Orient Gateway

By Vittorio Giardino (Catalan Communications/NBM)
ISBN: 978-0-87416-041-3 (Catalan PB Album) 978-1-56163-184-1 (NBM PB 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.

Way back in 1982 as the Cold War tottered to an end, 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. It was Giardino’s 13th book and in no way unlucky for him. In it, reluctant yet competent 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…

Within three years he returned to the subtly addictive pre-war drama with follow-up La Porta d’Oriente – Orient Gateway to you and me.

Summer 1938: All the espionage agencies in the world know war is coming and nothing can stop it. Frantically jockeying for the most favourable position, they’re all seeking every advantage for when the balloon goes up. Soviet engineer Mr. Stern has become just such a preferred asset of too many rival organisations, so he runs, losing himself in the teeming, mysterious city of Istanbul.

Once again diffident, canny operative Max is drawn into the murky miasma of spycraft, but now, beside exotic, bewitching Magda Witnitz, is he the only one to ask why so many dangerous people want to acquire Stern?

And why are they so willing to kill for him?

Subtle, entrancing and magnificently illustrated, this is an entrancing, slow-boil thriller with all the beguiling nostalgic panache of Casablanca and labyrinthine twists and turns of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which no fan of the genre, let alone comics aficionado, can afford to miss.

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

Giardino is a smart and confident writer who makes tone and nuance carry a tale and his art – a more representational derivation of Hergé’s ligne claire (clean line) – makes the lovingly rendered locations as much a character as any of the stylish operatives in a dark, doomed world on the brink of holocaust.

Although still largely an agent unknown in the English-speaking world, Max Friedman is one of espionage literature’s greatest characters, and Giardino’s work is like honey for the eyes and mind. This is another graphic novel every fan of comics or the Intelligence Game should know.
© 1986 Vittorio Giardino. All rights reserved.