By Claude Jean-Philippe & Patrick Lesueur, translated by Wendy Payton (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 978-0-913035-78-8

As well as a far greater appreciation of, and looser, more accommodating definitions for performing and popular arts, the French just seem to cherish the magnificent ephemera of entertainment; examining and revisiting the icons and landmarks of TV, film, modern music and comics in ways that English-speakers just don’t seem capable of.

At the beginning of the 1980s artist Patrick Lesueur collaborated with author Claude Jean Philippe on a graphic series of biographies featuring Movie Stars who changed the world: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Errol Flynn and the subject of this slim and beautiful chronicle translated for America by West Coast independent publisher Eclipse.

Even Wikipedia doesn’t throw up much about the writer but Lesueur began life as a window dresser before moving into bande dessinée in 1972 by joining the creative staff of Pilote, illustrating current affairs pages before moving into fiction with short eco-fables compiled as the album ‘En Attendant le Printemps’ and cop thriller ‘Reste-t-il du Miel pour le Thé’. Latterly he produced ‘Detroit’, ‘Douglas Dunkerk’, and classic car feature ‘Enzo Ferrari, l’Homme aux Voitures Rouges’.

Bogie is told in a haunting, conversationally first-person narrative: the moodily realistic yet whimsically refined life of one of the greatest screen gods of all time comes to elegiac life in this peculiarly down-beat and low-key piece, all the more fascinating because the tale unfolds in an engagingly static manner but actually sounds just like you’d want and expect Humphrey Bogart to talk to you if you met him in a bar, whilst the restrained yet powerfully effective images shout “private photograph album” in a candid, winningly intimate way.

Bogart apparently led an unremarkable life off-screen, or perhaps the creators just didn’t want this hard-drinking, much-married legend to outshine his own celluloid legacy, but in terms of graphic novel entertainment this poetic picture-story in a stunning achievement and worthy of your attention. Perhaps someday soon another publisher will re-release it and even translate those other silver screen sagas too…
Contents © 1984 Dargaud Editeur Paris by Claude Jean Philippe and Patrick Lesueur. 1989 This edition © 1989 Eclipse Books.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

By Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Guido Crepax (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 978-0-87416-079-6

Guido Crepax was born in Milan in 1933, the son of a noted cellist, and grew up in an atmosphere of art and music (his closest childhood friend was the noted musician and conductor Claudio Abado). Inevitably the boy Crepax became a creative artist in his own right. Whilst studying architecture in the 1950s he freelanced as a graphic designer, illustrator and printmaker, producing book, medical texts and magazine covers, posters and record sleeves most notably for Classical and Jazz musicians ranging from Charlie Parker and Fats Waller to Domenico Modugno.

He won acclaim and advertising awards throughout the 1950s, but was driven to do still more. In 1963 he began drawing comics, and two years later created his most famous character Valentina for the second issue of Linus. She was initially the lead character’s girlfriend, but whereas superhero Neutron soon lost the interest of readers, the sexy, psychedelic, culturally bold and accessible distaff evolved to become an evocative, fantastic, sophisticated, erotic zeitgeist of the 1960s and far, far beyond. He passed away on July 31, 2003.

Although noted – if not always revered – for his strongly erotic female characters, Crepax was an astute and sensitive tale-teller and examiner of the human condition, and all his varied works vibrate with strong themes of charged sexuality and violence, none more so than his chilling, oppressive adaptation of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.

As Editor Maurice Horn points out in his introduction, Stevenson’s novella – first published in January 1886 by Longmans, Green & Co. – has never been as faithfully adapted in any other medium: the tale being constructed and narrated as a recap within a flashback, and almost utterly devoid of any relevant female characters. The story revolutionised not only fiction, but also modern sensibilities, cementing an entire concept of human behaviour into the modern lexicon and becoming a keystone of two separate literary genres, science fiction and horror, whilst maintaining for almost its entire duration the semblance of just another tale of mystery and detection. What it must have been to get to that final chapter and discover an entirely new kind of ending! We simply cannot imagine…

For most readers of the text, rather than viewers of the impossibly large number of film, television, radio and stage productions, the brief morality play is clearly a metaphor (I, for example, have always felt it addressed social repression via an examination of addiction) and Crepax has chosen to interpret the issue here as one of unleashed sexual license…

Narrator Gabriel John Utterson is friend and legal representative to Gentleman Scientist Henry Jekyll, a brilliant, upstanding man obsessed with his image and standing in a rich and excessively reputation-driven society. When the wizened, disreputable Edward Hyde appears and begins to exert some inexplicable, overwhelming hold upon the genteel Jekyll, even keeping him from seeing his friends, Utterson is driven to investigate and uncovers a horrendous, unimaginable catalogue of the dwarf’s excesses, ranging from brutal violence, sexual bondage, blackmail and even murder…

Crepax retained the unique narrative structure, dialogue and even chapter headings of the original text, but peppered his visual interpretation with the highly charged, sexually explicit imagery he was – and is – notorious for in such a manner that their sybaritic inclusion made perfect sense. Following the eerie unraveling of the saga in  ‘Story of the Door’, ‘The Carew Murder Case’, ‘The Letter’, ‘Incident at Dr. Lanyon’s’, ‘The Window’, ‘The Last Night’, ‘Dr Lanyon’s Account’ comes the revelatory, post-mortem disclosures of  ‘Henry Jekyll’s Confession’ and Utterson’s shocked realisation of the pressures of English society and the forces they contain and conceal within every man…

Stark, shocking, convulsively claustrophobic in its public scenes whilst indolently free and spacious for the unleashed hedonistic, yet curiously idyllic and lyrical depictions of debauchery, Crepax’s artistic stylisations are as always cannily calculated to work on the reader’s subconscious and bestow an unrelenting power and oppressive inevitability to the tragedy.

Here is a powerful saga magnificently retold using the language and terms of the British Empire, but this highly adult interpretation is also unflinching in its sexual imagery, so if such visual candour depicted in a truly unique style and manner is going to offend you don’t seek out this superb tale.

Everybody else with their senses of drama, history and perspective intact should go ahead and enjoy a brilliant tale stunningly interpreted: another classic graphic novel desperately in need of reprinting…
© 1989 Olympia Press, Italy, Luca A Staletti, agent. English translation © 1990 Catalan Communications. All rights reserved.

Moomin: the Complete Tove Jannson Comic Strip volume 1

By Tove Jansson (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-89493-780-1

Tove Marika Jansson was born into an artistic, intellectual and practically bohemian Swedish family in Helsinki, Finland on August 9th 1914. Her father Viktor was a sculptor, her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson a successful illustrator, graphic designer and commercial artist. Tove’s brothers Lars and Per Olov became a cartoonist/writer and photographer respectively. The family and its close intellectual, eccentric circle of friends seems to have been cast rather than born, with a witty play or challenging sitcom as the piece they were all destined to act in.

After intensive study from 1930-1938 (University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, Stockholm, the Graphic School of the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and L’Ecole d’Adrien Holy and L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris) Tove became a successful exhibiting artist through the troubled period of the war. Intensely creative in many fields, she published the first fantastic Moomins adventure in 1945: Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Little Trolls and the Great Flood or more euphoniously The Moomins and the Great Flood), a whimsical epic of gentle, inclusive, accepting, understanding, bohemian, misfit trolls and their strange friends…

A young over-achiever, from 1930-1953 Tove worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for the Swedish satirical magazine Garm, and achieved some measure of notoriety with an infamous political sketch of Hitler in nappies that lampooned the Appeasement policies of Chamberlain and other European leaders in the build-up to World War II. She was also an in-demand illustrator for many magazines and children’s books. She had also started selling comic strips as early as 1929.

Moomintroll was her signature character. Literally.

The lumpy, big-eyed goof began life as a spindly sigil next to her name in her political works. She called him “Snork” and claimed she had designed him in a fit of pique as a child – the ugliest thing a precocious little girl could imagine – as a response to losing an argument about Immanuel Kant with her brother.

The term “Moomin” came from her maternal uncle Einar Hammarsten who attempted to stop her pilfering food when she visited by warning her that a Moomintroll guarded the kitchen, creeping up on trespassers and breathing cold air down their necks. Snork/Moomin filled out, became timidly nicer – if a little clingy and insecure – a placid therapy-tool to counteract the grimness of the post-war world.

The Moomins and the Great Flood was relatively unsuccessful but Jansson persisted, probably as much for her own benefit as any other reason, and in 1946 the second book Kometjakten (Comet in Moominland) was published. Many commentators believe this terrifying tale is a skilful, compelling allegory of Nuclear destruction, and both it and her third illustrated novel Trollkarlens hatt (1948, Finn Family Moomintroll or occasionally The Happy Moomins) were translated into English in 1952, prompting British publishing giant Associated Press to commission a newspaper strip about her seductively sweet surreal creations.

Jansson had no prejudices about strip cartoons and had already adapted Comet in Moominland for Swedish/Finnish paper Ny Tid. Mumintrollet och jordens undergängMoomintrolls and the End of the World – was a popular feature and Jansson readily accepted the chance to extend her family across the world. In 1953 The London Evening News began the first of 21 Moominsagas that captivated readers of all ages. Tove’s involvement in the strip ended in 1959, a casualty of its own success and a punishing publication schedule. So great was the strain that towards the end she had recruited her brother Lars to help and he continued the feature until its end in 1975.

Free of the strip she returned to painting, writing and her other creative pursuits, generating plays, murals, public art, stage designs, costumes for dramas and ballets, a Moomin opera, and another nine Moomin-related picture-books and novels, as well as thirteen books and short-story collections strictly for grown-ups.

Her awards are too numerous to mention but consider this: how many modern artists – let alone comics creators – get their faces on the national currency? She died on June 27th 2001.

Her Moomin comic strip has been collected in seven Scandinavian volumes and the discerning folk at Drawn & Quarterly have translated the first four of those into English for your sheer delight and delectation.

Tove Jansson could use slim economical line and pattern to create sublime worlds of fascination, and her dexterity made simple forms into incredibly expressive and potent symbols. In this first volume the wonderment begins with ‘Moomin and the Brigands’ as the rotund, gracious and deeply empathic hippo-like young troll frets about the sheer volume of free-loading visitors literally eating him out of house and home.

Too meek to cause offence and simply send them packing he consults his wide-boy, get-rich-quick mate Sniff, but when all the increasingly eccentric eviction schemes go awry Moomin simply leaves, undertaking a beachcombing odyssey that culminates with him meeting the beauteous Snorkmaiden.

When the jewellery-obsessed young lass (yes, she looks like a hippo too – but a really lovely one with long lashes and such a cute fringe!) is kidnapped by bandits, finally mild-mannered Moomin finds his inner hero…

‘Moomin and Family Life’ reunites the apparently runaway Moomin with his parents Moominpappa and Moominmamma – a strange and remarkable pair. Mamma is warm and capable but overly concerned with propriety and appearances whilst Papa spends all his time trying to rekindle his adventurous youth. Rich Aunt Jane however, is a far more “acquired” taste…

‘Moomin on the Riviera’ finds the flighty Snorkmaiden and drama-starved Moominpappa dragging the extended family and assorted friends on an epic voyage to the sunny southern land of millionaires where the small-town idiosyncrasies of the Moomins are mistaken for the so-excusable eccentricities of the filthy rich – a delightfully telling satirical comedy of manners and a plot that never gets old…

This first incomparable volume of graphic wonderment concludes with a fantastic adventure ‘Moomin’s Desert Island’, wherein a family jaunt leaves the Moomins lost upon an unknown shore where ghostly ancestors roam: wrecking any vessel that might offer rescue. Sadly the greatest peril in this knowing pastiche of Swiss Family Robinson might well be The Mymble – a serious rival for Moomintroll’s affections. Luckily Snorkmaiden knows where there are some wonderfully romantic bloodthirsty pirates…

These are truly magical tales for the young laced with the devastating observation and mature wit that enhances and elevates only the greatest kid’s stories into classics of literature. These volumes are an international treasure and no fan of the medium – or biped with even a hint of heart and soul – can afford to be unaware of them.

© 2006 Solo/Bulls. All Rights Reserved.

Dungeon Twilight volume 3: The New Centurions

By Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim, Kerascoet & Obion, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-578-8

This slim tome is yet another instalment of the eccentric, raucous, addictively wacky and frankly stupendous franchise that is far better experienced than read about. Dungeon: Twilight joins Dungeons Parade, Zenith and Monstres as a wholly defined sub-series of a truly vast epic which follows the history of a fantastic magic castle on the magical, anthropomorphically stable world of Terra Amata…

The inhabitants of this weirdly surreal universe include every kind of talking beast and bug as well as monsters, demons, smart-alecs, wizards, politicians and stroppy women-folk. There’s always something happening and it’s usually quite odd…

The nominal star was originally a duck with a magic sword which forced him to channel dead heroes and monsters, but by this stage Herbert of Craftiwich has risen to the rank of Grand Khan – though he’s still not quite sure how – the doddering old guy in charge when the entire world of Terra Amata exploded. Now secondary stars have risen to prominence, off-beat heroes such as the nomadic crimson warrior Marvin the Red – an unsavoury bunny in super-powered armour – and Herbert’s revolting children: the sexually voracious acting ruler Duchess Zakutu and her treacherous, spiteful brother Papsukal.

This volume starts as the world’s various exotic survivors eke out a perilous existence on isolated islands chaotically afloat hundreds of metres above a global sea of molten lava…

Comprising two translated albums it all kicks off with ‘The New Centurions’ illustrated by the delightfully adroit Kerascoet, in which Marvin begins to chafe under the Machiavellian intrigues and back-biting that dominate life in the ruined court of the Khan. Tasked with training assorted soldiery who won’t take a rabbit-warrior seriously yet keenly aware that the vultures are circling Marvin knows that when the take-over attempt begins they won’t be ready…

Inevitably that day comes and the usurpers are victorious, but Herbert survives to regroup: however Marvin and his mentor the Dust King are fed up with the whole interminable push-and-shove of politics and quit. Sneaking away they go looking for some uncomplicated adventuring among the floating Islands in the sky…

In ‘Revolutions’, with art by Obion, the pair are soon stranded on a giant chunk of land that is slowly rotating in a downward manner. With their bat-steed dead and Marvin’s armour lost to carnivorous grass the wanderers are forced to continually climb upwards just to stay in place. The alternative is a rapid and terminal plunge to the surging lava-seas below…

Eventually they come across a group of bears and other creatures who are pulling a gigantic villa and garden, keeping it one step ahead of the rotation doom. Why do the bedraggled and exhausted volunteers pull so determinedly? Is it for the eight hours of rest and sustenance in the paradisiacal gardens they are granted every third shift? Is it the favours of the willing women of the little Lord Takmool’s family? Or is the diminutive aristocrat simply the slyest snake-oil salesman and most duplicitous capitalist conman in the universe?

The Dust King is not so easily fooled but even he eventually joins the eager Marvin on the team – it is, after all, the only game in town. However this Garden of Eden supplies its own temptations and serpents and the darkly satiric allegory looks set to come to a bloody end until catastrophe strikes the entire island and a whole new world comes into being in the spectacular aftermath…

Surreal, earthy, sharp, poignant, hilarious and brilliantly outlandish, this fantasy comedy is subtly addictive to read and the vibrant, wildly eccentric cartooning is an absolute marvel of exuberant, graphic style. Definitely not for the young reader, Dungeon is the kind of near-the-knuckle, illicit and just plain smart read that older kids and adults of all ages will adore, but for a fuller comprehension – and even more insane fun – I strongly recommend buying all the attendant incarnations too.

© 2006, 2009 Delcourt Productions-Tronfheim-Sfar-Kerascoet-Obion. English translation © 2010 NBM. All Rights Reserved.

On the Odd Hours

By Eric Liberge translated by Joe Johnson (NBM ComicsLit/Louvre: Musée du Louvre Éditions)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-577-1

This is the first time I’ve encountered this series of translated graphic novels so this review is off the cuff and without any previous prejudice and preconception. That sounded pretty poncey and imposing but all it means is: even with all the high tech info systems in the world, occasionally something rather cool can slip by the most avid fan or collector.

In this case it’s the first two books in a patently fascinating collaboration between one of the greatest museums in the world and the, until so recently, scurrilous world of comics. So I’m diving right in with immediate reactions to the third in a series of superior translated bande dessinée courtesy of those fine fellows and folks at NBM.

These tales are produced in close collaboration with the forward-looking authorities of the Louvre, but this is no gosh-wow, “Night-at-the-Museum”, thinly-concealed catalogue of contents from a stuffy edifice of public culture. Rather, here is a startling, beautiful, gloriously compelling adult horror thriller that cleverly incorporates the history, geography, icons and artifacts of the Louvre into the plot and makes the historic building and its contents a vital character in the supernatural drama.

Amongst the history and information pieces at the back of the book is an article on the services for the deaf such as signed tours, and the hearing-impaired guides and lecturers who are part of the staff. This is done to complement the tale of Bastien, an angry young deaf man who turns up at the museum to begin an internship, but somehow becomes a Night Guard, with special responsibilities for The Odd Hours of the clock: those moments when the 200 year old museum slips the shackles of reality and the exhibits escape their bounds, coming to terrifying, chaotic life…

The art is stunning in this extremely adult tome, and the creeping obsessions of Bastien as he struggles to keep his daylight life alive whilst striving to resolve the mystery of the exhibits is both poignant and enthralling.

Why was he selected for the position? Why are the animated beauties and horrors of the museum so much more enticing that his increasingly strident and difficult girlfriend? Most importantly, how can animated artworks be so much more communicative than the flesh and blood inhabitants of his “normal” life?

On the Odd Hours is utterly engrossing and darkly lovely, and despite being the third in the series reads easily as a stand-alone tale. I’m definitely going to track down the preceding volumes and I strongly recommend that you all do likewise.

© 2008 Futuropolis/Musée du Louvre Éditions. English Edition © 2010 NBM. All rights reserved.

Almost Silent

By Jason, translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books)

ISBN: 978-1-606-99315-6

John Arne Saeterrøy, who works under the pen-name Jason, was born in Molde, Norway in 1965, and appeared on the international cartoonists’ scene at age 30 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).

He followed with the series Mjau Mjau (winning another Sproing in 2001) and in 2002 turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels. Now an international star of comics, he has won seven major awards from such disparate regions as France, Slovakia and the USA.

Thankfully the fine folks at Fantagraphics have collected four of his earliest graphic novels in a superb hardback companion to the 2009 classic [Low Moon] which provides more of Jason’s surreal and cinematic, darkly hilarious anthropomorphic ruminations on his favourite themes of relationships and loneliness, viewed as ever through a charmingly macabre cast of silent movie archetypes, cinematic monsters and sad sack chumps.

Told in pantomimic progressions rather than full stories – and often as classical chase scenes reminiscent of Benny Hill – the wonderment begins with breakthrough album ‘Meow, Baby’ wherein a mummy goes walkabout from his museum sarcophagus encountering bums and gamins, vampires, aliens, angels, devils, skeletons and cops – always so many cops – in hot pursuit…

This primarily monochrome collection is called Almost Silent because it mostly is: and what dialogue appears is never informative or instructive, merely colour or window dressing. The artwork is displayed in formalised page layouts rendered in a minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style, solid blacks, thick lines and settings of seductive simplicity unwinding like an unending, infinite zoetrope show. These early works are collections of gags and situations best experienced rather than read.

A second untitled tale follows the perceived social inadequacies of males hungry for love: a werewolf, caveman – complete with courting cudgel, a Martian, Frankenstein’s monster and even Elvis. All try and die in the modern dating whirl.

The next sequence introduces cannibal ghouls and a movie-buff Travis Bickle/Arnold Schwarzenegger wannabe also starving for acceptance, and continues with the bleakly comedic ‘Return of the Mummy’ and a delightfully tongue in cheek pastiche of Tintin and Blake and Mortimer entitled ‘The Mummy’s Secret’, featuring the entire ghastly cast, before ending with a fascinating selection of three panel gag strips.

The next featured volume is ‘Tell Me Something’ a more ambitiously visual outing that acknowledges its antecedents and influences by using silent movie dialogue cards instead of word balloons and follows a plucky heroine as she searches for affection in all the wrong places with her Harold-Lloyd-like would-be beau. Also in attendance are the usual cast of filmic phenomenons…

‘You Can’t Get There from Here’ concentrates mainly on the Frankenstein cast: the monsters, their equally artificial wives, their lovelorn and covetous creators and even the Igors, misshapen wizened assistants also all seeking that one special person – or thing. Here the art is supplanted by the startling and highly effective addition of bronze inks for a compelling duo-tone effect that sits oddly well with the beast’s bittersweet search for his stolen, bespoke bride.

The collection concludes with a rather riotous adventure romp ‘The Living and the Dead’ wherein the perfect first date is interrupted by the rising of the unquiet dead and the end of civilisation in the rotting teeth of carnivorous zombies on their final march – possibly the funniest and most romantic yarn in the whole book

Jason’s work always jumps directly into the reader’s brain and heart, using the beastly and unnatural to ask gentle questions about basic human needs in a wicked 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.

His 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 fan should move to the top of the “Must-Have” list, so consider this superb hardback your guaranteed entry into his fabulous fun world…

© 2009 Jason. All rights reserved.

Little Nothings volume 3: Uneasy Happiness

By Lewis Trondheim, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-576-4

With over 35 books in just about ten years, Lewis Trondheim is one of Europe’s most prolific comics creators, a writer for many of the continent’s most popular artists – such as Fabrice Parme (‘Le Roi Catastrophe’, Vénézia’), Manu Larcenet (‘Les Cosmonautes du futur’), José Parrondo (‘Allez Raconte’ and ‘Papa Raconte’) and Thierry Robin (‘Petit Père Noël’), the originator of such global hits as the Les Formidables Aventures de Lapinot sequence and, with Joann Sfar, the ‘Donjon’ (Dungeon) series of nested fantasy epics (see the translated Dungeon: Parade, Dungeon: Monstres and Dungeon: The Early Years) and also a cartoonist of uncanny wit, piercing, gentle perspicacity, comforting affability and self-deprecating empathy.

This third collected volume of his anthropomorphic cartoon blog sees him amicably nit-picking and musing his way through the life of an old comic creator: travelling to conventions, making stories and dealing with the distressingly peculiar modern world.

Evocatively recoloured for book publication these one and two page ruminations and anti-dramas range from his inability to de-clutter (every comic maven’s weakness!), public toilet etiquette, gadgets, marriage, parenthood, mice in the bookshelves, how mad cats are, brilliant ideas that come when you’re asleep, computers and getting old, interspersed with reactions to the many wonderful places he has visited on the comics convention circuit (Venice, Portugal, Fiji, Australia and others in this volume).

I first became aware of Trondheim’s subtly enchanting vignettes in Fantagraphics’ Mome comics anthologies, and it’s a sheer delight to see his cartoon philosophy gathered into such handy tomes for constant re-reading. This is probably the most pleasing graphic novel I’ve reviewed this year, and I’m off now to get the previous two volumes.

I strongly suggest that if you need a little non-theological, un-theosophical spiritual refreshment you do the same…

© 2010 Trondheim. English translation © 2010 NBM. All Rights Reserved.

Indian Summer

By Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt, translated by Jeff Lisle (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 0-87416-030-2-8

Hugo Eugenio Pratt (June 15th 1927 – August 20th 1995) was one of the world’s paramount comics creators, and his inventions since ‘Ace of Spades’ (whilst still a student at the Venice Academy of Fine Arts) in 1945 were both many and varied. His most famous character, based in large part on his own exotic early life, is the mercurial soldier – perhaps sailor would be more accurate – of fortune, Corto Maltese.

After working in both Argentinean and English comics for years Pratt returned to Italy in the 1960s. In 1967 he produced a number of series for the monthly comic Sgt. Kirk. In addition to the Western lead character, he created a pirate strip Capitan Cormorand, the detective strip Lucky Star O’Hara, and a moody South Seas adventure called Una Ballata del Mare Salato (A Ballad of the Salty Sea). The magazine folded in 1970, but Pratt took one of Ballata’s characters to the French weekly, Pif, before eventually settling into the legendary Belgian comic Tintin. Corto Maltese proved as much a Wild Rover in reality as in his historic and eventful career.

However a storyteller of such vast capabilities as Pratt was ever-restless, and as well as writing and illustrating his own tales he has written for other giants of the industry. In 1983 he crafted a steamy tale of sexual tension and social prejudice set in the New England colonies in the days before the Salem Witch Trials.

Tutto ricominciò con un’estate Indiana (released and known as Indian Summer – although a more appropriate and illustrative translation would be “All things begin again with an Indian Summer”) was brought to stunning pictorial life by fellow Italian graphic raconteur Milo Manara.

Maurilio Manara (born September 12th 1945) is best known for his wry, controversial erotica – but that’s more an indicator of the English-speaking comics market than any artistic obsession; an intellectual, whimsical craftsman with a dazzling array of artistic skills ranging from architecture, product design, painting and of course an elegant, refined, clear-clean line style with pen and ink.

He studied painting and architecture before becoming a comic artist in 1969, beginning with the Fumetti Neri series Genius, worked on the magazine Terror and in 1971 began his erotic career illustrating Francisco Rubino’s Jolanda de Almaviva. In 1975 his first major work Lo Scimmiotto (‘The Ape’ – a reworking of the Chinese tales of the Monkey King) was released.

By the end of the decade he was working for the Franco-Belgian markets where he is still regarded as a first-rank creator. It was while working for Charlie Mensuel, Pilote and L’Écho des savanes that he created his signature series HP and Giuseppe Bergman – which saw print in A Suivre. The “HP” of the title is his good friend Hugo Pratt…

New England in the 17th century: the Puritan village of New Canaan slowly grows in placid, if uneasy, co-existence with the natives who have fished and hunted these coastal regions for centuries. When young Shevah Black is raped by two young Indians, outcast Abner Lewis kills them both. Taking the “ruined” girl back to his mother’s cottage in the woods the girl meets the entire family – mother Abigail, siblings Jeremiah, Elijah and Phyllis – a whole brood of damned sinners banished by her uncle the Reverend Pilgrim Black.

The mother was once a servant in the Black household, but has lived in the woods for twenty years, ever since Pilgrim Black’s father raped her. When Abigail fell pregnant she was cast out for her sin. Her face bears a sinner’s brand. Aided by the Indians the mother built a cabin, and over the years had three further children. Her progeny are all wild creatures of nature; healthy, vital and with many close ties both to the natives (from choice) and the truly decadent Black family (by sordid, unwelcome history).

Now blood has spilled and passions are roused: none of those ties can prevent a bloodbath, and as the day progresses many dark secrets come to light as the intolerance, hypocrisy and raw, thwarted lust of the upstanding Christians leads to an inexorable clash with the Indians – by far the most sensible and decent individuals in the place – with the pitifully isolated, ostracized and alienated Lewis clan stuck in middle and betrayed by both…

Beautiful, disturbing and utterly compelling, this thoroughly adult examination of sexual tension, attitudinal eugenics and destructive, tragic love is played out against the seductive heat and primitive glories of a natural, plentiful paradise which only needs its residents to act more like beasts and less like humans to achieve a perfect tranquility. Sadly, every Eden has serpents and here there are three: religion, custom and pride…

Pratt’s passion for historical research is displayed by the graphic afterword in which he not only cites his extensive sources – including a link to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter – but adds some fascinating insights and speculations on the fates of the survivors of New Canaan massacre…

Although there is a 1994 NBM edition readily available I’m reviewing from my 1986 Catalan copy principally because I own that one, but also because the Catalan copy has a magnificent four-page foldout watercolour cover (which I couldn’t fit onto my scanner no matter how I tried) and some pretty amazing sketches and watercolour studies gracing Javier Coma’s insightful introduction.

This is a classic tale of humanity frailty, haunting, dark and startlingly lovely. Whatever version you find, you must read this superb story.
© 1986 Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt. English language edition © 1986 Catalan Communications. All Rights Reserved.

The Bluecoats volume 2: The Navy Blues

By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-82-3

The glamour of the American Experience has fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of owlhoots and gunfighters. Hergé was a devotee, and the spectrum of memorable comics ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such French and Belgian classics as Blueberry and Lucky Luke, and even colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World or Milo Manara and Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer.

‘Les Tuniques Bleues’ or The Bluecoats began at the end of the 1960s, created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius and Raoul Colvin – who has written every best-selling volume since. The strip was created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic gunslinger defected from weekly anthology Spirou to rival comic Pilote, and his replacement swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series on the Continent.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour style and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly adopted a more realistic – although still comedic – illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936, and after studying Fine Art, joined the publishing giant Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

Writer Raoul Cauvin is also Belgian, born in 1938 and before joining Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – beginning his glittering and prolific career at Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he has written more than 22 other long-running, award winning series including ‘Cédric’, ‘Les Femmes en Blanc’ and ‘Agent 212’ – more than 240 separate albums. Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies.

The stars of the series are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfied and Corporal Blutch, a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel and Hardy: two hapless and ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier.

The original format was single-page gags about an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but with the second volume ‘Du Nord au Sud’ (‘North and South’) the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (this tale was rewritten in the 18th album ‘Blue rétro’ to describe how the chumps were drafted into the military during the war). All subsequent adventures, although ranging far beyond America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history, are set within the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your average whinging little man in the street: work-shy, reluctant, mouthy 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 quite smart and heroic if no other easier option is available. Chesterfield is a big burly man, a career soldier, who has bought into all the patriotism and eprit-de-corp. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little 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…

The Navy Blues, second book in this translated series is actually the seventh French volume ‘Les Bleus de la marine’, and finds the lads as usual in the midst of a terrible battle. However, when Blutch is wounded, his cavalry commanders prefer to save his horse rather than aid the fallen soldier, and Chesterfield finds all his cherished dreams of camaraderie and loyalty ebbing away.

Disillusioned, he demands a transfer to the infantry and with the never happy Blutch beside him tries to adapt to his lowered status. Sadly Chesterfield discovers that officers are the same everywhere and stupidity and cupidity are rife throughout the armed forces. A progression of calamitous transfers eventually finds the pair in the Union Navy at a time of intriguing technological advancement, playing an unfortunately ill-omened part in the development of both Submarines and armoured battleships. As always their misadventures result in pain, humiliation and not a few explosions…

The secret of ‘Les Tuniques Bleues’ success…? This is a hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting young and less cynical audiences. Historically authentic, always in good taste despite its uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by the down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Fun, informative, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story that appeals to best, not worst, of the human spirit.

© Dupuis 1975 by Lambil & Cauvin. English edition © 2008 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Bluecoats volume 1: Robertsonville Prison

By Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-71-7

The mythology of the American West has never been better loved or more honourably treated than by Europeans. Hergé (see Tintin in America among so many other early works) was a passionate devotee, and the range of incredible comics material from Tex Willer to Blueberry to Lucky Luke displays over and over again our fascination with all aspects of that legendary time and place.

‘Les Tuniques Bleues’ or Bluecoats began at the end of the 1960s, visually created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius and scripted by Raoul Colvin – who has also written the succeeding 52 volumes of this much-loved Belgian comedy western series. The strip was created on the fly to replace Lucky Luke when he defected from prominent weekly anthology Spirou to rival comic Pilote, and is one of the most popular series on the Continent. After its initial run Bluecoats graduated to the collected album format (published by French publishing powerhouse Dupuis) that we’re all so familiar with in Un chariot dans l’Ouest (‘A Wagon in the West’ 1972).

Salvé was an artist proficient in the Gallic style of big-foot/big-nose humour cartooning, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte gradually leavened the previous broad style with a more realistic – but still comedic – illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936, and after studying Fine Art, joined Dupuis as a letterer in 1952. In 1959 he created Sandy about an Australian teen and a kangaroo, and self parodied it and himself with Hobby and Koala and the later Panty et son kangaroo and the comics industry satire ‘Pauvre Lampil’.

Belgian writer Raoul Cauvin was born in 1938 and after studying Lithography joined Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 before beginning his glittering and prolific writing career. Almost exclusively a humorist and always for Spirou, as well as Bluecoats he has written at least 22 other long-running and award winning series – more than 240 separate albums. Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies.

The protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfied and Corporal Blutch, a hopeless double act of buffoons in the manner of Laurel and Hardy, or perhaps Abbot & Costello or our own Morecambe & Wise: two hapless and ill-starred cavalrymen posted to the wilds of the arid frontier.

The first strips were single-page gags based around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort but with the second volume Du Nord au Sud (‘North and South’) the sorry soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (this scenario was retconned in the 18th album ‘Blue rétro’ which described how the everyman chumps were first drafted into the military). All subsequent adventures, although ranging all over the planet and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history, are set within that tragic conflict.

Blutch is your average little man in the street: work-shy, reluctant and ever-critical of the army – especially his inept commanders. Ducking, diving, deserting when he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other easier option is available. Chesterfield is a big man, a career soldier, who has bought into all the patriotism and eprit-de-corp. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little 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…

Robertsonville Prison, the first release in the series from that wonderful purveyor of translated European gems Cinebooks, is actually the sixth French volume, and is loosely based on the actual Confederate-run Andersonville Prison compound in Georgia. It finds the irascible, inseparable pair captured after a calamitous battle and interned with many other Union soldiers. However these two aren’t prepared to stay put – albeit for vastly differing reasons – and a series of increasingly bold and bonkers escape ploys eventually result in a crazy if appropriate reversal of fortunes…

The secret to the unbelievable success of ‘Les Tuniques Bleues’ is that it is an anti-war comedy like M.A.S.H. or Catch 22 cleverly pitched at a young and less cynical audience. Historically authentic, uncompromising in terms of portrayed violence but always in good taste, the attitudes expressed by our oafish, down-to-earth anti-heroes never make glorious war anything but arrant folly and like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Fun, informative, beautifully realised and tellingly worthy, Bluecoats is the kind of battle book that any parent would be happy to let their children read – if they can bear to let go of it themselves…

© Dupuis 1975 by Lambil & Cauvin. English edition © 2008 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.