Review time! with a bunch of Cinebook comics

So a few months ago, when I reviewed Afrika, Aldous Russell of Cinebook kindly offered to send me some European (translated into English) comics to review. I wasn't sure how many he would give me, but he ended up mailing me quite a bunch. I decided to review them all in one post, mainly because I thought I could try to keep them a bit shorter and therefore actually post this before too long had passed. So here's a bunch of Cinebook comics, for your edification! And thanks again, Aldous! It was very swell of you to send me so many books!

Lady S. volumes 1 and 2 ("Here's to Suzie!" and "Latitude 59 Degrees North") by Philippe Aymond (drawing and colour work), Jean van Hamme (script), Jerome Saincantin (translator), Imadjinn (lettering and text layout).* $19.95 and $11.95 respectively, 88 and 46 pgs respectively, FC.

(* Saincantin and Imadjinn do almost all of this work for Cinebook, so I'm only listing them once and will note if someone else does this stuff.)

I bought the first Lady S. book a few years ago, but I can't find a review of it here, so I must have skipped it. I don't know why; it's perfectly fine, so maybe I was just pressed for time (unlike this year, when I'm a measley three months behind on reviewing things - I'm sure I'll catch up, because it's not like I have anything else to do!). There's a third volume, too, and this is the kind of comic I enjoy, so I'll probably pick it up at some point.

The first volume is longer because van Hamme gives us the "origin story" of Lady S., a young woman who was born Shania Rivkas, an Estonian of Jewish descent but is now called Suzan Fitzroy, the adopted daughter and aide of an American diplomat (an "ambassador-without-portfolio," which comes in handy because he's always moving to different places in Europe, providing his daughter with opportunities to get in trouble). Suzan is the daughter of a scientist and a language teacher who were dragged away by the KGB in 1991, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. She managed to escape with the help of a young thief, Anton, and eventually she ends up in France, leading the life of a thief. Her father had told her about James Fitzroy, a friend of his from the 1980s, and she meets the Fitzroys quite by accident on a train through France. Years later she seeks them out and tells them she wants to give up a life of crime, and they help her become an American citizen by adopting her. In the first volume, her past comes back to haunt her when Anton (whom she thought was dead) shows up with a mysterious older gentleman who blackmails her into helping them with various espionage projects. Those form the main plots of the first two volumes. The second one, obviously, can forego the "origin" stuff, so it's a bit shorter.

Van Hamme does a nice job seting the stories in the "real world" - the first story involves negotiations with Turkey over their entrance in the European Union, while the second story revolves around the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2006. Van Hamme engages in some fun backstabbing and counter-intelligence and all sorts of stuff that we would expect to see in a tale like this, but he never muddies the narrative too much. In volume 1, he does a very good job telling us Suzan's backstory out of linear order, so that we get some missing pieces after we already know what's happened to her. It's an effective way to keep the story interesting. We also get a one-page recap in volume 2, so we're caught up, which is good because both the fate of her parents and Anton's actions in Russia before their escape become important in the volume. Van Hamme keeps things moving, and a lot of the characterization we get is through the characters' actions, which is always nice to see. One problem I had with the second volume is that Suzan seems to act out of character with a man she sleeps with - she becomes more emotionally involved when it's been established that she doesn't really trust people, and for the daughter of a diplomat, she seems to speak a bit to freely. I understand that she's young - she was born in 1979, so she's in her 20s in both stories - but it seems like van Hamme is just trying to move the plot along instead of writing the way Suzan would actually react. It wouldn't matter if we accept that she's a young woman still figuring things out in life, but in both volumes, van Hamme makes a point to explain how quickly she had to grow up, so it seems like a weird thing for her to do.

Aymond's artwork is good for a no frills espionage story - he tells the tale well, with no bells and whistles. Unlike too many artists on mainstream American comics, there's a fine sense of place in each of these volumes, from the stuffiness of Brussels to the brutality of Karelia to the icy beauty of Stockholm. Aymond puts his characters in recognizable and very detailed places, so that the books feel like they're actually happening and we're just interested bystanders. His characters come in all shapes and sizes, and even Suzan, who's the most attractive person in the comic, isn't a stunning beauty, she's just an attractive woman. Aymond's characters are somewhat reminiscent of Dave Gibbons, if that's a draw to you. He has no problem with action, and he makes sure to draw stuff that people could actually do - Suzan is athletic and can climb well, but she occasionally stumbles because, well, that's what happens. Suzan is NOT a spy (that's specifically why she was recruited), so the fact that she's not always fluid and confident makes Aymond's art a bit more charming.

I enjoyed both volumes of Lady S. and look forward to more. If you're a fan of espionage stories, these are quite interesting, and even if you're not, they're somewhat atypical spy stories, so they might be to your liking. Plus, even an American like me can appreciate that the United States is just another country in this comic - no worse and no better than any other. It's kind of refreshing to not see an extreme view (either pro or con) of the U.S.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Green Manor volume 1: Assassins and Gentlemen by Denis Bodart (artist) and Fabien Vehlmann (writer). $13.95, 56 pgs, FC.

Green Manor is a comic about a club in Victorian London where the club members seem to be obsessed with murder. Vehlmann provides a framing device - in 1899, a doctor arrives at the famous Bethlem Royal Hospital (otherwise known as Bedlam) to interview a patient who used to work at Green Manor. The patient claims to be the soul of the club itself, and he begins telling the doctor about all the nefarious doings of the members. This allows Vehlmann to tell short stories taking place over the previous 20 years or so. There's a second volume, in which the present-day framing device will become more important, as it's foreshadowed at the end of this volume.

The stories are all fairly clever if a bit slight. In the first one, a member asks how there can be a murder but no murderer and no victim, and the other members tell about some unusual crimes they've heard about but which don't fit the criteria. Then the original member tells them the solution, which is a bit twisted. Then we get a story about an older member of the club who thinks a younger member, a Scotland Yard detective, is a bit too full of himself, so he (the older member) challenges the detective by telling him that he (the older member) is going to kill someone at midnight the next day and he believes the detective won't be able to stop him. There are a few twists in this story, although it stretches credulity just a bit. The next story is about another, older Scotland Yard detective who is trying to catch a serial killer and eventually comes up with the killer's identity and also a macabre way of stopping him. After that there's a humorous story about two club members who plot to kill Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and how they fail is the twist in the story. Then there's a bit of a Gothic horror story, as an art restorer tries to solve a mystery hidden in a decades-old painting. Finally, in another story that stretches credulity just a bit, two old friends argue when they get drunk, and one of them turns up dead, the other is suspected. However, he uses logic to show that he's innocent ... but once again, we get a nice twist at the end. All of the stories are fun to read, although Vehlmann is much more concerned with the plots rather than the characters. If you don't like the plots, you don't get much else. The fact that the stories occur in late 19th-century London is relevant because of the Victorians' belief that they had reached the pinnacle of civilization, so that they are the ultimate arbiters of good and evil in the world. This is most obvious when the two club members plot to kill Conan Doyle - they want to commit the perfect crime - but it's prevalent throughout the book.

Bodart's cartoonish art is quite good for two reasons. One, it helps temper the somewhat gruesome subject matter - Vehlmann surely doesn't mean for us to take the book too seriously, but Bodart's art makes that overt. The art also highlights the pomposity of the Victorians - they're stuffed shirts both figuratively and literally, so Bodart makes it easy to root (or barrack, if you're a kooky Aussie) for their downfall . Plus, his style makes London a bit less disgusting and oppressive, but his attention to detail means that we get a good sense of the divisions in society between upper and lower classes. It's a charming-looking book, and since I compared the last artwork to Dave Gibbons', I suppose I can compare this art a bit to Kevin O'Neill's. How's that for you?

Green Manor feels a bit inconsequential, but that's fine, because Vehlmann's stories are so nifty. It looks nice, the crimes are clever, and the framing story has a good sense of foreboding. There's nothing wrong with that!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Western by Grzegorz Rosinski (artist) and Jean van Hamme (writer). $15.95, 64 pgs, FC.

The next comic I read is, surprisingly, a western. It begins in 1868 in Fort Laramie, Wyoming and ends in Wichita, Kansas, in 1879. It's one of those comics that bugs me, because Rosinski's art is stunning but van Hamme's story, while perfectly acceptable, indulges in so many clichés you fear you might drown in them. Van Hamme moves everything along at a nice clip, and there's nothing that's so awful that it makes you throw the book away in anger, but if you can think of a cliché that exists in a Western, it's probably in here. There's the boy kidnapped by the Lakota and raised as an Indian; there's the rich tycoon who indulges in nefarious doings; there's the Lady Cattle Rancher who turns all the stereotypes on their head by being as tough as a dude!; there's the crooked sheriff and the unwashed bandits; there's the people trying to escape their pasts but never quite managing it. None of this is particularly bad, and van Hamme does create some interesting characters and writes some good scenes, but he can never quite overcome the stereotypical "Western" themes. Is there a youngster who wants to see some gunfighting action? Of course, and of course he dies because that's what happens to those kinds of characters. Is someone long thought dead actually alive? Of course, because that's the way these plots work. Is there a twist at the end that casts an ironic light on the preceding events and might have alleviated some of the tragedies that occur? Of course there is! That's why it's hard to love this book - it's fine to read through once, but then you start thinking about it, and things start to break down. If you don't want to think about too much, perhaps that's the trick.

However, Rosinski's artwork is superb, and it elevates van Hamme's script quite a bit. His figures are the slightest bit cartoonish, which helps with their characterization, and his details and colors are wonderful. The book is crowded with "Old West" details so that we really believe we're looking at the 1870s, and Rosinski washes everyone out with browns to give the book a nice, gritty feel without darkening it so much we can't appreciate the details. The action scenes are very well staged and fluid, but Rosinski makes sure they're awkward enough so that it doesn't just look like these people are movie stars with choreographed moves. Rosinski even makes the people less than clean, which is something that always bugs me about historical comics - everyone looks scrubbed and washed. Even the main female character isn't too pretty - she's been on the frontier her whole life, and we can see it in her face, even though she takes care of herself. It's a pleasure taking in each panel of this book and getting a very good feel for life in this rough-and-tumble place and time.

Western isn't the greatest story, but it's not all that bad, either. It probably won't make you fall in love with Westerns, but if you're a fan, it's a cool book to check out. Let's move on, shall we?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

Largo Winch: The Heir by Philippe Francq (artist), Jean van Hamme (writer), and Luke Spear (translator). $19.95, 96 pgs, FC.

Largo Winch is a very fun action thriller in the vein of a Ludlum novel, which means I enjoyed it because I like Ludlum novels. It's somewhat goofy underneath the veneer, but as with most of these kinds of stories, it's best if you don't delve too deeply. The book begins with Nerio Winch, one of the world's richest men, getting thrown off a balcony. He actually invited the killer to kill him because he's stricken with cancer, but his killer has bigger ambitions than just killing Winch - he wants to take over the global business empire that Winch built. Unfortunately for him, Winch had an heir - an adopted 26-year-old whose existence has remained largely a mystery - and furthermore, Winch's empire was structured so that only the heir could figure out to actually inherit the businesses. Winch's concerns are widespread and diverse, and he groomed Largo - the heir - to be the only one who could successfully take it over. Without Largo's assistance, the businesses will fracture into over 500 separate entities.

Largo is a typical rogue-ish hero - very smart, very fit, but indifferent to authority and good with the ladies. He knows who he is, but at the beginning of the book, he's thrown into a Turkish prison, so he doesn't find out that Nerio is dead for a while. In prison he meets a man named Simon who becomes his friend and who helps him escape. So begins a chase across Europe, as people want Largo dead and he wants to get to New York and take control of the business. In the second half of the book (the comic collects two volumes of the Largo Winch adventures), we get more of the elaborate process by which Largo has to take control of the businesses, while the killer and his cabal continue to figure out how to stop him. Of course, Largo wins in the end, but it's a lot of fun getting there. Largo and Simon meet hot chicks, shoot bad guys escape from various life-threatening situations, and do it all with aplomb. Of course, people die, but van Hamme keeps the tone light, because this is, after all, an adventure. It's very tightly plotted, and van Hamme doesn't have too much time to develop the characters, but that's okay. If you know what to expect, it's a charming thriller.

It's beautifully drawn, too. Francq does a wonderful job with a lot of different characters and locations, and he choreographs the action scenes really well. As seems fairly normal with European artists, he's quite good at drawing different kinds of women, so that the Barbie doll-esque Marilyn Apfelmond stands out because her figure is so out of place among the rest of the characters. Francq has to deal with a lot of different people, but it's very easy to figure out who's who. As usual with European artists, I tend to think they can do locations better than many American artists because it's fairly easy to travel throughout the continent, and the locations in Largo Winch are wonderful.

I don't know if Largo Winch is for you, because I don't know how much you like thrillers that don't take themselves too seriously. It's a blast to read, but it's firmly within that tradition, and if you don't like that kind of story, this probably won't change your mind. But if you do, it's very fun. I look forward to reading more volumes of Largo's adventures.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Long John Silver volume 1: Lady Vivian Hastings by Xavier Dorison (writer) and Mathieu Lauffray (artist). $13.95, 56 pgs, FC.

Our own MarkAndrew, lover of pirate comics, will probably need to get this, because it's a pretty darned good pirate comic, even if the actual pirating, so far, is low-level stuff. At the end of this volume, the ship has just set sail for the Amazon, so presumably there will be some hard-core pirating coming up soon enough!

This isn't a sequel to Treasure Island, as the creators note in the back of the book, but it does take place years after the events of that book and does star the famed pirate and Dr. Livesey from the book, and in one panel we hear about the fates of the other characters in the book. So the creators can use characters who might be familiar to use and tell their own story, which they do. Honestly, they could probably change the names of both Silver and Livesey and the book would be fine, but it might not sell as well. Such is the weird impulse of the shopper!

This volume focuses on Lady Vivian Hastings, a rather evil bitch who loathes her husband (she was forced to marry him) and is, at the beginning of the book, ready to marry someone else because she believes her husband is dead. Byron Hastings, you see, went on an expedition to Brazil three years earlier to find a famed city of gold that he believes the Incas knew about, and of course he disappeared into the jungle. Lady Hastings is pregnant by another man, her money is running out, and she wants to continue living her lifestyle. Before she can marry, however, her brother-in-law shows up with news that her husband has actually found the lost city and needs to sell everything he owns (which belonged to Lady Hastings - Bryon married her for her money - but now is her husband's to do with as he pleases) to finance an expedition to get the gold back to England. Lady Hastings, determined to go along, visits Dr. Livesey because he knows where she can find a sailor, who turns out to be John Silver. She finagles with him to get hired as part of the crew (which he interprets to mean "kill a bunch of the already-hired crew"), and then she, Livesey, and Silver are off with the rest of the adventurers. Livesey doesn't want to go, but Lady Hastings decides against an abortion (she was already forced to have one earlier by her husband, who doesn't want children - you can see why she's a bit of a bitch) and he decides she needs a doctor on board. So the stage is set!

Dorison does a pretty good job with a lot of characters, giving them each interesting personalities and making Silver, at least, far more evil than Stevenson ever did even as he retains his charm. Silver, of course, was a bad dude in Treasure Island, but a lot of his evil deeds were in the past, so we only heard about them from others, and his mutiny in that book wasn't as violent as it might have been. In this comic, Dorison writes him as a very clever plotter and almost completely amoral (his only saving grace is that he hates slavery), which makes him fascinating. Lady Hastings is a very good foil for him - in Treasure Island, all of the other principals were upstanding citizens, so he was set apart quite easily. But Vivian is as evil, in her way, as Silver is in his, which should make for interesting confrontations between them. She, too, knows exactly what is going on (she wants Silver to take over the ship, after all), so that should play out nicely.

Lauffray's art is rich and sensual, full of unique characters and gorgeous details. The ship sails in winter, so Lauffray does some nice work with the snowy landscape contrasting with the interiors, which are filled with fires for warmth. In a book about sailing, nature is important, and Lauffray gives us a humid jungle, oppressive and dark green, the aching white of the English winter, and the power of the stormy seas - the final page of the volume is stunning, as the ship takes sail with white-topped waves all around it. As I've always noted, it's difficult to portray olden times because it was far filthier and stinkier than we can get from fiction, but Lauffray at least does a good job showing that even the rich had to deal with elements and a general lack of hygiene. Lauffray also does a very nice job with the action scene toward the end of the volume - it's brutal and nasty, like you would imagine pirate fights to be. It's impressive work.

Honestly, it's a pirate comic. Everyone loves pirate comics! So check this one out, because it's a pretty good example of the genre.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Valerian and Laureline volume 2: The Empire of a Thousand Planets by Pierre Christin (writer), Jean-Claude Mézières (artist), and E. Tran-Lê (colorist). $11.95, 47 pgs, FC.

Valerian and Laureline is a series about the two title characters who apparently zip around the galaxy having adventures. Each book, it appears, is self-contained, so there's no need to read volume 1 to understand this, it seems. So in this volume they visit Syrte, a planet that rules a vast empire, and discover lots of secrets about it that lead to a rebellion against the ruling class. The society on Syrte is somewhat medieval, with a good vein of technology running through it, technology zealously guarded by the "Enlighteneds," a cabal of priest-like people who really run the empire. Valerian and Laureline get on their bad side and are forced to team up with a merchant who wants to overthrow the Enlighteneds. In the course of their revolution, the two adventurers find out how the Enlighteneds are connected to Earth and why they want to destroy it so badly. It all ends well for our two heroes, of course, and they go on their merry way.

Christin's script is decent but nothing special - there are some twists and turns, but nothing too confusing, and he gets his principal characters through the story fairly well. He does a pretty good job with showing us Syrte's alien culture and how it developed, but basically, this is a space opera that is fun to read but doesn't stray too far off the path of a standard action/adventure story. Christin doesn't do too much with his main characters - Valerian and Laureline have some good banter, but we know about as much about them at the end of the book that we do at the beginning of the book, so basically they're there to get us through the plot. Mézières is a fine artist; his work resembles Walt Simonson's, but with a bit more of a cartoony bent (this book was published in 1969 and collected in 1971, so it would be correct to say that Simonson's work looks like his). As usual with these European comics, Christin and Mézières eschew full-page splashes for packed storytelling, which makes the book feel longer than its 47 pages. It's a beautiful book - Tran-Lê's colors are exquisite, and Mézières is very good at creating this strange planet and its inhabitants - and it's pleasant to read. I can't really recommend it any more, but that's not a bad thing for a comic to be!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Chimpanzee Complex volume 1: Paradox by Richard Marazano (writer) and Jean-Michel Ponzio (artist). $13.95, 56 pgs, FC.

The Chimpanzee Complex is an interesting story that, as it's volume 1, is mostly set-up, which robs it of some of the drama. Marazano had the same problem with Genetiks, which I recently reviewed, in that the first volume set up quite a bit that didn't pay off. It's even worse in this comic, unfortunately - there's some very cool stuff, but we need to come back for volume 2 for most of it to make sense. Marazano takes us to 2035, when the space program has just shut down a mission to Mars that astronaut Helen Freeman was supposed to be on. Luckily for her, a capsule splashes down in the Indian Ocean, and when it's opened, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin come out. They claim to be the actual astronauts from 1969, and the American government begins to suspect that they disappeared on the moon and were somehow replaced by ... something else. They find proof that these guys really are Armstrong and Aldrin, but the two men die - of old age, apparently - before they can question them further. The government decides to send Helen and a crew to the moon, where they find a connection to Mars. So Helen gets to go to Mars anyway!

It's a pretty good set-up, but a set-up nevertheless. It's a good mystery, and it promises some thrilling moments that are lacking from this volume, but it's still intriguing. Marazano seems to be good at high concepts, and he has a good one here. It's still very hard to get a sense of where he's going with this - the entire book is leading up to Helen and the crew going to Mars, so Marazano gets us there. Ponzio, as I've noted before, is good at using photo-referenced artwork, so although there's some obvious manipulation going on here, he has the ability to at least make it look more "natural," I suppose. He doesn't have to do too much, action-wise, which seems to me like his weakness, so the book looks fine. He wisely keeps Armstrong and Aldrin in shadows when they're alive, which adds a sense of weirdness to their interrogation even though I would bet it's for a different reason (a legal one, probably).

The worst thing about the book is Helen's daughter, Sofia. She's probably in the 11-13 age range (she doesn't seem much older than that, if she is), and she's almost a complete bitch. She whines that her mom goes away, even though it's her job. She blames her mom's job for her dad leaving. She bitches to her mom about everything. She doesn't care that the government almost kidnaps Helen when they find Armstrong and Aldrin, locking her up in the name of national security - Sofia just gets grumpy because she won't be able to see dolphins with Helen (as she was promised; they live in Florida and were going to take a boat out). She's so unpleasant that I hated reading the pages with her on them, because I wanted to smack her. It's too bad, because Marazano is obviously going for some kind of mother-daughter human interest story here, but Sofia is so horrible that I don't care about her at all. Maybe some rabid dolphin will eat her in the next volume. I just dreaded whenever Marazano would leave Helen and return to Sofia, and it really did lessen my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

This isn't a terrible comic, and I'm curious to see where Marazano is going with it, but I do wish he hadn't spent so much time getting to the point. I guess when you know you're writing a bunch of volumes (at least three), then you can take your time! It's still vexing, though.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Crusade volume 1: Simoun Dja by Jean Dufaux (writer), Philippe Xavier (artist), and Jean-Jacques Chagnaud (colorist). $13.95, 54 pgs, FC.

As you may recall, I'm a big sucker for historical fiction, so Crusade is kind of right up my alley. It's a fairly basic tale, but it's still very entertaining, and Dufaux gets to a lot while still setting up future volumes. He introduces several European and Arab characters who are destined to fight against each other in the Holy Land, but he also gives us some weird mystical stuff to spice everything up. Early on, we meet a woman named Syria, who receives a magic mirror from a mysterious woman. Syria is the daughter of Grégoire, the ruler of a city in Outremer, who is planning a new expedition to seize Jerusalem (called in this book "Hierus Halem"). Grégoire's son-in-law, Gauthier (he's married to Syria's sister), cautions Grégoire against the attack, because he thinks it would be a suicide mission. Robert, the Duke of Taranto, believes otherwise, and he and Elenore, Gauthier's wife, are in agreement, and they seem to be a bit friendlier than they ought to be. Of course, Syria has a total crush on Gauthier, too, so there's trouble on the horizon!

Meanwhile, Abdul Razim, the leader of the Muslims, has his own problems. He meets a man named Sar Mitra, who cannot die, and Sar Mitra gives him a horrible mission to pursue. Abdul Razim doesn't want to do it, but if he can stop the war, will he? That's the question, certainly. In the middle of the book, the two forces clash, and the "Simoun Dja," a ferocious sandstorm, rises up and sweeps through both armies. It's a momentous occasion for more than one reason, and I'm sure the creators will return to what happened during the battle again as the series moves on.

It's a pretty good adventure book, and Dufaux makes good use of the time period - it's very much a Crusader/Arab story, in that the plots are specifically tied to the dynamic of Europeans invading a place with a culture completely different from theirs and not understanding it at all. Obviously, there are some soap opera elements with the roiling passions of the Crusader camp, but again, it's in a pretty good context. Xavier's art is dynamic and fluid, and the few pages he devotes to the battle are very nice, as he draws wonderful details of the armies and makes the Simoun Dja something far more evil than just a sandstorm. As usual with historical comic books, everyone is a bit too pretty (well, except for the one Muslim holy man), but that's okay - it's something we have to get used to!

Overall, Crusade is an exciting and somewhat complex comic. Dufaux doesn't delve too far into the intricacies of the interactions between Europeans and Arabs, but he does get into it a bit, and that's appreciated. I'm certainly interested to read more of this series, so there's that!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Queen Margot volume 1: The Age of Innocence by Olivier Cadic (writer), François Gheysens (writer), Juliette Derenne (artist), Sophie Barroux (colorist), Info Elec Sarl (letterer), and Luke Spear (translator). $13.95, 48 pgs, FC.

The only experience I really have with late 16th-century French history is either through the lens of English history (Sir Francis Walsingham was at the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, for example), in a play my wife and I saw in Portland back in the 1990s (I can't recall the name, unfortunately), and in Queen Margot, the movie starring Isabelle Adjani. So I was keen to read this book - Margot (Margaret of Valois) is a fascinating character in a turbulent time of history, the French Wars of Religion, and it's interesting to see how she was both a typical female, i.e., one who accepted the life her male relatives and her mother, the indomitable Catherine de Medici, plotted out for her, and also someone who struggled to live on her own terms. This comic just begins to hint at the passions that ruled her life, but it's not a bad start.

I don't want to get too much into the intricate plot, because any time you get into dynastic machinations of Europeans, there's bound to be problems. The overarching theme of the book is the severe religious conflict in France in 1569 and beyond, when Catholics and Calvinists (the Huguenots) threatened to drown not only France, but all of Europe, in blood. It couldn't have been a fun time in which to live, and the wars weren't made any better by Charles IX, the French king (and Margot's brother), who was a teenager in the 1560s and fragile physically (he suffered from tuberculosis) and mentally. Charles died in 1574 at the age of 23, and he's generally considered a weak king. Had France been ruled by a better king who wasn't dominated by a paranoid mother, perhaps the wars could have been avoided. Cadic and Gheysens certainly bring in the religious conflict, but it forms a background to Catherine's dynastic schemes for Margot, who wants to marry for love but is forbidden because she's a princess. So this comic is a bit more soap operatic than you might expect, although if you do know anything about European royalty, you know that it often feels like a soap opera!

Derenne and Barroux do a fine job with the artwork, as the book looks sumptuous. Derenne gets the look of the time period down nicely, from the rich costumes to the beautiful architecture. The book is bright and vibrant when it needs to be, but Barroux doesn't forget that this is a world artificially lit only by firelight, so some scenes are sufficiently dark. It's a gorgeous book, full of nice details and wonderful tones. The French royalty of the 1500s were as flashy as any celebrities, and Derenne does a nice job showing this, plus contrasting it with the plight of the lower classes, who flit about the edges of the comic. She doesn't get to draw battle scenes, but she does a nice job when a "surgeon" needs to bleed a character - it shows the brutality and ignorance of medicine at that time well. I'm curious to see if she'll get to draw more of the conflict as the series moves along, or if Cadic and Gheysens will focus exclusively on Margot. Presumably we'll reach the massacre soon enough, and I'm curious what it will look like.

I'm not sure how much this will appeal to people who don't already have an interest in this time period (I mean, the names are annoying enough - the French really loved naming their kids "Henri"!), but it's interesting to someone like me, who's interested and knows some of the greater context. But it is a soap opera, so maybe it doesn't matter that much if you can't tell the difference between Henry the Duke of Anjou and Henry the Duke of Guise!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

Orbital volume 1: Scars by Serge Pellé (artist) and Sylvain Runberg (writer). $11.95, 48 pgs, FC.

The last book in this post is Orbital, another science fiction comic. It's a pretty interesting premise, even though it's something we've seen before: In the 23rd century, the Earth is invited to join an ancient confederation of planets even though a lot of the other races in the confederation think humans are a horrible bunch because they're always starting wars and producing terrible reality television. A guy named Caleb is the first human to be admitted into the Interworld Diplomatic Office, special agents trained to keep the peace throughout the universe. He's paired with Mezoke Izzua, a Sandjarr, against whom the humans fought a brutal war that almost put the kibosh on their entry into the confederation. Of course, their first mission deals with grumpy humans, who don't dig Mezoke. So, yeah.

The book begins rather oddly, because we start when Caleb was a kid and his parents, pro-confederation humans, were killed by anti-confederation terrorists. I say it's odd because Caleb has a sister, Kristina, and I'm not sure if she dies in the attack or not. It doesn't appear that she does, but I would imagine Runberg would have mentioned her when Caleb is a grown-up. Maybe she'll come into play in the next volume. It's not a terrible way to begin the book, but as we know the Earth is in the confederation, it seems strange that Runberg would begin the book with some doubt, because the book flashes forward to when humanity has been accepted into the group (if not by all the races therein). Once we get to Caleb's acceptance into the IDO and the mission, however, the book is much better. Runberg delves into the racism (or "speciesism," I suppose) of the confederation's members, as Caleb makes an enemy (through no fault of his own) on his first day, and he also gets into the relationship between Caleb and Mezoke, which doesn't really exist at this point but which they both are willing to work on. As the mission deals with humans, of course the antagonism humans feel toward Sandjarrs will come into play, and I wonder what Runberg does with that in the next volume (it appears this series only ran two volumes, but perhaps the creators have more in mind). The mission is a diplomatic mess - the humans colonized a moon of a planet, and the natives of that planet now want the mineral that the humans have been mining for years; the natives sent a survey ship to the moon and something happened, with three of the four members dying/disappearing; tensions rose. When Caleb and Mezoke get there, they discover that the native predators of the moon are nasty creatures and perhaps not as cleared out as the humans claim. Oh dear.

Pellé's artwork is full of wonderful details, as he brings both earthbound Prague, the orbital station where Caleb trains, and the moon to vivid life. The coloring is very nice, too, as the station is a sterile beige-ish while the moon is soaked in blues and grays because it rains so much. It's a science fiction story, so it helps that Pellé designs some excellent-looking aliens, even though they're all bipedal (I'm always curious why so many sentient aliens are bipedal in fiction, especially when, in comics, you don't need to have humans in make-up playing them). A minor problem I had with the artwork is that some of the layouts are a bit confusing - occasionally the panels are placed in odd ways so that reading them becomes a bit of a chore - but it doesn't happen too often, so I'm not going to worry about it too much. It's a neat-looking comic that gives us both the impression of impressive technological achievement but also makes sure to portray the fact that things can still get messy.

While the actual plot might feel lifted from Aliens, Orbital is a cool comic because Runberg is able to introduce a lot of more subtle themes (well, not too subtle, but subtle enough) that make this more complex than just a shoot-'em-up. With any series, the best recommendation I can give is whether I want to see what happens next. I certainly do with this comic!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Well, that was a chunk of comics, wasn't it? I hope I pointed out some comics you might have missed, and I encourage you to check out Cinebook's web site for a lot more. Don't allow yourself to be trapped in mainstream American comics, because there's a lot of other stuff out there!

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