Like many people, I have my heroes. Perhaps surprisingly, my current favourite is the French cartoonist Jean Plantureux. This blog is about Jean – alias ‘Plantu’ – and tells how I discovered his cartoons, and how two letters have meant that his hero status has been consolidated.
The story starts with my struggle to learn French. In 2004 Rohan and I bought our cottage in Brittany. To be part of our new community my French needed serious reinforcement and I enrolled at London’s Institut français. Apart from attending classes and doing homework, I was expected to read a French newspaper – I chose Le Monde.
Understanding the French text came slowly, and, as my French improved, I became aware of wonderful cartoons that appeared on the paper’s front page. I knew nothing of the author but soon I was hooked. Through his ‘regards’ (his ‘takes’), Plantu commented on social and political issues from anywhere and everywhere. His drawings varied, some simple, some very intricate, and thanks to his skilled draughtsmanship, accompanied often by poignant legends, I quickly understood the day’s musings which both entertained and made me think.
His cartoons were biting but never cruel, crude or cheap, nor was there a hint of sexism or racism. Increasingly, I felt that Plantu and I were on the same wavelength and before long, looking at his cartoons was compulsory. But, who was Plantu?
Getting to know about his life has allowed me to identify with him. He was born in Paris in 1951. After leaving school, and in response to pressure from his father, Plantu started a medical degree. Two years later, having failed his exams for two years running, he went home to tell this parents three important developments: first, he had abandoned medicine; second, he had married his childhood sweetheart in a registry office rather than in a church; third, he now planned to go to Brussels to study what he loved most – cartooning. The response was what he feared: his father cursed him, his mother burst into tears and his relationship with the family was severed.
With no support, his stay in Brussels lasted only three months and, back in Paris, a broke Plantu went with a bundle of cartoons and no appointment to the offices of Le Monde looking for work. The editor saw something in Plantu’s work and asked him to keep sending cartoons for review.
Within months, Plantu’s first cartoon was published and soon afterwards his regards were appearing every day, initially on the inside pages, later on the front. Plantu went on to spend an unbroken fifty years cartooning at Le Monde.
It was two letters, and the pleasure they brought, that finally cemented his status as one of my heroes. Whatever the day’s joke, somewhere in the cartoon there would be a tiny mouse. I assumed that it represented Plantu and that also, by being simple and homely, it was there to welcome in the reader. Moreover, by dancing or waving a flag or whatever, the mouse also embellished the jokes.
Whenever I read his cartoons I would first search for the mouse and try to decide what he was up to. Then, one morning after eight years of mouse spotting, there was no mouse to be found. Surely something terrible had happened. I immediately emailed Plantu at his Le Monde address to ask him, in my best French, what had happened – all our correspondence was thus. To my delight and amazement Plantu replied by return, saying (my translation): “Sometimes, but very rarely, I forget. When I do, it is sad to see the little mouse creeping off to cry in his corner”.
I had not dared to believe that I would get a reply but here it was and it gave me enormous, almost childlike, pleasure which, in my joy, was accompanied by hoots of delight. Imagine, here was a busy and famous cartoonist replying to someone unknown – it was thrilling.
Earlier this year, when Le Monde announced that Plantu would be retiring, I again emailed him, this time to tell him how sad I was that he was leaving, to thank him for the pleasure and insights he had given me over the years, and to say how he and his mice had shown me how humour is truly international.
At first I heard nothing, but months later and on the actual day of his retirement an envelope arrived from France. It contained a signed poster on which Plantu, presumably remembering the concern I raised about his mice several years earlier, had drawn a mouse sitting on its hind legs saying “For Joe Collier”. It brought another moment of delight and celebration – his heroic status was confirmed.
It seems that people go on collecting heroes throughout their lives although some say that they eventually disappoint. So far, with Plantu I am delighted.
The illustration shows a chorus line of four Plantu mice that appears at the bottom of the poster he sent.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Thierry, Clare, Neil, Sarah, Rohan and Vivien.