Stigmata


By Lorenzo Mattotti & Claudio Piersanti (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-409-2 (HB)

It’s rather hard not to think that it’s the end of days at the moment, and naturally that’s affecting what I’m reading. You too, I expect.

In that spirit, here’s a book you simply must read before you die, and if you already have, it truly stands another go.

In his latest magnificent endeavour, Lorenzo Mattotti is a giant of European graphic narrative with a back catalogue of truly stunning confections. In 1999 he teamed with novelist and screenwriter Claudio Piersanti for the first of two potent yarns (the other being the still untranslated Anonymes): to produce one of the most powerful and memorable examinations of religious experience with Stigmata.

This impressive hardback (still no digital edition yet) describes the Job-like trials and tragedies of a brutal, alcoholic shipwreck of a man pushed beyond the brink of tolerance and sanity. The pariah finds a kind of peace and resolution, but unlike his Old Testament antecedent, what begins in misery with nothing, only proceeds to forfeit even his last remaining graces. By the end of his travails, the sinner has found precious little knowledge or understanding, but some sort of peace…

Drunken, brutal, dissolute, middle-aged and heading nowhere, the last thing he needed was holes in his hands that bled but wouldn’t heal. Already despised and feared, the lonely bum works at a bar, but the wounds and the blood upset even those gin-soaked sots. Moreover, people follow him, thinking he possesses some divine secret or power to heal…

Eventually he snaps, wrecking the bar and confronting the vicious gangster who runs it… Some folks call him “the Saint”. He doesn’t think it’s funny…

As the city becomes even more savage and ugly, he takes off; tracking down an uncle who worked in a carnival. When he finds the travelling show his uncle is gone – arrested for stealing – but the Carnies accept him and he strikes up a romance with the vivacious Lorena. Even working as a handyman, his bleeding hands interfere, but the canny show-people turn it to their advantage, setting him up in a booth dispensing piety and miracle from his shabby, tawdry “House of Blessings.”

Travelling from town to town, he finds a kind of contentment, but eventually the Carnies’ secret sideline of burglary brings police attention. When his old gangster boss tracks him down and delivers a hideous punishment, he destroys the Stigmatic’s last shred of hope and Lorena’s life forever.

And then the storm hits… a tempest of Biblical proportions that changes everything…

Brooding, compelling and rendered in a cacophony of swirling miasmic lines, this fearsome modern parable is a fierce interrogation of faith and destiny asking uncompromising and uncomfortable questions about the price of Grace and the value of belief. Are these trials, so like Job’s cruel yet purposeful tests, the tough love of a benevolent father, the whims of a despicable devil or the random vagaries of an uncaring fate?

Stigmata is a grotesque and beautiful metaphysical rollercoaster with existential angst and blind faith gripping each other’s philosophical throats and squeezing really, really hard. No rational reader or mature comics fan can afford to miss this dark shining delight.
© 2010 Lorenzo Mattotti & Claudio Piersanti. All rights reserved.

Red Mother with Child (Louvre Collection)


By Christian Lax translated by Montana Kane (NBM/Musée du Louvre Éditions)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-257-1(HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-258-8

In 2005 one of the greatest museums in the world began an intriguing ongoing project with the upstart art form of comics; inviting some of the world’s most accomplished masters of graphic narrative to create new works in response to the centuries of acquired treasures residing within the grand repository of arts, history and culture.

The tales are produced in close collaboration with the forward-looking authorities of the Louvre, dedicated to pushing the envelope of what can be accomplished by master craftsman inspired by their creative antecedents and forebears. These are no thinly-concealed catalogues of exhibition contents gift-wrapped in cartoon terms to gull potential visitors off their couches and into a stuffy edifice of public culture, but vibrant and challenging comics events calculated to make you think again about what creativity and history mean…

Since then, many of our medium’s greatest exponents have crafted 11 astounding and compelling graphic novels and the twelfth may well be the most potent and rewarding thus far.

Courtesy of those fine folks at NBM, that latest beguiling bande dessinée is now available in English, highlighting Christian Lax’s inestimable artistic gifts and his dedication to and fascination with contemporary crises. Red Mother With Child shockingly combines reportage with drama and suspense with art appreciation to look beyond simplistic media hot button reports and governmental sideshow talking points to truly focus on one of the world’s most tragic human crises via the lens of immortal transcendent art and history…

Originally released in 2019 as Une Maternité rouge, this is a timely and powerful commentary on the value of art as well as a telling riposte to modern society’s callous ineptitude to the ongoing crisis of enforced global displacement. A beautifully robust oversized (234 x 305 mm) hardback graphic narrative – also available in digital formats – the tome follows the journey of one dedicated migrant as he strives to save a work of art from fanatics determined to destroy it in the name of misguided religion…

Multi award-winning author/artist Christian Lacroix AKA Christian Lax (Hector le castor, La marquise des Lumières, Azrayen) was born in Lyon on January 2nd 1949 and, after graduating from the École des beau-arts de Saint Étienne in 1975, began working in advertising whilst breaking into comics such as Metal Hurlant. After collaborating on a number of relatively straightforward adventure strips, in 1993 he began to carefully mine modern events for material, beginning with Romania-set political thriller La fille aux ibis. Since then has sought in all his works (which range from thrillers and historical journalism to sports strips such as Tour de France strip L’Aigle sans orteils) to show how social history impresses and shapes each generation…

Here, in muted lyrical hues, the tale begins in the Federation of Mali. It’s 1960 and the French are leaving the country days before it gains independence. With them they are taking every piece of native art and trinket of note…

One young boy determines that they won’t have everything and steals one statue: a small red figurine of a mother holding a baby…

In Spring 2015, officials and technicians of the Louvre discuss their jobs and the ethical ramifications of curating/safeguarding the cultural treasures of many lands and civilisations, even as, a scant distance away, a small band of refugees huddles under a café by the Seine. They all have stories of horrific past hardships and struggles to reach France and now endure daily kindness from some and cruel abuse from others. However, for one, his ultimate goal and mission is to breach the walls of the Louvre, itself…

Alou was a young honey hunter, at home with his simple world until he encountered Islamists throwing their weight around. After destroying the impious, heretical carving on Alou’s walking stick, the invaders blew up the ancient Baobab tree he was climbing. Secure in their power, the militants drove away unaware that their prank had unearthed a red figurine lost since Mali’s colonial days: a piece of art that grips the boy in a protective frenzy and makes him determined to save it from destruction at the hands of the anti-art fundamentalists…

With the aid of an old teacher/shaman with a secret interest, Alou sets out to place the Red Mother beyond their reach in the fabled Louvre. The boy must join the thousands abandoning their lives and homes and head for the relative paradise of Europe…

Lax has a unique talent for bringing history to vibrant life and a sublime ability to build rounded characters in a minimum of time and space. Packed with powerful detail, Alou’s journey throws a harsh spotlight on the plight of migrants and the causes of mass population displacement, but the artist narrator never loses sight of the fact that this is a tale of people. His contemporary epic shines with small acts of empathy and wickedness from a host of authentic characters peppering the voyage, turning a simple hero’s quest into a mighty pictorial paean to human endurance and testament to the force art exerts upon the soul.

Supplementing the narrative is a photo-packed essay detailing the history of the 14th century statue that inspired this tale and The Pavillon des Sessions’ that houses it.

This is another astounding and ferociously strident comics experience no art lover or devotee of the visual narrative medium can afford to miss…
© Futuropolis – Musée du Louvre Éditions 2019. © NBM 2020 for the English translation.
Most NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Blue is the Warmest Color


By Julie Maroh, translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger (Arsenal Pulp Press)
ISBN: 978-1-55152-514-3

Blue is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Sadly the buzz around this big screen interpretation – it is not an adaptation – concentrated on the “excessive and prolonged lesbian sex scenes“ (decried and disowned by graphic novel author Julie Maroh) rather than the story.

We’re only really about comics here: it’s the words and pictures on paper that matter to me and hopefully to you too…

And what a wonderful marriage they make in Maroh’s moodily pensive exploration of prejudice and acceptance in a straightforward but devastating coming-of-age love story.

Le bleu est une couleur chaude was first published in France by Glénat in 2010, five years after Maroh originally began the tale as a 19-year old student studying Visual Arts and Lithography/Engraving at the Institut Saint-Luc and Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts (Brussels).

The collected album won the fan-determined Fnac-SNCF Essential prize (Audience Award) at the 2011 Angoulême International Comics Festival, subsequently garnering many more international accolades. Sadly, no American publisher was brave enough to tackle the English language translation, but that’s why indie outfits like Canada’s Arsenal Pulp exist…

The story opens as Emma returns to a house she was unceremoniously banished from decades ago. Beloved Clementine is dead, but her last wish was that her one true love have her journals; books which described the thoughts and fears, ambitions and dreams of a confused 15-year old girl who struggled to accept her nature in a toxic school and home environment where loving someone of your own sex was considered an abomination…

Emma stays overnight in a home scarred by tragedy and steeped in tension, repentance and still-undispelled animosity, reading of how, in 1994, fraught and frantic high schooler Clementine saw a girl with blue hair and just couldn’t forget her…

This is a beautiful, simple, evocative and ultimately tragic story about how two very young people fell in love and what eventually happened to them. It’s not polemical or declamatory and doesn’t have points to score. That the Romeo and Juliet are both female is sublimely irrelevant except in the ways and manners it shaped the problems the lovers had to overcome…

Depicted alternately in a beguiling wash of misty full colour and stark dichromatic tones, the images are subdued and enthralling, not dynamic or overblown, and although there are some explicit love scenes, they are vital to the tale’s context and utterly subsumed by the overwhelming tide of elegiac sadness, political and social turmoil and doom-laden mystery which permeates the proceedings.

This is a masterful and compellingly human story that will astound lovers, loving grown-ups and all lovers of comics narrative.

Yes, there is a movie, but for pity’s sake read this first…

English Language edition © 2013 Arsenal Pulp Press. First published in French as Le bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh © 2010 Glénat Editions. All rights reserved.

The Case of Alan Turing


By Eric Liberge & Arnaud Delalande, translated by David Homel (Arsenal Pulp Press)
ISBN: 978-1-55152-650-8 (HB Album)

After decades of cruel injustice and crushing, sidelining silence, British mathematician Alan Turing – one of the greatest intellects in humanity’s history – has at last become the household name and revered pioneer of science he has always deserved to be.

As well as books and films describing the amazing achievements and appalling way this brilliant, misunderstood man – arguably the creator of the modern world we inhabit – was treated by society, there’s another graphic novel delineating the factual stuff whilst trying to get beneath the skin of a most perplexing and unique individual.

This gloriously oversized (231 x 13 x 287 cm) full-colour hardback biography – appropriately also available in digital formats – was first released in Europe as Le Cas Alan Turing in 2015 and employs an emphatic literary approach, more drama than documentary, to exploring the life of this tortured man.

The moving script by author Arnaud Delalande (La Piege de Dante) – via award-winning translator David Homel – only touches on Turing’s early, troubled home life and post-war scandals when the genius descended into self-loathing and court-mandated chemical castration to “cure” his “social deviancy”.

Allegations or accusations of homosexuality destroyed the lives of countless men until officially decriminalised in Britain’s 1967 Sexual Offences Act, and although Turing was posthumously pardoned of his “crimes” in 2013, his loss to suicide deprived the entire world of a generation of marvels…

The major proportion of this tale concentrates on World War II and Turing’s work as a cryptographer and inventor at British code-breaking centre Bletchley Park (it’s a stunning shrine to invention now: and you should visit it soon and often) where the insular young man struggled to convince his officious, unimaginative superiors to let him construct a mechanical brain to defeat the Wehrmacht’s presumed-infallible Enigma machines. Turing’s victories cemented his reputation and ensured that the battle against fascism (one sort, at least) was won…

The key figures are all there: sometime fiancée Joan Clark, Professor Max Newman, and the shady, morally-bankrupt “rent-boy” Arnold Murray who brought about Turing’s eventual downfall and demise, as are less well known figures: the MI5 operative who was his constant shadow before and after the war, boyhood lost love Christopher Morcom and many other unsung heroes of the intelligence war…

Played out against a backdrop of global conflict, Turing’s obsession with Walt Disney’s Snow White and a recurring motif of poisoned apples – the method by which he eventually ended his life – figure largely in a tale which reads like a movie in the making. Moreover, this powerful tale of an outsider’s temporary triumphs and lasting impact is beautifully and compellingly rendered by master of historical comics Eric Liberge (Monsieur Mardi-Gras Descendres, Le Dernier Marduk, Tonnerre Rampant, Les Corsaires d’Alcibiade), affording it an aura of unavoidable, impending destiny…

Balancing out the tragedy of chances missed is an informative photo-illustrated essay on ‘The Cryptography War’courtesy of historian, educator and government consultant Bruno Fuligni, detailing the development and use of different kinds of cipher and codes; how Enigma changed the rules of the spying game and how Turing changed it all again…

This is an astoundingly effective way to engage with a true story of incredible accomplishment, dedication and terrifying naivety: one that inevitably ends with tragedy that still blights us all and leaves forever-unanswered sentiments of “What If?” and “If Only…”
Text © Éditions des Arènes, Paris 2015. Translation © 2016 by David Homel.

Chimpanzee Complex volumes 1 (Paradox); 2 (The Sons of Ares) & 3 (Civilisation)


By Richard Marazano & Jean-Michel Ponzio, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-002-3 (Album PB Paradox), 978-1-84918-015-3 (Album PB The Sons of Ares), 978-1-84918-043-6 (Album PB Civilisation)

One thing French comics creators excel at is challenging, mind-blowing, astoundingly entertaining science fiction. Whether the boisterous, mind-boggling space opera of Valerian and Laureline, the surreal spiritual exploration of Moebius’ Airtight Garage or the tense, tech-heavy brooding of Orbital, our Gallic cousins always got it: the genre is not about hardware or monsters; it’s about people encountering new and uncanny ideas…

Prolific, multi award-winning Richard Marazano was born in Fontenay-aux-Roses in 1971. He initially pursued a career in science before switching to Fine Arts courses in Angoulême. He debuted in bande dessinée in the mid 1990s. Although an extremely impressive artist and colourist when illustrating his own stories (Le Bataillon des Lâches, Le Syndrome d’Abel), he is best known for his collaborations with other artists such as Michel Durand (Cuervos), Marcelo Frusin (L’Expédition) and Xavier Delaporte (Chaabi) to name just a few.

His partnerships with artist Jean-Michel Ponzio are especially fruitful and rewarding. As well as Le Complexe du Chimpanzé – the trilogy under discussion here available singly in trade paper and digitally, but not yet in one epic edition – the daring duo produced the taut, intricate social futurism of Genetiks™ and high-flying paranoiac cautionary tale Le Protocole Pélican.

Jean-Michel Ponzio was born in Marignane and, after a period of scholastic pick-&-mix during the 1980s, began working as a filmmaker and animator for the advertising industry. He moved into movies, designing backgrounds and settings; listing Fight Club and Batman and Robin among his many subtle successes.

In 2000, he started moonlighting as an illustrator of book covers and edged into comics four years later, creating the art for Laurent Genfort’s T’ien Keou, before writing and illustrating Kybrilon for publisher Soliel in 2005. This led to a tidal wave of bande dessinée assignments before he began his association with Marazano in 2007. He’s still very, very busy and his stunning combination of photorealist painting, 3D design and rotoscoping techniques grace and enhance a multitude of comics from authors as varied as Richard Malka to Janhel.

Cinebook began publishing The Chimpanzee Complex in 2009 with the beguiling and enigmatic Paradox, which introduces the world to a bizarre and baffling cosmic conundrum…

February 2035: experienced but frustrated astronaut Helen Freeman is still reeling from the latest round of cutbacks which have once again mothballed NASA’s plans to send an expedition to Mars. The young mother is resigned to living an Earthbound life in Florida with the daughter she has neglected for so long, but just as she tentatively begins to repair her relationship with young, headstrong Sofia, her world is again turned upside down when a call comes from her ex-bosses.

Bowing to the inevitable despite Sophia’s strident objections, she and old boss Robert Conway are whisked away under the tightest of security conditions to a US aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean under the draconian control of Top Brass Spook Konrad Stealberg.

Here they learn that, days previously, an unidentified object splashed down from space and was recovered by divers.

The artefact was the Command Module of Apollo 11 and it carried the still-living Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: legendary heroes forever mythologised as the first men to walk on the moon. Baffled and bewildered, the recovered astronauts have steadfastly refused to speak to anybody except NASA representatives…

Helen is the first to get any information from them, and whilst Stealberg’s technicians check every bolt, wire and component of the capsule, she and Robert carefully quiz their greatest idols. When the lost astronauts learn they have been in space for 66 years they are horrified. When they realise that history records they returned safely and died unremarkably years later, they go ballistic: exhibiting what Freeman describes as the traumatic shock response peculiar to space voyagers categorised by NASA as “the Chimpanzee Complex”…

Impatient martinet Stealberg has harder questions: if – as every test they can think of indicates these men are the real thing, who or what landed on Earth all those decades ago?

And most importantly, when they were feted by the world in 1969, was third astronaut Michael Collins – who never walked on Luna – one of us or one of “them”?

Exerting military privilege, he peremptorily kicks Conway out whilst pressganging Helen onto his staff, and transfers the mystery-nauts and their capsule to his ultra-secure Red Hills Creek Base in Colorado…

Helpless but conflicted, Freeman plays along, enjoining Robby to explain and take care of Sofia. If she had been angry before, the daughter’s reaction to this further enforced absence from a mother she feels doesn’t want her will be terrible indeed…

Events move very fast at the paranoid levels of the Military-Industrial complex, and as Helen continues her interviews with the biologically-perfect astronauts, she begins to discover inconsistencies and memory-lapses in their stories.

That’s enough for Stealberg to initiate other, harsher procedures, but before they can be implemented Helen is awoken from fantastically real dreams of exploring Mars to a new crisis: Armstrong and Aldrin are dead. From the state of their corpses they have been for decades…

In Florida Robby is still trying to assuage Sofia’s feelings, telling her Mum will be home soon. There’s no chance of that, though, as Stealberg has moved on with his plans and arranged a private meeting with the President.

The result is the re-commissioning of the completed – but mothballed – Mars exploration shuttle, with the intention of revisiting the site of the Apollo moon landings. As NASA’s top flier and an expert on the Mars vehicle, Helen is going too… whether she wants to or not.

Twelve days later, amidst massive public uproar and speculation at the ludicrous cover story for the sudden moon-shot, Helen and her crew meet the rest of the exploration team and she realises with horror that her professional career is based on a lie.

NASA has never had an American monopoly on spaceflight: the military had been running a clandestine, parallel black-book program since the very start, funded by siphoning the Agency’s operating budget and personally instigated by ex-Nazi rocket pioneer Werner von Braun

The launch is televised around the world, trumpeted as a final shakedown flight before closing the costly space program forever. Aboard the blazing javelin, Helen and close companion Aleksa ponder the coincidence of heading for the moon in the week they were originally scheduled to take off for Mars, but are more concerned that mission leader Stealberg has filled the shuttle with mysterious, classified containers…

All too soon, the vehicle establishes lunar orbit and a Lander touches down on the most hallowed site in the history of technology. It’s a huge shock: the paraphernalia left by the missions doesn’t match the records and there is a strange trail of footprints. Following them, the terrified explorers discover the mummified, space-suited, long-dead bodies of Armstrong and Aldrin, even as, high above them pilot Kurt matches velocities with a piece of space junk and discovers the Apollo 11 Command Module…with Collins’ corpse in it…

Moreover, there’s a recorded distress message in the primitive computers: a 66-year old Russian cry for aid originating from Mars…

And that’s when Stealberg reveals his biggest secret, summoning booster rockets and a second-stage shuttle from deep orbit whilst breaking out the cryogenic coffins that will keep the crew alive as they travel on to Mars and an appointment with the truth, whatever it might be…

Second volume The Sons of Ares opens in October 2035, focussing on Freeman’s best friend. NASA bureaucrat Robert Conway has struggled to look after the increasingly wayward Sofia. Increasingly off-the-rails, she argues and acts out, whilst in interplanetary space the fourth month of the journey finds American astronauts Paul Dupree and Mark Lawrence taking their boring turn awake for monitor duty, whilst their comrades endure resource-saving but life-shortening hibernation. The monotony is suddenly broken by a freak radiation storm. Only one of the terrified explorers makes it to the ship’s shielded area in time…

In Florida, Robert is acutely conscious of his failings as a surrogate parent, just as Helen is blissfully unaware of the personal crisis when her slumbering crew rouse from cold sleep to find Paul insane and Mark missing…

In reporting the situation to Earth, Helen again misses – or perhaps avoids – a chance to speak to Sofia – who is gradually coming to terms with the possibility that she might never see her mother again…

As the shuttle at last establishes Mars orbit, Paul is locked up for his own safety and the suspicious voyagers’ peace of mind. Konrad then shares intel gathered by his agents on Earth whilst they slept. The Soviet clandestine Cosmonaut project began in 1963, headed by space pioneer Yuri Gagarin – whose death had been faked to facilitate his smooth transition to commander of their Mars shot.

Expecting a monumental propaganda coup, the Kremlin simply said nothing when contact was lost with Gagarin’s mission, preferring stolid rhetoric to incontrovertible proof of failure. Now, with so many inexplicable events inevitably leading to the Red Planet, Stealberg expects Helen and her team to find all the answers with the Russians’ bodies on the dust surface. He couldn’t be more wrong…

Locating a base at the polar cap, Konrad dispatches his heavily armed crew to the site even as on Earth, Sofia runs away from home. However even whilst experiencing her greatest desire – walking on another world – Helen can’t help but worry about Paul, doped up and locked into the isolation chamber of the otherwise empty Shuttle…

Whilst Robert frantically searches for Sofia on Earth, the astronauts are astounded to discover the primitive landing site and corpses they expected are, in actuality, a thriving, efficient facility, stuffed with botanical wonders and manned by the very strong and vital cosmonauts who had landed there in the1960s.

After an initial exchange of hostilities – and gunfire – friendly contact is established and another incomprehensible tale unfolds. Russians Vladimir and Borislav have lost all sense of time in the “twelve years” since they landed and Commander Gargarin – having discovered a strange tunnel in a Martian glacier – has been absent for most of that period. They only know he’s still alive because food keeps vanishing…

Stealberg, seeing uncomfortable similarities in the agelessness of the cosmonauts and the duplicate Armstrong and Aldrin on Earth, sedates the Russians, who constantly ramble about the nature of reality, but Helen’s interest is piqued and, with Kurt’s assistance, she sneaks off into the glacier tunnel to find Gagarin…

When she succeeds, it only leads to more baffling questions. The First Man in Space perpetually stares into the unyielding ice-wall, seemingly unsurprised by Helen’s reports on the Apollo returnees, the impossible time-differentials and the fall of the Soviet Union.

He merely ruminates on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and whether such a subatomic phenomenon could apply to larger constructs – such as human beings – in a constant and simultaneous state of being and non-being: a “probability of presence”…

They also converse about children they will probably never see again…

As Helen returns to the greenhouse module, the Russians are planning more armed resistance, but Stealberg has an even more pressing problem. Much to Helen’s astonished disbelief, he’s found Gagarin’s 60-years-dead corpse…

As Vladimir and Borislav attack, setting fire to the modules, the Americans fall back to their vehicle, dragging the now hysterical Helen, who has promised her very much alive Yuri Gagarin a ride home…

The tension increases when they re-enter the orbiting Shuttle: Paul has vanished and no trace can be found of him. Thoroughly rattled, Konrad orders an immediate return to Earth, with increased watches for every day of the trip.

May 2036: on Earth Robert has tracked down Sofia and they both eagerly await Helen’s return at Cape Canaveral. However, as the Shuttle nears Earth it suddenly vanishes from all tracking systems. Aboard the vessel, Helen and Kurt experience the horror of seeing their home planet vanish. Unable to brake the shuttle, and with no world in view, they rejoin the others in cold sleep, not knowing when they will next awaken or even if they will still be in their solar system when they do.

Helen’s last conscious thoughts are of the daughter she may never see again…

Concluding volume Civilisation completes the trilogy by picking up in the Great Unknown as hibernation ends after 70 years. Only Helen and Aleksa remain alive, all the other cryo-capsules having failed at some indeterminate time.

With only finite resources and dwindling power, Helen consoles herself by catching up on messages beamed in hope and anticipation by Robbie Cooper, but is roused from her fatalistic depression by Aleksa who has made a shocking discovery…

Seeing one of the EVA suits missing, he at first believed their comrade Alex had committed suicide by walking out of the airlock. Then he saw the impossibly huge unidentified space ship and called Helen…

Suiting up and arming themselves, they cross to the vessel, Helen further encumbered by a laptop with all the messages – read and unread – from Cooper stored on it. They have no idea when Alex left, or if she even tried to reach the UFO. However, as it’s their only hope of survival, they make a leap into the void and, after great struggle, find themselves in a vast and terrifying mechanical chamber of disturbing proportions.

Alex’s abandoned gear is on the floor. She had clearly camped there for some time before vanishing into the dark, dusty cavernous interior…

Whilst they rest and consider their next move, Helen watches the last message Robbie sent from Earth. It is sixty-seven years old…

Later, Helen freaks out when they find Alex’s empty suit, until Aleksa does the unthinkable and opens his own EVA garb. The enigma ship has warmth and a breathable atmosphere…

And then something pushes part of the vessel over on them…

Narrowly escaping harm, they cautiously explore the vessel, but after splitting up Aleksa is attacked again. When terrified Helen finds him, he is hugging the crazed, decrepit, wizened but still alive Alex. Mute but still vital, she leads them through vaulting passageways to what they can only assume is a skeleton. A really, really big one. Outside a viewing portal, Mars spins by above them. It’s as if they’ve come home…

However fast or far or forward humanity travels, their fears and foibles go with them and before long distrust and dread spark a final confrontation in the uncanny construct. Thus, only one person makes an implausible, inexplicable escape back to Earth…

It’s 2097 and as a long-missing craft splashes down in the ocean to begin the circle anew, it becomes clear that some mysteries, like some philosophies and some family bonds, remain ineffably beyond the sphere of rational thinking…

Bold, challenging and enticingly human, this astonishing science mystery dances and darts adroitly between beguiling metaphysics and hard-wired mortal passions, easily encompassing our species’ inbuilt inescapable isolation, wide-eyed wonderment, hunger to know everything and terror of finding out. Marazano’s pared-to-the-bone script is brought to hyper-life with stunning clarity by Ponzio to produce a timeless fusion of passion, paranoia and familial fulfilment. A deft blend of intrigue, hope, paranoia and abiding curiosity, The Chimpanzee Complex is a tale no lover of fantasy and suspense should ignore.

Do you read me? Do read The Chimpanzee Complex.
© Dargaud, Paris, 2007, 2008 by Marazano& Ponzio. All rights reserved. English translation © 2009, 2010 Cinebook Ltd.

X-Campus


By Francesco Artibani, Michele Medda, Denis Medri, Roberto Di Salvo & Marco Failla; translated by Luigi Mutti (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-90523-998-6 (Marvel/Panini UK PB)

Here’s an intriguing reimagining of the key elements which made X-Men a global phenomenon, courtesy of the company’s international connections. Created in 2008 by European creators informed by the movie franchise and published under the Marvel Transatlantique imprint, this oddly numbered miniseries (1A&B – 4A&B) is set on the sprawling campus of the Worthington Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut. This unique academy draws special students from all over the world…

The guy in charge is Professor Magnus whilst Charles Xavier is a biology teacher with an assistant named Jean Grey. The student body is highly polarised: First year students Hank McCoy, Scott Summers, Bobby Drake, Ororo Munroe, Warren Worthington III and the unruly Logan are all good kids.

Magnus’s favoured group (all analogues of the Marvel Universe Hellfire Club and led by telepathic jailbait wild-child Emma Frost) – not to mention his school caretakers Mesmero, Pyro, Toad and Blob – are clearly operating under a hidden agenda and turn all their dubious charms to getting new girl Anna Raven to join their clique. You’ll know her as Rogue and it’s her narrative voice that drives this tale…

Magnus/Magneto is using the school to recruit a homo superior army and Xavier’s plan is to covertly rescue impressionable adolescent mutants before it’s too late. Foiling the villain’s plan to acquire both teleporter Kurt Wagner and Russian Man of Steel Peter Rasputin only leads to greater conflict and the rapidly-maturing kids must ultimately decide once and for all whether they’ll be friends or foes of humanity…

Compacting all the elements of X-lore into a school divided between “goodies” and “baddies” works surprisingly well, as does making all the heroes troubled teens. This oddly engaging blend of The Demon Headmaster and Roswell High – and every latterday young adult yarn with teachers as evil “Thems” – is written with great charm by Artibani and Medda, and whilst the manga style art (reminiscent of many modern animation shows for kids) is a little jarring to my old eyes, it does carry the tale with clarity and effectiveness, aimed as it is at drawing in contemporary readers, not cranky old gits like me.

Still readily available in trade paperback and easily obtainable digital formats, this is a refreshing take on the merry mutants and I’d honestly welcome more of the same. If you’re not too wedded to continuity and could stand a breezy change of pace, why not give this intriguing return to turbulent School Daze a go?
© 2008 Marvel Entertainment, Inc. and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. (A BRITISH EDITION BY PANINI UK LTD)

Giant


By Mikaël, translated by Matt Maden (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-253-3 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-254-0

As a purported land of promises and untapped opportunity, America has always fascinated storytellers – especially comics-creators – from the “Old World” of Europe: an inclination and interest that has frequently delivered potent and rewarding results. This continentally-published yarn – by self-taught, multi-disciplined, multi award-winning French-born Québécois auteur Mikaël (Junior l’Aventurier, Rapa Nui, Promise) was first released by Dargaud in 2018 as two European albums and now breaks into English via a monolithically oversized hardback (229 x 305mm) edition that gets the entire story done-in-one.

Everything about this stylish Depression-era drama is big and powerfully mythic. In March 1932, with poverty wracking the nation and the world, and Herbert Hoover dreading the upcoming Presidential election, immigrants and natives flock to Manhattan and the bustling, dangerous construction site that will one day be Rockerfeller Center. Casualties are high as we focus on the Irish contingent rushing daily into the skies to rivet and weld a concrete and steel colossus into New York City’s ever-changing skyline.

The story unfolds through the eyes of fresh-off-the-boat new recruit Dan Shackleton who joins the crew after the death of “high-steel” man Ryan Murphy. Dan is a garrulous, easy-going son-of-the-sod, but even he has difficulty befriending the taciturn, thoughtful, barely-human behemoth everyone calls Giant. A formidable worker, Giant lives in a grubby flop-house and keeps to himself, but affable Dan persists and eventually the big man almost-imperceptibly thaws – at least enough that Shackleton becomes unwitting witness to a strange ritual…

Hiding a tragic secret that dates back to the recent Irish War of Independence, the Big Man is a solitary creature of fiercely controlled passions who keeps his every opinion to himself. A dutiful worker, Giant was given the task of informing Murphy’s widow in Ireland when he died. Instead, he began impersonating the dead man in a string of letters containing the bulk of his own carefully-hoarded wages and savings. Over months, a bizarre one-sided relationship develops that metastasizes into a full-blown crisis after the silent bruiser falls foul of organised crime. When the letters and money stop, Mary Ann Murphy and her children take ship for America to be reunited with her beloved husband. As the wounded colossus recuperates, he has no idea of the troubles that are heading his way…

Tapping into a wealth of powerful socially-crusading movies that have immortalised pre-WWII America and packed with period detail and mythology, pungent political commentary, a broad cast of moving characters and timeless drama, this is a human-scaled tale playing out amongst mighty edifices – both human and architectural – with warmth, passion, humour and beguiling humanity.

Supplemented with an Introduction by Jean-Louis Tripp and a stunning selection of production sketches, covers and other art, Giant is a stunning saga of uncommon folk in perilous times and one no lover of grand stories could possibly resist.
© 2018 Dargaud-Benelux. © 2020 NBM for the English Translation. All rights reserved.

Giant is scheduled for UK release April 23rd 2020 and is available for pre-order now.
Most NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com.

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen


By Claire Fauvel, translated by Montana Kane (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-251-9 (HB)

Born in 1988, award-winning graphic novelist Claire Fauvel (À la recherche d’Alvaro Dolor; Sur les pas de Teresa, la religieuse de Calcutta [w/Marie-Noëlle Pichard]; Une Saison en Égypte; Catherine’s War [w/Julia Billet]) studied illustration at Paris’ l’école Estienne and animation at l’école des Gobelins before beginning an illustrious career in bande dessinée. She’s particularly adroit and adept with female historical figures and her latest tome gives her plenty to work with…

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen is that rare event, a history that has all the energy and impetus of a great action adventure and pioneering, political tract. Despite being a factual graphic biography, this is the stuff of legend and grand drama, detailing the astounding, appalling, tragic and triumphant life of a woman who bucked India’s ancient, all-pervasive caste system. Victim from birth of poverty and inequality, she sought change through bloody deeds and ultimately political action in a country where prejudice is institutionalised: expressed via cultural violence, and which fostered for millennia a tyrannical social system of inherent, inbuilt corruption where gods and birth status forever dictate one’s position in life…

Phoolan suffered a double blow at birth: born both poor and female. Never educated, she remained illiterate all her life. A life of being shunned and grinding poverty was exacerbated when she was married off at age 11, starting a harrowing pattern of slavery and sexual abuse lasting until she was rescued by a troop of the legendary bandits infesting Uttar Pradesh at the time. They were actually more decent – and heroic – than most respectable citizens (men), civil authorities and police officers of the region. Becoming lover to one of the gang, she suffered even greater abuse when he was murdered by a rival from a different caste.

Surviving these assaults, Phoolan organised an infamous vengeance massacre at the village of Behmai. That slaughter was picked up by the press, who recast her as a rebel queen and her lover a martyr. The public began using the honorific “Devi” for her and, after a mythic career, she surrendered to authorities in 1983. Over eleven years of imprisonment, 48 capital charges including murder, plunder, arson and kidnapping were incrementally dropped before a trial that never came. In 1994, the state government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party withdrew all charges and she walked free. Joining the party, she was elected to national office twice, becoming a strong advocate for radical change, in the caste system and the patriarchal treatment of women. Regarded as the “voice of the oppressed”, on 26th July 2001 her past caught up with her when she was assassinated by relatives of the bandits killed at Behmai.

Fauvel took her inspiration from acclaimed 1996 autobiography Moi, Phoolan Devi, reine des bandits by Phoolan Devi & Marie-Thérèse Cuny, and although not all of those events are included in this stunning and uncompromising account, the supremely enticing and engaging art manages to mix in a few moments of hopeful aspiration, happy romance and family unity to offset the revolting iniquities Phoolan and other women had to survive on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, this brilliant tale is grim and unflinching in the portrayal of the constant assaults and abuses she endured, so you’d better gird yourself for plenty of righteous indignation and outright anger at the catalogue of venality and casual intolerance civilised folk still seem capable of…

Potent, unmissable, and primed to continue the fight, this is a book you must read.
© 2018 Casterman. © 2020 NBM for the English translation.

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen will be published on March 19th 2020 and is available for pre-order. NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com

Chloe & Cartoon volume 1: When Chloe First Met Her Cat, Cartoon


By Greg Tessier & Amandine, translated by Joe Johnson (/Charmz/Papercutz)
ISBN: 978-1-5458-0430-8 (HB) 978-1-5458-0431-5 (TPB)

Let’s close cat week (not an actual thing… yet) with another superbly inclusive and entertaining European import, debuting under Papercutz’s new Charmz imprint aimed at a Pre and Early Teen female readership (let’s go with 9-13, but I don’t register on any of those metrics and still enjoyed it immensely).

Chloe & Cartoon is actually a prequel, set before Charmz’s splendid, school series Chloe which originally began in 2017 and 2018 as French series Mistinguette & Cartoon. When Chloe First Met Her Cat, Cartoon compile first two Euro-tomes Chat Arrive! and Deuxieme Chat Pitre into a bold and charming collation of consecutive vignettes detailing how the ever-so-tense Blin family take possession of a 3-month old kitten. Chloe is still in elementary school and her brother Arthur is just a toddler, it’s nearly Christmas and tetchy Mr. Blin is about to reluctantly capitulate to a sustained campaign by his wife and first-born to get a cat. He is NOT KEEN.

Knowing when to give in, he scopes out three likely candidates and make the rookie mistake of picking the chubby, lazy sleeping one, on the absurd assumption that it will cause the least mess and trouble…

Dad learns his lesson over the following months as the little tyke settles in with the exact opposite of the minimum of fuss and destruction. Nevertheless, Cartoon changes Chloe’s life and the family dynamic forever. Days pass in a flurry of little adventures as the girl learns responsibility, how to let go, and patience while dad becomes more and more of an ogre before admitting his own affection for the fuzzy brute….

These short strips are not only fun and supremely entertaining but also subtly reinforce ideas of proper pet care and are augmented by ‘Tips from Chloe’: illustrated text features ‘Welcoming a Kitten to Your Home’ and behavioural hints in ‘Understanding a Kitten’.

Available in Hardback, Softcover and digital editions, When Chloe First Met Her Cat, Cartoon is the brainchild of author Greg Tessier, a relative newcomer who spent much of his career as a cultural and historical development specialist, overseeing public reading projects in France, and veteran illustrator Amandine. She’s been active in the business since 2006, with alternative projects as part of the Nekomix collective; mainstream illustration work for Disney, Hachette Presse, Playbac, Fleurus Presse; children’s series Valentin, and since 2011 Mistinguette.

As well as being a delightful comic for readers of all ages, Chloe & Cartoon is a wonderful argument for the proposition that every kid should grow up a with a pet. If that’s a quandary currently vexing you, consider this as definite tick in the “pro” column…
Mistinguette [CHLOE] & Cartoon volume 1 “Chat Arrive!” © Jungle! 2017 and Mistinguette [CHLOE] & Cartoon volume 1 “Deuxieme Chat Pitre” © Jungle! 2018. All rights reserved. User license. English translation and all other material © 2020 by Papercutz. All rights reserved.

Madame Cat


By Nancy Peña, translated by Mark Bence (Life Drawn/Humanoids)
ISBN: 978-1-59465- 813-6 (PB Album)

Churlish men have joked about women with cats for eternity. Here’s a superbly irrepressible cartoon collection BY a woman about her own cat. It’s hilarious, extremely addictive and among the top five strips about feline companions ever. Laugh that off, guys…

Toulouse-born Nancy Peña probably caught the comics bug off her father: a dedicated comics collector. She studied Applied Arts and became a teacher while carving out a sideline as a prolific creator of magazine strips and graphic novels such as her Medea series, Le Cabinet Chinois, Mamohtobo and many more.

Hectic as all that sounds, she still found time to invite a companion animal to share her life…

Madame is a cute little kitty who shares her house and converses with her. The bewhiskered treasure (Madame, right) has a vivid interior life – probably swiped from a number of deranged mad scientists and would-be world conquerors – and is the mischievous stuff of nightmares all those legally responsible for a pet know and dread. There is nothing the tiny tyke won’t attempt, from drinking artists ink to exorcising the artist’s long-suffering and utterly unwelcome boyfriend.

Madame knows what she is and what she wants and will baulk at nothing – not even the laws of physics – to achieve her aims…

The engaging bombshell bursts of manic mirth are rendered in engaging duotone (black and blue, but I’m sure that’s not symbolic of anything) with titles such as ‘Madame flirts’, ‘Madame suggests’, ‘Madame insists’, and ‘Madame smells’ as the wee beast moves in, makes allies of the other felines in the area and promptly takes charge: wrecking the life and house of her carer and only giving in return permission to be adored. Every cat person alive will identify with that…

Available in paperback and digital editions, Madame Cat is a sparking example of domestic comedy. Mixing recognisably real events with potent imagination and debilitating whimsy, Peña has introduced a classic cartoon character who is charming, appalling and laugh-out-loud funny. If you’ve been thinking of getting a cat, along with all the medical and pet-care books, get this too. You won’t be sorry. Well, not with the book, at least…
“Madame” © 2015-2016 La Boîte à Bulles & Nancy Peña. All rights reserved.