COMIC REVIEW: Crusade Vol. 4: The Fire Beaks (Cinebook Reviews #17)

Good lord, would you look at this pile of books I’ve got here to review!  Ok… Cinebook.  You know Cinebook, right?  Franco-Belgian comics, translated to English.  Awesome stuff.  Massive catalogue ranging from space epics and historical dramas to child-pleasers, horrors and hilarity.  Tell you what, if you have no idea what I’m talking about try typing ‘Cinebook’ into that search box over there on the left.  You can catch up on my previous reviews whilst I hang fire and flick through this luscious artwork some more.  Go on, shoo!  It’s ok, I’ll wait for you after the jump.

What, back already?  Man, I was just getting into it again.  Ok, you’re gonna love this one.  It’s ‘the tale of a forgotten Crusade, erased from history because it fell into the shadow of the Devil’ and it’s got everything in it.  Like a bit of history?  A bit of warfare?  You’ve got an exquisite setting crammed full of period detail with clothing, architecture and action to die for.  Like your forbidden romance?  A touch of mysticism?  All here in spades.  The drama is both cataclysmic and personal, with plenty more to come in future volumes.  Once again I faced the trickiness of picking up a story part way through its run, but when the setting is so vibrant and the action and character-work so well structured it’s easy to relax and just allow the creative team to carry you along.

I was initially concerned when I saw the subject matter.  Whilst my historical knowledge is not strong, my feelings against religious warfare are.  The last thing I wanted was to plunge myself into some tub-thumping glorification of a shameful conflict.  Thankfully Dufaux and Xavier side-step this in four ways.  Most importantly they give equal time to characters on both sides of the conflict, scattering heroes and villains liberally.  Secondly, neither religion is discussed: they are simply factions; banners flying over a field of battle.  Next, although it has a quasi-historical setting, the conflict here is fictionalised as a ‘forgotten Crusade.’  In other words, although the cultures are recognisable, the individuals are not.  Finally, the magical and science fictional nuances let us separate this world from our own and just enjoy the story for what it is. 

So what is the story?  Sheesh.  Ok, well in this volume here’s what you’ve got:  Against the backdrop of the struggle to take Jerusalem a Sultan must choose between his love and his faith, a knight must free a tribe from bondage, a master of machines brings war to the city of Hierus Halem and a goddess will live or dies at the whim of a mortal man.  Dufaux’s writing comes through strong in translation, with each character given distinct voice.  There’s nothing archaic about the language used, keeping it comfortable for modern readers, but the structure of speech retains an historical flavour.  The narrative panels are a useful tool for setting the scene and commenting upon the action.  They feel like they are part of an historical document telling the tale, with the speech and visuals coming through as either memory or imagined action based upon them.  Presumably this will be clarified when I go back and read the earlier volumes, or revealed as the tale continues.  There is no clue in this volume as to who is doing the telling, so no character feels particularly safe.  It is difficult to comment upon the plotting mid-way through an arc, but each scenario is given room to breathe, and each character has moments of consequence.

 The artwork throughout is a feast for the eyes, from the contours of the city to the hordes of warriors outside.  The panopoly of costumes are a treat in themselves, whilst the level of detail just boggles.  Where a colourist can sometimes obscure line-work or flatten an image, Chagnaud actually enhances Xavier’s brilliant work, adding a real depth to the book.  It is a world full of dust, sweat and conflict, where every dent, scratch and rip remain to tell their tale.  The figure-work is excellent, with each individual given unique identity, range of expression and consistency of form.  This is all the more impressive when you take in the cinematic quality of the book where the camera of the minds eye ranges all around the scenes for close ups, long shots, artistic angles and epic action.  The layouts are clean, with panels separated by thin strips of white.  There is only one area where the flow is not 100% clear, caused by panels stretching partway across the spine.  It is regrettable, but it would have been a greater shame to lose part of the images.  Occasional spreads are stunning and all the more impactful for their sparcity.  The battle for Hierus Halem is a particularly stand-out moment, with images to rival Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings.

Comicdom has a tendency to reduce female characters to fantasy figures, much to the chagrin of its more mature readership.  One look at the front cover here and you’d be forgiven for assuming Crusade falls into the same pattern.  The sisters caught up in the plot are both attractively drawn, but their characters shine through strongly.  Syria of Arcos is a fierce warrioress in the mould of Joan of Arc, independent of mind and filled with a gritty determination.  Her sister, bound to the master of machines, walks a fine line between vain ambition and self loathing.  Based solely on this volume I would say they are not defined by their sex as characters, but are treated in that fashion by most of the people around them.  Make of that what you will.  Frankly, the male characters are not over-imbued with personality, though perhaps they edge it on screentime.  The Sultan is gentle and concerned, Gauthier of Flanders is noble and sad, whilst the master of machines is brutal and ambitious.  Taken together the cast works well to form a tapestry of viewpoints, but none truly stand out alone.

What have we got in total then?  A whirlwind of war in an exotic location; a dark plot with magical undertones; lost loves and harsh betrayals; stunning imagery and savage destruction.  All in all it’s an absorbing tale with the potential to run and run.  (Just a smidge more characterisation next time, please.)

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blathering about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
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