COMIC REVIEW: Barracuda vol 1: Slaves (Cinebook Reviews #30)

Thanks for choosing to join me once more on my ramble through the length and breadth of European comics, as translated by Cinebook.  During my summer break I spent a little time in Ghent and Brussels, and I’m thrilled to say that the books I’ve covered thus far are just the tiniest fraction of what is available over there on the continent.  The English speaking (professional) comic scene is woefully stunted by comparison, in both numbers and variety of books available.  I don’t want to take any business away from Cinebook but the market is incredibly rich, and wide open to anybody with access to translators and a modicum of business sense.  It tore me up to see how many phenomenal books there are out there that I won’t be able to review simply because no translations exist.  However, one that had particularly caught my eye arrived in a care package recently, to my utter delight.  I had no idea they’d even picked it up for translation.  The series is called Barracuda and, if this first volume is anything to go by, it shows a lot of promise.  It does for the pirate genre what Western did for cowboys: piercing the myth to give a more vital and nuanced portrait of those inglorious men and women.  You shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but this one is a doozy.  Take a close look at it up there at the top.  The face is that of a fellow by the name of Blackdog, and the image is as cold, pitiless and menacing as the events contained within.  While it isn’t exactly Tales Of The Black Freighter, it’s certainly not one for the younger children.  Want to find out more?  Read on.

‘Everyone in this tale will fall into his own trap.  Mine swallowed me up with little resistance on my part.’

The narrative begins as the memoir of Emilio, a young serving boy caught up with pirates when the captain of the Barracuda takes his ship in a bloody boarding action.  Blackdog is no Long John Silver to befriend a boy and whisk him off to adventure, though.  Piracy is a hard business for hard people, and life is cheaper than spit if you can’t prove your worth.  The manner in which he enters his new life is a real eyebrow-raiser, but works surprisingly well in context.  It gives a unique twist to the tale and adds an extra frisson of hovering threat as the story unfolds.  Emilio is not captured alone, but accompanied by the Doña Del Scuebo, her daughter Maria, and an unnamed monk to the slave markets of Puerto Blanco.  It is there, on that rotting, scum-filled island-hell, that their fates will be decided for good or for ill.  The writer is Jean Dufaux, whom you may recall was behind the excellent Crusade, and he brings with him that same Whedon-esque ability to juggle perspectives.  Whilst Emilio remains the focal character in this first volume, we’re given so many nuggets of personality for the other people that any one of them could comfortably step forward as a main protagonist.  I don’t know whether the choice to make the main characters pre-pubescent was Dufaux’s, Jérémy’s or a collaborative decision, but it makes a powerful impact on the modern reader.  These are not wild teens or twenty-somethings looking for adventure, they’re children, lost in a world of brutal and predatory adults.  The story is as much about how they manage to survive, as any hidden-treasure malarkey.

Blackdog

The pirate world is brought vividly to life by Jérémy Petiqueux , an artist I’ve not come across before.  A browse on the net gives little information in English beyond his work on Barracuda, but if you’ve the inclination you can use Google Translate (or equivalent) to find out more on his blog.  For the purposes of this review, we’ll just stick to the main point; He’s damned good at what he does.  Let’s use the opening battle as an example.  Blackdog takes centre stage here, a savage whirl of destruction amid the bustle and bloodshed.  It’s one of three central panels across pages 6 & 7 showcasing the main action and, as you can see, they are are chock full of incident: tricking the eye into seeing chaotic movement as you dart from detail to detail.  The blood spray helps describe the movement of the blade beautifully, while the foregrounded pirate’s bandanna whips out in the struggle.  Posture and facial features add to the illusion, capturing intent as well as occurrence, while the rough faces and apparel lend character to the combatants.  The other segment of the book to highlight artistically is the painful scene at the slave market.  The third floor image on page 20 shows a deep understanding of composition, lighting, perspective and control, while Maria’s humiliation on page 23 is so strong it would work as well without any context or words.

The horror and wonder evoked as Maria is forced to show her body to the baying crowd is a true character defining moment and her cold eyes tell it all.  The strength of will and dignity she maintains in the face of such barbarism marks her out as a character of note and, while she does not play a big part yet, it’s clear she’ll play a significant role in future volumes.  Emilio is a less electrifying personality, an average person put into an extraordinary position.  In this first volume he shows little agency, fearful but accepting of his fate.  His one act of defiance ends in ignominious failure and a return to his new master’s house under his own steam.  It’s hard to get behind such a bland character, though I’m sure few of us would fare better.  We do care what happens to him, but it is out of pity rather than love.  The other main character we spend time with is Raffy, the surly son of Blackdog.  Dufaux works a real magic here, giving him near hero status without undermining his background, morality or family feeling – and I can’t quite figure out how.  It must partly come down to his physical courage, the grit and determination he exhibits at every turn, but then that could equally make him a worthy villain.  No, I think it’s something to do with the fact he is a child himself, with that ever-present potential for growth and change.  By the end, there is a sense that he is just as trapped on Puerto Blanco as the others, and may ultimately have to throw his lot in with them if he is to survive himself.

If I have any criticisms of the book it’s in the slow pacing of the plot.  Beyond the first few pages very little actually happens, except getting characters in place and setting up the overarching plot.  Blackdog spends all his time aboard the Barracuda, unexpectedly sidelining himself from what (at first glance) seemed to be his own series, while the plot-triggering priest legged it away from the centre of action as soon as he could.  I have no doubt that both will come back into the story in a big way, but I can’t help feeling like they were not as well used as they might have been.  I was a little confused by the parchment-style captions throughout.  Initially they seemed to be indicative of the narrator, telling his memoir, but later on the device is used to simply give voice to various characters who are not personally shown on that particular panel.  It didn’t spoil the story, but it felt like a failed opportunity to separate the narratives and bring clarity to what is starting to become a complicated affair.  If you can accept the slow-burn narrative and forgive a tale settling into it’s stride, there’s a lot to admire in Barracuda.  It may not be the most compulsive page-turner but the startling image at the end (foreshadowing the second volume) will certainly make you want to discover what happens next.  Go into this expecting a lush piratical adventure like Dorison’s Long John Silver  and you may be disappointed by this first volume.  Want a bit more bite, then this one is definitely for you.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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