The U-Ray (Before Blake and Mortimer vol. 1)

By Edgar P. Jacobs, coloured by Bruno Tatti, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBNs: 978-1-80044-105-7 (album PB/Digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Once Upon A Time… 9/10

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (1904-1987) is rightly considered one of the founding fathers of the European comics industry. Although his output is relatively meagre when compared to some of his contemporaries, his iconic works formed the basis and backbone of the art form across post-war Europe and far beyond. As a world rebuilt, his splendidly adroit, roguish and impeccably British adventurers Blake and Mortimer – created for the first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946 – became a staple of Continental kids’ life just as Dan Dare did in Britain starting four years later.

E.P. Jacobs was born in Brussels, a precocious child who began feverishly drawing from an early age but was even more obsessed with music and the performing arts – especially opera. He attended a commercial school but – resolved never to work in an office – pursued art and drama following his graduation in 1919. A succession of odd jobs at opera-houses – scene-painting, set decoration, acting, singing as an Extra – supplemented his private performance studies. In 1929, Jacobs won a Government award for classical singing, but his dream career as an opera singer was thwarted by the Great Depression, as the art funding and performances nosedived following the stock market crash.

Picking up whatever stage work was to be had – including singing and performing – Jacobs finally switched streams to commercial illustration in 1940 and found regular employment at magazine Bravo. While illustrating short stories and novels, he famously took over the syndicated Flash Gordon strip after the occupying German authorities banned Alex Raymond’s quintessentially All-American Hero, leaving the publishers desperately seeking someone to satisfactorily complete the saga.

Jacob’s Stormer Gordon lasted less than a month before being similarly sanctioned by the Nazis, after which Jacobs created his own epic science-fantasy feature – Le Rayon U: a weekly comics milestone in both Belgian comics and science fiction adventure…

The U Ray was a huge hit in 1943 and scored big all over again a generation later when Jacobs reformatted the original and traditional “text-block & picture” material to incorporate speech balloons before re-running the entire series in Le Journal de Tintin in 1973. It was subsequently released as graphic albums beginning in 1974.

There are conflicting accounts of how Jacobs and Tintin creator Hergé formed their infamous partnership together – and why they parted ways professionally, if not socially – but as to the whys and wherefores of the split, I frankly don’t care.

What is known is this: whilst creating U Ray, one of Jacob’s other jobs was scene-painting, and during the staging of a theatrical version of Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh Hergé and Jacobs met and became friends. If the comics maestro was unaware of Jacob’s comics output before then, he was certainly made aware of it after.

Jacobs started working on Tintin, colouring the originally monochrome strips of The Shooting Star from newspaper Le Soir for a forthcoming album collection. By 1944, he was performing similar service for Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America, King Ottokar’s Sceptre and The Blue Lotus. Jacobs also contributed to the illustration on extended epic The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun. His love of opera made it into the feature as Hergé, (who loathed it) teasingly created bombastic Bianca Castafiore as a comedy foil while basing a number of bit players (such as Jacobini in The Calculus Affair) on his long-suffering assistant.

After war and liberation, publisher Raymond Leblanc convinced Hergé, Jacobs and other creatives to work for his new venture. Launching publishing house Le Lombard, Leblanc also started Le Journal de Tintin: an anthology comic edited by Hergé with editions in Belgium, France and Holland starring the intrepid boy reporter and a host of newer heroes.

Beside Hergé, Jacobs and writer Jacques van Melkebeke, the weekly comic featured Paul Cuvelier’s Corentin and Jacques Laudy’s ‘The Legend of the Four Aymon Brothers’. Laudy had been a friend of Jacobs’ since they worked together on Bravo and became a model for some of his characters.

The first instalment of epic serial Le secret de l’Espadon (which eventually ran from #1, 26th September 1946 to 8th September 1949) cemented Jacobs’ status as a star in his own right: offering a wide variety of perils and menaces in stunning action thrillers blending science fiction, detective mysteries and supernatural thrillers in the timeless, universally engaging Ligne Claire style which had done so much to make intrepid boy reporter Tintin a global sensation.

In 1950, with the first 18 pages slightly redrawn, Le secret de l’espladon V1 (The Secret of the Swordfish) became Le Lombard’s first album release, with a concluding volume published three years later. These were reprinted nine more times between 1955 and 1982, with an additional single complete deluxe edition released in 1964. The epic romp featured a distinguished duo of Scientific Adventurers: a bluff, gruff Scots/British scientist and English Military Intelligence officer (closely modelled on his comics colleague Laudy): Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake. They and archfoe Olrik (based on Jacobs himself) were a thematic and visual evolution of characters Jacobs created for The U Ray

After decades of old farts like me whining, the lost gem was finally released in English translation this year – recently followed by sequel La Flèche Ardente courtesy of Jean Van Hamme, Christian Cailleaux & Etienne Shréder – and it was worth all that waiting…

In 1943 the Nazis may have banned the strikingly Aryan Flash Gordon but there was no denying the public appetite for his kind of action and so Jacobs’ next project dipped deep from that established well of romanticism and fantasy as well as borrowing heavily from US movie serial chapterplays.

In another place and time, the nations of Norlandia and Austradia are at war. The former’s chief scientist Professor Marduk has devised an ultimate weapon capable of ending the conflict but lacks the fuel source to power his mighty “U ray”. He believes the Uradium he needs can be found on the unexplored lost continent and organises an expedition to locate and secure some of the miracle ore. His prototypical party of archetypes includes his assistant Sylvia Hollis, heroic Major Walton, Lord Calder, Captain Dagon, Sergeant MacDuff and “Asiatic” manservant Adji at the head of sturdy crew, but the desperate mission to the Black Isle Archipelago is doomed from the start thanks to a spy hidden in their ranks…

After many fraught moments and sabotage attempts, the expedition finally lands in the forbidding jungles of a lost world teeming with uncanny primal beasts and savage humanoids. Soon, however, sheer misfortune, invading Austradians, deadly natural hazards and tragedy reap a heavy harvest as they trek inlands to where Marduk’s machines and charts say Uradium can be found. Thankfully, Major Walton is there to constantly counter peril of every description.

After heartbreaking effort a turning point comes when the survivors find a lost civilisation and encounter Prince Nazca and Princess Ica of the Underground City. These highly evolved beneficiaries give them the mineral they want but of course refuse to let their “guests” leave. With time running out and old and new enemies getting closer, it’s up to Walton to find a solution and escape plan…

Old world fun that cannot be denied or ignored, this album also includes tantalising teasers for the auteur’s later classics, a bibliography/publishing timeline and an informative article on Jacobs’1946 masterpiece of design The Swordfish.

Simplistic but effortlessly engaging, The U Ray is pure escapist joy to behold, and a book no serious fun-loving nostalgic can afford to miss.
Original edition © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud-Lombard S.A.) 2023. All rights reserved. English translation © 2023 Cinebook Ltd.