The City Of Shifting Waters (Cinebook Review 3)

I continue my exploration into the world of French and Belgian comics, courtesy of the marvellous Cinebook with The City of Shifting Waters (ISBN 9781849180382) – first volume of the classic pulp sci-fi series Valerian And Laureline.

I’m embarrassed to say that despite this being a massive success on the continent – with new stories being published from 1967 right up to it’s conclusion in 2010 – and influencing everything from Star Wars to Avatar along the way in narrative elements and design, I had simply never heard of it.

Opening in the 28th Century in the metropolis of Galaxity, we are introduced to the titular space/time agents playing 3D chess in a rare moment of tranquility. Valerian is an alpha male, granite jawed and filled with an abundance of self confidence. His associate Laureline is intelligent, sparky, capable and – in this first tale at least – entirely secondary.

Arch-villain Xombul has escaped back in time to 1986. Taking advantage of the catastrophically melted polar icecaps and subsequent collapse of society, he intends to stockpile scientific knowledge in this new Dark Age so as to shape the future for his own purposes. Only Valerian and Laureline can track him down. Only they can stop him.

It is a strange and difficult thing in some ways to read this (some 40 odd years after first publication) with anything but a sense of familiarity and cynicism. So much of what we see here we have seen before in terms of concept and image. However, it must be recalled that we, like the space/time agents, are from The Future. Back when this was written its readers had seen no Waterworld, no Day After Tomorrow, no Twelve Monkeys (although granted some may have watched French arthouse film La Jetee, the film Gilliam so memorably remade with Willis and Pitt.)

They may well have read the pulp sci-fi of the age but surely nothing they’d seen on screen approached the richness of Mezieres designs in this book. Visually, I’d say it stands the test of time remarkably well. The only element that really dates it are the robot minions, clanking straight out of a low budget fifties B-movie.

The characters themselves are somewhat cartoonish in appearance but the worlds they inhabit are full of life and detail. Strong images like the birds flying through the corpse of New York, striking camera angles revealing scale and depth, shifts in lighting to evoke mood or dramatise action all serve the story with far more artistic class than it perhaps deserves.

Locations seem to be colour themed giving them a distinct feel in addition to the detailed linework. Although the muted colours work well for the disaster-struck world of 1986 it does merge into a certain drabness of pallate occasionally. The sheer variety of locations however, prevent the eyes from tiring, whisking us from waterlogged city to overgrown jungle, underwater passageway to underground lair, baking hot Mesa to sterile space stations, filling every shot with plenty to explore.

Critically speaking it does have to be said that the panels are not always that intuitive to follow. On several occasions I had to backtrack to get the right sequence of conversation or event. Furthermore, the dialogue Christin writes seems pretty terrible and the exposition is very heavy handed – but I’ve got to say, the sheer pulpy exuberance with which the story’s told (coupled with the cracking artwork) gives great leeway to such things.

There’s no doubt I would have absolutely lapped it up as a kid. Right now, I can say that I have enjoyed it as a bit of old-style campy fun.

The next volume looks to be taking us to alien worlds and the kind of wildly exotic shenanigans you’d expect from a Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers tale.

I see a lot of potential for this series, especially as Laureline is set to step out of Valerian’s shadow (from vol 3 onwards) and his character is revealed to be more flawed and interesting.

For now though, Volume 1 gets a solid

3/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak
You can hear me blather about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
Follow me on Twitter @Dion_Scrolls too if you like.

Next up we’ll see how Volume 2: The Empire Of A Thousand Planets develops Valerian And Laureline before moving on to Largo Winch.

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