Saturday, 13 August 2016

'The Voronov Plot' by Yves Sente and André Juillard



Blake and Mortimer’s resurrection is an interesting phenonomen. Edgar P Jacobs was at the forefront of the development of the cartoon in the forties and fifties, as he worked with Hergé, who pushed the boundaries of the new medium. 

Hergé’s last complete book was in the seventies and Jacobs died in the eighties. It was not for two decades that Blake and Mortimer were brought back to life, and those years had seen many changes in cartoon books, or graphic novels, as they had come to be known. The medium had matured, and artists were tackling much more ambitious subjects. The gag, that underpinned early comics, was now all but gone, and the flippant tone, aimed only at children was replaced with serious subject matter, such as the Holocaust, in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

The evolution, started by Hergé, had continued throughout the sixties with Robert Crumb, through to the eighties, with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, bringing even more complex themes, plots and characters.

The new Blake and Mortimer books reflect the new readership, of a generation brought up on these books. Characters have a past which sometimes catches up with them (The Oath of the Five Lords), old flames that they reconnect with (The Gondwana Shrine) and in interest in the opposite sex that Tintin and indeed the old Blake and Mortimer never did.

The Voronov Plot is an absorbing cold war thriller, that gives James Bond a run for it’s money. The plot stays on the right side of credible (unlike The Gondwana Shrine), and is, with the benefit of hindsight, is a little more gracious to the Soviet Union than many novels and comics produced during the cold war.

The book also features interviews, not only with the artist and writer, but also the colourist, which give a valuable insight into the creative process. They talk about their Hergé tributes (if you do not spot them they are revealed in the interview section at the end), and the colourist talks about the challenges of colouring a work like this, and how the eye of the reader has changed since the first books came out, over 60 years ago.

This is one of the best of the new Blake and Mortimer books that I have read, and if I was to compare it to one of the Tintin books it would be The Calculas Affair, one of Hergé’s best.





There are also figurines available, such as this one of Olrik, in his Russian uniform, costing 850 euros.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Curse of the 30 Pieces of Silver

Blake and Mortimer were created by one time Tintin artist, Edgar P. Jacobs, who, on asking Hergé for a credit (he worked on several Tintin albums, including The Secret of the Unicorn and Prisoners of the Sun), found their partnership over. Not one to mope, Jacobs launched his own cartoon, which in 1950, debuted in the Tintin magazine. The two Brits, Francis Blake, head of MI6, and Professor Philip Mortimer, had adventures and solved mysteries, much in the style of Hergé’s books, but with less humour and more labyrinthine plots. 

Hergé felt his characters could not be brought to life without him, and stipulated in his will that there could be no more new Tintin adventures. Jacobs made no such demands, and since his death in 1987, Blake and Mortimer have appeared in some 11 new adventures. Artists like Ted Beniot and André Juillard, fine French exponents of the Ligne Clare, have helped to breath new life into the two gentlemen.

The curse of the 30 pieces of silver is a two part story, so I suggest you buy both at the same time, to avoid being left on a cliff hanger, while you wait to find part 2. As its title suggests, it deals with the new testament story of Judas’ betrayal of Christ, and the 30 pieces of silver that he was paid by the sanhedrin. A mysterious letter from the curator of a museum in Athens sends Mortimer to Greece, and starts a wonderful chain of plots and sub-plots, delving into early Christian history, Nazism and swashbuckling adventure, and, almost inevitably, ending with a subterranean gun fight.

Writer Jean Van Hamme has tried not to discredit the Christian story, coming up with a plausible reason to deviate from Christian tradition, although it does not bare close scrutiny. At the end of the book, the whole affair is hushed up by the Greek Archbishop, the evidence stored away with other manuscripts that contradicted the official version of Christianity. Mortimer is a man of science, and believes that every unexplained event, including religious ones, have a rational explanation.

The story is well researched, and the traditions of the early Christian church and the later Greek Orthodox Church have been faithfully portrayed.

Artists René Sterne/Chantal de Spiegeleer, Antoine Aubin/Etienne Schreder are accomplished illustrators, the artwork of the highest standard. The colour is not flat, but more subtle, with depth and shading and fine details. I don’t know if digital media or traditional materials have been used, but it certainly has a wonderful attention to detail.

Look out for the nice Tintin tribute in the first book - I’ll say no more than that, so you can enjoy discovering it! It might be that there are more than the one I spotted, but, regardless of that, Tintin casts a heavy shadow across many of these books, but never to their detriment. 

I bought my copies from Foyles in London for £7.99 each, while Amazon sell them for much more. It might be that Amazon is only selling the hard back edition, but Foyles has a nice selection of Bande Dessine books, worth a browse if you are passing.




Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Is that all there is? Joost Swart


This collection of comic strips from 1972 - 2010 from the Dutch artist Joost (rhymes with 'post' not 'juiced' as Chris Ware informs us in the introduction) Swart, is a delight from start to finish for fans of the European style of cartooning.

Joost was strongly influenced by Hergé's Tintin adventures, and his style is similarly precise and clear, meticulously crafted and elegantly coloured by watercolour. Yet his content could not be further from the innocent Tintin, taking it's cue across the Atlantic from the adult content of the underground American comics scene, and artists like Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb.

Joost Swart's most popular creation was Jojo de Pojo, a lad sporting a quiff and plus-fours, yet who, rather than save the world from crime and evil, indulges in activities Tintin never even dream of. His audience, brought up as boy scouts, and now young adults in the seventies, experimenting with narcotics, alcohol and sex, would have appreciated the artist struggling with complexities that they encountered in their everyday lives.

Swart is a renaissance man, and is a graphic designer and architect, has designed furniture, murals and stained glass windows. He designed a theatre in Haarlem (his hometown), and designed the interiors of the Hergé Museum in Brussels. He founded a publishing house in the eighties and in the nineties instigated the Comics Event held in Haarlem. Chris Ware also writes in his introduction that, when he visited the artists studio, he had just finished designs from pastries for his local patisserie, and how he faxed him a beautifully drawn map showing how to get to the studio. This charming and innocent approach seems to underpin much of his work, and he operates at the personal level, getting involved in projects close to his heart (and his home), rather than the one with the largest pay-cheque.

This small book will introduce one of the greats of European comics to a new audience, bringing together strips that were published over 40 years ago, in obscure Dutch magazines, and re-presenting and translating them for fans of comic books the world over.














Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See www.mikestonelake.com

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Tintin. The Art of Hergé



Hergé is probably the most important figure in cartooning and Tintin his most popular creation. This coffee table tome runs to almost 500 pages of reproductions from the Archives of the Hergé Museum, and will delight anyone who has enjoyed the books.

The first chapter is dedicated to the Hergé Museum, which is a shame, as it gives the book the feel of a catalogue, which would be a disservice to such a wonderful book. I feel this chapter should be the last chapter, especially as, chronologically it comes last in the Tintin story.

However, that's a small fault, in an otherwise very satisfying book, crammed full of treasures. There are early sketches of Hergé, from when he was a young teenager of 16 years old - fine drawings, showing he was a talented draftsman from the start. It contains some pages from his early cartoon, Totor, the boyscout, a forerunner of Tintin, and important frames from the first Tintin drawings, black and white, printed in Le Petite Vingtième in 1929, for example, the moment Tintin gets his quiff, as the wind blows back his hair as he speeds away in a car.

There are also many photographs, documenting important events, for example, the moment a young lad and a bleached fox terrier arrived at Gard du Nord station, met by crowds of children, already fans of the young reporter.

There are also examples of his other cartoons. Quick and Flupke and Jo, Zette and Jocko, which featured a family, in response to Tintin's unmarried status! Also of interest are the examples of Hergé's graphic design and advertising illustrations and posters, very much of it's time, but beautiful nonetheless.


The book reproduces many working drawings, black and white line art, as well as some of the original versions (the books that most of us know where later workings of serialised adventures, many originally reproduced in black and white.

The book plots the development of Hergé, as he became more interested in accuracy and detail, and documents some of the source information he used: postcards; newspaper cuttings; museum exhibits.

The real hero shots in the book, however, are the enlarged colour panels, watercolour on printed proof, showing the artwork in all its subtlety.


The book has a debossed, black and white reproduction of Tintin's iconic head, enlarged many times over. The edges of the pages have a pleasing red and white, checkered pattern from the rocket in Explorers on the Moon. Unfortunately the process made the pages of my copy stick together, which took a while to unstick. But that was just a tiny fly in a beautiful ointment!

View the book here.


Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See www.mikestonelake.com

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Red Moon by Carlos Trillo and Eduardo Risso




Red Moon, a flame haired princess meets a travelling acrobat, Antolin, and they form an unlikely friendship, setting off on several quests together, in a medieval world of magic, witches and fairies.

The protagonists are both around ten years old, and the book is aimed at this age group. Drawn in a typically Bande Dessinée style, the Argentine author and artist are obviously drawn to this European tradition, rather than the American comic book.

Carlos Trillo, who died in 2011, was a prolific writer, collaborating with many notable artists, and this is one of several efforts with Eduardo Risso (of 100 Bullets fame). Originally published in four editions by SAF Comics, they have now been brought together in an omnibus edition, and should have enough excitement, fantasy and adventure to satisfy most young children.

It is good to see this kind of European comic book on sale in the UK (I bought it from Forbidden Planet, in Shaftesbury Avenue, London) and Risso’s artwork is accomplished, his lines part pen, part brush, he draws the characters expressively, and  I cannot fault his drawing, his research, nor his style.

If I did have to find a fault, it would be the colour, which is very ‘photoshopped’, with very flat areas of colour and very precise graduations. To make things worse, it is printed on gloss paper, which seems to emphasise this crudeness.

I also found it clumsy in its ‘story boarding’, and at times it seemed too hurried, and I think it would have been better if it had tarried somewhat at certain points of the story, and if the creators had spent more time acquainting us with the characters. I did not feel much empathy with anyone in the story, as they all seemed rather two-dimensional.

I also found the ending rather unsatisfying, not very believable and a bit of an anti-climax. I know the story is for young children, but they will still respond to engaging and believable characters and situations, as the early Asterix books atest.




Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See www.mikestonelake.com

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Blankets by Craig Thompson





‘Achingly beautiful’ is how Time magazine described Blankets. It is a story about first love and self-awakening, tempered with regret for a lost childhood.

Craig and his brother Phil, the children of fundamentalist Christians, are growing up in a small town in Wisconsin. A skinny child, not interested in sport or Heavy Metal, Craig is marginalised and bullied at school, and an easy target for the teachers. As is common for those with extreme beliefs, the home and church become a refuge from the evil, sinful world, and they see themselves as the persecuted faithful.

The story revolves around the beautiful Raina, a mutual misfit he meets at ‘Church Snow Camp’, and the first stumbling steps of their romance, which blossoms as Craig stays with her during the holidays. Away from his parents, the pull of fundamentalism is diminished, and his guilty conscience is unable to put up much of a fight.

I have read the book three times now, and every time I also fall in love with Raina. Beautiful, sensitive, intelligent, creative, generous and fun. Is this nostalgia, for the perfect woman who does not exist, except as a memory?

The beauty of Blankets is not just in the story, it is in the artwork as well. Craig is an accomplished artist, and worked for DC, Marvel and many other top publications. He uses brush and ink, working in black and white. His work has a strong line, which is never merely a contour, but a description of form and volume, light and shadow and expression and movement.

Craig communicates so much, sometimes without any words at all. In one scene, Raina’s devoutly Christian father, looking into the spare room one morning, seeing Craig’s bed neatly made, storms into Raina’s room and finds them in bed together, clothes strewn over the floor. Then he looks at the sleeping face of his daughter, seeing such contentment there, and maybe, reflecting on his own failures, backs out of the room, quietly closing the door behind him.

To what extent the hero of the book actually is one and the same as the author is difficult to say. He is an innovative story teller, not content to regurgitate mere facts. That said, it is so well observed that it must be grounded in true events and real people.

In Blankets, the events of his childhood are seen through the eyes of an angy, 24 year old man, and the book is cathartic, as he exorcises his demons and satirises his tormentors. Yet he is not blinded by anger – he has time for an affectionate portrayal of his parents, and he claims that he retains a belief in the teachings of Christ, if not the teachings of the church.

The things we angrily throw away one day, we later return to for comfort, as we realise that the adversity we faced as a child has made us the person we are today. I wonder if Craig would change one moment of his childhood, which has shaped him into a strong individual, and a talented artist and story teller.







Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See www.mikestonelake.com

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Bloody Streets of Paris, by Jaques Tardi, adapted from the novel ‘120 Rue de la Gare’ by Leo Malet



“My name’s Nestor Burma. I used to be a private detective. Before the war I used to run the Fiat Lux Agency.” We are already 8 pages into the comic before our hero enlightens those of us that do not know, exactly who he is. Leo Malet’s character, the subject of 33 novels, is his most well known and best loved character, a household name in France, but little-known by English speakers.

The story unfolds in a German prisoner of war camp, Stalag XB, full of French soldiers after their capitulation to the Nazis in 1940. A mysterious prisoner arrives, unable to remember who he is or anything else for that matter. Needless to say, the mystery is finally explained in the denouement at the end of the book, and the complicated twists and turns are all satisfyingly put together.

Nestor Burma lives in a time that many Frenchmen consider Frances darkest and most shameful hour, when moral compromise was the norm, even for Hergé, for example, working for the collabative Nazi newspaper ‘Le Soire’. Burma, however does not compromise himself, keeping a disdainful distance from the Germans, and in fact, just about everyone. Usually wearing a frown, the best he can manage by way of a smile is a self-satisfied smirk or a wry grimace.

Tardi is a master when it comes to drawing believable faces and expressions. His characters are so real and lifelike, with the years of pain and disappointment etched into their faces, or indulgence, like the flabby face of the attorney, and sometimes, when Tardi is feeling kind, innocence and naivety.

He also draws the streets of Lyon and Paris, the huts of the stalag and the interiors of the rooms Burma visits, with great skill and meticulous research. The office of the policeman Bernier is one beautiful example of this, with typewriter, lamp, fireguard, filing cabinets and telephone, the two men framed by these details.

The book is black and white, with tones of grey, and Tardi’s excellent handling of light and shadow creates strong moods and atmospheres, such as the snowflakes falling against a darkening sky as they visit a country house, and the deserted snow-filled streets of Paris after the curfew, as they are caught in the middle of an allied air-raid.

The English translations of the graphic novels are quite hard to come by, although ‘The Bloody Streets of Paris’ is available on Amazon. It is 190 pages long, so a quite substantial book, beautifully drawn and well researched, which is the reason I keep on re-reading my copy.
















Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See www.mikestonelake.com