Canardo - 'La Mort Douce' (1983).

Benoît Sokal was one one of the foremost Belgian adult comic creators who emerged in (À Suivre) magazine in the late 1970s. He is most famous for his gritty funny animal comic 'Inspector Canardo' (1978-2018), about the adventures of a sleazy duck detective. Originally a mere parody of popular crime fiction and film noir, 'Canardo' managed to surpass this gimmick. The stories are atmospheric crime thrillers set in a depraved, anthropomorphic animal world. Sokal lightens the mood with black comedy and witty satire. Winning several awards, Sokal continued his hit series until his 2021 death, in later years written in collaboration with son Hugo Sokal and drawn by Pascal Regnauld. Sokal was a master in drawing animals, both anthropomorphic and naturalistic, which he also showcased in his other comic projects. This was most notable in the 'Kraa' trilogy (2010-2014), about the telepathic bond between an Indian boy and a majestic black eagle in their battle against mankind destroying the environment. Sokal's other side projects include the whodunit 'Silence on Tue' (1990), the poetic naval fantasy 'Aquarica' (with François Schuiten, 2017) and the historical comics 'Sanguine' (1988) and 'Le Vieil Homme Qui N'Écrivait Plus' (1996). An early adapter of digital drawing and coloring techniques since the 1990s, Sokal was additionally a designer and writer for video games, first through Microïds and then through his own company, White Birds Productions (2003-2010). In this field, he was most renowned for the games 'L'Amerzone' (1999) and the 'Syberia' series (2002, 2004, 2017).

Early life and career
Benoît Sokal was born in 1954 in Brussels. His father was a dean at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences of the University of Leuven (Louvain), and his mother an orthodontist. Benoît and his four siblings often hung around in his mother's waiting room, reading the available comic magazines: Tintin, Spirou and Le Journal de Mickey. This fed Sokal's love for comics. Later in life, he ranked Hugo Pratt, René Hausman, Robert Crumb and André Franquin among his main graphic influences. Another strong influence was Edmond-François Calvo's 'La Bête est Morte', a comic book in which animals are satirical metaphors for nations and personalities during World War II. In many ways, Sokal can be named the spiritual successor of Calvo. Sokal also loved reading novels by U.S. authors, from Ernest Hemingway (whom he later gave a recurring role in 'Canardo' as the character Ballingway), Raymond Chandler and Jack London to hard-boiled detective literature. He cited film director R.W. Fassbinder as another inspiration.

While studying for veterinarian at the faculty of Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur, Benoît Sokal found it more pleasing to draw comics for the student magazine. In 1973 he therefore started new studies at the Institut Saint-Luc in Brussels, initially in the Illustration department. His timing was perfect, because in the mid-1970s, Claude Renard began training a new generation of comic artists in his famous Atelier R. Renard encouraged his pupils to experiment and develop their own personal styles. Among Sokal's fellow pupils were such future Belgian comic creators as François Schuiten, Philippe Foerster, Frédéric Bézian, Alain Goffin and Philippe Berthet. Sokal and Schuiten remained lifelong friends. Claude Renard initiated an annual anthology, Le 9ème Rêve, of which the first volume appeared in early 1978. It marked the first time that a comic publication was printed with a government grand, thanks to Walloon Minister of Culture Jean-Maurice Dehousse. The first two issues printed some of Sokal's realistically drawn comics and animal drawings. Sokal always remained respectful and grateful to Renard. In his 'Canardo' album 'L'Affaire Belge' (2005), he gave his former teacher a prominent role as teacher at a comic academy in Brussels.


'La Mort d'Hortense', debut story of Canardo (À Suivre #2, 1978).

Canardo
Sokal was one of those lucky students who managed to get a steady job even before graduation. One day in 1977, Didier Plateau, head of comic publishing company Casterman, visited Saint-Luc in search of new talent. Because of his beautiful animal drawings, Benoît Sokal was among the selected artists. Plateau was planning the launch of a new monthly adult comic magazine to carry the work of Hugo Pratt and Jacques Tardi: (À Suivre). In February 1978, the first issue rolled from the presses. A Dutch-language sister magazine, Wordt Vervolgd, followed in 1980. In the second issue of (À Suivre) (March 1978), Sokal debuted with his first professional comic series: 'Une Enquête de l'Inspecteur Canardo', usually shortened to just 'L'Inspecteur Canardo' or 'Canardo'.

Canardo is an anthropomorphic duck detective. Sokal chose this bird, because to him it "is an animal who adapts to all his surroundings, which explains why Walt Disney used Donald Duck in so many cartoons." Canardo's name refers to the French word for duck: "canard". But it also has a double entendre, since "canard" can also mean "hoax". Indeed, Sokal initially saw his series as a joke. The stories began as a parody of detective novels and film noirs, like Raymond Chandler's 'Philip Marlowe' and Mickey Spillane's 'Mike Hammer'. Canardo himself was obviously modelled after the popular TV detective 'Columbo', played by Peter Falk. They have a similar name, raincoat, disheveled personal appearance and a penchant for personal addictions. Contrary to Colombo, Canardo drives a Cadillac instead of an old Peugeot car. The duck is a dreary, disillusioned anti-hero with a cynical worldview, and a chain smoker who drowns his sorrows in alcohol. He has a soft spot for women, even if they are mere prostitutes only interested in his wallet. Despite his responsible profession, Canardo lacks morals. The "private duck" doesn't care about honor or glory. He breaks the law if it makes things easier for him and always expects to be paid large amounts of cash. Free bottles of booze will do too, since Canardo just tries to make it to the next day. He knows the world, nor his life, will ever change for the better. In fact, it's the only thing the drunkard is sober about. While Canardo is often pathetic, shabby and a miserable coward, he is still a likeable doofus. At times, he surprises himself and readers by actually caring about others. 


Canardo - 'Le Chien Debout' (1981). Canardo explains he's no hero; he's in it for the dope.

'Canardo' is set in a sleazy, corrupt, depraved anthropomorphic animal world. In the early stories, Canardo lived on a farm among other barnyard animals. To the human characters, they were all just ordinary animals, as they were not aware of the parallel animal universe. Sokal dropped this concept early on and began using humans less frequently, by now integrated within the animal society. 'Noces de Brume' (1985) was the final story in which people and animals interact. Starting with the episode 'L'Amerzone' (1986), all 'Canardo' characters are anthropomorphic animals. When asked why he chose fauna, Sokal explained that he just liked drawing animals. He nevertheless uses all his dogs, rats, cats, storks, pigs, chickens and monkeys as stand-ins for human cruelty and filthiness. Sokal's animals don't conform to behavior typical for their species, nor animal stereotypes, but walk, talk and act like humans. As such, their universe is filled with prostitutes, alcoholics, junks, corrupt business people, terrorists and gangsters. It might explain why we never ever see Canardo smile. Sokal was often pigeonholed as a pessimist, but he always denied this claim. In his opinion, he merely depicted the world "like it really is". 

Canardo's only genuine friend is Freddo, an obese rat who owns a bar, Chez Freddo, where Canardo spends more time than at his office. The duck is often manipulated by Clara, a female stork who serves as this detective story's stereotypical "femme fatale". Over the course of the series she often reappears, either as a courtisane, a prostitute or a high society floozie. They have a love-hate relationship, since they share a certain fondness for each other. Still, Clara sends Canardo on missions that almost kill him and she doesn't mind to doublecross him. Canardo's arch nemesis is a huge diabolical Siberian cat named Raspoutine. Debuting in 'La Marque de Raspoutine' (1982), Raspoutine is an intimidating, merciless villain. His name is a reference to the legendary Russian advisor of the Czar, who is also a recurring character in Hugo Pratt's 'Corto Maltese' series. Nevertheless, his diabolical nature is more inspired by other legendary Russian historical characters, like Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin. But Raspoutine is more than a one-dimensional fiend. He is a tragic character, whose cruelty is a result of being a lonely soul unable to communicate with others, because everybody fears him. The frightening cat with the piercing eyes had a long lost daughter, Alexandra, who was horrified by her father's crimes. To complicate matters, Canardo was in love with her, and when she dies, she becomes yet another tragic romance in the life of this melancholic duck. 


Canardo - 'Noces de Brume' (1985).

Sokal originally worked in black-and-white, drawing in a silhouette style very reminiscent of André Franquin's 'Idées Noires' (1977-1983) pages. From the third story on, Sokal dropped this silhouette style. The series was originally also more tongue-in-cheek. Most stories have an ironic ending, and are filled with jokes that break the fourth wall. There's no real continuity: Canardo frequently dies, only to return again in the next episode. At the time, Sokal had just been drafted. His irritation about being forced to fulfill his military service gave him a very bleak worldview. It motivated him to kill off Canardo several times in a row. In the story 'Héro Sans Gloire', the author makes a jump in time and shows Canardo as a married old man. For old time's sake, the retired P.I. decides to return to his bar, but commits suicide afterwards. This narrative continues under the new title 'L'Heritage de Canardo' ("Canardo's Legacy"), with Canardo's only son visiting a notary. Canardo Jr. learns that his late father left him everything in his will. In a self reflexive joke, it is pointed out that this is done merely "because we share a physical resemblance, he is easy [for the artist] to draw." Indeed, both ducks are each other's spitting image. On his way home, the son visits a prostitute, but after a fight about money, he is kicked out naked on the street. Canardo Jr. quickly enters a telephone cell, where he puts on the clothes he inherited from his father. Instantly, everybody mistakes him for the late Canardo Senior. Since he likes the positive attention, Canardo Junior decides to accept the situation, become a detective and continue in his father's role.

To maintain creative freedom, Sokal let his characters visit fictional countries, which are nonetheless reminiscent of real-life locations. L'Amerzone is a fictional South American country, with its name a pun on both the Amazone and the French word "amertume" ("bitterness"). The mini monarchy Belgambourg is a contamination of Belgium and Luxembourg, but modelled after Monaco. The country's former African colony is Koudouland, obviously based on the former Belgian colony Congo.


Canardo - 'L'Amerzone' (1986).

Success
'Canardo' was a hit right from the start. Since most (À Suivre) artists specialized in serious graphic novels, Sokal's comic was the magazine's only humorous feature. 'Canardo' was a funny parody of the detective genre, with satirical undertones referring to our present-day society. In the story 'La Nuit de No. 065724', for instance, French President Giscard d'Estaing is caricatured. The debate about the abolition of the death penalty drives the plot, when Canardo is picked out for execution. Other stories ridicule the advertising industry, animal experiments, terrorism, royal scandals and Latin-American dictatorships. 'Canardo' became one of (À Suivre)'s flagships and was translated in more than 10 languages, including Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Finnish. Apart from (À Suivre), Sokal's comics also ran in Spetters, the Dutch-language adult magazine from Flanders, launched by Jan Bucquoy.


Canardo - 'Le Cadillac Blanche' (1990).

Despite the success, Sokal felt trapped being a "funny animal" artist. He didn't want to be just a parodist either. In the story 'Le Chien Debout' (1980), the author experimented with a longer narrative in which Canardo was a mere secondary character. The duck plays second fiddle to a new protagonist, Fernand the dog. Still, Sokal brought his drunk duck back to the foreground. The stories remained funny, but with more effort in the narratives. Interviewed by the Dutch comic news magazine Zozolala in 1983 (issue #12), Sokal's friend and colleague François Schuiten expressed fear that 'Canardo' would eventually get stuck in a dead end and become a parody of itself. His fear turned out to be false alarm. Sokal managed to reinvent himself and the series many times over. The fifth album, 'L'Amerzone' (1986) was a major turning point. Sokal intended to use the plot for a new, realistically drawn comic story outside of his series, but at the insistence of editor-in-chief Jean-Paul Mougin, it was turned into a 'Canardo' story instead. This made Sokal realize that he could use Canardo for whatever script he wanted. It enabled him to move beyond parody and write stories that are genuinely thrilling and unpredictable detective mysteries. Additionally, Sokal was older by now and had more personal stories to tell. These experiences found their way in his later albums. 

Sokal also expanded Canardo's universe. From the episode 'Le Canal de l'Angoisse' (1994) on, the inspector often teams up with Inspecteur Garenni, a blue rabbit police inspector. Although his friend is not very bright, Canardo feels a certain fondness for him, and the two often help each other out. Another recurring character - debuting in 'La Fille Qui Rêvait d’Horizon' (1999) - is the medical examiner Doc Fatty, an eerie-looking bulldog with thick glasses, who is nonetheless very good in his job. His autopsies provide Canardo with new clues about his cases. By 1995, Sokal handed part of the artwork and coloring of 'Canardo' to Pascal Regnauld, though remained involved as lay-out designer and scriptwriter.

Sanguine, by Benoit Sokal
'Sanguine' (1988).

Sanguine
It took a long while before Benoît Sokal got the opportunity to publish something other than 'Canardo'. In 1988, he collaborated with dramatist and choreographer Alain Populaire on a one-shot story serialized in (À Suivre): 'Sanguine'. It was a stylistic break in every way. The plot is set in 1633, in the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years' War. The characters are humans and the drawing style and content are realistic. Sokal made use of charcoal and sanguine to illustrate the story. In 'Sanguine', Manfred von Kriek travels to Lübeck in search of his uncle Hermann, whose wealth could be beneficial to finance the army of Catholic warlord Albrecht von Wallenstein in his battle against the Protestants. When Manfred eventually finds Hermann and his wife, Sanguine, they soon realize that Wallenstein isn't quite the hero they assume he is. The graphic novel 'Sanguine' sold very well, which comforted Sokal's publisher enough to let him make more one-shot comics.

Silence, on tue!
In 1990, Benoît Sokal and scriptwriter François Rivière created a one-shot interactive graphic novel, 'Silence, On Tue!' ('Silence, We're Killing!'), for Éditions Nathan's Nuit Noires collection. The story revolves around an actor who is found dead on a movie set, strangled with a red scarf. The reader is invited to solve the mystery through a series of clues hidden in the story and the artwork.


'Le Vieil Homme Qui N'Écrivait Plus' (1996).

Le Vieil Homme Qui N'Écrivait Plus
Sokal's 1996 graphic novel 'Le Vieil Homme Qui N'Écrivait Plus' ("The Old Man Who Writes No More", Casterman) was the reflection of the elderly Augustin Morel on his World War II Resistance activities, during which his lover Marianne died in Nazi gunfire. The original edition was in black-and-white, but in 2003 the book was reissued in Casterman's Un Monde collection, colorized by Laurence Croix.

Video games: Microïds
Sokal has always been a computer whizz. In 1994, he was one of the first comic artists of his generation to start coloring his stories with help of a computer. To him, there wasn't much difference between a comic book and a video game, since the narrative rules are similar. In 1996, Sokal joined the video game software developer Microïds as designer and later art director. He designed and scripted various adventure games for the company, forcing him to travel back and forth between France and the company's Canada division. His first game, 'Amerzone' (1999), was based on the fictional South American country from the 'Canardo' stories. To keep the game accessible for players unfamiliar with his comics, Sokal didn't use his own characters. Software engineer Gregory Duquesne helped Sokal turn his plot into a suitable game design. Comic writer Benoît Peeters was briefly involved too. The story of 'Amerzone' is set in a South American country, where the player has to rescue endangered species from a dictator. As his main inspirations, Sokal cited Werner Herzog's film 'Fitzcarraldo' (1982), the novels of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and the video game 'Myst'. Released as a first-person fantasy graphic adventure game, available for Windows, Mac and Playstation, 'Amerzone' received good reviews and was a bestseller. A strategy guide, 'Amerzone: Strategies & Secrets' (June 1999) and a conceptual art book 'Amerzone: Memoires of an Expedition' (November 1999) were published the same year.

Sokal topped himself with 'Syberia' (2002), an adventure game for both computers and consoles. Developed by Microïds, the plot revolves around a U.S. lawyer who travels through Europe and Russia to find the brother of an recently deceased automaton toy factory owner. Like 'Amerzone', the game received excellent reviews, sold well globally and won Sokal several awards, including GameSpy PC Adventure Game of the Year (2002) and "Personality of the Year" (2002) during the Phenix Awards of Video Games. It was followed by two sequels, 'Syberia II' (2004) and 'Syberia 3' (2017), though the latter was produced by Anuman Interactive, which had merged with Microïds.


Concept art for 'Syberia 3' (2014).

Video games: White Birds Productions
In August 2003, Benoît Sokal and his Microïds colleagues Olivier Fontenay, Jean-Philippe Messian and Michel Bams founded their own video game company, White Birds Productions. In collaboration with Micro Application and Ubisoft, their first release was 'Paradise' (2006), a point-and-click adventure game for Windows. In 2008, it was remodelled and retitled for the Nintendo DS as 'Last King of Africa', and an iOS release followed in 2010. The original release came with a companion comic book by Sokal, 'Lost Paradise of Maurania'. The plot revolves around the jungle journey of the daughter of an African dictator, who suffers from amnesia after her plane is shot down by rebels. The game came with a spin-off comic series, 'Paradise' (Casterman, 2005-2008), written by Benoît Sokal, and drawn by Brice Bingono.

White Birds' next game, 'L'Île Noyée' ('Sinking Island: A Jack Norm Investigation', 2007), follows a police officer trying to solve the death of a millionaire. The action takes place in an Art Deco-style tower on a fictional island. 'Criminology' ('Crime Scene', 2009) also revolves around a murder mystery. White Bird Productions also produced video games based on literary classics. 'Martine à la Ferme' ('Emma at the Farm', 2006) and 'Martine à la Montagne' ('Emma at the Mountain', 2007) were based on Gilbert Delhaye and Marcel Marlier's 'Martine' children's books, while 'Nikopol: La Foire Aux Immortels' ('Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals', 2007) is an adaptation of Enki Bilal's 'Nikopol' graphic novels. Unfortunately, due to financial problems, White Bird Productions had to close down in December 2010. Plans to adapt their games for iPhone users had to be cancelled.


Kraa 1 - 'Lost Valley' (2010).

Return to comics: Kraa
Between 2010 and 2014, Sokal released the 'Kraa' trilogy, consisting of the volumes 'La Vallée Perdue' ("Lost Valley", 2010), 'L'Ombre de l'Aigle' ("Shadow Eagle", 2012) and 'La Colère Blanche de l'Orage' ("The White Wrath of the Storm", 2014), all published by Casterman. The plot is set in the late 1920s in a fictional country between Alaska and Siberia named "Malaskar". Kraa is a golden eagle whose parents are killed. A young Indian boy, Yuma, befriends Kraa and is able to communicate telepathically with him (although Sokal felt they were just able to predict each other's behavior). Yuma's tribe is murdered by corrupt business people who want to exploit precious minerals. This motivates both Kraa and Yuma to go on a rampage of revenge.

Inspired by juvenile U.S. adventure novels by Jack London, Jim Harrison and J.O. Curwood, Sokal got the idea for the character Kraa when he was still a student. He originally envisioned 'Kraa' as a video game project, but by lack of sufficient funding he changed his plans. Even though he had been coloring his comics with the computer since 1994, Sokal decided to return to traditional paper, pencil and pastel for this project. In his opinion, 'Kraa' is the evocation of nature as a "lost paradise". Interviewed by Didier Pasamonik on actuabd.com (28 January 2014), he described nature as a "secret, fascinating and scary world of which we lost the keys to understand it throughout the centuries."

Aquarica
For several years, Sokal worked on a graphic novel written in collaboration with his friend François Schuiten. 'Aquarica' was finally released in 2017 by Rue de Sèvres. The story is set in a sailor's town, Roodhaven, near the East Coast of the USA. With whale hunting terminated, the place turns into a ghost town. One day, a colossal sea monster washes ashore on the beach. The animal turns out to be alive and is in the presence of a messenger from the open sea. 'Aquarica' was translated in both Dutch and English. In 2019, Martin Villeneuve adapted it into an animated short, 'The Crab: Prelude to Aquarica', produced by L'Atelier Animation and ITEM 7. Schuiten and Sokal had the intention to make it a series, but Sokal's untimely death prevented the project from being finished.


Aquarica - 'Roodhaven' (2017).

Graphic contributions
In 1980, Sokal drew a graphic contribution to 'Pepperland' (Pepperland, 1980), a collective tribute book to the book store of the same name. In 1983, he was one of many comic artists paying homage to the recently deceased Hergé in a special issue of (À Suivre), titled 'Adieu Hergé'. He also contributed to 'La BD du 3e Millénaire' (Loterie Romande, 1999), a collective comic book celebrating the new millennium.

Sokal additionally wrote the script for 'La Villa Sur La Falaise' (Casterman, 2013), a collective tribute comic book honoring the 10th anniversary of the publisher's Écritures imprint. Among the artists who adapted his script to comic pages were Cati Baur, Fred Bernard, Hannah Berry, Isabel Kreitz, Gabrielle Piquet, Nate Powell, Davide Reviati, Sylvain Saulne, Kan Takahama and Jiro Taniguchi.

Recognition
In 1981, the first album of 'Canardo', 'Chien Debout', received the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris for "Best Comic of the Year". When then mayor (and future president) Jacques Chirac was photographed holding a copy, it helped the series gain notability and more sales. In 1982, Sokal won the "Milou de Marbre" ("Marble Snowy") for "Best Professional Comic Book" at a comic festival in Liège. That same year, the 'Canardo' album 'Le Marque de Raspoutine' won the Award for "Best Detective Comic" at the Festival of Reims. In 2006, Benoît Sokal was knighted as Officer in the Order of Leopold II, followed on 3 May 2007 by a decoration as Chevalier Dans Les Arts et des Lettres. In 2012, his album 'Une Bavure Bien Baveuse' won the Prix Polar for "Best Comic Series" in Cognac.

Death
Benoît Sokal passed away in 2021 in Reims, France, at age 66.

Family in arts
Benoît Sokal's wife Martine ran the BD-Bulle comic store and gallery in Reims. Since 2013, their son Hugo Sokal worked with his father on the scripts of the 'Canardo' comics. He also wrote a comic book adaptation of the 'Syberia' game series. The first album, 'Hans', was published by Le Lombard in 2017, drawn by Johann Blais.


Cover illustrations for (À Suivre) magazine by Benoît Sokal.

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