COMIC REVIEW: The Scorpion Vol 2: The Devil In The Vatican (Cinebook Reviews #12)

Here we are again, continuing to pan for gold in the stream of Franco-Belgian comics issuing from the mighty Cinebook and between you and me I’ve just found my biggest nugget yet.  It’s criminal that so few mainstream comic fans will be familiar with The Scorpion as to my mind this comic is head and shoulders above 90% of what is out there on the market today.  Big words, I know.  Allow me to convince you.

Why do you read comics?  You’ll each have your own answers and priorities but here are mine.  More often than not I’ll want a fast-moving adventure with all the snap and pizzazz of a movie but none of the budgetary concerns.  I want gorgeous artwork I can go over again afterwards and pick up fresh details and nuance.  I want to be inspired, enthralled, titillated, but most of all I want to plug straight into the brains of the creators and be told a great story.

With The Scorpion I get it all, in spades.

The city is Rome, latter eighteenth century.  The Catholic Church is a monumental power, with the Inquisition in bitter decline.  Our story follows the adventures of one Armando Catalano – treasure hunter, thief and an incorrigable rogue.  The Scorpion birthmark on his shoulder marks him out as the Devil’s get, but a little thing like that isn’t going to stop him from having fun and getting rich selling holy relics to the Italian aristocracy.  He’s well-travelled, highly educated, a ferocious swordsman and an accomplished lover, but who is The Scorpion really, and why does the Church want him dead?  Some light has been shone on these mysteries in Volume 1: The Devil’s Mark (reviewed here on Geek Syndicate) but I won’t let any spoilers slip – partly to protect the enjoyment of newcomers and partly because I get the impression that this series will be full of twists and misdirection before the truth about Armando is revealed.

As with The Devil’s Mark, Cinebook have gifted us with a double pack of adventures in their second Volume.  It’s a great way to bring new readers in to a series and offers real value for money.  The first part is called The Stone Cross and deals with the wicked Cardinal Trebaldi’s attempt to legitamise his rise to the Papacy.  In his ancient home, he claims, lies the True Cross of Saint Peter, the rock upon which the Catholic Church was founded.  Filled with wrath and sorrow after their previous clash, The Scorpion is determined to prevent him achieving his goal.  The story is awash with political maneuvrings, and Armando’s mission begins to look increasingly desperate and futile as he tries to lay bare the Cardinal’s sins.  A little more history is revealed, moustaches are twirled, swords clash, things get a little sexy, treacheries unfold and narrow escapes are made all round.  It’s stirring stuff and exactly the kind of tale that ticks my boxes.

The second half of the book is title story (though let’s be clear here, The Scorpion is one long story split into convenient easy to publish sections) and deals with the fallout from The Stone Cross.  The ‘Devil’ in the Vatican is determined to protect his interests, and top of his list is crushing a certain Scorpion underfoot.  Armando and his stalwart companion Hussar are on the run.  Worse, they’ve got tangled up with the venomous assassin, Mejai.   With warrior monks on his tale, two intelligent, beautiful and deadly women vying for his attentions and a foreign destination that is far from safe, this is a brilliant little interlude.  The tale fizzes with swashbuckling relish and The Scorpion himself is chock-full of Errol Flynn bravado and humour.  Of the books two halves this is the most crowdpleasing in terms of action.  You just can’t beat a bit of rope-swinging sword-play and the bedroom antics (whilst neither full-on nor prolonged) is both titillating and funny.

The art-work is magnificent throughout both of the volumes I’ve read so far.  Enrico Marini has a real gift for breathing life to his complex urban landscapes, ably blending subtle linework and shifting shades of watercolour to project the sense of detail, texture and light (and if his exteriors impress, his interiors astound.)  He populates his world with a fine variety of figures, from the lowest of beggars to the noblest of aristocracy, eagle-eye always on posture and movement.  His tiniest smudges can trick the eye into seeing distant individuals in a crowd, which is quite an achievement.  As a period piece he is given the priceless gift of Costume, and what clothing he has to play with!  If you like your thigh-high boots and flintlock pistols you’re in for a real treat here.  The warrior monks are masked and uniformed, a chilling image but also a good way for the artist to economise.  The main characters are fantastic to look upon.  Armando himself is sexy as all hell, with a razor-sharp little beard, floppy shirt  and tight, tight trousers.  Saving my sexuality are the exotic Mejai in her Egyptian garb, and the lovely Ansea Latal in her horse-riging gear – both of whom are admired by the artists pen, but not perved over in the way American comics do.  As Hussar is not meant to be portrayed in an attractive way, Marini gets to have a bit more fun playing with some of the more extreme facial expressions.  He’s an eminently likeable character and a fine foil for The Scorpion.

I could go on an on about the quality of Stephen Desberg’s plotting (clearly very well thought out) and sizzling dialogue (well translated by Jerome Saincantin), the lettering – not something that usually catches my eye, but here it is used in a variety of ways to accentuate emotion and heighten drama – or the fight scenes, which simply have to be seen to be believed; each movement captured at the perfect point to convey the fullness of the action… but I don’t want to wring every damned detail out for you.

Look, buy these books.  Enjoy them for their dark deeds and thrilling escapades, their romping, their action, their mischief.  Treasure them for the spectacular artwork and their relative obscurity amongst your comic-buying friends.  Then come back and tell me how right I was.  This IS a cut above the rest.

Rating: 5/5
GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blathering about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
You can follow me on Twitter @Dion_Scrolls too if you like.

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