Hungarian Rhapsody

By Vittorio Giardino (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 978-0-87416-033-8 (TPB Album)

Born on Christmas Eve 1946, Vittorio Giardino was an electrician who switched careers at age 30. He initially worked for a number of comics magazines before his first collection – Pax Romana – was released in 1978. Giardino has toiled, slowly but consistently, on both feature characters such as the detective Sam Pezzo, saucy Winsor McKay homage Little Ego and cold-war drama Jonas Fin, as well as general fiction tales, producing over 43 albums to date.

In 1982 he began the tale of a quiet, bearded fellow recalled by the Deuxieme Bureau (the French Secret Service) to investigate the slaughter of almost every agent in the cosmopolitan paradise of Budapest. The series ran in four parts in the magazine Orient Express before being collected as Rhapsodie Hongroise Giardino’s thirteenth book and in no way unlucky for him. Reluctant spy Max Fridman (transliterated into Max Friedman for the English-speaking world), was dragged back into the “Great Game” in the years of uneasy peace just before the outbreak of World War II: a metaphor for the nations of Europe…

Over the course of ten years, the masterful Italian graphic novelist crafted two more individual tales and in 1999 added a stunning triptych of albums. The three volumes of No Pasarán! detailed a key moment during the conflict in Republican Spain and the dying days of the Civil War which revealed many clues into the life of the diffident and unassuming hero. Two further volumes have been added to the canon in 2002 and 2008, and I’m declaring they are all now long past due to be revived and revisited…

In Hungarian Rhapsody, Friedman debuts as a troubled, cautious man with a daughter he adores and a nebulous past that somehow stems from undisclosed experiences in the Spanish Civil War where he fought as a Republican in the International Brigades against Franco’s Nationalists.

He is no ideologue or man of action, but still, somehow, is convinced – call it blackmailed – to leave his idyllic home in Switzerland to investigate the plague of assassinations for his devious French taskmasters….

Friedman is a hero in the mould of John le Carré’s George Smiley: a methodical thinker and the very antithesis of such combat supermen as James Bond, Napoleon Solo or Jason Bourne. Arriving in Budapest, Friedman gently prods and pokes about, swiftly becoming the target of not just the mysterious killers, but seemingly every rabid faction in a city crammed full of spies of every type and description, from Soviet agitators to Nazi plotters.

In a city of stunning, if decadent, beauty and cultural extremes where East meets West, Friedman finds that like the spy-game itself, nobody and nothing can be trusted…

Somebody somewhere has a master-plan but who it is and what it is..?

That’s a mystery that could get even the most cautious agent killed…

Giardino is a powerfully subtle writer who lets tone and shaded nuance carry a tale, and his captivating art – a semi-representational derivation of Hergé’s “Ligne Claire” style – makes the lovingly rendered locations as much a character in this smart, gripping drama as any of the stylishly familiar operatives of a dark, doomed world on the brink of holocaust.

Although largely an agent unknown in the English-speaking world, Max Friedman is one of espionage literature’s greatest characters. Giardino’s work is like honey for the eyes and mind. Hungarian Rhapsody is a graphic novel any fan of comics or the Intelligence Game should know.

© 1986 Vittorio Giardino. All rights reserved.