Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"XIII" volumes 1-5

"XIII" is the title of the 25-years in the making Belgian comics series, that has just recently concluded it's first story cycle with  the original creators Jean Van Hamme and William Vance. Despite being adapted as the video game and a TV mini-series, the Dargaud-published property has enjoyed little success in the United States so far, with only a few of it's earliest albums seeing print. In Serbia it remains a cult favorite, with all of it's albums, up to the final chapter, having been printed in some form or another (mostly without the color presented in the Belgian original).

When it comes to Franco-Belgian authors, "XIII" creators have been known to present material almost as diverse as that of Moebius. Van Hamme is chiefly remembered for authoring the fantasy "Thorgal", and Vance for creating both the sea fearing "Bruce J. Hawker" comic, and actually even lending his pencil and ink on the first two volumes of the "Marshal Blueberry" spin-off. 

There exists a long practice of using period pieces as the setting of European comics, evident everywhere from "Asterix" to the Italian "Zagor". Despite this, Van Hamme and Vance opted to avoid the historical context, and create a contemporary action comic. They decided to set their story in America, and the inspiration naturally came by from spy fiction in the vein of "the Bourne identity", along with a healthy dose of crime movies. Thus, in 1984 the creators debuted "the Day of the black sun", their own take on the story of one man finding himself embroiled in the criminal conspiracy, with heavy allusions to the Kennedy assassinations.

The original series outline seemed to cohere at five albums, bringing the mind "Lieutenant Blueberry"'s initial status quo, as defined by the "Fort Navajo" cycle. Starting with a wounded man surfacing on a beach with only the number XIII tattoo as an identification mark, the comic is quick to emerges into what would later solidify as it's most definite characteristics. Due to his lightning-quick reflexes, Van Hamme and Vance's amnesiac protagonist is quick to discover that he possesses some kind of military training. The elderly couple that befriend the mysterious man and nurse him to health are shown treating him as if he was the son they lost in the war.  After a slow start, the authors are more than eager to burden the "tabula rasa" character's search for his identity by placing him in the middle of a multi-faceted game of high stakes. 

Despite being the only one unaware of the role that led to him being listed as the most wanted man, he is given little time to differentiate among the various factions interested in him. One of his pursuers identifies himself as the shooter who caused the wound that lead to the amnesia. Following this, the man known only as "XIII" finds himself being given a clue as to his possible identity, but finds it hard to reconcile the shocking facts presented to him. It was difficult to imagine that these two plot points would end up being only a basis upon which the series built a story as complicated as any presented in the genre. The opening volume ends as befitting a fast-paced thriller, on a cliffhanger, promising more of what the readers just experienced.

Vance's art is by then bound to have established an effect on the reader, as the penciler and inker proves capable of bringing every aspect of the series to life. The bold and realistic artwork is employed to bring the figures in motion amidst the heavily-detailed backgrounds, while never losing the subtlelty in the faces of the characters. All of them are brought to life in distinct body types, carrying the feeling of authenticity to the world in which Van Hamme's cinematic, action-packed story takes place in. The only fault that can be attributed to the artist's stylistic choices is the overuse of the ruler to define the edges of the objects in the background, leading to some of the blockier architecture contrasting with the organic figures of characters. Still, the heavily referenced artwork never confuses the reader, working constantly in the service of the story, particularly in it's high-speed chase sequences.

Van Hamme similarly never stops earning the right to be credited next to such a distinct artistic collaborator. His script shows complete command of the story and the genre in which it's being created, but never fails to remind the reader of the subtleties of the characters entangled in the plot. Indeed, it's in the small moments that his characters are at their most honest and emotive, proving themselves as real people with years of experience before the events being depicted. Yet, despite presenting his readers with a story that works as a complete experience in itself, the writer is clearly working towards the wider story that brings the initial volumes together.

It is to the creators credit then that "Where the Indian walks", the next chapter in the arc, works to both continue the plot threads and to present a stand alone genre tale. This time around, the authors focus on placing their tattooed man in the southern small town, as he adapts to what may have been his real identity. The change of scenery comes with recasting the drama as much more of a character piece, with intrigues that threaten to reveal the long-buried secretes beneath the pleasant rural facade.

By now, XIII starts developing into a more distinctive protagonist, defined not only by his athletic prowess, but one prone to charmingly rash decisions and bursts of temper, especially after his constant inability to ease into a normal life, preferably his own. The added character focus helps also to spotlight some of the key characters in the emerging cast, as the protagonist is introduced to the kinder side of colonel Amos, major Jones, and general Ben Carington. The various players continue to influence his fate, but in a subtler way, compared to the high-octane thrills that characterized the first volume. Also, two of the series' common archetypes emerge in this second volume, as the authors introduce a brutish sadistic underling, alongside a typical femme fatale mistress. Still, the direction really pays off with the secondary characters, as Vance brings all of the members of XIII's possible household their own character, portraying them with individual designs.

This helps set up the eventual conflict really well, as he more than fills in on the lack of space Van Hamme has to devote to fleshing out the nuances in the dysfunctional family's personalities. More importantly, the change of scenery further demonstrates his versatility as an artist, as he seemingly paints the nuances of life in the country with the same grace as the more familiar detective story tropes that characterised the previous volume. 

The album ends with a couple of epilogues, the first of which continues the tradition by saddling XIII with another possibility as to his real history. The second one is much more rushed, as a complicated series of events is presented in a montage designed to speed up the change to the next album's distinctive setting. All things considered, the second volume remains one of the best in the series, managing to realize more potential than hinted in "Where the Indian walks", raising the expectations for the series to a whole new level.

The authors follow with "All the tears of Hell", casting XIII into a new dynamic, that of a prisoner in a maximum security penitentiary. This very memorable setup leads to a particularly effective portrayal of a man trying to escape dismal surroundings and is in many ways a creative peak of the series' introductory volumes. The relatively small cast is realized with minimalistic precision, as if both Van Hamme and Vance are starting to become sure that the series may well end up a powerful demonstration for their talents. 

The feeling of claustrophobia is established very quickly, as XIII is forced to deal with the severe conditions that are sentenced to become his likelihood until the end of his days. What's more, the behavioral treatment he is receiving stands to drive home the point that he must make friends with everyone he can, and survey the whole place in order to even try to escape the nightmare.

The volume is full of Van Hamme's carefully measured characterization, which quite literally explodes in the climax, with the choices of a couple of desperate characters. The reader is coldly left to contemplate their true nature that comes ahead in a series of particularly disturbing twists. Of course, Vance follows every step of the way, but his contribution is perhaps most notable in the portrayal of desperation leaking off the shower scene, which still manages to work as a very important plot point. Similarly, the brutally cruel solitary confinement scene maximizes the impact of the writer's pacing, serving as a prime example of carefully setting up each scene for the most possible effect. Yet, overall atmosphere of the piece, driven home by the rocky terrain fired upon by the scorching heat of the sun, manages to quite literally make the prison setting a character in itself, never taking it's eyes off it's victims.

Still, even in the Nevada desert, XIII cannot escape his past, as the members of the conspiracy, represented by their chief hit man Mongoose, try to get to him despite the protective measures. By now, Major Jones, an African-American aide to general Carington, starts developing a unique relationship with XIII, in itself a rarity in comics. She is depicted as anything but a damsel in distress, and is instrumental in helping XIII free himself. The volume ends on cliffhanger, as he decides to confront the shadowy forces that have manipulated him every step of the way. Throughout the volume, there are several conversations between the secondary characters, that still manage to act largely in service of filling in the back story for the new readers. These kind of sequences grew to become a major problem for the next volume, as the authors decided on giving another possible path of life for the beleaguered protagonist.

"S.P.A.D.S." finds both XIII and Jone with special forces, but the story doesn't shift as much as one would assume it would to accommodate another sort of genre adventure. In fact, starting with a long recap, it truly begins with the investigation of Colonel Amos, leading him to his first personal encounter with his opposite number in the criminal organization. The author's decision leads to a whole parallel plot devoted to the efforts of both the secret service chief, as well as general Carington, that is mostly devoted to a lengthy conversation that recasts the previously known events in a new light. Still, the additional information defines the context of the main plot so much, that the actions of XIII, thousands of miles away in a seemingly separate set of circumstances, might seem less than important. In a way, this completes defines the mystery man as a character at that point, for he is a man of action, that leaves the intelligence gathering to his peers, still uncertain how to deal with the manipulation and distortions of truth that surround him from all sides.

Similarly, in the writer's hands, the pair's relationship gains it's final defining element, as XIII starts establishing a practice of conveniently needing to seduce other women in order to discover the truth about himself. His lover is quick to realize this, but is unable to calm her feelings despite the mystery man promising nothing more than a casual relationship. This kind of anti-romantical self-centered behaviour makes perfect sense, when coupled with the fact that as an amnesic, he is constantly trying out new identities provided to him by the men he considers friends. 

Their manipulation leads him to take upon a role of a soldier, trying to remember if the regular army training was ever a part of his life. The hardships and discipline that XIII has to endure the whole training, are only accentuate by yet another brutish character, that takes instant dislike of him. Vance continues to work on deepening the reader's understanding of the character, with the artist being particularly effective as the scenery changes to accommodate the muddy rain forest. Such a portrayal of the greenery in low light, stands in stark contrast with the relentless heat that marked the previous album's desert canyon location.

For all the hallmarks that the fourth album establishes, it remains little more than a transition, as XIII is still unaware of the new information about his true nature as discovered by Amos and Carington. In any event "S.PA.D.S." begs for a re-read of the entire series up to that point, as the events are cast in the new light, leading up to the big confrontation in what must have been designed as the final volume at some point.

"Red alert" begins by the authors deciding to use the media reports as the framing device, recapping the important events in the series at that point. Despite the cleverly designed action sequence that breaks up the report, the narrative trick serves to further distance the reader from the main characters. With the break between volumes shorter then before, they get to spend half of the album getting back to Washington, where the antagonists are in the middle of the final phase of the c'oup d'etat. Vance and Van Hamme being as careful as always, leaving no page wasted, as even during these sequences devoted to trying to return to America in time,  they set up a couple of very important points regarding the future volumes.

When they eventually reconnect with the political thriller that's taking place around the new president, the countless hours used to set up the saga's finale start to pay off. Finally, the seemingly disconnected parts dealing with the jungle training in "S.P.A.D.S." start tying up with the main narrative in more than characterization. At that point Vance stops alternating between the sterility of the diplomatic headquarters and the gruffness of central American backwaters, opting to deconstruct the former by revealing all the pettiness of the power play. Thus, XIII and his allies put all their strength in to survive the greatest threat to the national security, as the author's use the army base setting to it's most effect. All the while, the book continues foreshadowing the future events, even going so far as to end with the mystery of the leader of the conspiracy unresolved.

Van Hamme's mixing of the two opposing approaches turns up with strange results, as the series most definitely reaches a kind of open-ending that's probably the best, given the circumstances. The reality of the book's success seems to have changed the minds of the publishers and the authors, resulting in a relative finality similar to many genre pieces it draws upon. 

The particular phase in the book's life has still been taken to a certain conclusion, and one can hardly fault the creators for being so optimistic about it's future. Perhaps any kind of ultimate resolution off all the myriad story threads introduced in the series up to that point would have lead to a rushed and unsatisfied ending if the fifth volume ended up serving as the last one in the series. The remaining fourteen volumes certainly work to give the saga the best "sequel" that it's creators, William Vance and Jan Van Hamme could have ever imagined.

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