Sunday, August 28, 2011

Yoko Tsuno 2 - The Devil's organ

Collected in 1973, "The Devil's Organ" is the second Yoko Tsuno adventure story, serialized in "the Spirou Magazine" by Roger Leloup. As is typical with Franco-Belgian comics, the album offers a complete story that is completely accessible to a reader unfamiliar with the events of the original album. Yoko is simply a resourceful young Japanese woman, traveling with her two friends, and encountering a complicated mystery plot along the way. Finding themselves in Germany, the previously dubbed "trio of the bizarre" are witness to a strange incident involving a beautiful local woman. Once again, the impulsive Paul is quick to respond to Ingrid's charms, while Yoko maintains an objective stance, tempered by her helpful nature.

The elusive Vic is once again continually on the sidelines. That Paul relatively quickly joins in and falls into the background, silent but for the occasional blunder and an aside, speaks to the archetypal characterization Leloup imbues the new character with, who plays the role of the victim right until the very end. Thus, most of the action revolves directly around Yoko, who is tasked not only with coming up with the solution to the murder mystery involving Ingrid's father and local folklore, but also saving the lives of herself and her helpless companions.

One could make the case that Yoko is a stereotypical Japanese woman in that she seems to be a string of racial attributes tied into an Franco-Belgian comic book hero, but ironically this is also what sets her apart. That her technical savvy is coupled with a knowledge of martial arts somehow makes her into a potent protagonist, and not a walking cliche. Leloup is careful to present her as a character having adventures in foreign lands, where her special skills are secondary to her intellect, curiosity and compassion.

Of course, having his Belgium-based character on a dangerous undertaking in a neighboring country, done by Herge's background assistant once again invites direct comparison to "Tintin". In this respect, "The Devil's Organ" appears as a relatively straightforward detective story, with some local flavor to make it more memorable. Where Herge seems somewhat broader in his assessments and more focused on his cast of characters and the specific style of humor he used, Leloup proceeds in a much more direct fashion.

His story takes place in Germany, revolves around the local legends and maintains a subtle note of occult terror throughout, but could otherwise very easily be reworked to star any number of Franco-Belgian protagonists, such as Gil Jordan, and even Colonel Clifton. Roger Leloup's work would be what would still distinguish it from the other albums in a similar series. Having a creator produce a single 44 page album per year makes for a staggering amount of artistic detail and a clear break between volumes. It seems that simply concentrating so much time and energy into a single story made the Franco-Belgian creators mindful to at least change the formula to include different locales in each of the entries in the series.

The resulting research and effort certainly pays off to produce visually startling work that both feels like a continuation of the series, and a pleasant diversion on it's own. Simply watching the Rhine vistas and the craggy hills ancient castles surrounded by the old fashioned town should feel like a typical middle European comics adventure, but in the hands of Leloup it becomes a real treat. The physical model of the castle itself, with the prominent tower and the adjacent area, feels completely realized, befitting it's importance as the story setting. This is particularly notable given so much of the similar locales in the medium typically looking like a cheap cardboard approximation of the same generic fortress. In Leloup's hands, the structure is depicted as looming over the river and the town houses, until it becomes the stage for the final act of the story.

Once again, the artist's attention to detail when it comes to the ferryboat and the train goes far and beyond the usual standards of realism in comics, with vehicles that have weight and mobility far beyond the look of being traced from a postcard in the work of a lot of the figure-centered artists. As befitting ligna claire style, the characters seem much more livelier than their surroundings, which is something of a problem when it comes to the artist's design for Paul, who simply looks like he belongs in a different comic book altogether. And while Yoko is kept in the realistic proportions, some of the side characters sport a somewhat looser style, which when compared to the main character's relatively calm and measured behavior, proceeds to somewhat distract from their surroundings. This is no doubt intended to ease up the characters acting out long swathes of dialogue, but the capable yet not too attractive figure drawings still betrays the artist's preference for depicting still life.

It stands to be pointed out again that this is a complete reversal from the typical comic book illustrations that tend to concentrate on the fast paced physicality of the characters in motion, with the background details provided to liven up the atmosphere, or more often, when the script specifically calls for them. When it comes to the story, in "The Devil's Organ" Leloup decides to mine the larger then life implications involved with having characters investigating a possible local cult, coupled with the depictions of medieval armor and, later on, a dungeon complete with a baroque organ that could hardly possess such a presence in a non-visual medium. Thus, despite the somewhat simple case of detective work Yoko encounters in the town of St. Goar, the writer/artist keeps maintains the aura of supernatural by using familiar tropes such as giant bats coming through the window.

That Leloup builds a peculiar sets of clues involving the audio tape left after the disappearance of Ingrid's father makes for an entertaining technology based investigation involving the town and it's river front. Still, what every 44 page comic book mystery story has to grapple with is the small number of suspects that can be previously alluded to in order for them to turn into the credible antagonists in the final act. Ironically, this makes for some realistic cases when Yoko and her genre colleagues pieces together the motives and evidence pertaining to the case, but still leaves a discerning reader with a mystery that could hardly have revealed a much different outcome.

Leloup tries to diversify the circumstances by coming up with a few final complications, but the explanation only becomes that much more convoluted because of it. Thankfully, such a bizarre set of contraptions that the technologically minded villain comes up with to undertake a simple interest fuel goal feels right at home when it comes to the medium. Reading the story about sound used to hypnotize the opponents and constructing a gigantic organ to echo the local folklore seems much better suited to the material then even watching it on screen, in what could only work as a very peculiar star studded blockbuster. But again, even a serviceable explanation seems more than enough when it comes to the story featuring as many action scenes as "The Devil's Organ".

Yoko in particular, seems to be continuously climbing up hills and falling off the walls, while the underground passages and secret rooms appear just where she imagines them to be, all flawlessly rendered by her creator. In a world where complicated machinery dominates every brightly lit room, this electrical engineer still relies chiefly on her instincts and rational mind to overcome threat against threat that is thrown against her.

That Roger Leloup manages to produce such a well thought out detective story, back to back with what was almost a space opera, belies a comics creator capable of every kind of work in the field. That the very next album represents the return to the series' origins could just mean that he was thinking of his own interests first, no matter the perceived audience's distaste for mixing the two.

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