Friday, December 29, 2006

28. Les Maitres de l'Orge by Jean Van Hamme and Francis Vallès

I read this BD at the beginning of the year and it was actually one of the titles that inspired me to really dig into the Belgian comic scene. I saw it on display at the library and it really blew me away. As you can see from the cover, the subject matter appears to be about as far from the expected contents of a comic book as you could imagine. It looks more like a european telenovela. And in fact, that's basically what it is, albeit epic in scope (running through 3 centuries and several generations) and a bit more sophisticated, with its inclusion of history and economy.

The title translates into "The Masters of the Barley" and the arc of the story follows a small Belgian brewery that grows into a vast multinational beer empire and the family, the Steenforts, that runs it. Each of the 7 albums is centered around a single character, representing that generation of the family. You can see the covers in order here. Each album starts with an intro page that has a précis of the history of that generation and the current state of beer development and the beer industry. It also has a two page spread showing the town where the Steenforts live (and their main brewery is found) from the air. Each album, you can see tiny changes in detail (as well as large ones) as development and history changes its geography. It's quite fun to look around and see the changes that actually happened in the previous album.

It is a rich, complex story, starting with the extreme poverty of the mid-nineteenth century. The man who becomes the patriarch of the Steenforts breaks away from indentured labour in another brewery and slowly struggles to start his own. Eventually the new brewery takes hold, using new processing techniques. There are conflicts, romances, thefts of trade secrets, conspiracy and all that good stuff. It is definitely a big soap opera, but one that maintains its narrative integrity. There are no strong themes, besides the importance of beer and the foibles of human weakness. It is very clear that the author loves and respects beer. Perhaps this reflects a Belgian characteristic. If this were translated into english (which it should be), it be a fantastic gift for the beer aficionado in your life (and I can think of one brewmaster who would appreciate this).

A great, rich, engrossing comic.

Les Maitres de l'Orge cover picture

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Again, what a great idea to get these translated into english. We could get Molsons to sponsor the production.

Van Hamme is really the giant astride the Belgian BD world, nuh?