Saturday, September 3, 2011

Yoko Tsuno 3 - Vulcan's Forge

Originally collected as an album in 1973, Yoko Tsuno's third published adventure was serialized over a number of issues of "Spirou magazine". In "Vulcan's Forge", the creator of Yoko, Vic and Paul returns to setting of her original adventure, making for a science fiction episode that further elaborates on the civilization of Vineans.

The album starts innocently enough, with Yoko catching a late night TV newscast and hurrying to notify her friend Paul of the supposed reference to the their alien allies. In a charming scene, the two run into each other, with Paul determined to get the same message to his Japanese friend. Right from the start, it's clear that Leloup has reworked Paul's character design, resulting in bringing his facial features in line with the rest of the cast. Simply put, Paul's caricatural look was decided to be too pronounced, whether by the creator or his editors, with the idea being that his behavior was enough to convey the comic relief.

Otherwise, the character designs are familiarly Franco-Belgian, with no noticeable changes from the previous two entries in the series. Similarly, the plot proceeds with the familiar formula of involving Yoko, Vic and Paul into a mystery by the way of their job working for the television company. Typically, the characters pay lip service to their regular assignments, involved in the plot that could have proceeded precisely the same with Yoko having a completely different background. By having her spot the reference to the Vinean technology on television, and head out to the oil platform in the Carribean, Leloup is clearly wanting to get underwater as soon as possible, so that the real story can get started.

Thankfully, the problems drill workers run into consist of something larger than the crew simply running into a portal to an alien world that the main cast uses to get to their adventure. Thus, by tying the troubles of the oil company to the threat looming beneath the waves, Leloup at least achieves the feeling of a veritable ecological catastrophe that is about to break out if Yoko is unsuccessful in dealing with the return of Karpan. Unfortunately, Leloup hasn't gotten around making the the villain any more charismatic, but the relative lack of focus on the megalomaniacal Vinean, and with the added attention to his plan make up for any of the perceived shortcomings.

Even the pending catastrophe largely factors only in the closing pages of the volume, with the bulk of the pages showcasing the creator's real interests. And while certainly the long tour Khany takes Yoko on centers around the technical facilities involved with Karpan's diabolical plan of carving out a continent for Vineans to occupy using an underwater vulcano, Leloup uses every opportunity to elaborate in the world building he started in "Trio of the bizarre".

Such is the attention paid to the Vinean civilization that it could be argued that the creator would have been happy to simply set the series completely around the science fiction trappings. That he even clads Yoko completely in their clothes, with Vic and Paul conveniently vanishing from the plot for large portions of the book, seems to indicate that the writer/artist is more than convenient concentrating on the alien civilization. Of course, publishing a continuing serial based on such a scenario would be a tough sell for an audience accustomed to the pulp narratives one step removed from the real world. Still, by making this compromise Leloup is effectively working on two series at once.

In the self contained albums Yoko is basically a standard action heroine, suited to oppose a number of plots ranging from simple detective stories, to more elaborate adventures with a supernatural element. On the other hand, perhaps similar to the "X-Files" format, the mythological episodes with a full blown sci-fi feature in from time to time, continuing the narrative arc and, for better or worse, distinguishing the series from a number of similar Franco-Belgian comics.

From the technical point of view, the amount of detail Leloup puts into fleshing out the Vinean civilization is astounding. Compared to "The Trio of the Bizarre", the writer/artist seems determined to carve out even more of his strange new world, filled with elaborate technology. Just seeing Khany's ship sucked into the ocean and heading for the hollow earth beneath makes the reader aware of just how in control the creator is when he gets close to the Vineans. The complicated series of tubes that the blue skinned aliens use to travel in their domain, once again, seems fully functional and at the same time breathtaking to look at. And while a typical room, such as the one Yoko and Khany leave Vic and Paul behind in, as soon as they arrive underwater, seems like a familiar technological base design with a generically busy background, the moment the two women step outside, Leloup is ready to once again amaze the reader.

Not content to merely reuse the pipeline he had the characters take in the first album, the writer/artist relegates it to the use of Yoko's earthbound friends, while he devises a completely new way for the two heroines to travel. Centered around the impressively heavy lava pipes, that Khany drives a support vehicle to point out the background of Karpans plot, Leloup carefully takes his time until he makes sense of the complicated plot. The two fight scenes that bookend the exposition involve Yoko fighting the Vinean secret service that has quickly seen through her disguise.

That none of these encounters are particularly memorable goes without saying, as it feels like the creator is merely going through the motions of maintaining an action heavy adventure plot, where it seems quite clearly that his efforts are centered around world building. Thankfully, the long escape route Yoko and Khany take in order to get to another part of the facility feels much more exciting. Again, seeing Leloup's design of Vinean drill goes the spotlight the amount of respect Leloup paid his readers, determined to create an entire alien civilization whose technology is vastly advanced, yet with an implicit visual continuity in the designs. When the writer/artist draws a huge oil rig in Martinique it feels extremely solid, researched and breathtaking, but getting to see his own design in action feels much more fluid and comic book like.

That Yoko uses it to blast away at Karpan's ship using the water pipeline seen in the first album, and proceeds to escape with Khany using a pair of highly elaborate sleds further feels like Leloup is determined to reward the reader's loyalty by continually introducing new designs and technology. It's interesting then that he decides to follow all this with a short break, involving giant mushrooms and dinosaur skeletons. By reintroducing Vic and Paul to the story at the same time, the creator apparently tries to ground the adventure back in something resembling terrestrial features, however fantastic and distorted.

Yet, having assembled the characters Leloup still proceeds with a scene featuring the forward thinking youth of Vinea equipping the group of friends with weapons needed to try and put a stop to Karpan's plan. Using a method of non lethally dealing with Karpan's secret service Leloup doesn't just shy away from having his protagonist use cold blooded murder as a means to an end, but actually helps her create more allies once some of those guards have woken up. Her scheme is still extremely risky, involving the destruction of key lava transporting equipment. And while some of the new character appear way to late to make an impact on the reader, technological breakdown involved with Yoko's plan still makes for a gripping read. Khany's exposition certainly served to underscore that there would be no clean break from stopping Karpan's plan, as it's first stages have already bore fruit, and will leave at least some kind of impact on the planet's surface.

Thus, the volcano centered meltdown finally has the Vinean ship returning to Carribean to help save the workers that would be the first in line when the catastrophe starts spreading. The wrap up is fast,but effective, with Yoko and her friends once again having been separated from their Vinean allies, along with a gadget that enables some form of communication. Again, it's quite clear that Leloup was certain that he would not be immediately picking up the plot strands involving the aliens, but is determined to leave the reader with a sense of longing regarding the race he created.

Contrary to their first appearance, the Vineans here are not only involved with in-fighting and dealing with newcomers poking their noses into a race millions of years old. And while Leloup forgoes having such a clear message involving the tendency of losing the cultural identity when involved with excessive technology, the lack of a misguided computer as the behind the scenes villain is made up for with a much broader ecological message. And while it would be presumptuous to speculate the inspirations behind the nationalistic tendencies of Karpan and his brethren, it is certain that there is some rationale leading Vineans to continually back up the cartoon villain's byzantine plots.

The very resolution of the story, with Khany informing her new friends that Vineans are still planning for escaping the planet's core, only with the plans readjusted to return to their homeland, instead of carving out a territory for themselves on the Earth's surface, basically reaffirms the race's need chief goals in a more logical setting (given the science fiction trappings of the series). This is precisely the reason why Leloup goes to such great lengths to introduce several new Vineans, even Karpan's secret service members forced to turn to Khany's way of thinking, in order to point out that this is not just a race of evil aliens with a single notable exception, but a complete society with a set of goals that are in fact completely reasonable. Instead of opting for the conveniently small cadre of gifted children, not yet subdued under Karpan's doctrine, to stay hidden in a subterranean grotto, while the bulk of their evil older peers be handwaved a way to their native star system, never to be seen again, the writer/artist pushes for the more complicated solution.

By preserving a sociological reality when dealing with were basically technologically superior elves of the first album, the creator was simply adamant in not letting go of his effort and creative choices. When Yoko is given a scrying mirror, or even an elaborate version of Skype to keep in contact with Khany the reader is meant to feel melancholy for the circumstances that keep these new best friends away, wishing that they could continue reading their joint adventures. In a way, Roger Leloup was informing the reader to stick around for some of the more mundane Yoko Tsuno adventures, while waiting for the real story to continue.

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