COMIC REVIEW: Darwin’s Diaries Vol. 2 (Cinebook Reviews #18)

Waaaaay back in September 2011 I posted the first of my Cinebook Reviews and it’s been a hell of a ride.  My eyes have not just been opened to the variety and quality of comics coming out from France and Belgium, my damned lids have been ripped off!  For anybody not familiar with this series of reviews, Cinebook are a Canterbury-based company who publish translations of some of the best of these Gallic comics for the English speaking market.  If you skip back over my previous reviews you’ll see just how highly I rate the majority of their output.

That first book I covered was a tasty little tale called Darwin’s Diaries Vol.1 The Eye Of The Celts by Eduardo Ocaña and Sylvain Runberg.  In it, Charles Darwin is tasked by the Prime Minister to investigate a series of animal attacks that may or may not be… well… werewolves.  Oh yeah 😀 Well here we are, a year on (more or less) so let’s take a look at Darwin’s Diaries Vol.2 Death Of A Beast and see how it stands up, before moving on with our journey.

The opening few pages neatly remind us of the set up with a series of vignettes showing the local community, the suspicious looking druids and the railroad construction workers reacting to the news that the unknown animal behind the attacks has been killed.  I particularly liked the panels on pages 4 & 5 panning round and round the workers as they are chivvied to vote for a return to work under the stern eyes of the management.  It’s a real snapshot of the political reality that sent Darwin to Yorkshire in the first volume.  The drab faces show that the workers recognise their place in the world and their ultimate lack of power, but their disquiet seeps through.  They can’t quite believe that it’s over… and they’re right not to.

As Darwin awaits the results of the creature’s post-mortem a new attack raises panic in the populace.  The hatred and distrust for the neo-druids flares back into life and tensions turn to violence with breathtaking speed.  Just how many of these beasts are there?  The forces of science and reason make efforts to restore peace and discover the causes behind the terror but things spin further out of control as the victims pile up.  Darwin’s behaviour is similarly degenerating, as the noble man of principle finds solace in the bottom of a bottle and comfort against the wall with a back alley whore.  There is a curse on the land and the blight spreads its fingers everywhere, it seems.

The crowd scenes are full of life and movement, the figure work is solid and the landscapes are truly wonderful.  There are touches like the dust behind the carriage and the light streaming from an open doorway into a darkened street which are remarkably well evoked by the colourist, Tariq Ballaoui.  His work truly raises the quality of the book, in my opinion.  The problem for me remains the mismatch between Ocaña’s hard line-work and the depth and subtlety of the colourist’s art.  A style is a style, but I can’t help feeling that a lighter touch on the lines (particularly on the people) would have improved things immesurably for me.

I was impressed by the creature attacks.  The sheer horror of its speed and the devastation it wreaks is wonderfully rendered.  The artist doesn’t attempt to give definition and pose here to the creature.  It is simply too quick.  All we see is the blur, the bloody results and the looks of shocked incomprehension on the victims faces.  This is really effective horror.  How can you fight something you can barely see?  How can you protect yourself from something so savage and powerful?  It is a real pity that when we do get reasonably good looks at the beast it looks so, well… silly.  If you’re going to have a monster story involving the world’s most famous biologist you’d better have a creature that seems like it could have actually evolved, no matter how outlandish.

The action scenes are well choreographed.  The dust-up between the druids and the mob is effective at showing both the chaos of a bareknuckle fight and the blunt brutality.  There are elements which don’t quite work.  The horses, mid-gallop are renderend somewhat bizarrely, and some of the poses mid-fight are just odd.  I know that a snapshot of any action scene can throw up visual peculiarities, but this is a drawing – the artist can choose precisely what point of action to capture.  Why go for one that looks so odd when a couple of seconds before or after the ‘snapshot’ would retain the sense of movement but also look less weird?  I don’t know.  Maybe I’ve been spoiled by having all these books thrown at me for reviewing.  It’s like sending the caviar back because it was poorly stacked on the toast.

In this volume considerably more time and effort is given over to developing the plot than the characters, and I found my interest waning because of it.  It would be one thing if the plot elements started to become clearer but, for instance, the relationship of the druids to the mystery is no more expanded upon than the origins of the ‘clawed ones’ or the reason behind the attacks.  A couple of theories are vaguely tossed about, but no answers solidify.  Darwin is becoming less and less appealing as a protagonist; not so much a feisty investigator as a sullen and arrogant brute, throwing his weight around.  Of course there are certain reasons behind this and the reveal at the end sheds a great deal of light on his recent behaviour.  If anything though, more questions are raised.  Either the characters need to be seriously developed in the next volume or more answers need to be given to the central mystery, otherwise I can see the readership tiring of this murky tale – a great shame after such a promising beginning.

I do have to wonder now whether my enthusiasm for Volume 1 was, at least in part, due to the novelty of foreign comics to me at the time.  Before I started writing these reviews I just knew Tin-Tin and Asterix The Gaul.  Whilst I hold Hergé, Goscinny and Uderzo dear to my childhood heart, neither title could compare with the thrill power of 2000AD, or the narrative might of Marvel and DC.  Now, having seen much more of the scope and quality available through publishers like Cinebook I found myself less impressed by Darwin’s Diaries Vol. 2.  I realise I’ve been a little harsh here.  Over all it is a pretty good book, and it maintains both the artistic and narrative quality of volume 1.  Unfortunately it just cannot compare to the likes of The Scorpion, XIII, Long John Silver and Largo Winch.

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

%d bloggers like this: