Sunday, May 8, 2011

XIII mystery #1 - Mongoose


With the conclusion of the original creative team of Vance and Van Hamme's take on the "XIII" series of albums, the authors decided to let the publisher continue to exploit the profitable franchise. Thus far this has consisted of "Dargaud" establishing a spin-off series titled "XIII mystery", with the idea of spotlighting some of the characters featured in the original albums. So far, each of the three published albums has included a different creative team, which is also implied to be the case in the details listed for most of the upcoming releases. Meanwhile, the publisher is much more careful with the main "XIII" title, whose new writer and artist's work has yet to be presented before the year is over.

The "XIII mystery" debuted in 2008 with "Mongoose", a collaboration between writer Xavier ("le Troisieme Testament") Dorison, and artist Ralph ("Ian") Meyer. With the eponymous Mongoose being the code-name of the chief assassin in the main "XIII" series, this debut of the new series had a complicated task to perform. Obviously, it had to convince the readers that there is a reason to pick up this continuation of the decades in the making popular series, which came to a stopping point long after the original creators planned to end it. In that regard, any fan that stuck with Vance and Van Hamme had already got accustomed to contrivances enabling the byzantine plot to lurch forward a few extra volumes more, making another return to the series seeming much less artificial than it might appear to the uninitiated.

The real problem was convincing the readers to stick around while accepting that the they will be presented with anthology-style offerings, keeping the franchise in circulation while the publisher puts together the new creative team for the main title. On the face of it, it's very easy to dismiss the whole enterprise as strenuous, with the different creators basically adding superfluous bits of information to the past exploits of the series' regulars, that the original creators obviously didn't intended, and thus had no impact on their behavior in "XIII". Still, with the projected publishing schedule of one album per year, "Dargaud" executives must have felt that a solid enough effort could make the nostalgic reader interested enough not to feel that their time and money would be directly exploited.


On the whole, the main strengths of Franco-Belgian school of comic book storytelling lie with the idea of letting the series' creators focus on the books, taking enough time to make each entry stand out, while adding up to the effort that in the most successful cases makes for particularly distinctive books. And yet, despite this creator-friendly approach, the major publishing houses still try to extend their profits to the new releases, resulting in a slew of spin-offs, not unlike their American contemporaries.

Yet, with the exception of "Spirou" (whose major creative success came with Franquin, himself the second creator continuing the original strip) and "Lucky Luke", there is usually a very clear distinction between the work of the creators and the talent contracted to continue producing the new stories. The best case scenario is to have the new creative team contribute something that is actually distinctive and stands up as a success in it's own right, such as Tome and Janry's "Young Spirou". Unfortunately, typically the effort is something akin to "Young Blueberry", which is marketed as a generic western supposedly continuing the pre-Fort Navajo adventures of it's star ad infinitum.


In any event, Xavier Dorison and "Dargaud" have decided to continue "XIII" in a way that sticks very closely to the Vance and Van Hamme original. This is already notable in the idea of framing the story in such a way that it spotlights a crucial part of XIII the character's back-story. Thus, in order to show the reader the life of Mongoose, his would be assassin, Dorison decides to employ the story within a story approach, which provides a direct link to the main series "XIII mystery" is spinning out of.

At first though, the effect is distracting, leading the reader to try and remember at which point exactly does the action takes place, but thankfully the confusion is clear as soon as Mongoose shows up. At the same time, the story shifts from filling in the points of the already implied continuity to his remembering the life that has lead him to that point. But the reader shouldn't take this break for Dorison completely abandoning the "XIII" style of storytelling. In fact, he largely embraces it, albeit indirectly.

By having Ralph Meyer, a somewhat more expressive artist than Jean Van Hamme, draw in a similar reference-heavy style, "Mongoose" basically  feels a lot like a "XIII" album flashback. Once again using the recent past as a stage to conduct the spy thriller, Dorison deliberately sticks to Vance's model, making it clear to the readers that he's taking no creative risks in following up the popular series. This time, the backdrop is East Germany, in which an orphaned child makes his first steps on a road to violence that will eventually bring him high in the criminal conspiracy. And for all of the original "XIII"' flirting with realism in the past, the writer takes the right cues to maintain just enough of the everyday to provide some color to the scripts, but not at the cost of the brutal action scenes that cynically end every attempt to concentrate on the reality beyond the book's designated genre.

Yet, neither is "Mongoose" really a Cold War type story. With the bulk of action taking place in America, where a young killer comes of age with the help of a surrogate father, and a deadly inspiration, it presents more of an emigrant experience. We are given just enough to empathize with the young man as he partakes on a rigorous training that will one day lend him the best paying contracts in the business, but at the same time the decades spanning plot mechanism prevents the creative team on dallying too long on his motivations. After all, despite some of his musings on his methods and the life style, the book never turns into Matz and Jacamon "the Killer". That slow-moving internalization of a mercenary in comic book form is after all, a distinctive property in itself, and not a 50-odd page spin-off that has to cover more than three decades, while seemingly operating as it's own series, working at it's own pace.

This is where "Mongoose" works best, with Dorison paying particular attention on making his story feel organic and motivated, and not rushed off in a halfhearted attempt to quickly churn off an inferior product. Seeing Mongoose as a human being, adapting to a very peculiar life-style, while also acting out of his own personal goals almost has the reader forget the image of Vance and Van Hamme's take on the character as a fully formed antagonist. Thankfully, the writer never forgets to stop before making Mongoose too altruistic, which is why he introduces the character as an orphan and devotes very little space to his assumed name and the East-German home he was adopted into. In a very mature storytelling decision, Dorison progresses the character gradually, distancing him from his purported goal as subtly as Meyer ages him before our eyes.

The first-person narration helps maintain the illusion of the character's original motivation until he finally has his altruism judged beyond the complicated charade of half-truths and principles he's constructed around himself. The character is given no time to deal with this development, as the complicated assignment that has driven him to deal with his personal underpinnings also represents the start of the "XIII" conspiracy. The wider series plot thus actively proceeds to deconstruct even the character's then-present day position of being a contract killer, destroying all of his attachments and positioning him solely in regards to the conspiracy.

As his narration ends, he is once again caught up in the precise moment that proved a turning point for the life of XIII, which is again where a great deal of subtlety helps Dorison. He first shows us the character declining the offer to rededicate himself to work for the conspiracy, but then immediately reverses it, revealing himself as having already become the Mongoose of the "XIII" series.

This final scene was set up as a real test of the writer's work, with the reader either accepting the psychological transformation undertaken by the character as realistic, or rejecting the whole volume as misguided and superficial. Thankfully, by layering his work so densely amid the familiar tropes of a visual crime story, the writer achieves the effect of Mongoose's internal musings on the nature of crime and his role in it actually being instrumental in making him the man he becomes, instead of remaining as just so much tough guy talk.

Bluntly, in his own mind his life is a misguided tragedy, but through Dorison choosing exactly which panels to give Meyer to spotlight, the reader is instructed to look beneath the self-deception, and see the truth that Mongoose glimpses, if only at the moment. That such an elaborate psychological profile was presented in a plot-heavy crime comic tying in with the existing series is as much a testament to the writer's carefully constructed story, as much as the strength of the underlying "XIII" franchise. The script really feels in synch with Vance's work, feeling just as credible, as each of the flashback-related earlier volumes did.

And yet, it's difficult to say that Ralph Meyer's work has quite managed to make such a transition. The series co-creator Van Hamme is a very disciplined artist and a true professional, whose attention to detail seems much more organic than what is presented by the follow up artist. Simply put, Meyer's work is much more expressive, even in quieter scenes, lending the work a subtly different quality. And while the artist dully proceeds to illustrate the furnishings in his establishing shots, most of the follow-up panels usually concentrate mostly on his figures emoting against the sparse backgrounds. In this way, the story feels much more personal and energetic, but the baroque plot keeps constantly challenging the artist to succumb to working from reference material. Meyer's work is certainly credible, his character designs distinctive and figurework realistic, yet there is a distinct impression that he's working in someone else's stylings, which only enables him to reveal his professional best.

Ralph Meyer is an artist whose work is very dynamic and solid, much more modern and instinctive than Van Hamme's classically rendered set pieces, yet when it comes to anatomy and the employing his predecessor's designs, his work suffers in comparison. Meyer's contribution is most apparent in the crucial character of Hans, whose design and body language are particularly well presented, at a glance distinctive from the original "XIII" penciller's body types.

In retrospect, it seems much easier for Dorison to emulate Vance, and not have his contribution being so easily compared, as is the case with the artists in a visual medium, such as comics. Both Vance and Van Hamme have created "XIII" to be a very precise and distinctive mechanism that only seemed over-elaborate when  looked at as a whole, thus their successor's work, limited at all sides by scope and ambition, never really had a hope of being something more distinct than a spin-off portraying a charismatic figure of the mythos.

This is in some ways a good thing, as the work on "XIII mystery" raises the profile of it's creators, and enables them to continue with their own projects. On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine "Dargaud" deciding on accepting a more experimental approach in what was the debut in the series that even now sketches out some ten odd potential albums, each in a varying state of development. Hopefully, all of them will be as competent as this debut, even as their story will likely remain peripheral to the main series. With the fall release of the Jigounov and Sente's new "XIII" album, continuing where Vance and Van Hamme left of with the character, time will tell if there's enough interest in the franchise to support two ongoing projects.

"XIII mystery" could very well establish itself as appealing only to the collectors and hard core fans of the series, but when taking into account the popularity of the title, this should still guarantee it tens of thousands of readers. Whether this will prove enough for "Dargaud" to extend the property beyond the designated albums, remains to be seen. Admittedly, even the success of the main "XIII" title, marketed as the direct continuation of the Vance and Van Hamme's work, could depend only on the quality of their successor's work. The series' originators could be counted to return to these characters over and over again, but it's up to "Dargaud"'s quality control to make certain the franchise keeps resonating with the readers in the years to come.