Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Yoko Tsuno 1 - the Trio of the Bizarre

Yoko Tsuno debuted in 1970, starring in a couple of try out short stories published in the pages of Belgian "Spirou" magazine. Created by Roger Leloup, Herge's assistant on "Tintin", the character has since gone on to star in the series of 25 albums, with her adventures being translated and published in several different languages. The first English edition of the material debuted in 1998 and covered two of the early albums, while Cinebook has since picked up the licence. Since 2007, the publisher has kept to the schedule of more or less a single album per year.

The adventures of a beautiful Japanese girl teaming up with Belgian television crew Vic and Paul are somewhat distinctive. While Yoko herself is certainly an independent woman, perfectly suited to the life of an action hero, Leloup treats her with respect and avoids concentrating too heavily on her figure. Her two friends are somewhat more familiar Franco-Belgian Silver age characters, with Vic basically playing the role of the reader identification figure, and the much flawed Paul being around for comic relief and a more pronounced touch of humanity.

In "the Trio of the bizarre", Yoko is introduced as an electrical engineer that is suspected of burglary by the two friends working in the movie studio. What starts as a spy story, all too quickly (due to the album being originally serialized in the course of several installments of "Spirou" magazine) turns into an adventure story, until it becomes apparent that Leloup is actually most interested in placing his characters in a science fiction milieu similar to that of "Star Trek: The Original series". A turn for the bizarre is, of course, nothing new for the Franco-Belgian comics of the era, with even the otherwise semi-realistic "Tintin" having oddball albums dealing with the more outlandish pulp elements.

In fact, 1968's "Flight 714" is particularly of note when discussing the origins of Yoko Tsuno. The second to last Herge album, featuring extensive work by Leloup, is notable for a light-hearted featuring a strange setting, and ending in a denouement that is very tongue in cheek. In the space of several pages, Herge attributes several unexplained phenomena as the work of aliens coming to visit the Earth, clearly inspired by the theories of Erich von Däniken. Däniken's "Chariot of the Gods" was published the same year as the collected edition of Herge and Leloup's work, and it's no coincidence that it plays with the ideas of aliens inhabiting the planet Earth in the past, which would theoretically serve as an explanation for some of the various culture's folklore and scientific wonders the ancient countries produced at seemingly far above the assumed technological level of the eras they lived in.

In any event, more notable then even the beautiful tropical backgrounds in the Tintin album, attributed to Leloup, the artist was reportedly responsible for the design of the airplane which plays a key role in the story and feels thoroughly modern and realistic, despite being the work of Herge's technically minded assistant. Interestingly, in Yoko Tsuno's long form debut, Leloup returns to Däniken's ideas, and crafts a story that takes the concept in a completely different direction that Herge's well meaning satire. Basically, while exploring a current for a possible documentary set in an unnamed Belgian cavern system, the characters stumble upon what at first seems like the remnants of some kind of modern Atlantis, and it's characteristically blue skinned denizens. Even more unlikely, at first chance the Vinean female Khany reveals their origins to the trio of total strangers, revealing that her race has originally come to the planet millions of years ago, while escaping from the destruction of Vinea.

The beautiful images showing the merging of the planet's suns are certainly the visual highlight of the volume, but by having his characters' original adventure, and subsequent supporting cast, integrated so heavily in the science fiction meant that Leloup was very conscious in carving out a niche in the Franco-Belgian comics industry. And while some of the succeeding adventures have featured the more realistic locales, the writer/artist has repeatedly returned Yoko and her two friends to the trappings of Vinean civilization, even going so far as sending them on Vinea. Interestingly, Cinebook has so far steered clear of the albums dealing directly with the Vinean civilization, and judging by the solicited material they certainly seem set on translating the more grounded material first.

It's a very peculiar situation for a reprint publisher to find themselves in, and certainly breaks away from the creator's original idea regarding the series. "The Trio of the Bizarre" is unapologetically an album featuring science fiction elements, and it certainly seems more reminiscent of "Flash Gordon" than "the X-Files".  Namely, once Yoko and her friends come close to the Vinean settlement, Leloup drops all pretense of her companion's ambitions as journalists, proceeding with a long speed chase that highlights several of the book's key elements. Namely, the writer/artist's superbly executed vehicle designs, which seem both visually impressive and entirely plausible, given the setting. Leloup's fertile imagination immediately creates several challenges that use the exotic setting of an underwater alien train chase, making for an uncharacteristically long journey broken by every contrivance possible.

Again, this is certainly not a problem, as the creator uses the space to expand on the just introduced alien culture, introduce a major new character in Khany, and shows the traditional comic heroes coming to grips with the new locale and circumstances. Once Khany's equipment malfunctions after a cascade of problems that overtake their journey, it's transparent that the reader is dealing with a pulp yarn, but the array of tropes  changes again as the story continues in ostensibly new issue of "Spirou", meaning that the final third of the album takes place in Vinean city, with only the threat of a villain serving as the dramatic thread and making the introductory album into more then a tour of the writer/artist's science fantasy setting.

It goes without saying that Leloup's architecture is on pair with his intricate vehicle designs, resulting once again in several breathtaking designs that he takes full advantage of. Returning Yoko, Vic and Paul to their civilian clothes serves to juxtapose these ordinary humans to the advanced alien civilization, but reading the story in 2011 means that her forty year old attire seems very dated and even disconcerting. The Vinean Vulcan-like hostility is on the sidelines through Khany's tour of the computer-colored complex, but in returning to the exposition Leloup once again breaks the suspension of disbelief as some of Yoko's questions seem far too direct to be given such extensive and matter of fact answers, given that she is a complete stranger to an alien civilization that has for millions of years been purposely hidden from the surface world.

Thankfully, in reasserting some semblance of loyalty to her people in Khany's character, the writer/artist manages to round out what has largely been a benevolent alien so far. Given that the otherwise goofy Paul gets the same treatment in the same scene, it's easy to see the last segment of the book as most interesting and dramatically the strongest. That Leloup follows the exposition with an action heavy climax featuring the peak of Vinean technology perverted and manipulated to be used against their people, and in turn surface world goes a long way to give the book some semblance of thematic resonance beyond the simple escapism. Truthfully, the allegorical reminder of the logical endpoint of computer-dominated society seems very familiar to anyone who has had experience with the genre, but it works to sufficiently raise the stakes for the final combat with the villain.

The stern Yoko directly opposing thoroughly evil Karpan is at least more notable then his initial appearance, but the character continues to be problematic, and seems very forgettable. His appearance is perhaps the strongest call back to "Star Trek", but the single minded obsession that the character displays makes him merely the obligatory antagonist, and not by any means a memorable villain in his own right. Still, perhaps it's to much to be expecting the series to launch with the album introducing the main characters, the setting they would remain closely linked throughout the series and a charismatic key opponent all at once. Most of the rest of Franco-Belgian adventure comics the same readership certainly acquired each of these elements during the course of many years they were published, with the creators routinely going back to the drawing board in searching for the appealing combination of the three.

The need for the immediate continuation of another new adventure with it's own set of action set pieces and cliffhangers, necessitated a familiarly quick wrap up of the main plot. In itself, a notable stranger coming to an ancient civilization with the fresh eyes for some of it's newer flaws, and dealing with them in short order is a stock plot that, along with the obligatory "techno babble" that follows most of the similar pulp science fiction scenarios, leads to a somewhat unsatisfying resolution, but Leloup dulls the effect with the advent of Khary's parting gifts to the main characters.

The mere fact that they were given actual items that hint further adventures, instead of some abstract McGuffin, goes a long way to differentiate the series. And while certainly having such a strange science fiction status quo to return to seems a challenge for both the readers and the writer/artist, Leloup has continued on to mine the concepts introduced in "The Trio of the Bizarre" for the following forty years. Perhaps that a simple fact of having such a strong, independent woman at the center of the book that is nevertheless a classic Franco-Belgian adventure story made such an impression on the readers. Considering that Yoko's chief rival was Dupuis' own "Natacha", focusing on much lighter cheesecakey depiction of the female form, it's easy to see why Leloup's heroine has remained such a strong presence in what was originally an industry catering to young boys' serial entertainment.

1 comment:

David said...

Very nice analysis.
I have been reading Yoko's adventures since my childhood and, now in my 30's, still look up to her.
Yoko's abilities to break-through communication barriers -along with her flaws- turn her character into a refreshing referent adult figure.