I.R.$. volume 2: Blue Ice


By Vranken & Desberg, coloured by Coquelicot and translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-74-8

As I’ve frequently stated before, the most appealing aspect of European comics is the sheer breadth of genres, styles and age-ranges their efforts address and the audiences support.

Thus this quirky but exceedingly readable, deviously all-action Franco-Belgian thriller-series with a tantalising twist offers a deliciously different spin on the tried-and-true trope of the driven mystery-man superspy.

The unlikely champion of these sagas is a civil servant with the US government, which once upon a time started employing super-cool, infallibly effective special agents to go after the type of tax-dodger well beyond the reach of the law. These days, perhaps every nation should have one…

Belgian writer Stephen Desberg is one of the bestselling comics author in France. He was born in Brussels in 1954, son of an American lawyer (the European distribution agent for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) and a French mother. Stephen began studying law at Université Libre de Bruxelles but dropped out to follow a winding path into the comics biz.

He began with plots and eventually scripts for Will (Willy Maltaite) on Tif et Tondu in Spirou, growing into a reliable jobbing creator on established strips for younger readers before launching his own in the Stéphane Colman illustrated Billy the Cat (a funny animal strip, not the DC Thomson superhero series).

Thereafter came 421 with Eric Maltaite, Arkel (Marc Hardy), Jimmy Tousseul (with Daniel Desorgher) and many others. During the 1980s he gradually redirected his efforts to material for older readerships (see for example The Garden of Desire) and in 1999 he created contemporary thriller IR$, with historical drama Le Scorpion added to his catalogue of major hits a year later.

Bernard Vranken was an award winning artist by the time he was fifteen. A year later he was working for Tintin. Whilst studying architecture at Saint-Luc he took some comics courses by legendary illustrator Eddy Paape at St. Gilles and his true career-path was set. Vranken was crafting short stories for A Suivre when he met Desberg and in 1996 they collaborated for the first time on epic romance Le Sang Noir. Three years later they traded love for money and launched I.R.$.…

The premise is simple and delicious, and Cinebook’s second translated English edition from 2009 once again doubles the bang for your buck by combining the third and fourth European albums – Blue Ice and Narcocratie – into one compelling compilation.

Blue Ice (originally released in 2001) opens with stylish American bean-counter Larry B. Max relaxing in his palatial home. The quiet start offers the observant reader a few hints into Larry’s past – and motivations – before he renews his odd, long-distance, anonymous relationship with favourite chat-line girl Gloria Paradise.

Larry hates complications in his life but there’s just something about her voice and attitude…

A little later he attends a piano rehearsal and promises his little sister he’ll be there for the recital on Friday. It’s just asking for trouble…

Meanwhile downtown, three very bad men are meeting excessively violent ends and at Los Angeles airport an American passenger from Mexico triggers a wave of security alerts. Typically, though, just too late for the inattentive security staff to do more than watch him spectacularly disappear into the city leaving two dead agents behind…

Later at DEA HQ, a high level meeting of numerous Federal agencies convenes to discuss Ryan Ricks. During his tour in Vietnam Ricks began managing the money of his platoon-mates and used it to make a killing on the Stock Exchange.

Slightly wounded, he then shipped out for home and was eagerly pursued by finance houses who saw he had a unique gift for using money and making it. He settled in at a major tobacco company and started creating wealth.

They didn’t notice – or perhaps care – that Ricks was making side-deals, nor that being utterly amoral he went where the money was to be easily found: terrorist nations…

When the IRS found out he was using dirty cash to make the company more money – and making himself fabulously rich at the same time – Ryan was fired. He claimed to have no understanding of why terrorist money was bad but profits from giving people cancer was good…

Ricks was a man ahead of his time. Even before the Cold War ended he was saying that New Capitalism would be beyond any laws and consequently followed that philosophy to its logical extreme. Specialising in creating off-shore accounts, he became the world’s greatest money-launderer and devised an international network for tax evasion.

That’s when Larry Max first encountered him, but the wily finance wizard simply vanished and a swathe of alphabetised American agencies has been waiting for him to turn up ever since…

Now twelve years later he’s back in USA so scores can be settled and pride regained. Some of the bigwigs however are unconvinced. With so many major players in the Monterrey Cartel gunned down in the street, the feds would rather concentrate on a clearly-brewing turf war than some nebulous cash-converter.

Late-arriving Larry is “only” a tax collector, not a true cop, but he can’t help wondering why they all think the events are unconnected…

Consulting his own researches, Mr Max coolly exposes a traitor in the cross-agency conclave and predicts things are going to get very dramatic for the Monterrey Cartel, but is fobbed off with only two agents to assist him. Hanson’s shadowy spook-show has access to covert satellite surveillance and phone monitoring whereas Ella Hidalgo of DEA is a stone killer everybody call “Blue Ice”.

She’s going to be useful once the lead starts flying…

Across the border the prediction has already come true. Dion Monterrey, the aged, untouchable head of the clan, has begun cleaning house, eradicating all dissent before heading to LA for the most important meeting of his life…

Aided by cutting-edge covert spy technology, the hunt for Ricks moves into high gear and it’s not long before Larry and Hildalgo are quietly closing in on their target. Then a second traitor inadvertently tips his hand too soon and the astounded IRS agent has the key piece of information he needs to complete the puzzle…

Ultimate harbinger of unfettered Free Enterprise Ricks has returned to America because he’s acting as facilitator for the deal of the ages: selling off one of world’s biggest drugs cartels…

Larry is not satisfied. The facts just don’t add up and as he ponders the mystery and sweats the details Ricks is closing the deal and Dion is ensuring there’s no one left to contest the sale…

With every party understandably edgy the final handover is set to occur on the roof of a luxury shopping mall. With the fanatical Ricks describing the way business will be conducted in the until-now inefficiently managed, under-exploited market of modern coke consumption, the good guys quietly close in. They have all grossly underestimated the guile and paranoia of their targets though and soon the entire scene is a hellish firefight of lethal proportions…

As ever, the end result is a pile of bodies, massive collateral damage and Ricks a ghost in the wind, but this time Larry is on his tail…

Without a pause for breath the story concludes in Narcocracy as Max arrives in Tijuana, just as the next move in Ricks’ grand strategy goes live: acquisition and expansion…

Before dawn breaks in the seedy hell-hole many of the proud cartel hold-outs opposing the new order are gone and the game plan is clear. It’s not a consolidation or merger Ricks and his mystery backers have in mind for the already lucrative drug trade, it’s a hostile takeover…

The only fly in the ointment is a certain white-haired American who implacably follows the money magician everywhere and is proving utterly impossible to kill…

Help comes from a most unexpected quarter as the Mexican Federal Bureau of Narcotics picks up the taxman, claiming he’s about to blow a massive sting operation. Larry keeps his thoughts to himself as meets the country’s top brass and warns them of Rick’s current ambitious activities. After all, money talks, this is a country notorious for corruption and the wizard of wealth-creation has more cash than any other crook in the world…

Soon he is partnered up with the Bureau’s top investigators and chasing his elusive quarry but even though Larry knows a trap is waiting to spring somewhere he’s not quite sure when or who’s going to. Moreover, behind all the criminal double-dealing and staggering slaughter, he can perceive the kind of chicanery that only real, Harvard-style business types are capable of. All he has to do is find out who and prove it…

Inevitably the hammer falls and bodies begin to drop and just for a moment it looks like someone’s going to miss a piano concert…

Complex, fast-paced, suspenseful and incredibly violent, this yarn is pure movie blockbuster: a sleek, lean and lithe action-fest to seduce any devotee the thriller genre.

IR$ is a splendidly effective, stylishly gritty thriller series that will delight fans of modern mayhem in all its literary and artistic forms.

Only death and taxes are inescapable, and Larry B. Max offers either or both in one suavely, economical package…
Original edition © 1977 Editions du Lombard (Le Lombard/Dargaud SA) 2001-2002 by Desberg &Vrancken. English translation 2008 © Cinebook Ltd.