The Scorpion volume 1: The Devil’s Mark


By Stephen Desberg & Enrico Marini, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-62-5 (Album PB)

We in the English-speaking world will have to work long and hard to come anywhere near the astonishing breadth of genres present in European comics. Both in scenario and narrative content, our continental cousins have seemingly explored every aspect of time and place to tell tales ranging from comedy to tragedy, drama to farce and most especially encompassing the broad, treasure-laden churches of adventure and romance. Le Scorpion is a graphic series which embraces and accommodates all of these and more…

Belgian writer Stephen Desberg is one of the most popular and bestselling comics authors in the business. Born in Brussels, he is the son of an American lawyer (European distribution agent for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) who married a French woman. He began studying law at Université Libre de Bruxelles, but dropped out to follow a winding path into the bande dessinée biz.

It began with plots – and eventually scripts – for Willy Maltaite – AKA “Will” – on Tif et Tondu in Le Journal de Spirou, growing into a reliable jobbing creator on established strips for younger readers and ultimately launching his own with Billy the Cat (a funny-animal strip) drawn by Stéphane Colman, not the be-whiskered boy superhero of DC Thomson fame). In quick succession came 421 with Eric Maltaite, Arkel (with Marc Hardy), Jimmy Tousseul (Daniel Desorgher) and many, many more. Throughout the 1980s, Desberg gradually redirected his efforts into material for older readerships (such as The Garden of Desire) and in 1999 he originated contemporary thriller IR$, with this historical romp joining his catalogue of major hits a year later.

Enrico Marini attended the School of Fine Arts in Bêle before starting his creative career. Drawn since childhood to comics and manga, he began selling his artistic skills as the 1980s ended. A stint on junior adventure strip Oliver Varèseled to Gypsy (1993-1996), after which he began collaborating with Desberg on western L’Étoile du Desert. Contiguously crafting detective serial Rapaces with Jean Dufaux, Marini teamed again with Desberg in 2000 on Le Scorpion. In 2007, the illustrator added writing to his repertoire with historical drama Les Aigles de Rome

A complex historical romp in the movie style of Robin Hood, the Three Musketeers, and even, if you squint right, Dangerous Liaisons, The Scorpion is a devious rollercoaster of sumptuous epic intrigue with cunning factual underpinnings fuelling frantic fantasy and chilling conspiracy. This first expansive English-language translation from Cinebook is available in album-sized paperback and eBook formats, bundling together the first two European tomes – La marque du diable and Le secret du pape from October 2000 and October 2001 – into one grand bulging behemoth of literary and pictorial gold.

The fun starts in The Devil’s Mark, opening with a fulsome flashback to the most critical moment in the mighty Roman Empire’s long history. At a place and time where nine families secretly own and rule everything, a pact is made which places all their resources – if not actual Faith – in the coming thing: a new religion to be called Christianity. The families will remain in charge and in control, but now the official face and might of Rome will not be short-lived Caesars, but rather Popes…

Tumbling forward to the early 18th century, we see roguish conman, historian, tomb-robber and relic retailer Armando Catalano – and his capable but constantly carping assistant Hussard – deftly swiping the bones of long-lost Saint Alastor. The affable scoundrels are blithely unaware that, elsewhere malign forces within the Church are mobilising to change the way the world runs with especial significance to freewheeling entrepreneurs like themselves…

The current Pope is a well-meaning, unconventional commoner set on a path of reform, but that doesn’t matter to Monsignor Trebaldi. Even though doctrine should make the Pope infallible, literally God’s hand and word on Earth, the militant cleric gives his allegiance to an older belief than Christianity…

“Cardinal Eagle” has decided to reinstate the direct influence of the nine families using the papacy as his tool of statecraft. That means somehow first reuniting the varied clans who have drifted into isolation and bitter rivalry over centuries. The first step has already been accomplished. Cosmopolitan Rome is now heavily policed by the Order of the Knights of Christianity: warrior monks who are The Eagle’s own paramilitary zealots and a militant faction gaining in strength despite every effort of the incumbent Pontiff to reign them in…

Devil-may-care Armando is the son of Magdalena Catalan, an infamous witch burned for seducing a high-ranking priest away from the one true faith. As sign of his ill-begotten origins, their son bears a birthmark of the devil on his shoulder: a scorpion signalling his diabolical origins. It has not stopped him becoming well-known to every rich patron desperate to possess holy relics, but now, inexplicably, makes him Trebaldi’s personal obsession…

However, after the Cardinal despatches seductive gypsy Mejai to assassinate him, her repeated attempts all fail. It is as if her target has the luck of the devil on his side…

Alerted and affronted, Armando retaliates, even breaking into a palace to have a discussion with the Pope, only to discover a previously-hidden connection between Trebaldi and his own long-dead mother and that an even greater scandal and mystery have been draped around the circumstances of his birth…

The war of wills escalates rapidly, and the Scorpion finally confronts the Cardinal… seemingly paying the ultimate price…

The drama continues in The Pope’s Secret with an hallucinogenic flashback offering even more clues into the astoundingly long-planned conspiracy, via a glimpse at Armando’s early life following Magdalena’s execution. This ends abruptly as faithful Hussard rouses him from the death-like coma caused by Mejai’s latest attempt to kill them. With the gypsy their prisoner, they seek further information regarding which high-ranking churchman was Armando’s debauched father and boldly infiltrate the Eagle’s citadel. They discover instead that the Cardinal has appropriated the Secret Files of the Vatican, planning to kill the Pope and replace him…

The outlaws are horrified at this travesty and assault on reality. They frantically race back to Rome to halt the abomination. They almost make it…

To Be Continued…

Effortlessly combining devious plots and beguiling historical conspiracies with riotous swashbuckling adventure and non-stop, breathtaking action, this blistering, bombastic and exotically engaging period thriller gives Game of Thrones, The Name of the Rose and even frothier romps like Da Vinci’s Demons a real run for their money. The twelfth and latest volume Le Mauvais Augurearrived last year after far too long a hiatus, so there’s plenty for fans of the genre to catch-up to and adore…
Le Marque du diable & Le Secret du pape © Dargaud Benelux (Dargaud-Lombard SA) 2000, 2001 by Desberg & Marini. All rights reserved. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.