I've been looking forward to the DC/Humanoids line of graphic novels since they were announced a few months back. Humanoids is a French graphic novel publisher, and DC comics is printing about three translations a month from their catalogue. I feel these works should be brought to the attention of American SF readers because of their quality and cultural diversity. They are written and drawn by continental Europeans and thus give an example of a non-Anglo-American perspective on SF. One glance at these books will tell you that French comics are a different beast from their American counterparts: albums of bande dessinees are intended for adults and perceived as legitimate cultural objects; they have more varied art styles and cover a greater diversity of genres than mainstream American comics and none involve superheroes. Although I like superheroes, they inordinately dominate the mainstream of American comics and limit the medium: as Humanoids proves, graphic novels can tell a wider array of stories.
I'm going to look at four of the early releases from this line: Technopriests, The Metabarons, Deicide, and Hollow Grounds, examining how well they function as comics and as speculative fiction.
The art in these graphic novels is detailed, impressive and lush with surprising and bizarre imagery. Although the dynamic figure drawing of Jack Kirby may influence some of these artists, their style is more detailed than their American counterparts and informed by art movements that are part of the cultural atmosphere of Europe such as surrealism.
Alexandro Jodororowsky is a Chilean visionary writer who built his reputation directing films. Since the mid ‘70s he has worked primarily in graphic novels, which provide him with an unlimited special effects budget to express his expansive imagination. The most impressive of these graphic novels is Technopriests, which is set in the same world as The Incal, which—also written by Jodorowsky—happens to be one of the best SF comics ever produced. Like Incal, Technopriests bursts with new ideas on virtually every page. The comic also has art with striking imagery by Zoran Janjetov and great colors as well as computer effects by Fred Beltran.
The comic revolves around an aging leader of the Technopriests, who frames the story through a retelling of his life. He leads a breakaway branch of his guild that wants to base a future on "satisfying human relations rather than technology." The Technopriests, as the name implies, have made a religion out of technology and use it to control and derive profit from the masses. Jodorowsky shows a skepticism towards technology and some interesting political concerns, placing him in the humanist subset of SF writers despite the book's cyberpunk imagery.
The comic has two basic storylines: one involving a virgin priestess gang raped at the beginning of the book by space pirates and vowing revenge; the other involving the children conceived by that rape, especially her son Albino who becomes the leader of the Technopriests and narrates the story. The two plotlines run concurrently as the mother slowly revenges herself on the pirates, and Albino tries to fulfill his dream of being a games designer for the Technopriests. The training the guild gives Albino revolves around sadistic and dangerous tests that require him to come up with clever ways to protect himself and the others around him.
The novel portrays a process of demystification: not only does Albino lose his innocence, he also gradually discovers the corrupt and false values of the world around him, making the book a bildungsroman, as well as a classic SF plot. Since SF at its best often revolves around creating another world, a plot which reveals that world's mysterious, true nature works quite well, allowing the author to avoid excessive infodumping.
An idealistic young artist, Albino believes he is going to create wonderful games for people (the games serve as a metaphor for art and film), but the Technopriest guild cares only for profits, and any game that Albino produces has to be approved by the 50 morons, virtual reality artificial intelligences who are a perfect "crosssection of average consumers." Instead of art, the morons force Albino to create mediocrity to entertain the lowest common denominator, a satire of consumerism and more specifically, movie industry focus groups. As Albino's teacher in virtual reality tells him, the more a failure a person is, the more games he will consume "to artificially make for himself a life of pleasure and triumph." Instead of art helping people learn from life and improve the world they live in, the games function like drugs, deadening people to the flaws in their society and lives. The "art" that Albino devotes his life to is revealed as a shabby, materialistic fraud.
Albino rebels against the Technopriest's rule by hacking into their computer system and reprogramming the 50 morons so he can create a game about telepathic heroes searching for meaning and eternal life. Albino wants his games to touch people spiritually, helping them to realize their inner potential and experience beauty. Janjetov's impressive art especially stands out in the virtual reality sections which have astonishingly inventive imagery.
The Metabarons is also set in the space opera world of Incal and the Technopriests. I thought that the Metabaron was a great character in Incal, the universe's greatest warrior and a mercenary for hire. In Incal the corrupt city authorities hire him and at one point he breaks up a political rally by single-handedly slaughtering the whole crowd of protestors, demonstrating his prowess as a warrior and encapsulating the city's culture of corruption and cynicism. The Metabarons graphic novel reveals the Metabarons' origin. I found the Metabarons' ceremonies, training and samurai-like ethics interesting, as well as the fact that they use mutilation as a form of initiation, but overall, despite the intricate plotting, the book was not as full of ideas as Jodorowsky's other comics.
Also, although Jodorowsky is obviously a creative genius who throws out a lot of mind-blowing and bizarre ideas, the fantasy elements sometimes weaken the science fiction: Jodorowsky may not have enough technical knowledge or experience with genre SF to focus strictly on science and technology. The book has a number of technical improbabilities that make it difficult to enjoy Metabarons as a work of science fiction. For example, in a future with AIs, intelligent robots, FTL starships and portable lasers, the emperor has infertility problems and mobilizes an entire "hospital-planet" to develop a way for him to produce an heir. A society this advanced would surely have fertilization treatments, test tube babies etc, thus invalidating this major plot point.
Improbable plot points abound: for example, using only medieval weapons, a band of warriors kill a larger group of soldiers armed with lasers. Surely if Zulu warriors with spears and shields could not defeat the British Empire with repeating rifles, medieval weapons could not defeat this army of the future. I've always found the Flash Gordon combination of medieval weapons and lasers annoying.
In yet another improbability, and also another major plot point, a pregnant woman is shot with a "flotation dart" that inadvertently causes her baby to be born weightless. The question is how could a baby be born weightless? Did it lose its mass? Were the laws of gravity suspended? Technical questions didn't crop up in the other Jodorowsky comics I read. He managed to get away with a few questionable things, but in this book the suspension of disbelief did not work as well.
Juan Gimenez's art is one of the book's strong points. He draws in an heroic style, with human figures reminiscent of Greek statues. His action sequences are well paced and give a sense of movement.
Deicide, written by Carlos Portela and drawn by Das Pastoras, is quite impressive, as powerful as Technopriests and highly recommended. The book is a fantasy, set in an imaginary landscape of demons, gods and magic occurring in what is either a Stone Age or early Bronze Age culture. The setting appeals partly because it's not the faux feudal ages of too many fantasy trilogies.
The art is superb, reminiscent of surrealism, especially in the protagonist Agon's Dream Vision. Agon lives in a world in which the gods are a daily intrusive presence demanding human sacrifices. When the tribe sacrifices his lover to the brutal god of death, Madorak, Agon decides to rescue her soul from the death god and return her to life. The plot appears to derive from the Orpheus myth, but since this is only the first part, I don't know how the later volumes will ultimately handle the myth.
Agon travels with the lion headed man Beluch, who is the source of a great deal of comic relief; a demoness, Hattia, who Agon controls with a magic bracelet; and a sleazy sorcerer, Barmurabi. The characters are well presented with unique personalities and objectives while Madorak stands out as a powerful and convincing evil god. The characterization also strikes me as realistic insofar as there are no utterly good characters; everyone has flaws, even the sympathetic characters. Beluch especially is an intriguing flawed character. Barmurabi is fundamentally corrupt and is further individualized through his unique speaking style.
Overall, I found Deicide a more interesting work of fantasy than the fuzzy-elf trilogies that line the shelves these days.
The last work I want to talk about is Hollow Grounds by Luc and Francois Schuiten. Francois Schuiten is the artist of Cities of the Fantastic, a brilliant graphic series published in the US by NBM which reads like a combination of Jules Verne and Italo Calvino. Since I think highly of Schuiten's work, I was looking forward to seeing this volume.
The art in this thick book did not disappoint me: it is detailed and erotic. Schuiten's major work, The Cities of the Fantastic, impressed me because of the detail he puts into the architecture of his imaginary cities. Although these tales do not occur in large cities, the setting is realized just as well, whether it be futuristic buildings or landscapes. Also, Schuiten does an excellent job depicting the human figure.
The book collects three volumes Carapaces, Zara and Nogegon. The first volume is six different short stores, all thematically linked around erotic desire in a future setting. They are a bit of a mixed bag. Although all are well drawn, I found the stories disappointing, some were slight and none were especially impressive.
The second book, Zara, depicts a woman traveling to a hollow world inhabited only by women. After some obligatory lesbian love scenes, some piratical men invade the world to rape the women, but the book has a surprising twist at the end when the women capture the men. The greater length of this tale gives it more substance than the short stories of the first book, but I still didn't find the narrative compelling. However, again, Schuiten's art impresses.
The last volume, Nogegon, is the most interesting; like Zara it is one long story, which takes place on a world where the inhabitants live according to a philosophy based on symmetry. For example, people with asymmetrical bodies missing limbs are banished from society. Nogegon's citizens believe that events tend to repeat themselves or balance out: a period of love is followed by a period of hate, a lover that enters your life freely will leave just as freely. Murderers are executed; the two deaths create symmetry. Patterns in life repeat themselves and Nogegon's citizens fatalistically accept those patterns. The creation of a world with an odd philosophy is a good idea, reminding me slightly of the bizarre philosophies in Jack Vance's writing. The plot reflects the symmetrical philosophy: beginning and ending with the same events and the protagonist following the same behavior patterns as a friend, even though she is a stranger to Nogegon and wishes to reject symmetry.
Overall, I would say that there are more speculative ideas in these books than the average superhero comic, as well as a more detailed graphic style. The cultural perspective is significant; these graphic novels run in contra pose to the Anglo-American bias in SF and comics. The mere fact that these bandes desinees take themselves seriously and deal with ideas and philosophies, creating original story lines rather than relaunching or regurgitating (or updating) the stories of previous comics is an improvement over Marvel and DC. The only major flaw seems to be that the creators privilege art over story at times. I think an American or British SF reader looking for a different, innovative perspective would be well advised to pick them up.