The Lighthouse


By Paco Roca, translated by Jeff Whitman (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-056-0 (HB/Digital edition)

Francisco Martínez Roca was born in Valencia in 1969: a time when Franco’s fascist regime still controlled every aspect of Spanish life. Roca was part of an artistic explosion that benefited from the dictator’s death and a return to liberalising democracy, with his earliest efforts appearing in La Cupula in 1994.

As Paco Roca, he contributed (with Rafa Fonteriz) erotic strips featuring Peter Pan and Aladdin to Kiss Comics and – with Juan Miguel Aguilera – devised experimental 3D series ‘Road Cartoons’ for El Vibora.

Roca’s earliest serious works dealt with aspects of Spanish culture and history: El Juego Lúgubre in 2001 (his fictional yarn about Salvador Dali) and 2004’s Spanish Civil War tale El Faro. These were followed by internationally acclaimed works Hijos de la Alhambra and 2007’s multi-award winning Wrinkles – adapted into equally celebrated and critically-rewarded animated movie Arrugas.

More wonderful stuff you’ll want to see includes Las Callas de Arena (Streets of Sand) and semi-autobiographical Sunday newspaper strip Memorias de un hombre en pyjama from Las Provincias and El invierno del dibujante, about comic creators working for the Bruguera magazine Tio Vivo in the 1950s.

When not astonishing folk with his mastery of graphic narrative and grasp of human nature, Roca makes animated films and hosts his own radio show in Valencia.

After the success of Wrinkles it was only a matter of time before his other works started being translated into English, so bravo to NBM for picking up this sublime, elegiacally esoteric little gem…

The Lighthouse is a digest-sized (234 x 157 mm) duotone hardback – or eBook if you’re digitally inclined – celebrating the solace of imagination, which recaptures the hope of liberation in a beguiling black, blue and white wave of perfectly sculpted images.

Spain: as the Civil War staggers to its end, wounded Francisco flees for his life. The victorious fascistas are gathering up the defeated foe and this wounded youngster has no intention of being interned… or worse. After a bloody and eventful flight, he makes it to the coast and, after passing out, finds himself bandaged and rested in someone’s bed. He is in a lighthouse, crammed with fascinating remnants and artefacts…

After some cautious poking about, Francisco finally finds a garrulous old lighthouse keeper on the beach, joyously hauling ashore flotsam, jetsam and assorted treasures torn from unfortunate vessels during the last storm.

Telmo is a jolly giant, constantly quoting from his favourite books about the sea, although Francisco – a soldier since he was sixteen – barely understands what the old man is talking about…

The elder’s good humour is infectious and gradually infects even battle-scarred Francisco. Soon the boy-soldier is helping the incessantly cheerful senior maintain the great lamp and sharing his only anxiety, about when – if ever – the light will shine again. The government have been promising a new bulb for years and Telmo is convinced now peace reigns again, that moment will be any day now…

To pass the days, the old man combs the beaches for useful finds and tends to his special project: building a fabulous boat to carry him across the waters to the impossibly wonderful island of Laputa

Gradually, sullen Francisco – perpetually bombarded by the lighthouse keeper’s wondrous stories – loosens up and starts sharing Telmo’s self-appointed tasks and dreams, but that all ends when the boy finds a letter and accidentally uncovers a web of lies…

However, just when the idyllic relationship seems destined to founder on the rocks of tawdry truth, the tirelessly-searching soldiers arrive and a tragic sacrifice in service of those endangered once-shared dreams is required…

A potently powerful tale delivered with deceptive gentleness and beguiling grace, The Lighthouse is both poignantly moving and rapturously uplifting and is supplemented here by a lengthy prose postscript.

Roca’s ‘The Eternal Rewrite’ – packed with illustrations, model sheets, production art and sketches – reveals how the author is afflicted with Post-Release Meddling Syndrome, constantly editing, amending and reworking bits of his many publications, each time a new or fresh foreign edition is announced.

This short, sweet story about stories and imagination is a true delight and a perfect introduction for anyone still resistant to the idea of comics narrative as meaningful art form… or just read it yourself for the sheer wonder of it.
© 2004, 2009 Paco Roca. © 2014 Astiberri for the present edition. © 2017 NBM for the English translation.

Dungeon: Twilight Vols. 1-2 – Cemetery of the Dragon


By Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim & Kerascoet, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-293-9, (TPB/Digital)

Somewhere way out there, is a planet called Terra Amata. On this populated world of rich history and diverse ways of life, there’s a magic castle in a fantastic land of miracles, quests and adventures. There was once also a rather dangerous meeting place called the Dungeon…

As primarily crafted by prolific artisans Joann Sfar (Le Ministère secret, Professeur Bell, Les olives noires, The Rabbi’s Cat) and Lewis Trondheim (Kaput and Zösky, Little Nothings, Stay, Ralph Azham) in collaboration with assorted associates of their New Wave-ish collective of bande dessinée creators (most often seen under the aegis of L’Association) – the Donjon saga has generated more than fifty volumes since debuting in 1998 and become a cult hit all over the world. It began as a fanciful spoof/parody of roleplaying fantasy games, but as so often with stories of innate charm and high quality, it grew beyond its intentions…

After a cruelly long hiatus, English translations of the epic are at last returned. Repackaged in the first of a series of full-colour paperback collections, the initial quartet of the Donjon Crepuscule series have been rereleased for your delight and delectation.

These tales form a mere sub-division of a vast, eccentrically raucous and addictively wacky generational franchise which welds starkly adult whimsy to the weird worlds of Sword & Sorcery sagas. This resurrected, revised and enlarged (8.5 x 11 inch/ 216 x 279 mm) omnibus Twilight tomes take the loony legion of horribly human anthropomorphic characters into territories even wilder than those seen in Dungeon: Early Years, Parade, Zenith and Monstres. Latterly, new adjuncts such as Antipodes and Bonus have been added to the sprawling braided mega-saga set on an alien world very much like ours in all the ways that really matter…

Dungeon tells the story of Terra Armata in time-separated epochs via periodic glimpses of a fantastic magic castle on a magically unstable world. Anthropomorphic inhabitants of the strangely surreal realm include every kind of talking beast and bug, as well as monsters, demons, smart-a$$es, wizards, politicians and always – in all ways – stroppy women-folk. Whenever and wherever you look there’s always something happening and it’s usually quite odd…

The nominal star is a duck with a magic sword which enabled – and eventually compelled – him to channel and be possessed by dead heroes and monsters. By this declining period on the dying world, legendary hero Herbert of Craftiwich has risen to the unassailable rank of Grand Khan – though he’s still not quite sure how – and the doddering but still puissant old guy is now steeped in Total Evil…

Crafted by Sfar & Trondheim with the latter half illustrated by Kerascoët (Miss Don’t Touch Me; Jolies Ténèbres; Reine Beauté): joint pen name of married French illustrators, comics and animation artists Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset, Cemetery of the Dragon comprises four French albums (Donjon Crepuscule: Le Cimetiere des Dragons, Le Volcan des Vaucanson, Armageddon and Les Dojo du Lagon), spanning 1998-2005. At this time in-world, the planet has ceased spinning, with one half eternally seared whilst the obverse is frozen into chilled darkness. As it just sits rotting in space, life only clings on in the narrow band between the extremes, and is as harsh and unforgiving as it ever was…

We open with the eponymous ‘Cemetery of the Dragon’ as a little talking bat is enticed to become the eyes of immortal blinded dragon and political exile The Dust King. The action prompts a cascade of events which will shake and shatter the dying world. The unchanging saurian is a mage of incredible power under perpetual house arrest on the orders of the Khan and – ravaged by ennui – has decided to die at last. Although Dust King has decided to end it all, he is still too mighty for simple suicide. He needs to journey to a special place and requires a little assistance…

He and the Khan were once great friends, but over intervening eons the potentate had become increasingly wicked and isolated by a coterie of unctuous, ambitious hangers-on and would-be usurpers. The dragon’s decision is detected at the Black Fortress of Gehenna by one of those parasites. Vile functionary Shiwomeez fiendishly facilitates the prisoner’s escape with the tedious journey scrupulously monitored by the malign major domo who also despatches waves of military goons with orders to await an opportune moment to strike.

The last unit have instructions to eradicate the sundry soldiery beside them as the plotter believes the old wizard is travelling to the legendary and mystically significant “Dragon’s Graveyard” and doesn’t want too many menials knowing its location…

The trek is more complex than the sneaky pursuers realise. Dust King needs the assistance of elusive shaman Orlandoh to pass over, and is keenly aware of being followed. When he catches a crazy red rabbit warrior named Marvin the Destroyer, the ancient acts with precipitate haste and almost ends a willing would-be ally…

The obnoxious newcomer – named for a mighty killer of ancient times – attaches himself to the expedition and is stunned to find he is travelling with an old warrior who once also went by the legendary name Marvin…

After finally finding Orlandoh, the Dust King’s necropolitan journey takes a bizarre diversion and, before long, the pilgrims are battling Shiwomeez’s murderous minions and a host of diminutive horrors known as Olfs in their colossal citadel of Poopooloo. At long last the trek ends and the original Marvin prepares to let everything go…

However, in ‘Volcano of the Vaucanson’ events take a bizarre turn after the schemer’s mystic meddling accidentally drags long-eared young Marvin and the bitty bat to the Black Fortress where the crimson crusader’s manic skill with a sword causes utter carnage…

Not only is the pitiful plotter unable to stop the intruder, but Shiwomeez also disturbs the long-distant Grand Khan, calling him back to the mundane world… and the overlord seems to know everything…

Casually blasted back to the Dragon Cemetery, Marvin and the bat can only await further developments…

The Dust King’s demise isn’t going well and after a while the blind antediluvian gives up attempting to expire. Deciding to find what became of his odd acolytes, the testy titan stumbles across red rabbit Marvin dallying with some rather lascivious cat women.

The ancient mage has an announcement: emboldened by his brush with death, he has decided to force a meeting with old friend the Khan. All they have to do is retrace their wearisome path and fight their way through the legions of warriors determined to stop them…

The expedition results in a vast pile of exotic corpses, but one fine day old Marvin and his former friend Herbert have their long-deferred conference. The Dust King pleads with the Grand Khan to renounce Evil and ultimate power. Of course if he does, Terra Amata will begin revolving again and quickly explode…

Naturally, Herbert refuses and – with no other option – the Dust King tries to kill him. The cataclysmic clash ends inconclusively and Herbert, mentally displaced by one of the many monsters which periodically possess him, gives orders for the blind beast and his puny companions’ capture and execution…

Fleeing on giant war-bats into the nocturnal zone the trio soon arrive at the troubled military outpost of Craftiwich, built on a huge volcano. The site is an armoury operated by fanatical duck soldiers, ruled by the Grand Khan’s son Arch-Duke Papsukal. It also houses Herbert’s ogre son Elyacin and libidinous, troublesome daughter Duchess Zakutu. There’s no love lost between this father and these children…

Papsukal is developing firearms and explosive ordnance, so to make conservative warriors give up swordsmanship, he’s ordered all smiths to be hunted down and destroyed. Pretending to be an envoy from the Grand Khan, bunny Marvin tricks the military technicians into fitting him with the first fully-functional suit of nitro-powered super armour…

His impersonation – and assignation with the sexually voracious but insecure Zakutu – come a cropper, however, when the Khan arrives, at the head of an army to resume his death duel with the Dust King…

Now illustrated by Kerascoët, ‘Armageddon’ opens with the fugitives hiding out in a village of cat women. The Dust King had been terribly maimed in his struggle with the Khan but is still unable to die after regaining a terrible power which he anticipated would come in most useful when their pursuers finally catch up with them…

Packing the women off with Red Marvin as guardian, Dust King stays to meet the deadly duck forces. The result is the end of the Khan’s army and ambitions, but in the aftermath, as birdlike shaman Gilberto helps the dragon and his faithful bat hunt down his missing limbs, the surface of Terra Amata detonates, fragmenting into thousands of tiny floating islands above a core of lava…

Jaunting from islet to islet the mystic duo eventually track down old Marvin’s missing parts before landing in the remnants of once-formidable Poopooloo. Here they encounter no Olfs, but a far more deadly, invisible threat. Pausing only to pillage a vast stash of magic botanicals and thaumaturgic vegetable pharmaceuticals, the voyagers flee the hidden horrors before blundering into the free-floating Olf bastion of Boobooloo where they are condemned to death…

Whilst awaiting execution the emotionally repressed Dust King shares some of Gilberto’s plundered stash and in a traumatic daze relives the dogmatic days of dragon philosophy which lost him his family and the subsequent event which cost him his eyes…

When he comes to his senses again the Olf courtroom is a shredded, burning wreck and what few survivors remain are fleeing in terror. Gilberto too has swallowed too many drugs and is stricken with a debilitating possession of incredible new powers. One of them makes him a perfect predictor of every floating island’s path whilst another inflicts random, uncontrollable teleportation upon him…

Forced to escape by more prosaic means (at least by Terra Amata standards), old Marvin and his bat buddy find their own way to Orlandoh and the drifting Hut of Spirits to await fate’s next move…

This first encounter concludes with ‘The Dojo of the Lagoon Hereupon’ as, one day, Red Marvin turns up and is promptly recruited as the Dust King and shamans of the Spirit Hut make plans to combat the remnants of the Grand Khan’s forces. Despatched on an infiltration to the rapidly approaching remnants of Craftiwich, the dry old lizard unexpectedly goes off reservation and drags his bunny disciple to a passing islet inhabited by dragons. As the bunny makes eyes at a reptilian firebrand who subsequently swipes his super-armour, the elder Marvin is meeting a seductive sorceress who was once, so long ago, his wife…

The Dust King is desperate to amend the sacrilege which drove them apart and is astounded when he meets his grandchildren. The rabbit meanwhile has joined a school of dragons learning how to be true warriors. Sadly, he has trouble being taken seriously by the colossal students, let alone their grizzled old tutors. It takes a few pointers from the crestfallen Dust King to make the mockers pay proper attention to his eager friend. Once he’s got them listening, the saurian sage goes about dismantling the doctrinaire dragon religion which cost him his love, his children and his eyes before the heroes return to their shamanic mission in time to rescue Duchess Zakutu from a parched death.

However, taking the faithless trollop back to the dragon isle proves a big – almost fatal – mistake for the besotted rabbit…

To be Continued…

Please be warned that these are welcoming cartoon tales that are a wee bit more sophisticated than general English/American fare. I know you’re okay with them vicariously indulging in extreme and excessive depictions of violence, but if you fear your children, loved ones or servants might be adversely affected by the odd mild swearword or nipples on lady lizards, take what you consider appropriate action. The rest of us will just carry on without you…

Surreal, earthy, sharply poignant, wittily hilarious and brilliantly outlandish, the sophisticated fantasy comedy is subtly addictive to read whilst the vibrant, wildly eccentric cartooning is an absolute marvel of exuberant, graphic style. Definitely not for the younger reader, Dungeon Twilight is the kind of near-the-knuckle, illicit and just plain smart epic older kids and adults will adore, but for a fuller comprehension – and even more insane fun – I strongly recommend acquiring all attendant incarnations too.
© Editions Delcourt 1999-2005. (Donjon Crepescule #101-104, by J. Sfar, L.Trondheim & Kerascoet). © 2006 NBM for the English translation.

Dungeon: Twilight Vols. 1-2 – Cemetery of the Dragon will be released on June 30th 2022 and is available for pre-order now. For more information and other great reads please go to http://www.nbmpub.com/

[Low Moon]


By Jason, translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-155-8 (HB/Digital edition)

In 1965, John Arne Saeterrøy, who creates under the pen-name Jason, was born in Molde, Norway. At age 30, he burst onto the international cartoonists scene with his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) which won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize).

Jason followed up with the series Mjau Mjau and won another Sproing in 2001. The following year he turned almost exclusively to produce graphic novels. He is now internationally renowned and (probably quite self-consciously) basks in the glow of critical acclaim for his 24 books to date and for winning so many major awards as far afield as France, Slovakia, the USA and all areas in-between.

His stories utilise a small cast of anthropomorphic animal characters (and occasional movie and pop culture monsters): a repertory company of cartoon colleagues, acting out on a stage of stiffly formal page layouts recounting dark, wry and sardonically bleak tales – often pastiches, if not outright parodies – in a visually welcoming yet coldly austere and Spartan narrative manner. This seemingly oppressive format somehow allows a vast range of emotionally telling tales – on a wide spectrum of themes and genres – to hit home like rockets whether the author’s intention was to make the reader smile or cry like a baby.

Drawing in a minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style, Jason’s work bores right into the reader’s core, and this movie-themed collection of short tales is arguably his best work.

Redolent of quintessential Film Noir and especially the hard-boiled writing of Jim Thompson, poignant tale of vengeance ‘Emily Says Hello’ precedes what is billed as the World’s “first and only Chess Western”.

The eponymous ‘Low Moon’ was originally serialized in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2008: a splendidly surreal spoof of Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 classic High Noon wherein an old menace returns to terrorise the town… until at last the Sheriff capitulates to the incessant demands for one final return match…

‘&’ is a tragic anecdote of love, loss and marital persistence related in terms and stylings of Hal Roach’s silent comedies. ‘Proto Film Noir’ owes an inspirational tip of the thermally insulated hat to Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner) – by way of The Flintstones and Groundhog Day, whilst a concluding tale of love, family and abandonment assumes science-fictional trappings to relate the soap-opera, generational tale of a mother kidnapped by aliens and the effects it inflicts on the husband and son she left behind. ‘You Are Here’ is bemusing, evocative and moving, yet manages to never fall off the narrative tightrope into mawkishness or buffoonery.

Jason’s comic tales are strictly for adults but allow us all to look at the world through wide-open childish eyes. He is a taste instantly acquired and a creator any true fan of the medium should move to the top of the “Must-Have” list. This superb compendium could be your entry into a brave, old world, so get it while you can because stuff this good never lasts long…
© 2009 Jason. All right reserved.

Bluecoats volume 12: The David


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-849184-30-4 (Album PB/Digital edition)

Devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who scripted the first 64 best-selling volumes until retirement in 2020 – Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic maverick defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

From its first sallies, the substitute strip swiftly became hugely popular: one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe. In case you were wondering, it is now scribed by Jose-Luis Munuera and the BeKa writing partnership…

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and after his sudden death in 1972, successor Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte gradually adopted a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis in 1952 as a letterer.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin was also Belgian and – before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 – studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy – and began a glittering, prolific writing career at Le Journal de Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he scripted dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 65 (and counting) album sequence. Cauvin passed away on August 19 2021 but his vast legacy of laughter remains.

Here, our long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen defending America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume – Du Nord au Sud – the sad-sack soldiers were situated back East, fighting in the American Civil War. All subsequent adventures – despite ranging far beyond the traditional environs of America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history – are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s smart. principled or heroic if no easier option is available.

Chesterfield is a big, burly professional fighting man; a proud career soldier of the 22nd Cavalry who passionately believes in the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and hungers to be a medal-wearing hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in… a situation that stretches their friendship to breaking point in this deceptively edgy instalment.

The David is the 12th translated Cinebook volume and 19th sequential European release. As Les Tuniques Bleues: Le David it was originally serialised in Le Journal de Spirou #2265-2275 before collection as another mega-selling album in 1982, with C.H.A.B. & Philippe Francart credited for additional research.

The comedic drama is another based on – but broadly extrapolating upon – actual historical events, specifically the deployment of the CSS David: an early success in the development of submarine warfare. Built in 1863 by businessman T. Stoney in Charleston, South Carolina, it was a 4-man, steam-powered submersible torpedo boat used by the Confederate States Navy to challenge the Union’s shipping blockade. David was largely unsuccessful and one of many different protypes built to challenge the North’s “Ironclads”, with its last recorded action occurring on April 18, 1864. As is usually the case, legend far exceeds factual truth, but that’s no bad thing here as the unlikely warriors undertake one of their most dangerous ventures…

Off the Carolina coast, a Union warship spots a blockade-runner trying to reach port with desperately-needed supplies. As the warship confidently closes in, the steamer sends a signal to shore, and within minutes disaster strikes…

Days later, in Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln and the War Cabinet argue the impossibility of fighting an invisible enemy. With the almost-accomplished siege of attrition endangered, the President orders the mystery solved and neutralised at any cost…

Meanwhile inland, Blutch has had enough of the bloodbath battle tactics of utterly deranged, apparently invulnerable maniac Captain Stark. That glory-addicted cavalry charger has caused the deaths of more Union soldiers than the enemy ever could. Thus, at the end of his tether, the little man has downed tools. Refusing to ride again directly into Confederate guns – apparently 11 times in one day is his limit – he has gone on strike. This leads to detention in a stockade where he happily awaits execution by firing squad. At least, at last, his worries will be over…

Nothing loyal Chesterfield can do will change his mind, but when the time comes, typical army inefficiency keeps Blutch impatiently hanging on. In the meantime, the Generals receive orders to send two spies into Charleston to discover the secret of the invisible ship-killer. Knowing no regular soldiers are crazy enough to volunteer, they ask Gung Ho Chesterfield, and offer his inseparable little pal a full discharge from the army if he goes with him. The wily “Brass” are confident neither pest will return…

It’s not quite a done deal or easily achieved, but eventually the pair roll up in Charleston, disguised as wounded soldiers proudly wearing their grey uniforms. Blutch is feigning blindness whilst Chesterfield sits comfortably in a chair with wheels and directs… as usual!

As well as providing plenty of slapstick moments for us, the disguise works well for them and their calamitous progress through the enemy port is painful but largely unimpeded. One very public accident dumps them onto a German-flagged steamer unloading provisions, where – over a little schnapps – the Captain volubly discloses that the South have a diabolical machine ensuring his safe arrivals and departures…

Almost immediately after, Chesterfield and Blutch join crowds rushing towards the seafront to see it in action, and witness the deadly power of the secret weapon sinking another Union ship. When their imposture as veterans fails to get them inside the shipyard housing the devil boat, they resort to cruder methods, ultimately discovering the secret of The David – but only at the cost of their liberty.

Indomitable and utterly dedicated to preserving their own skins, the Odd Couple soon escape, and after failing spectacularly to destroy the weapon, flee desperately for their own lines, frantically pursued by the Confederate army. A sublime chase sequence across swathes of enemy territory proves their wiliness and when the spies are finally recaptured, it’s by their own side and the last person they ever wanted to see again…

With their information changing the shape of the war, Blutch and Chesterfield can only wait for their eagerly anticipated rewards (the big man was promised promotion to Lieutenant if he survived) but there’s a double sting in store as ponderous military procedure glacially expedites their cases…

Combining searing satire with stunning slapstick, this yarn delivers a hugely gratifying poke at the blood-&-glory boys of history. Deftly delivering its anti-war message to younger, less world-weary audiences, The David weds fact to fiction while delivering an uncompromising portrayal of state-sanctioned mass-violence and government’s callous disregard for individual citizens.

These stories weaponise humour, making occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting. Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the kind of war-story and Western to appeal to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1982 by Lambil & Cauvin. All rights reserved. English translation © 2019 Cinebook Ltd.

Trent volume 4: The Valley of Fear


By Rodolphe & Léo, coloured by Marie-Paule Alluard, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-394-9 (Album PB/Digital edition)

Continental audiences have an abiding fascination with the mythologised American experience, whether it be the Big Sky Wild West or later eras of crime-riddled, gangster-fuelled dramas. They also have a vested historical interest in the northernmost parts of the New World which has resulted in some pretty cool graphic extravaganzas if comics are your entertainment drug of choice…

Born in Rio de Janeiro on December 13th 1944, Léo is actually Brazilian artist and storyteller Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira Filho. After attaining a degree in mechanical engineering from Puerto Alegre in 1968, he was a government employee for three years, until forced to flee the country because of his political views. While a military dictatorship ran Brazil, he lived in Chile and Argentina before illegally returning to his homeland in 1974.

To survive, he worked as a designer and graphic artist in Sao Paulo whilst creating his first comics art for O Bicho magazine. In 1981 he migrated to Paris, pursuing a career in Bande Dessinée, and found work with Pilote and L’Echo des Savanes as well as more advertising and graphics fare. His big break came when Jean-Claude Forest invited him to draw stories for Okapi, leading to regular illustration work for Bayard Presse.

In 1988 Léo began his long association with scripter and scenarist Rodolphe D. Jacquette – AKA Rodolphe. The prolific, celebrated writing partner had been a giant of comics since the 1970s: a Literature graduate who transitioned from teaching and running libraries to creating poetry and writing criticism, novels, biographies, children’s stories and music journalism.

After meeting Jacques Lob in 1975, Jacquette expanded his portfolio: writing for a vast number of strip artists in magazines ranging from Pilote and Circus to À Suivre and Métal Hurlant. Amongst his most successful endeavours are Raffini (with Ferrandez) and L’Autre Monde (Florence Magnin), but his triumphs in all genres and age ranges are too numerous to list here.

In 1991 “Rodolphe” began working with Léo on a period adventure of the “far north”. Taciturn, introspective, bleakly philosophical and driven Royal Canadian Mounted Police sergeant Philip Trent premiered in L’Homme Mort, forging a lonely path through the 19th century Dominion generating eight tempestuous, hard-bitten, love-benighted albums between then and 2000. Their creative collaboration prompted later fantasy classic Kenya and its spin-offs Centaurus and Porte de Brazenac.

Cast very much in the classic mould perfected by Jack London and John Buchan, Trent is a man of few words, deep thoughts and unyielding principles who gets the job done whilst stifling emotional turmoil boiling deep within him: the very embodiment of the phrase “still waters run deep”…

As La Vallée de la peur, this fourth saga comes from 1995, with the solitary sentinel of justice and his faithful hound “Dog” initially absent from the scene. Instead, we see rail engineer George Petterson arriving at desolate shanty town White Pass and Rail Camp Seven. Here, navvies are laboriously hacking their way through a mountain, advancing the iron line inch by frozen inch.

It’s a strangely unsettling set-up, as Petterson finds when he moves into the cabin of the man he’s replacing as site manager. There’s an atmosphere of surly secrecy and every window of his new home has been nailed shut…

The first inclination of real trouble brewing comes as George tries to stop native labourers quitting. After two whites were injured and one of their own killed in tunnel accidents, they refuse to stay and be killed by “Hoppo”. The locals know it’s the work of a “demon-bear”, but the engineers will only admit to ordinary, natural problems and mock the silly superstitions. Nevertheless, when night falls they all bolt their doors. Every cabin has its windows nailed shut…

The account closes with reports of more accidents and problems as Mrs. Petterson completes her request to the RCMP to send someone to White Pass, which has been silent and out of touch for many days now…

Trent is assigned the mission and it’s a painful shock to meet again the woman he knows as Agnes. Years ago he had saved her – but not her beloved brother – and was given a clear invitation from her that he never acted upon. Eventually, he made his decision, travelling all the way to Providence with marriage in mind, only to learn that his Miss St. Yves had reached her own conclusion years previously…

Now she stubbornly accompanies him into unknown danger at White Pass. She is resolved to find her missing husband and Trent is wracked with indecision and other darker emotions he refuses to acknowledge…

Travelling to Fraser by train, the rescue party switches to horseback and picks up Trent’s occasional partner Mokashi. The First Nations scout also knows Agnes of old, and has his own reasons for leaving the comforts of family and civilisation, despite having already learned that Hoppo haunts Camp Seven…

After crossing the snowy beautiful wilderness – rendered as always by Leo with staggering craft and force – the riders arrive in a desolate Camp Seven with no sign of life. Seemingly abandoned, the cabins which once held more than fifty men are cold and empty, but it’s not long before Mokashi uncovers some of the former inhabitants…

As they batten down for the night in a reasonably defensible shack, the rescuers are keenly aware of eerie silence punctuated by erratic bursts of animal noise. Eventually sleep comes… until the implacable Mountie and Mokashi are roused by the sounds of an intruder furtively seeking entry…

When Trent investigates, he is ambushed by a beast out of his maddest nightmares. Barely escaping with his life, his frantic flight brings him to an even greater horror – George Petterson, more dead than alive and apparently the only survivor of a supernatural atrocity…

As dawn comes, Agnes is reunited with her husband and the lawmen begin the task of tracking what can only be an exceptionally clever and cunning beast. Trent, however, cannot shake the notion that he heard it speak as it shrugged off his rifle shots…

Tension mounts as both romantic triangle and murderous rampage bloodily converge, but even after the Mountie solves one mystery and the evacuation of George Petterson begins, there is more heartbreak and loss to come before civilisation reclaims them. And as ever, Trent is left to struggle with his solitary thoughts, loss and loneliness…

Another beguilingly introspective voyage of internal discovery, where environment and locales are as much lead characters as hero and villain, The Valley of Fear delivers mystery, epic scope, sinister suspense, action and poignant drama in a compelling concoction to satisfy any fan of widescreen cinematic crime fiction or grandiose western.
Original edition © Dargaud Editeur Paris 1993 by Rodolphe & Léo. All rights reserved. English translation © 2017 Cinebook Ltd.

Green Mansion volumes 1 & 2: Assassins and Gentleman & The Inconvenience of Being Dead


By Bodart & Vehlmann, translated by Elaine Kemp and Luke Spear (Cinebook Expresso)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-53-3 (vol. 1 Album PB) 978-1-905460-64-9 (vol. 2 Album PB)

Shared preconceptions are a wonderful toy to play with if you are a narrative creator – or reviewer. For instance, the French are generally considered more passionate than us reserved Brits (I wonder if that’s still the case?) and always eager to dole out grandiose appellations and epithets about creators, but at least they’re very seldom wrong in their acclamations.

Here’s a little Continental whimsy exploring the notion…

Fabien Vehlmann was only born in 1972 yet his prodigious canon of work (published from 1998 to the present) has earned him the soubriquet of “the Goscinny of the 21st Century”…

Vehlmann entered the world in Mont-de-Marsan and grew up in Savoie, studying business management before taking a job with a theatre group. In 1996, after entering a writing contest in Le Journal de Spirou, he caught the comics bug and two years later published – with illustrative collaborator Denis Bodart – a quirky, mordantly dark and gleefully sophisticated portmanteau period crime comedy entitled Green Manor.

The episodic, blackly funny tribute to the seamy underside of Victoriana appeared only sporadically until 2005 (and was revived in 2011), whilst the author spread his wings with a swathe of other features such as Wondertown (art by Benoît Feroumont) and the hugely popular children’s thriller Seuls (with artist Bruno Gazzotti and translated after far too long as the Alone series) before undertaking a high-profile stint on veteran all-ages adventure strip Spirou and Fantasio.

Vehlmann has continued to craft enticing and engaging tales for kids (Samedi et Dimanche) but is equally adept on more mature fare like IAN and Sept psychopaths (with Sean Phillips). He even briefly drew his own strip Bob le Cowboy…

His partner in crime on Green Manor was Denis Bodart, who studied at the Saint Luc academy in Brussels before taking up teaching. He soon resorted to a life in comics, debuting in 1985 with Saint-Germaine des Morts (scripted by Streng) for publishing house Bédéscope.

Three years later he co-created – with writer Yann (Yannick Le Pennetier) – Célestin Speculoos for Circus and Nicotine Goudron for l’Écho des Savanes, whilst acting as a jobbing freelance comics artist with work regularly appearing in Le Journal de Spirou and elsewhere.

Following his highly acclaimed turn here (beginning with Assassins et gentleman), he moved on to succeed Jean-Maire Beuriot as artist of Casterman’s prestigious Amours Fragiles.

The premise of the mystery story is both deliciously simple and wickedly palatable. As this book opens in the infamous Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital in 1899, eminent Dr. Thorne is attempting to interview the inmate known as Thomas Below.

A domestic in a Gentleman’s Club for his entire life, the poor unfortunate became violently delusional mere days before retirement. Now as Thorne questions the madman deep in the bowels of “Bedlam”, the savant realises the sorry soul before him believes he is Green Manor incarnate. He has certainly been privy to all that strange place’s secrets, surprises and hushed-up scandals. Hesitantly at first, Below begins telling tales of rich, powerful and ostensibly honourable men at their most excessive and unbearable…

What follows is a macabre menu of short tales linked by proximity and tone, beginning with ‘Delicious Shivers’, wherein a roomful of The Great and the Good gathered around aged patriarch Dr. Byron on an October night in 1879. The respected physician posed an intriguing challenge to the assemblage: “can there be a murder without a victim or a murderer?”

Most of the men present had dark hearts and cunning minds and Sir Foswell rose to the challenge with his story of a noted aristocrat who erased an unwise early marriage and “disappeared” his unwanted bride by dint of bloodshed, money and influence.

Inspector Darcroft then related a case whereby there was no discernible murderer although the victim was most certainly gunned down at close range…

As the heated banter built, events took a very dark turn once Byron informed them that he had personally caused such an impossible crime to be committed. To the shocked silence of the throng he described how the administration of an extremely slow-acting poison in the drinks of some, many or all of those gathered might or might not kill an unspecified number of them at some unguessable time in the future…

Of course he might just have been jesting to win a point, but nobody went home complacently that night…

‘Post-Scriptum’ described the lethal intellectual duel between dashing young Detective Johnson and aged Sir Alfred Montgomery in August 1882, after the latter defied the policeman to stop him killing a young woman. The rules of the competition are quite strict and the noble believes he has succeeded in committing a perfect crime, but although the noble correctly considers himself a cunning planner his character judgement leaves much to be desired…

Weary and frustrated police Inspector Gray’s decades-long hunt for a serial killer ended in shock and castigation when he arrived at an astounding conclusion one gloomy night at the Club in September 1882. That worthy’s too-late grasp of an impossible ‘Modus Operandi’ subsequently led to glorious triumph, but also a most surprising outcome and response from a fellow clubman and confidante…

The most baroque and arcane yarn involves another intellectual game and imaginative wager placed in March 1893, when two connoisseurs of crime determined to commit the most artful murder of all time. Their target would be none other than author and criminologist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and to make things interesting the offending weapon could only be ‘21 Halberds’…

In April 1872 Lord Denton invited young artist Eric Kaye into the Green Manor Club to repair a damaged painting by the great lost genius Jason Sutter. However, the dazzled dauber became obsessed with the story behind the austere family portrait – especially a tragic, beautiful daughter who suddenly vanished from history – depicted in ‘Sutter 1801’, and his fervent enquiries led to the resolution of a decades-old mystery, murder most foul and eventual banishment as his only reward.

Proud and undaunted, Kaye patiently devised a most exquisite vengeance…

The catalogue of upper class skulduggery concludes with ‘The Ballad of Dr. Thompson’ and a most arcane and uncanny murder mystery which begins in 1878, as great friends Professor Ballard and Thompson bid each other a drunken goodnight on the club steps. Only one of them makes it home safely…

When the other’s corpse is found stuffed into a grandfather clock police investigations soon lead to the most insane of conclusions…

Wry, witty, wickedly funny and sublimely entertaining, Assassins and Gentlemen offers a superbly rewarding peek at High Society and low morals as seen from across the Channel and over eventful decades, which will delight and astound lovers of clever crime fiction and classy comics confabulations – and there’s even better to follow…

 

Sequel release The Inconvenience of Being Dead is a double-length compact Cinebook edition, and like its predecessor is sadly unavailable in English digital formats. However, it does deliver the final pair of original volumes – De l’inconvénient d’être mort and Fantaisies meurtrières – which saw Green Manor’s continual catalogue of High Society crime, calumny, depravity and outrage lead to an inevitable sorry conclusion…

The premise is deliciously simple and wickedly palatable. As seen in the first collection, prominent alienist Dr. Thorne has become obsessed with Thomas Below, currently incarcerated in the infamous Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital.

Thorne resumes the unconventional interviews in 1899 as the savant is dragged from his bed to attend Below once again. This time the need is most urgent. The old retainer has escaped, broken into a house and taken a family hostage. Hesitantly the healer makes his approach and engages the affable maniac in conversation. All too readily Below begins telling more tales of rich, powerful and ostensibly honourable men at their most excessive and unbearable…

The macabre menu of skits and sketches opens with ‘Child’s Play’ from March 1871 wherein cruel Lord Virgil observed and was incensed by a passive, gentle servant with the patience of Job. The noble’s instantly resolved instinct was to turn the saint into a murdering thing of evil.

Admitting to possession of a foolproof, infallible and much-proved method of killing-by-proxy to a roomful of The Great and the Good gathered around, Virgil determined to drive good-natured George into eternally debasing and damning himself by using the system to save himself from torment. Sadly, one man’s torment is another man’s test of faith, and good old George is far from the predictable peasant he appears…

In 1885, dilettante supernaturalist Joseph Sharp returned from Prague following a fruitless shopping trip for magical spells and objects, only to find his best friend Mark Abbott languishing under the force of a family curse. However, detailed investigation of ‘The Mark of the Beast’ and a ghastly family secret in a crypt only proved once again that the unknown has very little force or impact when measured against a mother’s hate, the infinite patience of the tormented and a victim’s fevered imagination…

One night in 1876, Lord Justice Sherman realised he had condemned an innocent man to death, even though not a single shred of evidence existed to confirm his opinion. With one night remaining to save his man, the elderly jurist took to the streets of London to find the true culprit and succeeded, utterly unaware that the malefactor involved had already taken vengeance for the judge’s noble act in advance of its completion and Sherman’s ‘Last Wishes’…

In 1897 bombastic, belligerent General Miller gloated at the Club. He had at last come into possession of the fabled Spear of Longinus. The military martinet had no fear of the legends and many deaths laid upon the artefact or ‘The Centurion’s Shadow’, but was beguiled by its repute as a tool to make great men all-conquering.

Nevertheless, he was soon one more corpse attributed to the talisman – and not the last – until a pair of the Club’s armchair investigators applied learning and logic: exposing a deadly trap constructed by one of history’s greatest thinkers…albeit, just a little too late…

With the hostage crisis coming to end, Below shares his most shocking epigram as ‘Voodoo Night’ finds the gathered gentlemen – over cigars and brandy – casually dissecting a juicy murder one evening in December 1870. With irreconcilable facts and impossible assumptions heatedly flying about, soon only absurdity or the supernatural are left as answers to the mystery of the slaying of boorish lout Lord Killian. However, in another room, the genteel conversation of the closeted Ladies married to the assemblage of tobacco-smoking idiots soon reveals a so-simple truth…

The last legends of the Club were gathered up in appendix Murderous Fancies, with the increasingly obsessed Thorne receiving word that Below has passed away. Briefly thinking himself free at last, it is with mixed feeling that the doctor takes custody of the illegible scrawls of the troubled retainer and wearily, warily dares to decipher them…

‘Endgame’ relates an incident from June 1871 when the Club was driven to distraction by the will of recently paralysed Lord Wyatt. It was in the form of a nonsense riddle, and the first to solve it would win all Wyatt’s prodigious wealth…

At the same time, the executor secretly consulted with pioneering dementia expert Dr. Sheffer over the mental state of his master. The aristocrat claimed his parlous condition was the result of a murder attempt, and this riddle might well be a trap to catch the assailant. Sheffer knew better but soon had every reason to regret his rather rash conclusions…

‘A Small Crime Serenade’ found an aged, innocuous gentleman in garrulous mood one night in 1867, sharing with a dutiful Club servant his great gift and passion: a life-long ability to get away with murder. Sadly, his boast of capping his career with one final killing was derailed by a most unanticipated event.

In 1827, talk at Green Manor was of only one matter: the recent demise of a radical libertarian poet. Especially fervent was young devotee Dr. Daniel Ballantyne who promptly fell for a cruel prank when the Club grandees purportedly offered him a chance to autopsy the body and look ‘In the Head of William Blake’. They had arranged that what he saw would be like nothing he had ever experienced…

Ballantyne disappeared that night, and in the cold light of day an inexorable campaign of terror began as the japesters were slowly driven mad by notes threatening vengeance from the “Tygers of Wrath”…

In lighter vein, ‘Fight to the Finish’ related how a brace of bored big game hunters invented an imaginative game in May 1859. Their aim was to determine who exactly was the absolute best. The prey was to be each other but – although the rules of the competition were strict and fair – as the days progressed it seemed that neither Lord Bennett nor Lord Turner were as able or as gentlemanly as they claimed…

The dead man’s tales ended with a chilling homily from 1872 wherein the cream of Society discussed the strange case of Lord Sanders who had blighted his own financial empire and destroyed his greedy heirs by cruelly and carefully tying the purse-strings of their inheritances.

The dominating oligarch had left a vast list of tasks for his four children to fulfil in ‘The Testament’: far too many for any person or persons to complete before getting their undeserving hands on his ill-gotten gains. Of course, even he could not predict how and where greed and frustration could take a desperate man…

And with that final story shared, Below no longer plagued the good doctor’s days, but his influence remained long after he was gone…

Mordant, imaginative, darkly wry and cruelly rewarding, The Inconvenience of Being Dead confirms our most heartfelt suspicions about the pointlessly privileged and inexplicably esteemed, damning them all as useless, venal and worse: A class apart that we could all do without, but a perfect target for all the disdain we can wring from them with rich black comedy and classy comics confabulations like these.
Original editions © Dupuis 2005 by Vehlmann & Bodart. All rights reserved. English translations 2008 by Cinebook Ltd.

If You Steal


By Jason (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-854-0 (HB/Digital edition)

Jason is secretly John Arne Saeterrøy: born in Molde, Norway in 1965 and an international cartoon superstar since 1995 when his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize). He won another Sproing in 2001 for series Mjau Mjau and in 2002 turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels.

A global star among cartoon cognoscenti, he has received major awards from all over the planet. Jason’s work always jumps directly into a reader’s brain and heart, utilising the beastly and unnatural to gently pose eternal questions about basic human needs in a softly relentless quest for answers. That you don’t ever notice the deep stuff because of the clever gags and safe, familiar “funny-animal” characters should indicate just how good a cartoonist he is…

The stylised artwork is delivered in formalised page layouts rendered in a minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style: solid blacks, thick outlines and settings of seductive simplicity; augmented by a deft and subtle use of flat colour which enhances his hard, moody, suspenseful and utterly engrossing Cinema-inspired world.

The superbly understated art acts in concert with his dead-on, deadpan pastiche repertoire of scenarios which dredge deep from our shared experience of old film noir classics, horror and sci fi B-movies and other visual motifs which transcend time and culture, and the result is narrative dynamite.

This compilation collects eleven short yarns and opens with the eponymous and eerie ‘If You Steal’, wherein cheap thug Paul perpetually risks everything – including the one person who keeps him feeling alive – in search of quick cash: only to lose it all in the end, after which ‘Karma Chameleon’ sees a small desert community dealing with the discovery of a giant, carnivorous and extremely predatory lizard which nobody seems able to see. Good thing masturbation-obsessed boffin Dr. Howard Jones and his long-suffering daughter Julia are in town…

The deliciously wry and whimsically absurdist Samuel Beckett spoof ‘Waiting for Bardot’ then segues neatly into a dashing mystery of masked derring-do as ‘Lorena Velazquez’ eventually tires of waiting for her ideal man to finish off a necessarily interminable and horrific army of villains prior to doling out a maiden’s traditional rewards, before a fugitive murderer narrates his own paranoia-fuelled downfall after his ‘New Face’ briefly tempts him with love and the never-to-be-achieved promise of peace and safety…

A series of six faux horror comics covers combines to relate the trials of chilling romances in ‘Moondance’. The classic fear theme extends into a rip-roaring battle against the undead in ‘Night of the Vampire Hunter’ and ‘Polly Wants a Cracker’ follows the other unique career path of artistic legend/assassin-for-hire Frida Kahlo.

A junkie musician pushes his luck against some very bad guys because ‘The Thrill is Gone’ after which ‘Ask Not’ takes a trawl through history from Stonehenge in 2583 BC to Salon de Provence in 1554 AD (courtesy of Nostradamus) to 1960s Cuba, revealing the truth behind the assassination of JFK and Abraham Lincoln and what parts Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby actually played in that millennial plot: a parallel worlds yarn like no other…

The book ends with a stunning, deeply moving graphic examination of dementia which is both chilling and oddly-heart-warming as aging Emma deals with the scary creatures who keep taking away the names of things in ‘Nothing’: proving once more that behind innocuous-seeming cartoons and contemporary fairy tale trappings Jason’s work is loaded with potent questions…

If You Steal resonates with Jason’s favourite themes and shines with his visual dexterity and skewed sensibilities. disclosing a decidedly different slant on secrets and obsessions. Primal art supplemented by sparse and spartan “hardboiled Private Eye” dialogue, enhanced to a macabre degree by solid drawing and skilled use of silence and moment, all utilised with devastating economy, affords the same quality of cold, bleak yet perfectly harnessed stillness which makes Scandinavian TV dramas such compelling, addictive fare.

These comic tales are strictly for adults, yet allow us all to look at the world through wide-open young eyes. They never, however, sugar-coat what’s there to see…
If You Steal is © 2015 Jason. All rights reserved.

Marsupilami volume 5 Baby Prinz


By Franquin, Batem & Yann; coloured by Cerise and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-542-4 (Album PB/Digital edition)

One of Europe’s most popular comic stars is an eccentrically irascible, loyally unpredictable, super-strong, rubber-limbed ball of explosive energy with a seemingly infinite elastic tail. The frantic, frenetic Marsupilami is a wonder of nature and icon of European entertainment invention who originally spun-off from another immortal comedy adventure strip…

In 1946 Joseph “Jijé” Gillain was crafting eponymous keystone strip Spirou for flagship publication Le Journal de Spirou when he abruptly handed off the entire kit and caboodle to his assistant Franquin. The apprentice took the reins, slowly abandoned a previous format of short complete gags to pioneer longer adventure serials, and began introducing a wide and engaging cast of new characters.

For 1952’s Spirou et les héritiers, he devised a beguiling and boisterous South American critter and tossed him like an elastic-arsed grenade into the mix. Thereafter – until his resignation in 1969 – Franquin frequently included the bombastic little beast in Spirou’s increasingly fantastic escapades …

The Marsupilami returned over and over again: a phenomenally popular magical animal who inevitably grew into a solo star of screen, toy store, console games and albums all his own.

André Franquin was born on January 3rd 1924 in Etterbeek, Belgium. Somewhat a prodigy, he began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943, but when the war forced the school’s closure a year later, he found animation work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. Here he met Maurice de Bevere (Lucky Luke’s creator Morris), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945, all but Culliford signed on with publishing house Dupuis, and Franquin began a career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator, drawing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu. During those formative days, Franquin and Morris were being trained by Jijé – at that time the main illustrator at Le Journal de Spirou. He quickly turned the youngsters – and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite (AKA Will: writer/artist of Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, The Garden of Desire and much more) – into a potent creative bullpen dubbed La bande des quatre; or “Gang of Four”. They subsequently revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling.

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through a storyline (Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, in Le Journal de Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The eager novice ran with it and carried on with Spirou for two decades, enlarging the scope and horizons until the feature became purely his own.

Every week, fans would meet startling and zany new characters like comrade eventual co-star Fantasio or crackpot inventor Count of Champignac, and ultimately Spirou et Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, “reporting back” their exploits in unbroken four-colour glory for and in Le Journal de Spirou…

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill/Billy and Buddy); Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe/Gomer Goof) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him during his tenure on Spirou et Fantasio.

In 1955 a contractual spat with Dupuis resulted in Franquin signing up with publishing rivals Casterman on Le Journal de Tintin, collaborating with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Franquin and Dupuis patched things up within days, and he went back to Le Journal de Spirou. In 1957, he co-created Gaston Lagaffe, but was still legally obliged to carry on his Tintin strip work too. From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin, but a decade later the artist had reached his Spirou limit and in 1969 resigned for good, taking his mystic yellow monkey with him…

Plagued by bouts of depression, Franquin passed away on January 5th 1997, but his legacy remains: a vast body of work that reshaped the landscape of European comics. Moreover, having learned his lessons about publishers, Franquin retained all rights to Marsupilami and in the late 1980’s began publishing his own adventures of the rambunctious miracle-worker.

He tapped old comrade Greg as scripter and invited commercial artist/illustrator Luc Collin (pen-name Batem) to collaborate on – and later monopolise – the art duties for a new series of raucous comedy adventures. In recent years, the commercial world has triumphed again and since 2016 the universes of Marsupilami and Spirou have again collided allowing the old firm to act out in shared stories again…

Blessed with a talent for mischief, the Marsupilami is a deviously adaptive anthropoid inhabiting the rain forests of Palombia and regarded as one of the rarest animals on Earth. It speaks a language uniquely its own and also has a reputation for causing trouble and instigating chaos. The species is rare and is fanatically dedicated to its young. Sometimes that takes the form of “tough love”…

Baby Prinz was released in 1989, fifth of 32 albums (not including all-Franquin short-story collection volume #0, AKA Capturez un Marsupilami): a canny fable on the dangers of power which opens in Palombian capital city Chiquito, where zookeepers examine an all but forgotten exhibit. This Marsupilami has been caged for decades – nobody knows quite how many – and seems to by dying. The event has deeply agitated all the other animals, and during the fuss a macaw escapes, heading straight for the dark heart of the dense rainforest…

Soon, it finds jungle-dwelling white kids Bip and Sarah, who have been raising themselves in the green hell – with a little oversight from the Marsupilami patriarch. The bird carries a desperate request: the zoo “Marsu” is willing himself to die but the macaw believes a quick intervention from a fresh, wild cousin might give his oldest friend a reason to go on…

The bird has it all figured out. There’s a festival looming and all Chiquito is gearing up for fancy dress larks as the nation celebrates the anniversary of the coup that first brought Papa Prinz to tyrannical power. He’s been dead for years now and his son Baby Prinz is in charge but has to publicly appear to give a speech. It’s a tradition.

Everyone is very excited. Baby Prinz is seldom seen after surviving 12 annual coup attempts and assassinations. His Papa managed 27 before finally being killed by revolutionaries, and the people know that when Baby ceremonially appears again, they can have another go at the little dictator. It’s also tradition…

As festivities escalate, secret police are everywhere: spying on gatherings of one or more people and anticipating trouble on every side. The oppressed and very drunk citizens carry on regardless, gleefully aware of the covert Seguridad cops’ big blunder. Each spy/thug wears exactly the same Marsupilami costume…so they can recognize each other in the crowds…

There is one snag, however. Spoiled, despotic fop Baby Prinz has reached his emotional limit. His nerve has gone. He cannot face making a balcony speech to the foul, unwashed rabble who are literally beneath him.. and probably all concealing a weapon to kill him with. He just wants to curl up in his sensory deprivation tank with his collection of plush animal toys, but his overbearing and bullying major domo/butler/father’s best friend won’t let him…

Just one appearance is enough. The crowds confirm that their tyrant is not a “real man” and their shouts convince the army (the usual suspects and beneficiaries of every Palombian revolution) pick sides and start the process all over again…

As his guardian leads Baby Prinz to safety through long-disused escape tunnels, the rioting people are briefly halted by the rumour of deadly mechanised secret weapons. These mobile landmines are also disguised as Marsupilamis, and the entire revolution is being screened live by television cameramen even more ferocious than the rioters…

All this time the jungle kids, macaw and true Marsupilami have been heading towards the largely abandoned zoo, where the keeper and his wife are drinking and viewing all the excitement from the comfort of his office. The former government employees’ position of safely distanced neutral observance vanishes as the Baby and his major domo exit the escape tunnel under the lion enclosure (formerly the far-safer sloth cage), leaving the big cats their own way out via the tunnel back to the palace.

Safely stashing the fed-up, brain-shocked dictator in another cage, his bad but loyal butler goes looking for hidden passports, unaware that his useless boss has piqued the waning attention of an astoundingly ancient inmate… particularly the froufrou designer handbag with all the designer recreational pharmaceuticals in it…

As latest opportunist Aquileo Zavatas declares himself the new boss, the jungle-based rescue party’s progress is briefly halted when rioters attempt to remove Marsupilami’s “disguise” and discover to their eternal regret that there are worse things in life than a cop in a monkey suit… especially after the furious furry (called by Polombians “El diablo”, and “La catástrofe amarilla”) is trapped inside a tank carrying live rounds and more than lives up to his hype…

Joined by his friends, they continues causing chaos in the streets, even as the old Marsu revives and proceeds to enact his new last wish: travelling to the fabled Marsupilami’s grave yard to end his days among his own kind. Typically, the leechlike Baby Prinz has attached himself to the old beast and the macaw and goes with them…

Ending with astute political comics commentary and a fantastic twist of fate, this tale is a superbly savvy comparison of duty, family values and the power of corruption, but don’t worry about all that because it’s also another masterfully madcap rollercoaster of hairsbreadth escapes, close shaves and sardonic character assassinations, packed to the whiskers with wit and hilarity.

These eccentric exploits of the garrulous golden monkeys are moodily macabre, furiously funny and pithily pertinent, offering engagingly riotous romps and devastating debacles for wide-eyed kids of every age all over the world. Fancy channelling your inner El diablo and joining in the fun? It all stars with Hoobee, Hoobah Hoobah…
© Dupuis, Dargaud-Lombard s.a. 1990 by Franquin, Yann & Batem. English translation © 2020 Cinebook Ltd.

Blake and Mortimer volume 19: The Time Trap


By Edgar P. Jacobs, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-214-0 Album PB/Digital edition)

Pre-eminent fantasy raconteur Edgar P. Jacobs devised one of fiction’s greatest heroic double acts: pitting distinguished Scientific Adventurers Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake against numerous perils and menaces in a stellar sequence of stunning action thrillers blending science fiction scope, detective mystery suspense and supernatural thrills. The magic was made perfect through his stunning illustrations, rendered in the timeless Ligne claire style which had made intrepid boy-reporter Tintin a global sensation.

The spy and the boffin debuted in the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin (26th September 1946): an ambitious international anthology comic with editions in Belgium, France and Holland. The magazine was edited by Hergé, with his eponymous star ably supplemented by new heroes and features for the post-war world…

The Time Trap comes from a transitional period when that entire world seemed to be changing. It was originally serialised from January 8th 1958 to 22nd April 1959 and subsequently collected in a single album (B & M’s eighth drama-drenched tome), six months after the tale’s conclusion. However, as befitted the times, this largely solo saga seemed to offer faster, leaner drama and stripped-down action in bigger, less dense panels…

Translated by Cinebook in 2014 as their 19th Blake and Mortimer release, it begins with the chaps relaxing in Paris – until the savant receives a rather shocking message. Not long previously (in SOS Meteors), he was instrumental in foiling the diabolical plans of Professor Milosh Georgevich, who used the vast resources of a certain aggressor nation – no guesses who as they’re still at it today – to weaponize weather in advance of an audacious scheme to invade France. Now, that quite literally mad scientist villain has communicated from beyond the grave and has bequeathed to Mortimer – the only man he considered an intellectual equal – his estate and last and greatest invention…

When his naturally suspicious comrade is called to Germany on another MI5 errand, Mortimer slowly motors alone down to rural La Roche-Guyon and – still looking for traps – cautiously inspects the Tenth century house known locally as “The Bove of the Maiden” bequeathed to him by Milosh. The idyllic setting, complete with haunted, legend-drenched castle, is not one to likely to set off any alarms in his bemused head. What he finds in deep cellars beneath his new property defies belief and comprehension…

As described in recorded messages, Georgevich had solved the mystery of time travel and – since he was dying of radiation poisoning – wanted his incredible device to be used by the only other person who could truly appreciate the scope of his genius. In a daze, sceptical Mortimer follows taped instructions, dons a protective suit provided and activates the vehicle. Only as the “Chronoscaphe” rumbles into action, depositing him a terrifying antediluvian world of colossal plants, rampaging dinosaurs and marauding giant bugs, does he realise how he has been tricked…

Against all his expectations the time machine worked, landing him in a fantastic lost realm, but the machine’s selector controls were sabotaged, leaving Mortimer no way to return. However, Milosh has not counted on his dupe’s steely determination, expansive brilliance and sheer stubbornness, and before long, the Professor is hurtling forward 100,000,000 years through eternity, roughly calculating in his shaggy head his point of origin. Relatively, he’s not far off in his sums …

This cellar is indeed where he first found the Chronoscaphe, but sadly, some time before Georgevich built his lab. Realising he needs to know the exact date before he can fine-tune his calibrations, Mortimer works his way through tunnels towards the surface and promptly finds himself in the midst of a feudal rebellion…

Gui de la Roche is not a benevolent overlord, and is currently losing control of his lands to a serfs uprising. The petty tyrant is understandably unhappy and suspicious when an oddly dressed Englishman drops into the middle of the conflict, babbling like a loon. The ill-educated peasants simply think he’s a demon…

Mortimer barely makes it back to the Chronoscaphe, and in his haste overshoots his desired destination, encountering a few bizarre temporal manifestations as he plunges far into a dystopian future…

Accidentally embroiled in all-out war to liberate mankind from a global dictator, the Professor’s insights – wedded to the technology of a broken future – soon topple the tyrant before he can adapt Tomorrow’s technology to solving his own past problems.

With everything he needs to steer true a course home, the boffin even finds opportunity to turn the tables on the villain who caused his eccentric odyssey through the corridors of time…

Swift-paced and spectacularly action-packed, this solo outing for Mortimer rockets from staggering sci fi set-piece to set-piece, building to an explosive conclusion with a tantalising final flourish, delivering a sublimely engaging blockbuster to delight any adventure addict.

This Cinebook edition also includes excerpts from other Blake & Mortimer albums plus a short biographical feature and publication chart of Jacobs’ and his successors’ efforts
Original edition © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud-Lombard s. a.) 1962 by E.P. Jacobs. All rights reserved. English translation © 2014 Cinebook Ltd.

Lucky Luke volume 20: The Oklahoma Land Rush


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-008-5 (PB Album/Digital edition)

Doughty, dashing and dependable cowboy champion Lucky Luke is a rangy, implacably even-tempered do-gooder able to “draw faster than his own shadow”. He amiably ambles across the fabulously mythic Old West, enjoying light-hearted adventures on his rather sarcastic wonder-horse Jolly Jumper. The taciturn trailblazer regularly interacts with a host of historical and legendary figures as well as even odder folk in tales drawn from key themes of classic cowboy films – as well as some uniquely European notions, and interpretations…

Over 8 decades, his exploits have made him one of the top-ranking comic characters in the world, generating upwards of 85 individual albums with sales totalling in excess of 300 million in 30 languages thus far. That renown has led to a mountain of spin-off albums, plus toys, computer games, animated cartoons, a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies and even commemorative exhibitions. No theme park yet, but you never know…  when…?

The brainchild of Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”) and first officially seen in Le Journal de Spirou’s seasonal Annual L’Almanach Spirou 1947, Luke sprang to laconic life in 1946, before inevitably ambling into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880’ on December 7th 1946.

Working solo until 1955, Morris produced nine albums of affectionate sagebrush spoofery before teaming with old pal and fellow trans-American tourist Rene Goscinny. When Rene became his regular wordsmith, Luke attained dizzying, legendary, heights starting with Des rails sur la Prairie (Rails on the Prairie) which began serialisation on August 25th 1955. In 1967, the six-gun straight-shooter switched sides, joining Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote for La Diligence (The Stagecoach).

Goscinny co-created 45 albums with Morris before his untimely death, whence Morris soldiered on both singly and with other collaborators. The artist died in 2001, having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus numerous sidebar sagebrush sagas crafted with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac, Xavier Fauche, Jean Léturgie, Jacques Pessis and others, all taking their own shot at the venerable vigilante…

Lucky Luke has history in Britain too, having first pseudonymously amused and enthralled young readers during the late 1950s, syndicated to weekly anthology Film Fun. He later rode back into comics-town in 1967 for comedy paper Giggle, using nom de plume Buck Bingo.

Ruée sur l’Oklahoma was Morris & Goscinny’s 5th collaboration, originally serialised in 1960 before becoming the 14th album release: a wryly satirical romp based on the actual property reallocation event of 1889, and is delivered with only the slightest application of a little extra whimsical imagination to the actual brutal skulduggery and chicanery of history…

In the real world, President Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation on March 23rd 1889 opening the “Unassigned Lands” of Oklahoma to non-Indian settlers. Citing the 1862 Homestead Act, it promised any white who could stay on and improve a parcel of land for five years would own it free, clear and without cost. It led to a free-for-all scramble on April 22nd year with an estimated 50,000 people looking for a prime location to put down roots…

The comic version begins on the inhospitable plains of the Oklahoma territory where a representative of the American government trades a pile of trinkets and baubles to the resident Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole tribes who were originally dumped there against their collective will by white soldiers.

They are more than happy to leave those dry, dusty, dull, decidedly depressing regions…

In Washington DC, Senators are gloating over opening the region to colonisation, but troubled that all the settlers eager to own their own land and property might one day be accusing them of negligence or worse unless the allocation process is scrupulously fair. Agreeing on a strictly-monitored race as the most transparent method, the statesmen then need to ensure it’s an honest one, and call in American legend Lucky Luke to oversee the process and adjudicate disputes.

Heading westward on Jolly Jumper, the lone rider’s first task is removing the white folk already occupying their own parcels of land before the official start date. Some are there innocently and others have decided to get a head start and secure prime locations, but eventually all are moved back (some into makeshift jails) beyond the notional starting line of the great Oklahoma rush for land…

Backed up by the cavalry and a horde of lawyers Lucky leaves the “Promised Land” clean and clear for the big day, but is kept busy stopping cheating “sooners” from sneaking in early and staking claims illegally: wicked men and enterprising criminals like Beastly Blubber or Coyote Will and his simple stooge Dopey. Their escapades grow increasingly wild as the start day approaches, but Lucky can handle them. What’s more troubling is the ordinary everyday one-upmanship scurrilously employed by the “honest” citizen-contestants: sabotaging each other’s transport, doping their draft animals and worse.

Eventually, the moment comes, cannons boom and the race for space begins…

Humans being what they are, however, every competitor heads for the same few miles of the two million acres (8100 square kilometres) and overnight the mangy metropolis of Boomville springs up. Despite being held until the race was well underway Beastly Blubber, Coyote Will and Dopey are quick to capitalise on the progress and jealous hostility of the settlers, forcing Lucky to step in repeatedly and – ultimately – ban booze and all guns in the city…

Gradually civilisation blossoms and Luke thinks his job is done when the citizens call an election for Mayor. He couldn’t be more wrong, but the plebiscite does signal the end in another painfully ironic and tragically foreboding way…

Employing classic set-piece slapstick and crafty cinematic caricature but layering on an unusually jaundiced – but frighteningly accurate – view of politicians, government and human nature, The Oklahoma Land Rush deftly weaponizes history (Indian displacement, the future Dust Bowl and the billions of barrels of unexploited oil beneath that unhappy soil) to deliver a funny story with plenty of sharp edges and ends, and a sharp twist to keep readers smugly satisfied. Here is another wildly entertaining all-ages confection by unparalleled comics masters, affording an enticing glimpse into a unique genre for today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd.