COMIC REVIEW: Red Baron Vol. 1 (Cinebook Reviews #32)

Welcome back to Cinebook Reviews, the GS series that spotlights the European comics translated into English by our esteemed friends at Cinebook. Now it’s been a while, so I should probably confess why. I had started to feel that maybe I’d seen the breadth of what was available on the European scene. I was still  getting books through the post every couple of months to review, but the artwork was all starting to look a bit too familiar and the set-ups, variations on a theme. The same could be said of the superhero comics of course, but I’d also figured that by this time I was pretty much preaching to the converted. It’s hard to write when you feel like you’ve nothing new to say. Well, one flick through the Red Baron and my cynical old heart started pumping ten to the dozen again. This was definitely something to get excited about. This was something you guys had to see! Now, if I was allowed to I would just shut the hell up and post page after page of this comic for you just look at – nothing more would be needed. Words are my trade though, and I don’t fancy being shot by copyrighters.

Red-Baron

Baron Manfred Von Richtofen was an icon of early modern warfare, a legend whose name and fame seems to far outstrip his achievements when taken out of context. All the war-stories I read as a child all had him as a bogeyman figure akin to the Black Knight: faceless, merciless and deadly. The Brits held the German forces in disdain, but they all blanched when that vivid red plane appeared on the scene.

The creative team could have chosen to tell a straight historical story, like Lefevre-Garros and Uderzo did with their take on The Wright Brothers; trying to bring the past to life for educational purposes.  Legends are like butterflies, though. Glimpses of truth in motion catch your breath and spark your imagination. Pin them down for close observation and you kill the very thing you admired. Pierre Veys understands this, hanging his narrative only very loosely on the framework of history, even as he deconstructs the chivalrous mythology. With the historical perspective thrust to one side I figured they’d either cast Von Richtofen as the hero or the villain of the piece, but Veys seems determined to walk us across the moral tightrope.

Von Richtofen is our viewpoint character, making us complicit in the Baron’s actions. When we meet him he is in his prime, a superb pilot with a taste for the hunt. We share in his thrill of that first aerial chase and, as the narrative sweeps back to his early days, we have some degree of empathy for the young man under pressure to be less than his best, so as not to offend the nobility. There is something different about him though. Something a little chilling. His self-confidence quickly becomes arrogance and the manner in which he tests his new-found… ability is as sickening to behold as it is riveting to look at, thanks to Carlos Puerta’s astonishing artwork. This is problematic for me as a reader, because I want to actually like my protagonists. My hope is that Vol. 2 either shifts us away from the Baron’s perspective, provides him with an antagonist we can root for or at least gives him something like a redemptive arc. Whatever their choice, I can definitely see me tracking down the next volume, if only to soak in more of Puerta’s visuals.

The pages are glorious to look at, and they take full advantage of the larger size favoured by the European market. It may seem a peculiar comparison, but I’m reminded of how stunned I was when I first saw Alex Ross’ work on Kingdom Come. The way he drew comic-book characters to look like real people blew my mind. Well, in my honest opinion, the work Puerta has done here puts Ross in the shade. I’m looking at the two books side by side now, trying to figure out what Puerta does that is so right, and the two words that keeps coming to mind are naturalism and movement. The naturalism seeps through in the colour, the body postures, the variety of expression on people’s faces. It’s in the quality of light and the blur of focus. It’s in the everyday scenes of city life and rural idyll. And the movement – the movement is everywhere. Puerta has a genius for finding poses that look so idiosyncratic  that they only make sense in the context of action. This is particularly noticeable in the fight scenes (kinetic, brutal, mesmerising) but when you look for it you can see examples through every crowd and classroom.

I wish I could tell you that you will find Red Baron and uplifting or inspirational read; that you will find a hero for the ages or re-submerge yourself in the nostalgic atmosphere of a pulpy war story, but I can’t. You will be disturbed by this book. There are at least three more volumes to come in this series, and it’s hard to know yet what direction it’s going to take. One thing’s for certain, you won’t be bored. Manfred may be an unnerving fellow to follow but so was Hannibal Lecter. Intensity and confidence are their own dark attractions. More than anything else though, this is a book to be hunched over and pored through, treasured for the painted artistry within. No cinebook has excited me so immediately in that initial flick-through, and no comic book has ever made me wonder so powerfully afterwards at the sheer talent behind the brushes. Simply stunning.

GS Rating: 4/5

GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak

 

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