by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "S" page 3-B

Sin City: Hell and Back 2005 (SC TPB) 320 pages

cover by MillerWritten and illustrated by Frank Miller.
black & white with a colour sequence by Lynn Varley. Editor: Diana Schutz.

Reprinting: the nine issue mini-series (1999-2000)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

additional notes: pin-up gallery by some well known contributors; cover gallery

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by Dark Horse Comics

On one level, Frank Miller's Sin City tales are dark, gritty, violent thrillers delving into the dark heart of Basin City, a city of eternal crime and corruption, albeit leavened with some comic relief characters and dialogue. Yet on another level, precisely because it's so over-the-top, it also functions with tongue-in-cheek, on the level of camp...even parody. Not a regular series, per se, but comprised of various mini-series and shorts, some stories featuring characters unique to that plot, while others feature returning characters. Yet despite a variety of protagonists and, essentially, stand alone plots, there's actually a surprising sameness to the stories -- at least based on the two volumes I read (this and That Yellow Bastard) and the hit movie that adapted a number of Sin City stories into one anthology-like movie. There's a taciturn loner hero, capable of great violence, who ends up standing alone against a sinister conspiracy of gangsters and crooked cops, usually for the sake of a woman -- one who either is killed, is threatened, or, as is the case here, is kidnapped.

In Hell and Back that formula takes on the form of Wallace, a long haired struggling artist, who also happens to be a heavily decorated ex-soldier. He meets Esther, a beautiful struggling actress when he rescues her from a suicide attempt. Yet barely do they start to connect emotionally than Esther is kidnapped and Wallace sets out to find her, battling corrupt cops and assassins all the way.

As I say, despite the ostensible dark tone of Sin City, the stories are essentially meant to be fun...indulgences in over-the-top cliche. The heroes are unstoppable, obeying a kind of Bushido code of honour and determination, the women are either to be rescued, or seductive femme fatales, and the villains are one note bad guys of irredeemable sleaze. And that's kind of the point -- you don't read Sin City for profundity, or for stunning plot twists. You read it to lose yourself in its black and white extremes and shameless excess. Excesses of action, of violence, of profanity...and even nudity. Hell and Back may well be the most gratuitously sexploitive of the Sin City stories (at least based on having flipped, perfunctorily, through a few other volumes at the book store). Esther is kidnapped by white slavers (although she's black) and though she is not actually sexually abused in the story, she does spend most of her scenes naked, while other women seem to pop out of their clothes with surprising alacrity. Just to be equal opportunity, Miller also throws in naked men, but for the most part, the intents are different -- the naked women are generally beautiful and affecting sexy poses, the naked men are often grotesque and repulsive.

Gratuitous? Excessive? Yeah -- but that's the point. In fact, I've commented before that nudity in "mature readers" comics, at least of a sexy kind, is actually rare in mainstream publications -- the violence will get cranked up, the four letter words will fly, but nudity of any amount usually only crops up in "erotic" comics. Why, I don't know (given the snickering, sexploitive tone of so many modern comics, where heroines appear in low cut dresses and thongs).

Anyway, that's all part of the shameless fun of Sin City -- it makes no apologies.

Accompanying that is, arguably, a certain sexism -- whether that's part of the "homage" to a genre, or reflecting Miller's views, is up for debate. As mentioned, the women basically fall into two camps -- Esther is largely a plot point, a sexy damsel in distress to be rescued (indeed, given she is Wallace's motivation, her actual scenes and dialogue are few), while other women are there to be sexy and duplicitous, the stock dangerous dames of film noire. Miller even throws in a few, essentially, sexist jokes, like Esther taking forever to decide on a change of clothes while Wallace watches the clock tick by. Sure, Miller has a history of creating "strong" women -- but that more just plays into the cliche of the adolescent male fascination with the gun totting vixen.

A big appeal of the Sin City stories is Miller's distinctive, unique art style -- Miller, whose style has veered in various directions over his long career. In the case of Sin City, the stories are largely black & white (save for some symbolic uses of colour or, as in this tale, an entire sequence in colour because it's a dream/hallucination). The black & white is part of that over-the-top tone, deliberately harkening to one of the series' inspirations, hard boiled film noire movies. But it's also a vivid, atmospheric style, making best use of Miller's often rough, sketchy style by presenting the images in stark black and white contrasts, where often a figure or an image is defined simply by the shadows that play over it, the panels chunks of whiteness and chunks of blackness, the image etched out in the places where the two extremes meet. Yet despite this, and the inherent caricature style of roughly drawn bodies, and big hands and feet, there is a sensuality to the women. Although I did feel toward the end the art was becoming even rougher, less effective, maybe as if Miller was rushing to meet his deadlines (the final issue is double-sized) or was beginning to move fully in the direction of the raw style he would employ on The Dark Knight Strikes Again. And throughout, that art style can render some images a bit muddled, and doesn't always distinguish supporting characters well.

At first it all works -- accepting what I said about what you expect, and get, from a Sin City story. Some fans complained that Wallace was maybe a bit too nice for Sin City, where often even the heroes are troubled anti-heroes, but he works well enough in the role he's given. But, as I say, it's all meant to function as a visceral adrenaline rush, not an insightful human drama. Logic is often tenuous. The slave ring wants their actions kept secret, deliberately targeting women without roots who won't be missed...then kidnap Esther right in front of Wallace, a witness? There are times when there are so many people coming after Wallace, it's not really clear who they are or why -- it's not like there are multiple parties or agendas at play. Consider a scene where a chauffeur bursts in on Wallace to kill him, but is killed in turn by a sniper, all while Wallace is making contact with a woman who is, herself, a plant. I'm not sure a scene like that makes any sense at all.

That woman, Delia, is kind of an odd addition to the story. Her presence is sort of treated like a puzzle, where we don't know who she is...even as her behaviour pushes the story out of just tongue-in-cheek into out-and-out silliness (as she makes a play for Wallace even as bullets are flying). Yet, apparently, she had appeared in an earlier Sin City story. So it's unclear whether Miller expects the average reader to know her or not.

The story is effective and entertaining, the visuals moody and atmospheric, the pacing good (if given to pages often only comprised of one or two panels), the dialogue snappy. It's all very trite, but that's the point.

But it doesn't maybe lend itself so well to such a lengthy telling -- at 9 issues, the longest Sin City story arc. And the over-the-top action kind of robs the story of even a hint of plausibility, or suspense, when an unarmed Wallace can easily trounce a horde of gun wielding opponents. Sure, that's the fun -- it's a macho fantasy, the cathartic appeal of watching our hero trounce the bad guys. But it means the action scenes are just action, not suspense scenes where we're wondering how -- or if -- our hero will survive. And though Wallace is an ex-soldier, he seems to be living a purely civilian life -- except then dialogue is tossed in where he implies a certain experience in these matters, and he recruits some old army buddies, even borrowing a re-fitted jeep as if he was already aware they had it and he knew how to use it.

As I said -- logic is tenuous at best.

And, without a plot to be developed, a mystery to be unravelled, motivation to be explored, the final few chapters are just extended action scenes. The result is something that starts out moody and atmospheric, where you're enjoying it precisely for the familiarity of it all, yet can also enjoy watching the plot unfold -- but about half way through it feels as though it's really said all it's going to say, and the rest is just a lot of hitting and shooting.

This was also Miller's final Sin City story -- yeah, given the TPB collections are still in print, and it's seen as so much a signature work in Miller's canon, it's hard to believe it's been a decade since Miller did anything with it (in comics, that is, the Hollywood adaptation being the exception). And one wonders if Miller had already known this would be his swan song when he was working on it. As mentioned, it's the longest of the Sin City stories, as if Miller just didn't really want to leave anything undone. There's an extended sequence where Wallace is drugged and views the world through a hallucinogenic prism -- it's the story's full colour sequence (courtesy of colourist, and frequent Miller collaborator -- and his wife -- Lynn Varley). And as part of the hallucinations, Miller works in drawings of various comic book characters (from Lone Wolf & Cub to Captain America to Hagar the Horrible), movie stars (Sylvester Stallone, etc.) and nods to Miller's own creative career (such as ancient soldiers evoking his 300 saga, or Martha Washington) -- again, as if as part of his final, he just wanted an excuse to draw whatever he wanted to draw.

And the fact that it was his last Sin City might explain why it feels a bit lacking in freshness, as if even he was losing interest. But I'm not sure if that's fair. First off, as mentioned, the entire idea behind Sin City is basically cliched scenarios and one note characters. Secondly, based on reviews by others, clearly more familiar with the entirety of the Sin City stories, Hell and Back seems to be ensconced comfortably in the middle -- not the series' best, but not it's worst, either (allowing for the to-be-expected extremes on either end, with some reviewers saying it was the best...and others the worst).

I had earlier read That Yellow Bastard, and liked it...but didn't love it. And Hell and Back was my second go round with the property (other than the movie)...and it basically leaves me feeling pretty much the same. It's deeply atmospheric, and fun in its shamelessness, but a little thin in plot and characterization to really sustain such a lengthy telling satisfactorily.

Cover price: 28 bucks (USA).

Sin City: That Yellow Bastard

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
see my review here

Six from Sirius 1984/2005 (SC TPB) 120 pages

Written by Doug Moench. Illustrated and coloured by Paul Gulacy.
Letters: Gaspar Saladino.

Reprinting: the four issue mini-series

Originally TPB released by Marvel/Epic; 2005 re-issue by Dynamite

Mature readers

Reprinting: the nine issue mini-series (1999-2000)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Reprinting: the four issue mini-series

Number of readings: 1

Originally TPB released by Marvel/Epic; 2005 re-issue by Dynamite

Reviewed: Aug 2017

Recommended for Mature Readers

I review the sequel mini-series here

Six from Sirius is one of innumerable collaborations over the years between writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy -- this time choosing as their milieu space opera. The Six of the title are a crack team of troubleshooters/commandos led by Jakosa Lone whose mission is to rescue an Ambassador crucial to negotiations between two hostile worlds. The catch is that she's being held by her own government. She believes it's for her own protection, but Six from Sirius' intel is that her government is seeking to sabotage their own negotiations.

After a jail break, and the Ambassador grudgingly realizing maybe her government had lied to her, we learn more of the back story (and warning: the comic can be quite verbose with conspicuous info dumps). Two worlds are at odds, with a moon inbetween that is inhabited by religious refugees from one of the worlds -- a moon that one world figures the other world has secretly been supporting and arming (as a loose analogy, think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with two superpowers and the little country inbetween).

I had read the sequel mini-series to this some years ago -- and moderately enjoyed it (without much of it sticking in my memory). But I only just recently got around to reading this original story (which was the one collected as a TPB -- though weirdly enough the cover image for some editions is not only a touch more salacious than the inside story but actually uses imagery from the second mini-series!)

Part of the problem here is both that the story is kind of simple (fairly early we know all the parties and their agendas, none of which are that surprising) even as it's also overly complicated and confusing. Which sounds like a contradiction, I know. But what I mean is the basic story is fairly simple, even as it's overloaded with complications. And complications that themselves can feel a bit crammed in with little foreshadowing. Not to give away too much, but the second half of the story involves a twist involving Jakosa's past relationships -- even as earlier we had no hint of or reference to any such relationships!

It can feel a bit too much like they are making it up on the fly -- or putting the cart before the horse (an interesting editorial in the original comics supposedly recounts conversations between Moench and Gulacy, suggesting ideas were being developed as the pages were being turned in -- including expanding what was originally meant as a 40 page story into closer to 120 pages!)

This could explain what may be the series biggest problem: the characters. One can't help suspecting Moench settled on Six from Sirius because he liked the alliteration (in the aforementioned text piece he literally seems to have started with the title) -- and then he struggled to come up with six characters to justify it. The heroes have little real personality (in group scenes and long shots it was often hard to tell who was supposed to be speaking what lines) or contribute much to the story (despite having different specialities). Moench basically falls back on gimmicky crutches like one character -- an alien (whom Gulacy just draws as a human but coloured green) -- always referring to himself in the third person, or another (a supposed self-styled poet) who likes to narrate dramatically out-loud as things occur (and it's as annoying as it sounds). Towards the end of the story that character gets all sombre and remarks that he won't do that anymore -- which I guess is meant to serve as a character arc. But as I say: they're mostly interchangeable with similar gruff, Alpha Male personalities, and little sense of individual relationships (ie: character A is besties with character B -- save at one point intimating a female character has an unrequited crush on Jakosa, but again with little demonstration of it).

And if you don't really like or care about the characters -- it's hard to get too caught up in what befalls them.

A further problem is that in among all the action and shooting, Moench also wants to get abstract and head-trippy -- like Star Trek/Star Wars (or, given the story's underlining cynicism and even nihilism, maybe Blake's 7) meets 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of Moench's signature series (also at times in collaboration with Gulacy) was Master of Kung Fu with its lyrical, philosophical narration which Moench pulled off surprisingly well. But here it just feels kind of airy-fairy gobbiligook -- or maybe that's just my own inherent cynicism or maybe Moench's writing above my head. Or maybe the problem is that in a story with characters and emotions that don't ring true the dense philosophical text captions can seem empty and meaningless.

I've kind of skipped over the art. Arguably this was during Gulacy's peak period, achieving a kind of hyper-realism in his drawings (aided by elaborate almost painted colours lending it a further photographic aspect). Apparently this was at a point when Gulacy had temporarily dropped out of comics (in that aforementioned text piece detailing Moench and Gulacy's collaborations it's implied Gulacy had to be wooed back to the biz). With that said -- Gulacy's art can balso suffer from a bit stiffness, and not altogether imaginative concepts and designs (as mentioned, the one alien is just a normal-looking guy painted green -- in the sequel series Gulacy would actually come up with more alien-looking aliens). Still, a sci-fi comic is partly about the reader escaping to this far future reality and Gulacy certainly achieves that. It's worth noting that the comic was produced with a mature readers vibe, so there are occasional panels of nudity -- but only occasional and that's certainly not what Moench and Gulacy are selling here (there was more conspicuous nudity in the sequel series).

So -- yeah. I can't say this really worked for me. Although, it's worth noting that I think the sequel mini-series (which hasn't been collected as a TPB) is stronger, with a more interesting plot and a feeling the characters are better settling into being personalities.

Cover price: __.

The Six Million Dollar Man: Season Six  2014 (SC TPB) 144 pages

cover Written by Jim Kuhoric. Illustrated by Juan Antonio Ramirez, with David T. Cabrera.
Colours: Fran Gambona. Letters: Joshua Cozine.

Reprinting: The Six Million Dollar Man: Season Six #1-6 (Dynamite Comics, 2014)

Rating: * * *   (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Mar. 2015

Published by Dynamite

Dynamite Comics often latches onto or resurrects old properties. And here they've turned their attention to the still-fondly recalled 1970s TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man -- Steve Austin (played on TV by Lee Majors), U.S. government agent with the bionic (ie: robotic) limbs (which originated as a novel by Martin Caidin). Steve Austin'd already been featured in a short-lived (and not very fondly recalled) 1970s comic from Charlton.

Dynamite tested the water, not with Steve, but with Jamie Somers -- The Bionic Woman. Not too long ago there was a TV revival of The Bionic Woman -- reinventing the character and concept -- but not the Six Million Dollar Man (The Bionic Woman also having had a short lived Charlton comic years ago). Despite she being the spin-off, presumably these days it's felt there was more cachet value in an action heroine than an action hero. Though in a surprise bucking of modern trends (and Dynamite inparticular with their penchant for exploitation and Good Girl Art comics), the decision to focus on Jamie wasn't dictated by pulchritude, the character (I believe) being drawn respectfully enough.

Anyway, so after a Bionic Woman monthly comic, a Bionic Woman/Bionic Man mini-series, and a Bionic Woman: Season Five mini-series (none of which I've read at this point), Steve finally got the green light for his own series.

And part of the gimmick is to play up the nostalgia as though it really is a direct continution of the TV series (the fact that Bionic Woman had a monthly comic, first, and then they switched to a "Season Five" comic suggests Dynamite realized playing up, rather than ignoring, the nostalgia angle was the way to go). So although TSMDM: Season Six isn't explicitly identified as being historical (no dates are mentioned) it's meant to evoke the 1970s in terms of hair styles and fashions. And it's probably fair to assume this was a labour of love for those involved -- certainly the writer.

Instead of approaching this as an actual 1970s-style season -- with each issue a different adventure -- or, as is the wont today, stretching a single plot over six issues, it comes across as a kind of epic mini-series as writer Jim Kuhoric throws everything in but the kitchen sink as multiple plots overlap and run parallel to each other.

Things kick off when OSI, the U.S. government bureau Steve works for, finds itself being sidelined in favour of another branch which favours robots/androids over human cyborgs -- but their robot goes rogue. Meanwhile, a space probe has returned to earth carrying a microbe that mutates those it comes in contact with. And Steve gets sent off on a mission to infiltrate a Russian facility (this being, as mentioned, still nominally set during the Cold War). And those are just the main threads! And with Oscar, Rudy, and Jamie Somers all along for the ride.

The funny thing about the Six Million Dollar Man is that I used to watch it as a kid -- but probably haven't thought much about it in decades. Yet it's amazing how much it must've rooted in my subconscious, to the point where the comic reminds me of things I hadn't even remembered (like that Steve's affable boss, Oscar Goldman, calls him "pal"). One thing I remember is that the series, I believe, predominantly featured spies and gangsters as villains, only occasionally indulging in flamboyant concepts (robots, aliens, Sasquatch!) -- yet those are the episodes (and scenes) that stick in my mind. And presumably Kuhoric felt the same, as this mini-series skews toward the flamboyant of robots and aliens.

It's clearly counting on nostalgia, from costumes and visual look (the characters evoke the actors well enough without being dead ringers). And it can come across a bit too nostalgic, even dragging out characters who only guest starred in the series, such as Barney Hiller -- another bionic man (I didn't remember the character's name but I did vaguely remember the character from the series). In some cases adding elaborate back stories to transitory characters. Oliver Spencer -- the antagonistic government agent spearheading the robotic project -- apparently had been in the original Six Million Dollar Man pilot/TV movie in basically the Oscar Goldman role. But instead of accepting the dropped character as the vagaries of series TV, Kuhoric re-fashions him as a bureaucrat pushing his own, rival department.

Heck, the nostalgia/fidelity-to-the-series is so pronounced there's even a cheeky use of sound effects whenever Steve or Jamie use their bionic powers (De-ne-ne-ne-ne)!

And it's kind of fun at first. Even for someone like me who, as I say, hasn't seen the series in years! The faithfulness to the material, the desire to be true to the characters and milieu, is appealing (as well as the "greatest hits" idea of throwing in robots and aliens) -- without succumbing to a condescending hubris or a sense they are trying to "dumb it down." There are occasional moments of characterization and deeper motivation. Although the one way -- and all too typical -- it diverges from the period I'd argue is the violence. It's not excessively violent, but there's a bit more blood and brutality than you'd probably expect from a 1970s TV show.

And despite this playing to the old time fan boys, a novice reader should be able to enjoy it -- at least as well as anytime you jump into a pre-existing property. You can still follow the plot and understand the relationships even if you're not that familiar with the old series.

At the same time -- and maybe blame my own attention span -- but though I did genuinely get a kick out of the comics, after a few issues the initial nostalgic bloom stared to wane. It isn't that there was anything wrong with the latter issues, but after a while there was kind of an awareness that Steve, Jamie, etc. weren't especially riveting personalities and for all the various plot threads, even the story -- once all the pieces were on the board -- wasn't necessarily offering any big twists and turns and surprising moments. It moves along, it holds your attention -- the important thing! -- but it wasn't exciting me as much.

Another quibble I suppose is the art. It's solid enough art and, as mentioned, does trigger a sense of deja vu from the wide lapels and big mustaches on background characters, to the central characters who evoke their real life counter parts enough. But it is kind of stiff and angular, the storytelling good but not exceptional. And the action scenes can be a bit muddled, failing to necessarily generate much sense of tension or thrills. One way it fails to evoke the series is in not making the use of the bionic powers quite as dramatic and, well, cool as in the show. To be fair, the art style is fairly common and, therefore, I assume popular. But I guess my point is, if my enthusiasm waned a bit, it's partly because just as far as a visual aesthetic, it didn't necessarily grab me. My preference is probably for Ramirez who draws most of the story. He and Cabrera have such similiar styles I didn't at first notice a change in artists, but I was aware that the final issue (drawn by Cabrera) didn't feel as visually compelling as the earlier ones.

And the other problem is also how the story is approached. This is a bunch of different plots overlapping (including throwing in suggestions there's a spy in the OSI!) and as it starts to move toward the final issue you find yourself wondering how they're going to tie the threads together in a climax.

But they don't.

The alien mutations plot builds to a climax and other complications are resolved by the end (Steve had been damaged -- but is back to fighting trim by the end) so it doesn't end on cliffhanger. But other threads are left dangling, to tease us into the next series (presumably a Season Seven?). The robot is still on the loose, the mole in the OSI is still unknown, and so on.

And that kind of becomes a problem. I was enjoying this story arc as a "mini-series" return to the milieu of the old TV series -- not necessarily as just the opening arc in an open ended run. As well, and I've probably made this point before -- part of storytelling is, y'know, telling a story. If Dynamite wants someone like me to jump on board for an indefinite run, it helps to convince me right off the bat that they know how to tell a plot (with a beginning, middle, and end) and not simply tease along some never ending threads (I'm especially thinking of Dynamite's Project: Superpowers that ran for two epic mini-series, plus ancillary mini-series...but never ended up going anywhere). But, hey -- that's just me.

It doesn't end on cliff hanger and you can still pick it up as a fun "blast from the past.. But it is frustrating when you're flipping through pages, curious where such-and-such a thread is heading -- only to find that it doesn't head anywhere, at least between these pages.

The Sky Over the Louvre  2011 (HC album) 72 pages

cover Written by Jean-Claude Carriere, Bernar Yslaire. Illustrated by Bernar Yslaire.
Letters: Ortho. Translation: Joe Johnson.

Additional notes: English translation of the 2009 graphic novel

Rating: * * *   (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for mature readers

Published by NBM

The Sky Over the Louvre is an over-sized, hardcover European graphic novel (translated into English) set during the dark and bloody days of The French Revolution, focusing on the painter Jacques-Louis David. It is one of an irregular series of such graphic novels commissioned by the Louvre museum.

Any artistic medium -- comic books included -- is, of course, its own animal, with its own strengths and weaknesses. One does not expect character growth from a poem, yet that doesn't make a poem a lesser work of art. But with a comic, there is always the question as to what it is meant to be -- particularly when given the important label "graphic novel".

As well, this doesn't seem to be a fictional story set against a real backdrop, but is, one infers, about real historical figures doing -- more or less -- what history says they did. So is the storytellers' job simply to present a work to be appreciated by students of history...or to be enjoyed by laypeople as well?

Such thoughts about form and intent kind of bubbled at the back of my brain while reading The Sky Over the Louvre -- a not uninteresting, sometimes insightful, but slightly vague and undeveloped story.

By being set amid the movers and the shakers of the French Revolution, we have a cast of characters that seem more than a little mad (I mean, they themselves happily describe their rule as "The Terror"!) The story revolves around the painter David who -- while working on a propaganda portrait of Bara, a dead youth seen as a martyr to the Revolution -- is commissioned by "The Incorruptible" Robespierre to envision an image of a so-called "Supreme Being" that will replace the traditional notion of God. The ambiguity -- the contradiction -- of Robespierre's vision is finally stated by David who says to Robespierre: "You're the only one who can imagine him."

Scripter Jean-Claude Carriere, who in addition to a long association with surrealist filmmaker Brunel, had previously written a film set during the Revolution. And his portrait of this dark time is certainly effective enough. The way today's allies become tomorrow's victims, or how, as one character claims, some people spend their nights driving about in carriages, for fear of arriving home only to find the soldiers there to arrest them. The storytellers also suggest a homoerotic undercurrent to the artists, and to the Revolutionaries. The paintings and art seem to revere the male body but in a way that borders on fetishtic, with even the portraits of dead martyrs invariably depicting them unclothed, and where David denounces the pre-Revolutionary art as "effeminate" and the Revolution as vigorous and male. This homoeroticism combines with the marginalization of women in general at the time to generate a weird and slightly creepy, misogynistic undercurrent to the revolutionaries.

The curious thing about digging out meaning from a work like this -- which, after all, demands a deeper reading than simply Superman's latest battle with the Parasite -- is how much the creators are inserting their own interpretations that may or may not be conceded by historians. Certainly David's infatuation with the teenage Jules, depicted here with an androgynous femininity, seems suggestive...yet the storytellers make no allusion to the fact that David was, apparently, married at one point.

There are also more personal-to-the-character bits, like suggesting David's own facial imperfections are at the root of his obsession with physical beauty and symmetry.

An underlining theme throughout is, of course, the notion of propaganda, and how it can consume everything around it: art, people, and truth. In the opening scene, Robespierre questions David about a picture, asking if he isn't "betraying the truth?" -- yet David, Robespierre and the others do nothing but betray "truth" in their quest to promote their on truths. This is subtly captured in a moment where David is finishing the portrait of a woman who is frowning, fretting over the possibility of herself becoming a victim of the Revolution...yet David's portrait shows her with a gentle, carefree smile upon her lips.

Yet despite such provocative undercurrents, the story is uneven as simply a story. How should a 66 page comic be viewed? As a "novel"? A movie? A short story? A poem? The driving force behind the book is the artist, Bernar Yslaire, and one wonders if there was some disagreement between writer and artist as to how the story should be told. Yslaire will draw scenes of the characters talking, or looking at paintings (faithfully reproduced from the originals), and then will suddenly leave half a page blank for Carriere to describe whole additional scenes in text. Maybe it's an interesting creative technique, combining a comic with a text -- or maybe Yslaire just blithely drew the scenes he wanted, and Carriere was left to squeeze in bridging scenes to flesh out the story where he could.

There is an abruptness to the narrative that could be a result, as mentioned, of an artist dictating the story rather than the writer, or of a deliberate surrealism in this historically realist tale. Part of the story revolves around a youth named Jules who flitters in and out of the story, occasionally uttering abstract profundities, but seems more a symbol than a person. He arrives in Paris, claiming he has an appointment with David...yet it's not explained how or what that appointment is. When later he and David come face-to-face, David does act as if he knows him...but we never saw any previous encounter. I don't know enough of the history to say whether Jules was even a real person or merely a creation of the storytellers (I mean, there must've been some reality, as he models for a real painting, but whether Yslaire and Carriere imagined a name and identity to an anonymous model, I don't know).

Yslaire's art is cartoony and scratchy, coloured in mainly greys with splashes of red (save the real life paintings which are depicted in full colour). It's effective enough, with evocative environments and body language. Yet it's a style that doesn't always distinguish the main players that well from each other. In both the writing and art, I found it a little hard to keep track of who was who, and what their significance was. Both because of how they were visualized, and also how they were presented.

The result is a story that tends to meander. We don't particularly like the main characters. David isn't simply an apolitical artiste caught up in the politics around him, but is a genuine implementor and supporter of the Reign of Terror -- save that he seems quick to denounce it when things go south. He remains a rather vague protagonist. Is he a canny, politically astute survivor...or simply a fey artist unconcerned with practical matters? And even if he were an innocent with his head in the artistic clouds, his particular artistic obsessions are just that -- obsessions, and not necessarily something we can fully empathize with. And ultimately, the whole thing feels a bit like a shaggy dog story -- which, admittedly, is the problem with real life. It rarely falls neatly into a narrative pattern.

Yet that's if one views this as a graphic "novel", or as a movie. But seen more as simply a recreation of a time, an evocation of people and events long gone, a poem, a short story, it does peel back a curtain and let us glimpse these things, at a safe distance and removed.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.99 USA. 

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