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Museum honours popular parrot

(ledsom)

One of Switzerland's most popular cartoon characters is being feted at the Zurich toy museum.

Celebrating his 70th birthday this year, Globi is a legend at home but remains virtually unknown abroad.

"I don't really know why Globi hasn't been successful elsewhere," shrugs museum owner Christian Depuoz. "With his distinctive look, I'm sure he deserves to be just as well known as Mickey Mouse."

Ah, yes - that distinctive look. Blue skinned, or perhaps feathered, with a black beret and chequered trousers, Globi definitely has the face, and beak, of a bird. His determinedly human body shape meanwhile lends Globi the appearance of some mythical hybrid.

In reality though, the origins of the parrot-boy were rather more mundane.

A commercial beast

From day one, Globi was a commercial beast - conceived as a marketing device by JK Schiele, a former advertising boss at the Globus department store.

"Schiele was sent over to the United States in 1931, during the Great Depression, to see how the American department stores were bringing in customers," explains antique books dealer Marcus Benz. "He came back with the idea of a personal symbol for the store, something which had already been successful at Macy's and Bloomingdale's."

The owners of Globus were sceptical and even complained to Schiele about the racket caused by the children who flooded into the store in 1933, when the first Globi event took place.

Schiele remained at Globus until his retirement in 1967 but, despite his efforts, the Globus board continued to keep Globi at arm's length.

"When Schiele came up with the idea of a Globi book, the store owners told him he would have to work on it in his private time, although they made sure they retained the rights," recalls Benz.

Flourishing in isolation

The fact that Globi's infancy coincided with a time of economic harshness and eventual war may help explain his instant popularity in an increasingly isolated Switzerland, but also his inability to spread his wings abroad.

"There were a few half-hearted attempts at translating Globi for foreign markets, and we have some of those editions here at the museum," points out Benz, "but again it seems that the Globus management were reluctant to make too big a deal about a children's cartoon character."

Even for non-Globi fans, the development of that character and the accompanying story lines offer an interesting perspective on the thoughts and values of the past 70 years.

Contemporary adventures

Globi's early adventures were often set against contemporary backdrops. One year after visiting the 1939 national exhibition in Zurich, Globi found himself serving in the Swiss army during the Second World War.

By 1941 he had become Globi the farmer, at a time when self-sufficiency was essential to Switzerland's survival. Then as peace returned to Europe, Globi was to be found in Paris - celebrating what Schiele described as "the reopening of the world".

"That was in 1946, just a few months after the end of the war," notes Benz, "so it was very early to express such optimism."

Illustrations of Globi rocketing to the moon in the early 1940s suggest similarly strong prescience. But there are also plenty of reminders in the current exhibition that Globi's creators were not completely immune to the prejudices and views of their time.

Chequered past

Globi the Smoker, Drinker, Gambler, Road Rager and Animal Slayer are all early incarnations which are unlikely to feature in today's sanitised editions. Given the attitudes of the day, it is perhaps unsurprising that racial stereotypes also abound in Globi's very first adventure, "Globi's World Voyage".

"The black people in the book are described as Negroes, but they are not otherwise shown in a negative light," says Benz. "Certainly though, the depictions of the various nationalities, be they American, Japanese or whatever, tend to be stereotypical.

"The situations are always treated in a light-hearted manner, though. For example, in the Second World War story we see the Swiss soldiers playing cards and waiting for the war to start. It all looks a lot of fun, and there is certainly no blood or actual fighting - very similar to the Swiss army today, in fact!"

After officially opening the museum exhibition, Zurich zoo director Alex Rübel told swissinfo he was happy that Globi was no longer shooting at African lions. But he also admitted a fondness for some of those early story lines.

"I remember they once based an adventure on a true incident when a black panther escaped from Zurich zoo," Rübel reminisced. "For weeks, people in the city were terrified of being attacked, until the panther was tracked down and shot dead.

"In Globi's world, things happened a little differently of course! In Robert Lipp's version, Globi catches the panther, returns him safely to the zoo, and then even goes off to Africa and brings back a wife for the panther!"

Continuing popularity

While Globi's grip on reality has never been the strongest, his hold on Swiss hearts seems unshakeable. Despite the strong competition surrounding children's literature, the veteran parrot continues to top bestseller lists with each year's new adventure selling more than 100,000 copies.

And despite Globi's seven decades of international anonymity, his publishers are still hopeful of a successful breakthrough into foreign markets.

Much of that hope is being invested in "Globi and his Stolen Shadow" - the Swiss icon's first full-length animated film, which is due to appear in September 2003. With versions planned in English, German, French, Italian and of course Globi's very own Swiss-German, "globi-lisation" could finally become a reality after 70 years of trying.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

Globi

Globi was born in 1932, originally as a marketing device for the Globus department store chain.

His latest adventures continue to sell more than 100,000 copies a year in Switzerland.

A full length feature film could finally bring Globi international fame in 2003.

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