"The Arctic Marauder" by Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics)
Originally published in 1974, renowned French cartoonist Tardi paid tribute to his legendary fellow countryman, Jules Verne, in what the publisher describes as "vintage icepunk" and finds social criticism wrapped up in sarcastic satire, but outfitted in some great designs of Vic torian science.
The book opens in 1889 with danger in the arctic and the discovery of a strange spectacle: a grand sea vessel impossibly resting on top of an enormous and foreboding iceberg. What follows is the investigation -- and perhaps seduction -- of our hero, Plumier, whose seafaring adventures in the arctic and curious investigation of his missing uncle, who is an eccentric scientist with curious abandoned experiments and contraptions, give way to the answer he seeks.
What Plumier finds is Tardi's way of investigating how easy and amusing evil is. Rather than a burdensome madness, it's a delicious enticement, a liberating decision that might just be the only sane reaction to a world that embraces injustice as its one reliable constant. New evil plans meant to pick up the pieces and move along with the destruction of life as we know it becomes not just a bridge to adventure, but a continuum to narrative, as well as life.
Tardi's story is one thing, but his beautiful renderings give it a depth that brings it far beyond satire. The attention given to the Victoriana -- in technology, fashion and graphic layout -- functions as a love letter to that bygone world, which keeps the book from ever seeming cartoonish, and that its major strength. Tardi never copies straight the era he captures, but wraps it in modern and literary concerns to make it something more than just another Victorian adventure.
"Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea" by Hugo Pratt (Universe Publishing)
Joining Tintin and Asterix in the ranks of European comic superstars that never quite made it as big on our shores is Corto Maltese, the work of Italian creator Hugo Pratt, who over his career created sprawling adventure graphic novels with the character until his death.
When we meet Maltese, he is a scurrilous pirate in the Pacific seas of pre World War I, rescued from a sure death onboard a floating raft by his apparently permanent foil, Rasputin, another pirate who greatly resembles the monk of the same name. Perhaps that's what makes their connection an in-joke -- they both work for a mysterious smuggler who actually goes by the name The Monk.
Maltese might be a brigand, but he's a well-humored, fairly honorable one who has the respect of all sorts of sea-faring types, but most of all, the victims of a ransom scheme that he is part of -- the rich Groovesnore cousins, Cain and Pandora. Teenage Pandora specifically bonds with Maltese, offering an unlikely and unrealized romantic tone to the adventure, which is a throwback to another era in the best possible way. Think Terry and the Pirates or Steve Canyon, but with a European frankness and an unapologetic darkness that never turns its back on the concept that Maltese is a scoundrel and bad things do happen in his world.
Pratt's story speaks to the end of colonialism, which the world still grapples with in social ways, and the mannered, authoritarian system of Great Britain finds itself provoked by those who don't fit into their convenient world order. This sort of wild card is personified by the character of Maltese, whose very existence runs in opposition to the staid and desperate attempts of England to keep the world under control. Maltese is the face of the future.
This new translation is the first time a Maltese adventure has found its way onto our shores in more than two decades, and it captures the pure adventurous spirit of what has appealed to European audiences for much longer than that. It's old fashioned, but not even remotely dated, and the European view of world politics of the era offer another side point of interest to an adventure story that would probably be a beloved classic of the genre in our own country if it weren't a graphic novel. Now that we have caught up with the rest of the world in that area, it's definitely time for more people to give this unpretentious, first-rate effort a chance and hope for more volumes to follow.