Monday, September 5, 2011

The Quest For the Time Bird 1 - Ramor's Conch

Beginning in 1983, writer Serge Le Tendre and artist Regis Loisel debutted "The Quest for the Time Bird" series, a lush fantasy comic aimed at the teenage reader. Conceived as a series of four entries, this French comic closely adhered to the quest structure, telling a single epic adventure akin to "The Lord of the Rings". Yet, Letendre and Loisel paint the Quest for the time bird in a much broader strokes, echoing familiar genre archetypes, albeit rendered in a gorgeous, vibrating art style. The collaboration thus acts like a bridge between the generic innocence of the "Dungeons and Dragons" cartoon and the more adult-flavored "Heavy Metal magazine".

As the beginning of a longer work, "Ramor's Conch" starts innocently enough, introducing Roxanna with a beautiful elegiac tone. The point of view character is quick to adhere to her duty, and ventures forth from her mother's witch kingdom to recruit an old friend. Conveniently, a well designed monster attacks, leading to an impromptu chance for Bragon to come out of retirement and get his grips with the epic quest that is presented to him. The threat of the rise of an ancient evil is adequately, if familiarly introduced, with a clear set of items needed carefully delineated, and the lighthearted adventure is set to begin.

The artwork, penciled, inked and colored by Loisel is very enticing and easy on the eyes, making for a very welcome change of pace considering the typically male-oriented action heavy entries in the genre. Some of the more juvenile instances in the dialogue, centered around Roxanna's curvaceous figure seem random enough to provide some energy to the script, but otherwise the beginning of the story seems adequate enough. Strangely, it's in the main section of the plot that the book falters, as the dragon mounted Roxanna and Bragon fly to the kingdom of the Grey-Grelons, a fantasy race of the authors' design. After a tedious encounter with an irritable local sprite, an obvious favorite of the creators, the most important section of the series' debut takes a turn for the unusual. For an artist devoting so much attention to the beautiful lush backgrounds of the world of Akbar, Loisel' basic character design for the denizens of the kingdom seems fairly uninspired. Worse still is the complete lack of character in the zombie-like Grelons, that seem excited only when Roxanne is near.

With their leader Shan-Tung posed as a power hungry strategist, ready to recruit Bragon to his cause of exploiting the titular Conch with the soom not to be dormant malevolent deity inside, the whole album long setup seems familiar to anyone even remotely versed in the genre. Thankfully, the Letendre arranged series of fantasy chestnut such as Roxanne's imprisonment and Bragon's false allegiance to the local tyrant are somewhat mitigated by the inclusion of a new, slightly better balanced character. Bulrog, despite sporting a very Tolkienesque name, and a character design similar to "Lord of the Rings"'s dragon riding Nazgul, still exhibits enough of a character that the reader genuinely wants to see more of him.That he ever so slightly subverts the role of a typical henchmen with his own plans and ambitions, tying with Bragon's own duties, may not seem like much when it comes to acclaimed European genre comics, but is still no reason to dismiss the series whole cloth.
The one notable bit of genuine surprise and mystery coming late in the plot in the form of a masked knight, and is quickly seized by Letendre, who uses it for maximum effect. Similarly, Roxanne's infamous way of distracting the zombie-like Grey-Grelons leaves subtlety for crowd pleasing, albeit still mindful to avoid controversy. The suitable conclusion to the first volume of the story somewhat mitigates these oddities in the slapstick heavy epic, with Roxanne and Bragon, aided by the "unknown knight" leaving the underground kingdom with the Conch, and heading into hopefully better developed parts of Akbar. That Letendre refuses to unmask the pair's benefactor, long after a discerning reader has passed any doubts concerning his identity plays into the over the top nature of the property, and the way the creators see to it's presentation.

Despite some objectionable scenes involving Roxanne, designed to tease the teenage fans, the book keeps perpetually trying for a very mercurial feeling. In wanting to be accessible to both the young fans warming up to the fantasy material, and the regular Franco-Belgian fans, the creators forgo the greater risks involved with presenting the medieval myth and legends to the modern reader. The basic idea is simply to present the usual blending of various culture's folklore into a coherent setting, strung together by the quest structure into a series of locales that the heroes have to go through in order to halt Ramor's return.

Truthfully, the key aspect of the story seems to be making "The Quest of the Time bird" a joyful look at one of the frequently epic fantasy worlds, with a slight nod to the implied history of Akbar, and the mark it has made on the older generation of heroes. In other words, a perfect showcase for an artist as talented as Loisel to cut loose, and carry over his imagination to the oversized pages.

And while his character designs on the average seem adequate enough, it is in the stylistic flourishes that he endears the readers to his art. The layered, lived-in look of the ancient dwellings, and heavy clothes the characters drab themselves in, their faces made up of craggy lines yet still not over rendered, certainly make up for most of the good will fans have for the series. It's easy to lose oneself in the talent and artistry illustrating such otherworldy scenes of fantasy quests, even if the panel to panel depictions turn toward the over the top nature of the scenario.

Loisel's characters seem always in motion, fulfilling their destiny, or trying to get at it's good side through trickery, while still keeping an air of individualism about them. Roxanne is cast in the role of a princess coming of age in a sword and sorcery setting, but the reader is never able to completely forget about her voluptuous figure, with her somehow managing to become more than an eye candy candy damsel in distress simply due to the fact that she's still the heroine. Bragon is somewhat less distinctive, as his demeanour of grizzled old warrior leaves little past the archetype. Still, the stubbornness of the character, and moreover, the implication of romance with Roxanne's mother in his heroic past, bring an element of uncertainty to the veteran fighter.

With the somewhat pedestrian world-building in "Ramor's Conch", it seems as if "The Quest for the Time bird" belongs to a time decades prior to it's 1980s debut, when a less discerning massive audience would have stuck with a promising series until it hones in on it's preferred voice. Considering that Letendre and Loisel envisioned the saga as a clearly structured finite series, it's perhaps unfortunate that it starts out primarily as an artistic showcase. And while it's very likely that the reader will warm up to the characters and their journey to save Akbar in a very short time, it's likely to be due to Loisel's mastery of the form, and the relative brevity of the material, with the main arc consisting of only four albums.

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