Oh, those wacky Belgian comic book creators! Can’t they just write in English like the rest of the civilized world?
Afrika is the creation of Hermann, one of those European comics creators who refuses to use a surname (it’s Huppen, by the way). He’s been around for quite a while (he was born in 1938), but this is the first comic I’ve read by him, mainly because I’m a troglodytic Yankee who can’t read other languages. This book was published by SAF in 2007, but Dark Horse was nice enough to translate it and publish it here.
That was mighty swell of them! It’s only 54 pages long and costs $15.99, which might factor into whether you’re going to buy it, but it is hardcover, larger than your usual comic, and it’s pretty gorgeous. Pros and cons, people, that’s what we’re all about here at the blog!
I’m torn about Afrika, because I like it but I can’t really recommend it unequivocally, and I’m not sure what the problem is. Hermann’s art isn’t a problem – it’s absolutely beautiful. His eye for detail as his characters travel across the savanna is wonderful, as we get stunning painted work of animals hunting each other or just standing in herds, and Hermann shows them from several different viewpoints, including overhead. When the two main characters head into the jungle, it’s still gorgeous but much more oppressive, as the greenery and rainfall threatens to overwhelm them. Like most European artists, Hermann doesn’t shy away from nudity, and he doesn’t idealize the human form – the characters look beaten up by life, and while the women are more attractive than the men, their bodies are designed realistically. Hermann paints the entire book, so that the delicacy of the colors struggles against the brutality that is often portrayed, and it lends some tension to the entire comic, as it helps underline the main character’s (and perhaps the author’s?) contention that men ruin everything. The natural beauty of Africa is contrasted nicely with the ugliness of what men can do. It’s far more subtle in the art than in the writing. Hermann doesn’t do too much with page layouts, but he is able to fit a lot of panels onto each page – European artists, Pedro Bouça tells me, tend to eschew splashes as wasteful, and from what I’ve seen of European comics, he’s not wrong – so the book feels a bit more packed than its page count would indicate.
It does make the very few times he expands the panels (not into full-page splashes, but ones that fill more than half the page) more dramatic, which is probably the entire point.
The story is fine, but stumbles a bit, and I’m not sure if it’s the translation or not. The book doesn’t list a translator (there’s an editor for the English language version, but not a translator), so perhaps Hermann did it himself. The dialogue is often awkward, too stilted and formal, and for someone like Dario Ferrer, the main character, it doesn’t feel right. At the beginning of the book, Dario meets Charlotte, a journalist writing a story on poachers, and he takes an instant dislike to her. Their early conversations feel off, because Dario seems too angry with her and Charlotte seems too familiar with him, and the dialogue is not very good. As the book moves on, it becomes better, which makes me wonder if it’s not the translation but Hermann trying to get too much in early on before concentrating on the bigger plot. They do end up having an interesting relationship – they do not, as Dario’s lover believes, have sex (thankfully), and in fact they don’t ever really like each other, but they do gain respect for each other. It’s as if Hermann wants to make sure Dario spouts his beliefs about preserving Africa’s pristine environment and the evil of men coming to the continent and killing everything before he can begin the actual story. It feels artificial, because it’s mainly Dario telling us stuff, and the actual plot of the book isn’t really about poaching anyway. That brings me to the other problem with the book: the actual plot.
About halfway through the book, the real plot kicks into gear, as the government of this unnamed African country does something that Dario and Charlotte witness, and they both realize they need to flee the country. Hermann’s reluctance to provide specifics (whether that was mandated by the PTB at the publishing company or not) means that the political machinations of the book remain vague – we can certainly guess what’s going on, but it still remains a bit obscure. Therefore, the human cost of the government’s actions have less impact, and certainly Dario makes the decision to flee rather quickly, which calls into question his entire commitment to “his” animals. I understand that this is not a book with introspective characters (Hermann nicely never specifically tells us what really haunts Dario), but it’s strange that Dario seems to shift his priorities so rapidly. Again, I get back to the translation – is some nuance lost going from French to English? I assume so, but one would think French-to-English is “easy” enough (neither is a terribly obscure language, in other words) that the translator could at least attempt to carry over idioms or nuances.
If the translation is fine, it gets back to Hermann’s writing being not as good as his art. I just don’t know. There’s also the question of what happens with Iseko, Dario’s lover. She doesn’t get refrigerated, in case you’re wondering, but she also seems to shift her perceptions quite easily. Reading a bit about Hermann, he seems to enjoy writing somewhat bleak comics, and while Afrika isn’t that bleak, the story is a bit cynical about human nature. I don’t really have a problem with that, except for the fact that the characters in Afrika fall into cynicism so easily.
It’s frustrating reading Afrika, because it’s so beautiful and it feels like Hermann has a lot on his mind about the situation in Africa with regard to poaching, encroaching humanity, and corrupt governments. He skims the surface of these serious topics but never delves too far into them, and I’m not sure if he didn’t have the page count to do it or if he just wasn’t interested. The book feels oddly incomplete, even though Hermann wraps it up with a dramatic gesture that leaves no room for misinterpretation. It’s not a bad comic, but I can only Mildly Recommend it because it just feels like it could have been a lot more interesting, but it’s not. It feels like ten or fifteen pages are missing, and that’s too bad. The art is very nice, though!