Saturday, April 22, 2006

16. Thorgal

Written by Jean Van Hamme and drawn by Grzegorz Rosinski

Thorgal pictureThorgal is one of the most popular bande-dessinée comics in France. I had seen references to it and the albums several times, but I was wary of it and only started reading it in a roundabout way. I had read two other series by the same author (those reviews will come later) and really enjoyed them. But I saw Thorgal as a poor European rip-off of Conan. He has long black hair, is generally shirtless and is in a fantastic semi-medieval setting (though actually it's more of the Viking period). It also has a similar black and white style to many of the Savage Sword artists.

The similarities are valid and the French are quite familiar with the comic world of Conan the Barbarian, but thinking of it as a weaker version was profoundly wrong. Thorgal rocks! This is a fantastic book. The first book I got was the Intégrale 1 (intégrales are what they call collections of the albums) that contained the first four albums. What first grabbed me was that the story had some really wild space/fantasy elements, but delivered with some gravity and expressing interesting themes and thus keeping it from being too far out.

Thorgal pictureIt's about a young man, a member of a tough viking tribe, but not actually of them. Though he is one of their best warriors, he is treated as an outsider because he was found on the beach as a baby. His origin is a fundamental part of the overall story arc of the series and as we learn more about it as we follow him through his adventurers. He falls in love with Aaricia, a daughter of the tribe's king (and this, of course, does not work out easily) and most of the book is about him and her trying to live peacefully away from the violence and machinations of man. It's a great theme and the love between them is really compelling, because, as you can well imagine, he is consantly getting drawn into shit and separated from his wife. Or she is taken from him, or their son is taken and they both have to go kick some ass. Along the way, Van Hamme and Rosinski create a great cast of secondary characters as well as amazing worlds of wondrous fantasy. Thorgal travels to underground dwarf tunnels, other dimensions, lost islands, aztec kingdoms ruled by space gods, nowhere (the land between heaven and earth) and I've only read 17 of 28 albums!

Thorgal2 pictureOne of my quebecois friends and I were discussing comics and I told him I was reading Thorgal. He said, with great enthusiasm "des belles histoires, des belles histoires." And it's true, at the level of each album, which in most cases is a self-contained story and at the greater level of the overall series, these stories are tight and engaging, always fundamentally connected to the themes and the characters. I have yet to find a moment that was a little lame, a little inconsistent.

And Thorgal is full of great ass-kicking moments. Later in the series, Thorgal makes friends with Pied d'Arbre (Foot of Wood, or I guess, Pegleg) a one-legged weapon-maker. He fashions a powerful bow, with two curves that can only be pulled back by an exceptionally strong person. Pretty standard stuff for a fantasy book, really. But when it gets exploited it's just one of those "Hell yeah!" moments. A bunch of bad vikings have done all kinds of bad stuff to Thorgal and his wife. Five of them are pursuing a wounded Thorgal. When they finally catch up to him, he's stopped and facing them across a plain. "Why did he stop?" asks the leader. "I don't know. He's just out of arrow range. I guess he thinks he's safe." "Ha ha, the fool," the leader laughs grimly. "As long as our arrows can't reach him, his can't-URK!" and suddenly there is an arrow in his chest. I can't really do it justice, (if I can get it out of the library again, I'll scan it in), but there are tons of great moments like that.

Thorgal3 pictureThe art is beautiful. At first I found it a bit too sketchy, but as I got into the comic more I appreciated some of the more interpretative lines. There is a great image of a horizon filled with oncoming Viking ships. They are just little squiggles on a black line, but somehow it works. Rosinski clearly has the skill to detailed, tight lines. He demonstrates it constantly on the close up shots. I read later that he deliberately keeps things open-ended, allowing the reader's imagination do the work. It is very effective. He captures the action of combat, the stillness of emotion and the fantasy of another world equally well. I actually prefer the black and white of the intégrales to the colour in the individual albums. It allows you to see Rosinski's lines much better.

I see that a lot of these were published in english by a company called Ink Publishing. I've seen them on eBay, but I imagine they are quite hard to come by. If you find one, check it out. My life is much better now that I have read Thorgal.

I'll leave you with a couple of frames from a story of Thorgal's childhood when he has to help a dwarf find the metal that does not exist in order to prevent the dwarf kingdom from being taken over by the evil serpent Nidgard. This story is one of the more fantastic, almost like a children's story. Check out the winged cats! The little dwarf rocks. He has a pick with which he is quite handy!

Thorgal4 picture

Thursday, April 20, 2006

15. Cell by Stephen King

Cell pictureOkay, this snuck in during my french BD reading because I had it reserved at the library before I started the comics project and it became available during. I couldn't pass up the opportunity.

Meezly does a better job of an overall review without giving away too much of the plot than I could have, so I'll let you read that and then add my own analytical comments.

First, I quite enjoyed Cell. I don't know if Stephen King is back or anything, but Cell was much more of a fun and direct read, closer to the books of his earlier days than his later more literary (and frankly boring) efforts. It starts off fast, hard and gory and keeps going. At first, it seemed like a The Stand lite, but when it was done it felt more like The Stand tight. The focus was much more personal, on the main protaganist and his drive to find his son, rather than on a collection of characters coming together for some epic post-apocalyptic battle. You didn't get the great scope of The Stand (I particularily enjoyed the spread of the disease, told in the 3rd person omniscient) but the impact of a world gone made may be more direct and powerful in Cell, seeing it only from the limited perspective of one young man trapped in Boston.

What I've always liked about King is that he is a very critical writer. He is not afraid to take shots at people, though they are usually indirect. For a horror story, Cell has some very strong political persuasions. There is a real anger here against christian fundamentalists that crops up regularily. More potent, though, is the entire theme, which read to me like a new england Liberal's disenchantment, disillusionment and, ultimately, contempt for the rest of America. The survivors, outside of the protaganists little gang are at best cowards, fearfully surrendering their freedom in exchange for the false security offered by the new enemy and at worst angry hateful bigots.

A scene among the refugees from burning Boston, when a shopping cart, pushed by an old couple, breaks a wheel and spills the boy inside on the ground, captures King's pessimism and bitterness:

"What had made his spirits sink to his shoetops was the way people just kept on walking, swinging their flashlights, and talking low among themselves in their own little groups, swapping the occasional suitccase from one hand to the other. Some yob on a pocket-rocket motorbike wove his way up the road between the wreckage and over the litter, and people made way for him, muttering resentfully. Clay thought it would have been the same if the little boy had fallen out of the shopping cart and broken his neck instead of just scraping his knee. He thought it would have been the same if that heavyset guy up there panting along the side of the road with an overloaded duffelbag dropped with a thunderclap coronary. No one would try to resuscitate him, and of course the days of 911 were done."

When I first read that, I thought he meant 9/11. With Cell, King punctures the American fantasy of unity that the current government is using to stay afloat. Like the survivors, following the call to the phone-free north where they will only meet their demise, Americans are following the corporate right to the false security of freedom of consumer choice and a war on terror. It's no accident that the cell phone is the medium for humanity's downfall here and interesting to note that under About the Author it says "Stephen King lives in Maine with his wife, the novelist Tabitha King. He does not own a cell phone."

I strongly recommend it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Interim Report

tintin pictureTo my legion of readers, I would like to explain why I have suddenly stopped posting. The truth is that I have also suddenly stopped reading books in english. I started a new job in March in a french office. This is wonderful and I'm loving it, but I found quite quickly that my french was not going to improve simply by me going to work. I need to buckle down, practice and drill on my own, listen to french and read french. I am therefore trying to immerse myself as much as possible in the french language and one of the first things that had to go was all the english reading I was planning on this year. This saddens me a bit, as I do love reading in my mother tongue. But there will always be a chance to read in english.

Since I read french novels at anywhere from 50% to 20% of the rate of english ones, it is unlikely that I will acheive the 50 books. Furthermore, reading in french can be a chore and I find that I slowly lose motivation. So I have decided to make a serious study of french comic books. The Bandes Dessinées as they are known have long been a source of interest for me, especially when I first went into a used comic store on St. Denis and saw just how fantastically extensive the industry is in Europe. They were just too expensive and I didn't know where to start, though I did begin, very slowly, to collect old Blake & Mortimer comics. Well, now I am happy to report that the Bibliotheque Nationale, the massive new library here in Montreal has a huge comics section and though it is often out of order, I am hitting it hard. I'm not quite sure how to 'score' bandes-dessinées for the purposes of the 50 books a year, but I will be bringing you reviews of some pretty interesting stuff, either series of a single character (probably the most common format), the work of a specific author or enclosed mini-series. I don't think I can justify a single album as a book. I have already started and I am extremely psyched! There are some ass-kicking french comics and I have barely scratched the surface.

Blake et Mortimer pictureFor the sake of an introduction, the bande-dessinée (which means "drawn strip") is considered in Europe and especially in french-speaking europe (Belgium is the primary source) as an aesthetic medium as relevant to art and literature as the film or novel. Comics cover a wide-range of subjects and are aimed at all different demographic groups (though there does seem to be a preponderance of books for young, male readers). They tend to be large format, hardback bound and 64 pages in length, generally of quite nice quality. They are also serialized in magazines that collect a bunch of different comics and then bound together later in complete volumes. Outside of Europe, the best known are Asterix and Tintin and if you've ever seen those, you will get an idea of at least how they are presented physically. Those are both great books, and both are responsible for significant trends in the medium, but they should not be taken as truly representing the incredible range of comics that exist today.

Obelix et co. pictureI can't say a whole lot more than that, as I don't know much more. But I hope to be able to share with you some of that incredible range in this blog. I have already learned a lot in the last month and I hope I can start to put together some ideas, theories and overall descriptions of la bande-dessinée. It's also a great opportunity to add lots of cool images! Very few of these comics are translated into english and I have yet to find a good web site for the anglophone, so we're kind of on our own here. Which is great. Stick around...