Sunday, February 7, 2010

I am legion 1: the Dancing faun

"I am legion" is a French comic series, published in three volumes in France by the Humanoids publishing. Humanoids is perhaps best known as the American counterpart of Humanoides Associes, the publisher associated with Metal Hurlant magazine, and the subsequent releases of creators such as Jodorowsky and Bilal. In any event, their science fiction-inclined sensibility was always in tune with the American popular culture, which has lead to the publisher teaming up French writer Fabien Nury with the American superstar artist John Cassaday. Realizing the possibility of the crossover audience, DC first started serializing the American translation of "I am legion" during their association with "Humanoids publishing", but it was only recently, that "the Devil's due" got the contract, that all three volumes of the series were finally presented in America.

Reading "the Dancing faun", it's easy to see why the original publisher found it fitting to pair these two creators together. Namely, in developing the stylings of "I am legion", Nury sticks to a very precise and complicated story, that needs all of it's audience attention to capture all of it's nuances, which are integral to the plot at hand. Fittingly, he is aided by Cassaday, a photo-realistic artist taking no shortcuts in getting across the story's settings and many characters. Together, they make the title what it is, a rare comics depiction of occult period piece, a genre most commonly found in the offspring of spy fiction.

Plot-wise, "the Dancing faun" is almost mechanical, in it's dynamic consisting of two long action scenes that both open and close the book, with a shorter chase scene in the middle, as a break from the long conversation pieces. The cold, extremely serious tone involved in the proceedings goes to show how much the creators value their assignment, and the care taken into it. It's is to be noted that the publisher retains all the rights for "I am legion" and it's characters, which stands to reason that "the Humanoids" had at least made some of the major decisions regarding the property's development, if not the basic story points of the initial pitch. Likewise, Nury almost treats his story as if it's an elaboration of a simple idea the reader is already familiar with, which may lead to an initial confusion.

This kind of a story, which starts right in the middle of the latest stage of the complicated proceedings involving a set of characters that have long defined previous relationships among themselves is typically posed almost as a challenge to the readers. Having no new reader identification characters, and being introduced to the setting only at the beginning of the final, most interesting stage of previously alluded to agendas certainly can seem alienating, but Nury and Cassaday still manage to be clear enough that the discerning reader will get all the right clues in all of the scenes, with some of the initial confusion being deliberately used for effect.

Having said that, it's still arguable how well the first volume stands on it's own. Because, "the Dancing faun" doesn't really offer a huge amount of payoff for all of the dozen characters involved. It starts by hinting a huge conspiracy, and more or less leaves the reader with the impression of it's borders and some of the occult "rules" involved. This is particularly problematic considering how much emphasis is put on a particular operation that is to start in mere days from the constantly displayed time during scene shifts. In fact, getting to the fight scene that closes the opening volume actually feels like a calculated attempt to give the reader some kind of catalyst for the tense proceedings, actually amounting only in further solidifying the hints that they've been given for the whole book, but no real release, which is shifted to a later volume.

It seems that the confidence and professionalism between Fabien Nury and John Cassaday, as employed by "Humanoids", is such that they firmly believe that the readers will return to their meticulously constructed story, and see it to it's end. This notion is by and large, grounded in details, as it's a rare comic book that has the ambition to actually set up as much plot wise. And, although the universe of "I am legion" is limited to a fight against the British secret service and it's German counterpart, the world building is so extensive and thorough that it feels completely solid. Even the glaring exception of the particular fantastic element that drives the story feels researched and cataloged in numerous sources involved with the occult history of the Reich.

Nobody can accuse Nury of providing an artistic showcase and getting out of the spotlight so as to let his renowned collaborator take the spotlight. The writer's pages typically consists of eight to nine panels filled with conversation that sometimes amounts to such specialized subjects as the devisions of the Axis secret services. Still, despite the long-windedness, most of the information is actually integral to the plot, with very rare emotional breaks providing the story with almost brutal glimpses into these characters, whose very lives are stunted by the horrible responsibilities they have to comprehend and fulfill.

Thankfully, that the "Dancing faun"'s oversized pages still find room to display a lot of color and character into what would certainly be fairly similar cyphers of characters in a spy novel without the intention to focus on the descriptions, is almost solely Cassaday's contribution. And not only does he instill a lot of character into the graying heads of his tense and overworked characters, but he keeps up with all of the rest of the book's visual cues. Aided by frequent collaborator Laura Martin's colors, the artist employs the traditional realism associated with classic adventure strips, by rendering almost every building and interior to exquisite detail, and not only in the establishing shots typical of comic books. Under constant variations of blues and greens, punctuated by the splashes of red, Cassadey's sure inks never fail, even when it comes to the rare portrayal of likeness that are notoriously difficult, even for the most talented artists. It is only when it comes to distinguishing two female characters that appear to be of similar ages and build that he shows a kind of predictability to the models of his figures, potentially leading to some confusion. Otherwise, the long hours of composing the dynamic layouts and working in the details make up for an aesthetic whole that makes a striking first impression.

All in all, no matter the reader's predilection towards the subject matter of occultism and World War 2 conspiracy, the amount of craft employed in bringing "I am legion" to life in comics form is certainly impressive. Just like the best put together spy novels, Nury and Cassaday go beyond the call of duty to find competent ways of introducing the readers to their fully formed world and keep their attention to a very detailed plot. "the Dancing faun" is a great example of a very dedicated genre work that is sure to be admired by a hopefully large crossover audience in it's original sequential format. It is unfortunate that "the Devil's due" went ahead with splitting each of the albums into two roughly standard sized comic books, but considering that they have since published the whole story in this format, the eventual trade paperback editions will make their initial decision an afterthought.

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