A review a day: The Secret History Omnibus

I reviewed every issue of this as they came out, but it took quite a while, so let's check out the giant-sized collection of the first seven issues! This is in honor of the new issue, which came out today!

The Secret History is one of those fancy-pants European comics that, a few years ago, Archaia decided to bring to these shores so we unwashed heathens can read, you know, real comics.

This Omnibus has the first seven issues, which were good chunks of comics in their own right (45 pages or so), for $35. This sucker is written by Jean-Pierre Pécau, and the artists are Igor Kordey (issues #1, 2, 6, and 7), Goran Sudžuka and Geto (issue #3), and Leo Pilipovic (issues #4 and 5); Carole Beau colors it (with some help from Isabelle Rabarot), Edward Gauvin translates it, and Marshall Dillon letters it (with some help from Joyce El Hayek and Scott Newman).

The story's set-up is this: 5000 years ago, an old man gives four runestones to four children to keep them from falling into the wrong hands (their village is being pillaged). The runes are: the Chalice, the Lance, the Sword, and the Shield. The children who receive them are, respectively, Dyo, Reka, Aker, and Erlin. The shaman implores them never to use the runes together and never let them rule their hearts, but once he dies, the children get revenge on the pillagers by calling down a meteor and killing them all. So much for oaths! They each go their separate ways, the rest of the book is how they plot against each other, each trying to collect the runestones and seize ultimate power ... well, except Erlin, who realizes pretty early on that that's not such a good idea.

Pécau takes us to fourteenth-century (BC) Egypt, then through key times in European history - twelfth-century Outremer, thirteenth-century Languedoc and Sicily, sixteenth-century Rome, seventeenth-century London, eighteenth-century France and the Levant, twentieth-century France and Germany.

He sprinkles real historical figures throughout, most of them allied in some way with one or more of the archons (as the four rune-holders are called). We get Moses and Aaron fleeing Egypt; Renaud of Antioch, returning from 15 years' captivity in Aleppo; the birth of Frederick II and the siege of Montségur; the sack of Rome by Emperor Charles V; Nostradumus; Napoleon trying to find a runestone in Egypt (his real reason for going to the Middle East); and finally, Hitler. I was originally disappointed with the series because it ends with Hitler becoming the focus for the forces of evil, but Archaia is publishing more volumes, so that's not that big a deal. Each chapter is a single story, anyway, with the four archons remaining the constant, but even their alliances shifting as they attempt to outwit each other. A fifth power broker, William of Lecce, becomes important from Book Three onward, as he discovers many of the archons' secrets and battles against them as well.

Pécau does a good job weaving historical facts into the narrative and explaining them as part of the archons' machinations. The medieval clash between Emperor and Papacy plays out over the course of Book Three and Four, with echoes of this conflict found in the other books as well. Dyo's Chalice brings plague, which is later biological warfare to the trenches of World War I - it's interesting how the themes and powers of the runes changes to suit the advances in human understanding. It's also interesting how the power of the archons waxes and wanes - Erlin disappears early on in the series, but is drawn back into the conflict, while Dyo loses his runestone and is weakened as a result, becoming almost incidental.

Others create their own runestones, and Pécau explains Tarot cards and the Sefirot in this way. There are pros and cons to reading the book all in a short time rather than as individual issues released over months (or years, as was the case with this series, thanks to Archaia's publishing hiccup). When you read it all at once, you can get a better sense of who the archons are and what their plots are and even how they form alliances and why. One problem with reading the issues in this way is that the "human" characters (the archons are human, just immortal) become fascinating during the course of reading, and then suddenly, we jump a century or two in time and we never learn their fates. I know that's not the point, but it's still something that vexed me. Benvenuto Cellini, for instance, shows up in Book Four, and the issue ends ominously for him. But he lived for 40 or so years after the events of the issue, so it's strange that Pécau implies that he needed to flee for France, when that's not really what happened. I get that Pécau isn't totally bound by historical fact and that he's writing fiction, but the characters who become the stars of each issue are left behind when the action shifts to a different century, and it feels like the readers are left caught in the middle. The archons are usually the least interesting characters in any given issue, so the fact that they live while their foot soldiers die natural (or even unnatural) deaths is a bit off-putting.

The Secret History is an extremely plot-driven book, as the characters within the issues don't get much time for character development and they don't last long (as I pointed out) and the archons remain aloof, for the most part. They get involved, of course, but they remain mostly one-note characters, even someone sympathetic like Erlin.

Dyo, who isn't a nice person, is perhaps the most intriguing, as he loses his runestone early on and tries desperately to get it back. Pécau does what he can, but when you're dealing with the grand sweep of history, characterization takes a back seat for the most part. We get flashes of interesting characters - Renaud, Cellini, Nostradamus, the grudging friendship between Lascaris and Sidney in the Napoleon chapter, Captain Curtis in the World War I chapter - but for the most part, the book zips along from big event to big event. There's nothing really wrong with that - it's exciting storytelling and feels epic - but a character study it ain't.

The art is inconsistent mostly because it's not by the same person, but good throughout. Most people still know Kordey from his disastrous work on Grant Morrison's X-Men a decade ago, which is a shame because he's a very good artist. His thick lines and stocky character designs add heft to the art and power to the violence - it's as if each arrow becomes a bludgeon, committing more damage than we would expect of a mere arrow.

Kordey's action scenes are strange, because they don't feel too dynamic - each panel seems staged and static, but together, they still work. Sudžuka and Pilipovic use more delicate lines, but Pilipovic, especially, does a fine job with the action scenes. Sudžuka's and Pilipovic's individual panels feel more fluid that Kordey's, but they also lack a bit of the grounded feeling Kordey has. It's really a question of taste which artist you prefer - although Kordey is the artist going forward in the series, so there's that. When he has plenty of time, however (which he didn't have on X-Men), he's very good.

The Secret History is fascinating for someone like me because of all the nifty historical stuff Pécau throws in, but it's also a rousing adventure epic. It's a nice thick book, too (over 300 pages), so you get some nice bang for your buck. Pécau seems to be heading into some dark territory at the end of the volume (what with Hitler showing up and all), and there's some heavy themes working their way through the book, but this is also an entertaining read.

Tomorrow: Boxing! Men beating up other men! Nothing more manly than that!

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