A review a day: <i>Solomon's Thieves</i> Book One

If you don't like stories set in medieval times, I just don't know if we can be friends anymore. Sorry, but that's the way it is!

This is book one of a proposed series, which as usual makes me nervous. I really hope the creators can finish this tale, because this is a good start. We shall see, shan't we? Anyway, Solomon's Thieves is written by Jordan Mechner, arted by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, and colored by Hilary Sycamore. Mechner co-wrote the screenplay of The Prince of Persia, if that floats your boat.

I don't really care. First Second published this and it costs $12.99. That's not a bad value.

The set-up for the book is simple. It's 1307, and it's not a good time for the Knights of the Temple of Solomon. If you don't know much about the Templars, Mechner does a pretty good job explaining what they were - knights who swore to aid pilgrims to the Holy Land during the Crusades and then, once the Crusades failed (the book actually begins in Acre, a city on the coast of Palestine, in 1291, the year the Muslims drove the Christians into the sea), they were targeted by the king of France, who needed their vast riches to replenish his empty treasury and fund his war with the dirty stinkin' English (he was deep in debt to the Templars as well, and as any Jew can tell you, having someone powerful indebted to you during the Middle Ages was a sure recipe for disaster for you). On Friday the 13th, 1307, King Philip IV (who must have been quite the hottie, as his nickname is "the Fair") and his chancellor, Guillaume de Nogaret, ordered every Templar in the kingdom arrested. Over the next few years, he hunted down the other Templars, convinced other kings to do the same, and destroyed the order. And, unfortunately, gave rise to conspiracies for the next 700 years and made a hack like Dan Brown a multi-millionaire. DAMN IT!!!!!!

Wait, so where was I? Okay, the Templars.

Mechner tells the story in book one, using a character named Martin as his focus. Martin joined the Templars because of a broken heart, but when he returns to Paris, he sees his lost love, who is now in an unhappy marriage. On the fateful night, he and two friends head out into the city to drink and find some whores to take Martin's mind off seeing Isabelle, his great love. Thus they are not in the Templars', well, temple on the night that they're all arrested, and they manage to escape. Martin gets captured and tortured, but he escapes and hooks up with some rogue Templars, living out in the woods Merry Men-style. He learns from them that the Templars' treasure, which Philip wanted for himself, was never found (the treasure is the basis of several of the wilder legends about the Templars). Everyone thinks it was spirited away in the dead of night because the Templars had advance notice of the purge, but Martin learns that it never left the temple. And his new allies want to steal it. Dum-dum-dummmmmmmm!!!!!! So ends Book One.

Mechner gives us a nice twisty tale encompassing a lot of Templar history while still being an adventurous yarn. We get a bit into the machinations that led to the destruction of the Temple, and Martin's imprisonment gives us an idea of medieval torture styles. The charges against the Templars - that they denied Christ and spat upon the cross and fornicated with each other - are brought up, giving Philip the veneer of legality in his war against the order. Mechner briefly gets into the pope's role in all of this - the Templars swore their allegiance to the pope, so they weren't technically under the jurisdiction of any king. Clement V, the pope at the time, is largely considered Philip's puppet, so the fact that he dithered while Philip wrecked an order devoted to him damns him quite a bit in the eyes of historians.

Mechner brings up a papal commission to investigate the charges against the Templars, but he doesn't do much else with the pope and what he knew (the papal court had moved from Rome to various cities in France in 1305, so Clement was in close contact with Philip during this time) - perhaps that's for later volumes. But he does a nice job mixing the historical facts with two separate traditions - a swashbuckling, Errol Flynn-ish adventure and a man-on-the-run chase, ending by setting up a heist story. So we get a wild "high-speed" wagon chase through the streets of Paris (during which Martin argues with Isabelle, the woman he loved - his companions kidnapped her so Martin could see her again), desperate fights as Martin attempts to escape from the authorities, and finally, the set-up for the heist. Mechner does a good job keeping the story moving along well, and he doesn't shy away from showing how badly Philip's torturers treated the prisoners.

Pham and Puvilland's art is quite good, too (I have no idea how they split the work, but it looks very consistent - did Pham draw it and Puvilland ink it?). The character designs are slightly cartoonish, but not in too an exaggerated way - they're a bit distended and some are more gaunt than we might expect, but what this does is give the people a definite "medieval" look - as far as we know what medieval people looked like. The rich are jowly, showing the fact that they could afford to eat more, while even the knights look a bit more "lived-in" than we expect for younger people - the fourteeth century, made famous by Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, was rough on all concerned, and the artists do a good job showing that in the faces of their characters without making it too obvious. In the settings, they get less cartoonish and more "realistic" in showing the way the buildings and the cities were constructed.

The biggest issue I have with the art is that the style - either through the pencil art, the inks, or even Sycamore's colors - makes everything too clean - there aren't enough rough edges (some, but not enough) to give us a sense of how hard it was living during this time. Even the settings are clean - one of the things that seems the hardest about a comic or movie set before electricity is to get across how bad it, likely, smelled. You can't do it in a comic, and the art in this, while a little rough, could use a bit more of it, as it would probably help get across how much squalor there was in the 1300s. But we're all about suspension of disbelief here, and the artwork does a good job with Mechner's story, switching easily from high adventure to the darkness of the Parisian dungeons.

I hope that Mechner, Pham and Puvilland are able to continue this story in a second volume (I don't know how many volumes Mechner has planned). Solomon's Thieves is a fine adventurous comic that strips away some of the mysteries that have accreted to the Templars over the centuries - there's nothing weird or supernatural about the order in this book, just knights trying to survive in a dangerous world. It's a pretty keen comic - I know I'm more disposed to like it than some, simply given the subject matter, but it's exciting and interesting, and it's always fun to read a good heist comic!

Tomorrow: We'll have to see if Rob Schmidt likes this one!

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