XIII volume 4: SPADS


By William Vance & Jean Van Hamme, coloured by Petra (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-058-0

One of the most consistently entertaining and popular adventure serials on the European scene, XIII was created by author Jean Van Hamme (Wayne Shelton, Blake and Mortimer, Lady S.) and illustrator William Vance (Bruce J. Hawker, Marshal Blueberry, Ramiro).

Van Hamme was born in Brussels in 1939 and is one of the most prolific writers in comics. After pursuing Business Studies, he moved into journalism and marketing before selling his first graphic tale in 1968. Immediately clicking with the public, by 1976 he had also branched out into prose novels and screenwriting. His big break was monumentally successful mixed-genre fantasy series Thorgal for Tintin magazine but he truly cemented his reputation with mass-market bestsellers Largo Winch and XIII as well as more cerebral fare such as Chninkel and Les maîtres de l’orge. In 2010 Van Hamme was listed as the second-best selling comics author in France, ranked between the seemingly unassailable Hergé and Uderzo.

William Vance is the bande dessinée nom de plume of William van Cutsem. He was born in 1935 in Anderlecht and, after military service in 1955-1956, studied art at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. He became an illustrator of biographic features at Tintin in 1962. His persuasive illustrative style is a classical blend of meticulous realism, scrupulous detail and spectacular yet understated action.

In 1964 he began maritime adventure serial Howard Flynn (written by Yves Duval) before graduating to more popular genre work with western Ray Ringo and espionage thriller Bruno Brazil (scripted by Greg). Further success followed when he replaced Gérald Forton on science fiction classic Bob Morane in Femmes d’Aujourd’hui and latterly Pilote and Tintin.

Although working broadly and constantly on serials and stand-alone stories, Vance’s signature achievement is his lengthy collaboration with fellow Belgian Van Hamme on this contemporary thriller loosely based on Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity

XIII launched in 1984, originally running in Spirou to great acclaim. A triad of albums were rushed out – simultaneously printed in French and Dutch editions – before the first year of serialisation ended.

The series was a monumental hit in Europe but fared less well in its earlier attempts to make the translation jump to English, with Catalan Communications, Alias Comics and even Marvel all failing to find an audience for the epic mystery thriller.

The grand conspiracy saga of unrelenting mood, mystery and mayhem opened in The Day of the Black Sun when an old beachcomber found a body. The human flotsam had a gunshot head wound and was near death when Abe and his wife Sally found him. She discovered a key sewn into his clothes and the Roman numerals for thirteen tattooed on his neck. The remote hideaway offered little in the way of emergency services, but their alcoholic, struck-off surgeon friend managed to save the stranger…

As he recuperated, a complication became apparent. The patient – a splendid physical specimen clearly no stranger to action or violence – had suffered massive and irreversible brain trauma. Although increasingly sound in body he had completely lost his past.

Language skills, muscle memories, even social and reflexive conditioning all remained, but every detail of his life-history was gone…

They named him “Alan” after their own dead son – but hints of the intruder’s lost past explosively intruded when hitmen invaded the beach house with guns blazing. Alan lethally retaliated with terrifying skill, but too late…

In the aftermath he found a photo of himself and a young woman on the killers and traced it to nearby Eastown. Desperate for answers and certain more killers were coming, the human question mark headed off to confront unimaginable danger and hopefully find the answers he craved.

The picture led to a local newspaper and a crooked cop who recognised the amnesiac but said nothing…

The woman in the photo was Kim Rowland, a local widow recently gone missing. Alan’s key opened the door of her house. The place had been ransacked but a thorough search utilising his mysterious talents turned up another key and a note warning someone named Jake that “The Mongoose” had found her…

He was then ambushed by the cop and newspaper editor Wayne. Calling him “Shelton” they demanded the return of a large amount of missing money…

Alan/Jake/Shelton reasoned the new key fitted a safe-deposit box and bluffed the thugs into taking him to the biggest bank in town. The staff there also knew him as Shelton, but when his captors examined the briefcase in Shelton’s box a booby trap went off. Instantly acting, the mystery man expertly escaped and eluded capture, holing up in a shabby hotel room, pondering again what kind of man he used to be…

As he prepared to leave he stumbled into a mob of armed killers. In a blur of lethal action he escaped and ran into another bunch of heavies led by a Colonel Amos. This chilling executive referred to his captive as “Thirteen”, claiming to have dealt with his predecessors XI and XII in regard to the “Black Sun” case…

Amos very much wanted to know who Alan was, and offered some shocking titbits in return. The most sensational was film of the recent assassination of American President, William B Sheridan, clearly showing the lone gunman was XIII…

Despite the amnesiac’s heartfelt conviction that he was no assassin, Amos accused him of working for a criminal mastermind, and wanted that big boss. The interrogator failed to take Alan’s instinctive abilities into account and was astounded when his prisoner leapt out of a fourth floor window…

The fugitive headed back to the beach where he was found but more murderers awaited; led by a mild-seeming man Alan inexplicably knew was The Mongoose. The criminal overlord expressed surprise and admiration: he thought he’d killed Thirteen months ago…

Following an explosion of hyper-fast violence which left the henchmen dead and Mongoose vanished but vengeful, the mystery man regretfully hopped a freight train west towards the next stage in his quest for truth…

His journey of discovery took him to the army base where Kim Rowland’s husband was stationed. His enquiries provoked an unexpected and violent response resulting in his interrogation by General Ben Carrington and his sexily capable aide Lieutenant Jones.

They’re from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, know an awful lot about black ops units and have proof that their memory-challenged prisoner is in fact their agent: believed-deceased Captain Steve Rowland

After testing the amnesiac’s abilities Carrington then drops him off in Rowland’s home town of Southberg to pursue his search for his missing wife, but the prodigal’s return to his rat’s nest of a family rekindles long-simmering passions and jealousies. The entire town seems to want Rowland’s blood and before long he’s been made the target of an assassination attempt and victim of a diabolical murder-plot…

Despite Carrington and Jones’ last-minute intervention Alan/Steve is framed for murdering his father and grabbed by a furious posse.

After an indeterminate period of time “Steve” resurfaces, undergoing the worst kind of psychiatric care at Plain Rock Penitentiary for the Criminally Insane. Despite drugs and shock treatments, progress is negligible, probably because aging martinet Dr Johansson’s claims of curing for his patient’s apparent amnesia are clearly just a judgemental sadist’s justifications for inflicting agony on the helpless…

Carrington and Jones meet with Amos who has troubling information. His investigations revealed the amnesiac had undergone illicit plastic surgery and his army records were altered. Whoever was in Plain Rock, he wasn’t Steve Rowland…

Amos’ files proved the plotters who had the President killed were still active and their amnesiac assassin was now the only link to them. Acting on her own initiative, Jones decided it was time she took a hands-on approach…

Anxious and isolated, Not-Rowland received a visitor who galvanised him out of his induced torpor and knew his days were numbered…

Deep within the corridors of power, Amos informs Carrington further researches have obtained them a name. XIII and the man they are actually dealing with is former soldier and intelligence operative Ross Tanner.

Probably…

Perhaps…

Rowland/Tanner opts for escape but is swiftly recaptured and restricted to the medical section. XIII is helpless when the Mongoose’s inside man makes his move. Luckily Jones had also inserted herself in a position where she could do the most good…

Spectacularly busting out, “Rowland” and the mystery woman then race into the desert, somehow avoiding a massive manhunt before vanishing without trace.

Some time later, Amos and Carrington confer over the disappearance, but one of them knows exactly where the fugitive is. Now, with another new name, the warrior without a past and his new powerful allies lay plans to take the fight to their secret enemy…

SPADS is the fourth complex and convoluted chapter (first released in Europe in 1987) and opens with a much more concise and visual recap than I’ve just given, before kicking the plot into high gear as the race to replace murdered President Sheridan hots up. The contenders are Old Boy Network hack and former Vice President Joseph Galbrain battling Sheridan’s glamorous and idealistic younger brother Walter: latest scion of a venerable dynasty of leaders…

Amos’ diligent investigation is relentless. After exhuming a host of bodies, he can confidently claim to know who Tanner really is, is but when his search leads him into a trap that kills his assistant and incapacitates him, he starts to wonder if he’s tracking a target or being led onto a bullseye…

Elsewhere, in a green hell of sweat and testosterone, Ross Tanner is making no friends as he trains to join elite combat unit SPADS (SPecial Assault and Destruction Squads). He doesn’t fit in and is always causing trouble. It’s as if he’s there under false pretences…

When Amos and Judge Allenby confront Carrington at the Pentagon with news that Tanner is also an alias for an as yet unknown operative, the reaction is little short of explosive. Soon after, special aide Lieutenant Jones goes AWOL…

Back in the Bayou, the man everybody is hunting has made a fresh advance into uncovering his occluded past. Sergeant Betty served with the real Rowland and knows he didn’t die at the time and in the manner the official reports describe. Before she shares the details, however, she has an itch that needs scratching…

That conversation is curtailed by camp commander Colonel McCall, who tells the undercover operative that he’s being transferred out in the morning by direct order of General Carrington. Realising his chance to solve his personal mystery is evaporating, XIII settles a few outstanding scores before sneaking into Betty’s quarters…

Amos and Allenby meanwhile have not been idle, and the former is certain he has at last gleaned the actual identity of the multi-named agent XIII, but when they visit a certain grave they walk right into another ambush and a well-placed mole is forced to break cover…

As Amos is plucked from the firefight by the last person he expected to see, a continent away Tanner’s liaison gets even more dangerous when another Mongoose mole interrupts and tries to kill them both. Happily, Carrington’s back-up agent is well placed to save them and they all flee together, unaware that their escape vehicle has been boobytrapped and sabotaged…

Amos by now is securely ensconced in a palatial hideaway, being feted by a coterie of political heavyweights who finally reveal the truth about all the men Ross Tanner is and isn’t. They then explain the incredible reason for the smoke-&-mirrors operation and the earth-shattering stakes…

To Be Continued…

XIII is one most compelling and multi-layered mystery adventures ever conceived, with subsequent instalments constantly taking the questing human enigma two steps forward, one step back, stumbling through a world of pain and peril whilst cutting through an interminable web of past lives he seemingly led…

Rocket-paced and immensely inventive, XIII is a series no devotee of action sagas and conspiracy thrillers will want to miss.
Original edition © Dargaud Benelux (Dargaud-Lombard SA), 1987 by Van Hamme, Vance & Petra. All rights reserved. This edition published 2010 by Cinebook Ltd.