Monday, December 12, 2011

XIII Mystery #2 - Irina

Following up on the first XIII spin-off volume, Mongoose, Dargaud published "Irina" in the october of 2009. Done as the collaboration between veteran writer Eric ("Song of the Stryges") Corbeyran and artist Philippe ("Pin-up) Berthet, the second episode had a much harder task. Considering that the title character is showed up in the other half of the series, as Mongoose's lover and a trained killer who XIII disfigures, the creative team had a very unenviable task before them.

How does one expand an extremely unsympathetic supporting character's story into something gripping and interesting? As a starting point, Corbeyran takes Irina's relationship with Jessica Martin, another late addition, that ended up being co-star for several of the last XIII volumes. The character's bisexuality seemed somewhat forced when it appeared in the main title, and could arguably have been considered a shortcut to update the series into something edgier and more contemporary, but here it provides a key to understanding the character, along with the Eastern European milieu.

Similar to Mongoose, the follow up XIII Mystery volume takes place during the Cold war, this time from the point of view of KGB. And while tying up the series into concrete dates somewhat complicates the status of the continuation of the regular XIII title (considering that XIII should by now by all accounts be a middle aged man well past his prime), the historical context was always one of the main features of the title, and one can hardly fault Corbeyran for finding the inspiration in USSR wet works. The story is framed around a sequence that precedes Irina's role in the Vance and Van Hamme XIII volumes which is clear from the context. Likewise, the album tells a complete story that is entirely accessible to the new readers, especially considering that Irina herself was hardly developed during the parent series albums.

Similar to "Mongoose", the story covers her formative years, starting out in Belarus, when she was 16, and dating back to the horrible event that scarred her life. An incident in the orphanage involving the death of her best friend permanently impresses itself on the young girl's psyche, causing her to obsess over it to the point of literally subjecting everything in her life to the goal of finding the alleged perpetrator of the crime. Following the girl's escape, KGB agents get on her trail and act out on her ruthlessness by offering her to join the organization.

Corbreyan's script is continually narrated by Irina, which manages to puncture her emotional detachment and reveal the bitter humanity behind the gorgeous features. Berthet is given a task to alter between several designs, given Irina's role as the spy, as well as the changes she undergoes throughout the years. It's difficult to judge the consistency of design given the rapid jumps in the story, especially considering that even her final look differs from William Vance's version, considering that he portrayed a more unbalanced and physically scarred woman, which is difficult to connect with the more typically beautiful and understated Irina of XIII mystery, who only seems to come to life in the action scenes, where the focus shifts from her green eyes to the applying of KGB's brutal training.

On XIII Mystery, Berthet opts for a very paired down and classical style, featuring clear layouts and easily recognizable characters, with pages that are dynamic and easy to follow. Yet, the economy of his figure based style, coupled with Dominique David's use of sharp browns and grays, leaves a strange impression. Despite the traditional nine panel oversized format of a European comic album, Philippe's work almost invites to a smaller and denser presentation, with something like a manga digest perhaps being best suited for his work. His work filtered through David's cold colors even reminds of comics formatted for mobile devices. It is certainly in contrast with Vance's labored and detailed style, but despite the craftsmanship involved, seems very much in tune with Irina's quiet melancholy, leaving the reader with a sense of detachment.

Perhaps it's only fitting that the audience should warm up to the protagonist only so much, considering that despite Corbeyran's elaboration of Irina's motivation, she still chooses the role of a trained assassin to get close to the man whom he blames for her childhood's friend's death. The writer doesn't mince words, and he portrays USSR as a poverty stricken military dictatorship, that proceeds to make a monster out of Irina in order for her to survive and get back at her enemy. Her physicality defines each of her executions, as Corbeyran goes one step further then a typical "Nikita"-like narrative, and depicts her seductions as routinely involving sex, and not just the tease, as is typical with the media that employs such modern day femme fatale tropes.

Irina is equally adept at both seducing and killing men that KGB points her towards, but her heart is only in the steps that lead to the eventual capture of her prey. The brief moments of intimacy usually involve women, and even then largely involve manipulation on some level. Otherwise, she maintains complete control of herself, and basically sleepwalks through her assignments while she makes her play to officer that abused her friend.

The resultant story is as cold and efficient as Irina herself, but it still ends up with plenty of distractions. For all the work done in working on the protagonist's appearance, the resultant body type still seems uneven, as Berthet eventually endows her with a body type that simply seems too buxom, particularly given Vance's original design for the character. Likewise, the object of her search is depicted as on the model handsome officer, with little visible signs of aging, which is certainly not a deliberate creative choice, but a clear oversight on the part of the artist. Despite the presence of wrinkles, the elusive KGB officer looks somewhat close to his age only in the very last scene, where he finally confronts Irina on her own terms.

Most commendably, Corbeyran closes of the volume with a flashback depicting young Julia's death in a way that challenges Irina's motivation, and adds a sense of ambiguity to her single minded pursuit. Otherwise, the subplot involving Jessica feels somewhat slighted and mostly exploits the emotional foundation between the relationship of Irina and her orphan friend, that continues to define the protagonist, leading to a logical extrapolation regarding her sexuality. Otherwise, Corbeyran does little more then set up Jessica's role in the wider XIII story, with most of the pages given the two lovers being ultimately plot oriented.

Mongoose likewise appears late in the story, but he at least impacts directly on it, which cannot be said for Colonel Amos, whose role is little more than an extended cameo that could have been used to bring closure to the other most important relationship in Irina's life, that of her and her KGB husband. Colonel Wladimir Svetlanov is presented as a fairly complex figure, a company man who arranges marriage with Irina in order to further his own interests, which bring her closer to the officer that she blames for Julia's death. The complex dynamic between the two characters is somewhat cut short as Corbeyran arranges the Colonel to help her get to America, where she starts receiving orders from another father figure. That the familiar elements of Van Hamme and Vance's XIII eventually take over the story come as no surprise, as Mystery is primarily designed as a series of prequels by different creative teams, and the volume certainly contains a regular the resolution that climaxes the plot, enabling it to work as a story in its own right, its just that it feels like a misstep not to return to a very interesting dynamic that gave a little color to the otherwise familiar revenge story.

Another missed opportunity can be seen in abandoning the angle of Irina's attraction to her quarry, as some of her narration at one point hints that she finds him attractive. This is an angle that could have made the story of a woman as a spy more unique in itself, but Corbeyran ultimately decides to use it to realize the tension in their final confrontation, providing a definite mix of sex and death to the volume that features copious amounts of both.

It should be noted that "Irina" containts two very brutal torture scenes involving female body that serve to justify the protagonist's hatred toward the KGB officer that robbed her off her friend and her childhood, which might seem logical, but still strike the reader unprepared. As for the sexual content, it feels very subdued, despite being graphic. The creators opt to depict sex as the weakness on the part of the characters, but even then they shy away from using it as fan service. For what it's worth, Corbeyra and Berthet's take on XIII Mystery contains about as much exploitative poses as a typical genre representative (with the exception of a hotel room fight that deliberately goes overboard on cheesecake, and thus stands apart in what can hardly be called a light hearted story). For the most part, the creators maintain an even depiction of sex and violence as basically being tools of trade of a damaged woman, exploited by the intelligence agency. Irina goes through with it as long as it furthers her own agenda, but as soon as her relationship with her superiors changes, she chooses to go her own way, which naturally means taking her place as a XIII supporting character, which is how she first came to the attention of the audience.


S.H.I.E.L.D boy said...

I love "Cold War" tales.

Could you recommend me some comics/albuns?

Vanja said...

I think that Greg Rucka's "Queen & Country" qualifies, despite being set 10 years ago. Some pretty great storytelling there, inspired by "the Sandbaggers", a great UK Cold War tv-series.