècles (Mickey Through Time) and Tenas carried on drawing that series till issue 22. I think I started drawing the series with issue 23 more or less. [Note: According to expert François Willot, Tenas drew the page in issue 23 and Pierre Nicolas started with issue 24] I carried on drawing the series till 1978. My last page was published in issue 462. In 27 years, 1345 pages were drawn, 173 different adventures including 143 written by Pierre Fallot.
[Note: According to expert François Willot and to former editor Michel Mandry, the figures might be a bit more complex. Pierre Nicolas has mentionned in an other article that Fallot had written 149 episodes. Michel Mandry explains that not all episodes from "Fallot's era" were actually written by Fallot. Some were created by different redactors working at the time for Hachette, whose names have been forgotten. Those authors included Juliette Benzoni, an author from the Editions de Trévise, who loved history and was a friend of Paul Winkler and Claude Yelnick, a journalist who worked for Hachette and who translated Notre Ami Mickey, which was edited afterwards by Michel Mandry and Calame. Michel Mandry also started an episode.
François adds that to be really precise, one must notice that the whole series Mickey à Travers les Siècles was composed of the following sections:
1 page of introduction
171 real episodes
1 episode where Mickey does not travel in time: Mickey en Camargue
1 episode of only one page in which Mickey comes back to see Mirandus (in 1953)
1 page of conclusion ]
I am always questioned on Mickey à Travers les Siècles, but for me the hardest job was to make the Journal de Mickey exist at the beginning. Bigle was a businessman and did not know how to create a magazine and I was really young. So I had to create a team of artists... actually not so much artists as we were the only ones at the beginning with Tenas to draw. We were the ones drawing the covers for example and I became the only one to create French Disney comics strips at the time. But you had to create the layout of the magazine hence the layout men, you had to have people who could redraw some images and some colorists and their job was pretty technical at the time.
Creating that team was my original job. Then I trained an artist called René Guillaume who had entered the Journal to letter and who had gifts and therefore became studio head a while later. The French Journal de Mickey took off to such a good start that Bigle stopped the Belgium Mickey Magazine to concentrate on it. Very soon we had a circulation of 800.000 copies per month.
After 1978, I was called back to the Edi-Monde, the company that was in charge of Le Journal de Mickey as Mickey à Travers les Siècles had become a bit boring to everyone. Paradoxically, I was spending more time at the end of the series working on each page of Mickey à Travers les Siècles than at the beginning. At first I had so many things to do to launch Le Journal de Mickey that I drew the pages very fast without thinking twice about them. Then I involved myself much more in them and started spending too much time doing it. In addition, when you draw a series that has to appear every week in a magazine, you have to plan your vacations according to what the editor, the letterer and the others are doing. This means I only married, fell sick and took my vacations when it did not bother any one. This lasted for 27 years. I was tired of this.
Edi-Monde wanted to modernize the Journal. They asked me to join them to create a team of artists. In fact they just said: "Join us and you will have to create your job." as they did not know if there really was a job for me. Therefore, I started creating that team as I thought it was vital. We were always missing drawings for the Journal. Italy who had been a great provider of comics for many years was declining in productivity and cost too much. Spain was cheaper but also cheaper in terms of quality. We had the idea with a person named Patrice Valli - who was a redactor - to create and illustrate stories. We started looking for artists. At the time, I was considered a bit strangely and then everybody claimed it was their idea.
For 5 or 6 years we created some good stories. And then they decided to cut costs. I thought that the Disney quality was betrayed by the new comers and left the company in 1985.
Who got the idea of Mickey à Travers les Siècles ?
It was Pierre Fallot who was a redactor at Edi-Monde. He was around 43 at the time. His father was a poet/writer who wrote many songs including one that has remained famous. A story about a small church that was a big hit in the early 1900s. When Fallot died, he was replaced by various people, including some that could not adapt to the series. A good writer is not always a good comic strips scenarist as he does not always know what can be done in a comics, what can be visualized. It was Jean-Michel Le Corfec who was in charge of the scenario afterwards and till the end.
The ideas of the stories were not coming from me. I am not claiming that I was behind them for many reasons. First because I thought they talked too much and did not include enough action. In Mickey à Travers les Siècles, I often had to include in just one panel (for example the summary of the story at the beginning) more than half a page of typed text. Everything was like that. The characters were only talking. There was no action. And when an editor told Pierre Fallot: "There is no action in your scenario." He said: "OK, I will include a battle." And he included a famous battle for me to draw. But that is no action. It's the contrary. It's a big "boom", not an action.
I also had to include real characters in the series. That was very difficult because of Mickey's proportions. The volume of his body is equal in height to twice his head. When you take a guy like François 1er who is two meters high, it is very difficult to make them move or to have Mickey wear the costume of an other person as was mentioned in the scenarios. Those scenarios were therefore very difficult.
What were the links between the Walt Disney Company France and the Walt Disney Company US at the time?
They were very good. I worked with Armand Bigle till 1978 and it was extremely nice as it was a very small structure where everybody knew each other. I was not only in charge of le Journal but also of the licensees. I drew some cheese boxes for some, a mustard sticker for others. The drawings for Le Journal de Mickey were created by The Walt Disney Company France which was headed by Armand Bigle. They were then sold to Opera-Mundi that owned Edi-Monde and was headed by Winkler, a good friend of Bigle. That was the case until 1968 when the Le Journal de Mickey was ceased entirely to Edi-Monde.
Walt once came to see us. But we hardly even had any contact with the Walt Disney Company in the US. In fact, at first it was really difficult to obtain any documents from the studio like model sheets and other things, hence the strange look of my Mickey at first. I did not know him very well.
Do you have any anecdotes related to your career in Le Journal de Mickey ?
There is one that come to mind easily. It's the story of Al Lewin. One does not know if this artist ever existed. Marin and myself loved his style and we tried to know who was Al Lewin. The persons who went to the States told me that Al Lewin never existed. It was Gottfredson who took Al Lewin as a pen name when he decided to change his style. I can't believe it was still Gottredson !
[Note: According to expert François Willot, Al Lewin never existed. He was invented by an Italian critic in the '70s. The name came from a hero in a detective novel. Al Lewin is definitely Gottfredson.]
Who are your favorite artists ?
I love good drawings, great drawings. I enjoy Alex Raymond who did Guy L'Eclair and I am also delighted by La Famille Illico and by the artists from the '20s and '30s that did characters like Bonzo or Felix the Cat by Patt Sulivan. I also loved all the advertising characters, those from Michelin, those from the Vin Nicolas and all the others.
As for Mickey, I love Ub Iwerks, Gottfredson and Marin.
What are your favorite animated features ?
The first one for me was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was the one that touched me most. As for pure animation my favorite is Pinocchio. I noticed that none of the droplets in the sequence in which Gepetto is looking for Pinocchio are the same, they seem to have been created one by one, which is amazing.
Are there any artists that you follow closely today at Le Journal de Mickey ?
There are two that I hired: Claude Marin and Gen-Clo.
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