Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Towers of Bois-Maury 1 - Babette

In 1983, leading Belgian comic book artist Hermann ("Jeremiah") Huppen started producing his second major work, a realist medieval saga titled "the Towers of Bois-Maury". Starting with "Babette", the original ten volume cycle tells a complete story set around the exploits of sir Aymar of Bois-Maury, a 11th century knight-errant on the meandering road to regain his fiefdom.

The first five entries consist of self-contained albums acting basically as dual narratives, with the role of the protagonist shared between Aymar and Gereon the down on his luck stone mason, that the knight meets in the series debut. In order to have what is still a genre narrative, Hermann makes both of them essentially wanderers on a parallel road through different places, and never finding easy answers. It would be easy to say that the two protagonists enable the writer/artist to shine a light on both the privileged few, and the exploited masses surrounding them, but "the Towers of Bois-Maury" aims for a much more diverse critique.

From the start, Hermann's squiggly, endearing line depicts the titular Babette hard at work in the field, albeit with her thoughts centered around meeting with her stone mason boyfriend hiding in the brush, unwanted by her family. The local nobles come charging on a deer hunt, and in the ensuing confusion Babette's beauty leads to a horrible tragedy. A matter of a jealous peasant murdering a lusty nobleman would have been dealt with in a typical fashion, if not for the presence of the Aymar, a single knight traveling with a page, who has come to pay visit to the castle and takes a special interest in Gereon's fate.

When it comes to the material, Hermann duly breaks every cliche that comes with fantasy-tinged historical fiction. Gone are the ever present captions and a cascade of names and titles, the faceless slaughter in the name of higher ideals, and the good looks of the protagonists, wearing clean armor and clean, dully reproduced period costumes. The two attractive characters that appear in this debut volume and the bond that they share brings them nothing but misery, quickly shattering all of Gereon's illusions, and sending him on the road to hardship and poverty. And while Hermann's albums, formatted at only 44 pages reward the closer reading, he is hardly in the business of pointlessly introducing interesting designs and charismatic individuals of the epoch.

His are ugly, loutish characters that cannot escape their flaws, with the author going far to represent what the treatment of love and lust in such unforgiving times. Despite his more nuanced protagonists, most of their acquaintances, no matter their class, seem content only when partaking in a feast, with laughter heard only as part of a drunken tirade, except when in mocking. This does not stop the rare few to dream of bigger and better things, but there is always a steep prize that comes with breaking the rules of a feudal system.

Just as Gereon is beset on all sides by cynical peasants looking out only for themselves, and their place in the system, so is Aymar similarly trapped in the narrow castle corridors with hot headed nobles resenting his home sickness and elevated demeanour. Their stubbornness bring only the pain to their confidantes, and it quickly becomes clear that they must break out of the fiefdom in order o find more sympathetic compatriots, and clearer goals.

The church is depicted as sympathetic, but largely forced to neutrality due to the duke's laws, thus the two outcasts temporarily find solace in one another, with Aymar vowing to help Gereon escape the gallows that await him following his crime. That both characters leave the domain with a heavy prize paid goes without saying, but their remaining goals follow to define them henceforth. Aymar, the educated knight with a lofty goal of amassing enough treasure to buy out an army of mercenaries and reclaim his ancestral home comes to hire himself out as an escort to the pilgrim's journey to the Holy Land. But what real choice does a scarred stone mason have, with a history of murder that can not be decreed as chivalrous satisfaction? Without being able to make a honest living, due to the injury to the hand sustained while in captivity, he is gradually forced to concede that the life on the road is the only one for him.

Just experiencing a genre series that takes such a negative stance towards violence feels striking, as it's always depicted as a result of a desperate, cowardly, petty action, acting out the basest instincts, and leaving misery beyond the short term solution. And yet, despite such a dark disposition, Hermann's work seems always optimistic, with Aymar's obsession always providing forward momentum, while the less well of characters at least try to scheme their way to a better tomorrow.
Thus, colorist Fraymond's yellow permeats the book occasionally turning into dusky hues, breaking only for the depictions of the blue night sky. Hermann utilizes the late night outdoor depictions of castle walls usually as scene transitions, but a lot of the characters usually use the time before sleep to ruminate on the day's actions, and plot their course. The writer/artist's layouts are dynamic, but still break manage to break form when depicting the larger, more elaborate settings. The sense of place is ever present, without the reader feeling like the backgrounds are just so much tracing the research elements in order to provide some context to the figure work. It could be said that Hermann approaches some of his character's facial features in similar way, and the stylistic preference for a few different physical models can lead to some of the clarity issues. "Babette" is not a long album, slow paced and atmospheric, thus forcing the creator to a limited space when dealing with certain lesser characters, whose roles can be subtle, yet always clear to the attentive reader. A slight break in tension occurs in the extended epilogue centering on Gereon, going some way in setting up the next volume in the series, but it is very definitely in keeping the themes involved.

It cannot be overstated that throughout the creator's accomplished compositions feel like a real treat to a fan of the medium. Even the smallest of panels are perfectly realized and absolutely beautiful in their rugged rendering. The majority of them could be taken out of the context and admired on it's own, such was his skill and accomplishment as a storyteller, even still at what was still beginning of his most accomplished period. It cannot be overstated that "Towers of Bois-Maury" is a major work from an accomplished storyteller, working in the genre that is typically used to much more formulaic narratives. Huppen's patient mastery of the form, his he humanity and effort he puts in the work make for a truly mature title and an instant classic of European comic book storytelling.

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