COMIC REVIEW: The Adventures Of Blake & Mortimer Vol. 13/14 (Cinebook Reviews #21)
Posted by Dion_Scrolls on January 4, 2013
Cinebook (for the uninitiated) are the Canterbury based ‘champions of the 9th art.’ They’ve been translating and publishing some of the best French and Belgian comics for the English-speaking world for a fair few years now.
I’ve been hooked on several of their series since the Geek Syndicate boys brought them to my attention – so much so that I’ve set up this column to share my discoveries with all you lovely people.
I’ve wanted to get my hands on The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer since I spotted ‘The Yellow M’ at the penniless end of Thought Bubble 2011, so I was pretty excited when this double pack dropped through my letterbox. You only have to glance at the covers to see the debt they owe to Herge’s Adventures of Tintin, and he was one of my earliest comic book heroes. In fact, Tintin himself owes something to the Blake & Mortimer creator Edgar P. Jacobs, who helped Herge in both plotting and artwork for my favourite two-parter: The Secret of the Unicorn/Red Rackham’s Treasure, as well as several other projects.
Francis Blake is the head of MI5, a shrewd leader and a capable man in the field when required. His stalwart friend is Philip Mortimer, a Professor of Physics who shares more in common with Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones Jr than with Brian ‘Wet Lettuce’ Cox. Over the years they have foiled a multitude of dastardly plots and uncovered some astonishing ‘truths’ - a glance at the titles in the back catalogue could stir wonder in a wooden heart. Since Jacobs passed away the series has been under the creative care of Jean Van Hamme & Ted Benoit and, latterly, Yves Sente & Andre Juillard. Quite how the characters fare under the hands of each team will make for an interesting comparison in future reviews, but for now let’s concentrate on The Curse Of The Thirty Pieces of Silver.
The series falls under the general category of Pulp Secret History but it’s played dead straight, and features some of the stiffest upper lips you’ll see this side of the morgue. Whist I can appreciate the attempt to do something different stylistically, I don’t think it worked particularly well here. It’s a real shame because I usually adore Jean Van Hamme’s work. He is a writer who relishes complex stories and shocking revelation, so it came as a big disappointment to me that this story felt so pedestrian.
An earthquake reveals a hidden shrine wherein lies the new evidence of the fate of Judas Iscariot. The race is on to find his remains and the fabled 30 pieces of silver for which he reputedly betrayed Jesus. There are a few nice puzzles to solve, a fair bit of action and some juicy betrayals along the way before the affair is brought to a controversial conclusion, but it all seemed a little stretched to me.
Although the characters are pitched as a duo, Mortimer is clearly the main protagonist here. His presence on the case at all seems bizarre considering the huge theological and archaeological significance of the find. Meanwhile, Blake is off on his own mission trying to capture their pet villain ‘Colonel’ Olrik. Naturally the two cases begin to intertwine and we discover a shadowy figure behind it all: one who dreams of rebuilding the Third Reich. He’s after a religious artefact to help enforce their Will on the world, and only a plucky Professor stands in the way. Ring any bells? If not, here’s a helpful hint from the villain.
“It is its spiritual value that’s important to me. A value at least as great as that of the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. For those 30 pieces of silver are charged with all of God’s wrath”
We are reading this in translation, so his dialogue might not be that clunky. A more accurate rendition would perhaps be “Hey kids, you liked Indiana Jones, right? Well here’s something else just like it!” Well, no… it isn’t. The facade may be similar but it lacks the sparky dialogue, memorable characters and the in-built humour of an Indy adventure (or Tintin, for that matter.) I shan’t discuss the ending at all, save to say you will either love it or hate it.
Anyway, let’s take a look at what did work well – the artwork. By and large this is a nice looking double album. The first volume is drawn by Rene Sterne with colours by Chantal De Spiegeleer and Laurence Croix. The clear line style is used to fine effect, giving character to people and places with simple and slender pen strokes. It’s less cartoony than Tintin but much closer to that end of the spectrum than say Largo Winch or XIII. It takes a certain confidence to use less ink, but it proves to be well-earned. We still get a good sensation of the landscape, architecture and material, without getting lost in the lines. The colour work is integral here too. By taking a small palette and using them in blocks, the colour artists are able to reinforce the spatial dimensions in complicated urban scenes and the broader vistas over distance, giving us a clear vision of the world in simple fashion.
The second volume is drawn by Antoine Aubin, while Laurence Croix returns to colour, with assistance from Etienne Schreder. It’s a mark of professionalism and a coherent vision that the two volumes fit so well together. I confess, it was only in pulling this review together that I noticed that there was a change in artists at all. The second volume is perhaps a little more rugged, but this is in keeping with the predicaments that the heroes have been through and the environments they find themselves in. The murk and muddy tones of the night-time and cave scenes scenes contrast starkly with the bright pastels more prevalent in the first volume. Whilst less attractive, they actually achieve a sense of genuine darkness rarely seen in comics beyond the likes of Sin City and Hellboy.
I did experience some problems on the visuals of both volumes which unfortunately exacerbated my frustrations with the story. The main one concerns the speech and narration ‘bubbles’ which were just horrendous. They dominate nearly every panel, cramming in exposition and unwieldy dialogue to the detriment of the images around them. Making them rectangular was an odd choice, distracting and clinical, but the fact that some of them ‘point’ the wrong way is just unforgivable. Add this to the relatively static expressions on display and it leads to even greater confusion as to who is actually speaking and in what tone of voice. This neutrality was the final nail in the coffin for me in terms of engaging with the characters and the plot.
A stock story can still be golden if it has a sharp script – but it still has to be told well. For me this may as well have been a bunch of talking heads: unmemorable windbags telling (not showing) us a story we’ve seen done better a dozen times before. Bad enough in a novel, but truly criminal in a graphic tale. In another format, or perhaps in the hands of another writer, the characters could come vividly to life in the vein of Adele Blanc Sec or Tintin.
If you have the kind of brain that can vividly project ‘acting’ onto the characters you read, you may yet enjoy this book. If you’re going to have a panto villain who wears sunglasses inside (and at night-time) and has the meaty balls to actually say out loud that he wants to be “the master of evil!!!!” you’d better have an amazing story to go with it. Over all, my hopes and expectations for Blake & Mortimer were dashed to the rocks. Seems like I ended up with the ‘Wet Lettuce’ after all.
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak