Thursday, May 31, 2012

Yoko Tsuno 4 - Electronic adventures

1974's "Electronic adventures" is the only short story collection among Belgian Yoko Tsuno albums. Herge's one-time Tintin assistant seems to have made some of the initial offerings in the book as the try out stories predating the first album, but in lieu of a direct confirmation, they serve the same function of introducing new readers to the character.

Compared to the preceding volumes, Leloup (and his co-creators, who presumably helped with the writing of some of the short stories) presents decidedly low-key episodes featuring his Japanese heroine. Compared to the more complex plots featured in the regular albums, these are merely asides, but even as such, the writer/artist manages to make them unique.

This is in no small part due to the clear concept behind each of the shorts. The opening "Hold up in Hi-Fi" is perhaps the strongest of the efforts present in the collection, and features Yoko solving a crime perpetrated by uncharacteristically technologically savvy criminals. As in all of these stories, the spunky Yoko uses her knowledge of electronics to get to the bottom of the plot, in the process meeting Commissioner Lebrun. The police official is a typical genre archetype, well meaning, but lacking Yoko's expertise to deal with the problem in question.

From a storytelling perspective, having Yoko being in the bank at just the right moment to witness the robbery that starts the story is a little too convenient, but feels right at home with the similar antics employed in "Spirou" and other genre comics set in the period. Despite the criminals' annoyance with Yoko, and the threats hurled her way, Leloup's heroine gets to the bottom of the case using her smarts and cunning. That Yoko is a fine role model for young girls goes without saying, which is especially underlined by her creator's continual effort to avoid presenting her in a way that is crass and vulgar.

Yoko is pretty, and dresses according to the then-current fashions, but she has a character all of her own. Leloup's eastern heroine continually maintains a stoic, even sarcastic stance, but she is genuinely humane, which is nowhere as apparent as in "the Christmas angel" two pager. The sweet, if bordering on saccharine episode, shows the motorcycle-riding Yoko being annoyed at a factory magnate who interrupts her holiday calling her to fix his stereo system, which results in a chance encounter with a family from the other end of the social stratum. In a fairy tale ending, Yoko manages to exert her influence on the company director to help out her new found friends in a very real way, which both shows her altruistic nature and helps the story stand out from the genre offerings it stands alongside in the album.

Starting with "the Beauty and the beast", Leloup returns to the typical mix of cutting edge science and detective story structure. In "Electronic adventures" this means that most of the appeal is communicated by deliberate use of science fiction trappings that later get debunked as ploys of the Cold war villains. The third story subverts the mechanic by positing a horror movie scenario, that of the monster ape rampaging through the city. Once again, Yoko just happens to be at hand when the villain attacks, but the writer/artist presents Yoko's succeeding investigating in such a well paced and intriguing manner that the reader has no time to concentrate on the banality of the tropes involved.

It's very easy to forget the amount of skill involved in presenting this kind of simple, "Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" scenario in a way that is simple and intuitive. From the start, Leloup is aware of the point of the story, and the tone he wants to employ, which results in a slight, but memorable scenario that succeeds despite some of the problems with the villain's background when it comes to the denouement.

That the aforementioned balance is hard to achieve and maintain in the course of a charming short story becomes apparent in "Course 351". Positing a scenario in which Yoko's helping with the launch of experimental rockets almost leads to the international incident involving a group of spies and the East-West German negotiations, Roger Leloup finally gives in the self-indulgence and produces the weakest and most problematic story in the album. The Cold War atmosphere isn't a problem in itself, especially in a way that it's handled here, but the over-reliance on technical terms coupled with a low page count makes for a very cumbersome reading.

The high stakes involved in the terrorist plot are not a problem in themselves, seeing that most of Yoko's previous adventures involve events of planetary importance, but those were presented as stories given adequate room to breathe. And while most readers will quickly pick up where Leloup the first half of Leloup's story is going, the fight scene that climaxes the episode feels somewhat ill-conceived and goes against the previously established tone.

So far, the character of Commissioner Lebrun in the epilogue has served to connect these unrelated pieces, but for the final two stories, Leloup brings in Pol, Yoko's friend from the previous three albums. "Honey for Yoko" has the two of them stopping to rest on the bicycle ride through the countryside. There they find a beehive with unusual properties, in that some of the insects have been tempered with to be of use to the nearby nuclear plant.

Having the comic relief Pol at the start of the story leads to some of the period comedy, which is interrupted for the Cold War paranoia. The story makes a much better use of its protracted length, as the set-up and the investigation proceed as two separate acts, and Yoko's confrontation with the flamboyant spy feels much more like an approximation of a typical "Yoko Tsuno" volume than most of the previous efforts. The unlikely playboy researcher leads Yoko on a chase that again ends with a dangerous confrontation, but it doesn't clash with the series' tone.

And while "Honey for Yoko" will hardly be anyone's favorite Yoko Tsuno adventure, its ending connects it to the last story of the volume, by the way of a motorbike Pol acquires thanks to their grateful hosts. "The Stealing spider" rounds out the volume, and it's again an entry that has some severe flaws in its construction. Beginning with a charmingly naive Pol trying to escape a "giant spider" (that is from Leloup's detailed style instantly apparent as a mechanical construct), Leloup runs into problems when it comes to dramatizing the follow through. An instantly forgettable group of criminals is using the contraption to rob the jewelries by remote control, but once the woken-up Yoko starts on the chase, her creator starts dragging out the scenario.

Almost as if he's trying to make sense of the story in medias res, with every detail Roger Leloup adds to the villainous scheme, the plot grows more tedious and arbitrary, leading the reader to finish the collection more out of habit than genuine interest. The writer/artist manages to wrangle some amount of interest with the addition of the hostage scientist, but even then, it feels like nothing is really at stake, and the spider is little more then a McGuffin. Leloup manages to regain some of the flavor with the climatic chase where Pol and dr. Dubois help Yoko out of the hands of the villains by using remote controls while they chase after her on the motorbike. Yet, in order to make the sequence work, Leloup severely undercuts the intelligence of the villains, who literally aren't aware of what Yoko is doing in the back seat of their car.

When working on "Spirou", Franklin routinely featured the protagonist in similar technology-inspired plots, but he did it with much more whimsy and lightheartedness. At its heart, "Yoko Tsuno" is a different kind of a series, much more akin to Young Adult novels featuring an idealized protagonist, with most of the humor being deadpanned and sarcastic. Yoko is a very determined character, that shows some playfulness when quoting her father and sneering at the things she notices in passing, but these are merely irritants she puts up with as she pursues a clearly defined goal.

Where Pol completely fails as comedic foil is in the simple fact that his existence seems to stem from the desire to have a familiar Marcinelle school bumbling youth simply in order to liven up the atmosphere. Pol is neither the narrator, nor Yoko's romantic interest, but a sidekick that gives Yoko someone to talk to and be the butt of the jokes. As Yoko's friend and part of the supporting cast he is tolerable but, at least at this point in the series, he is merely part of the requisite supporting cast, uninteresting either on his own, or in relation to Yoko.

Looking at "Electronic adventures" as a whole, it's easy to see why Leloup never tried to repeat the experiment. Despite their origin in short stories and comic strips, comic books have largely shied away from dashed off 10 page asides in favor of longer stories, with at least some semblance of continuity. A Yoko Tsuno short story would be a nice way to round out the albums, but it seems that both Leloup and the publisher ultimately decided against it. "Dupuis" seems to have accepted the stance that a denser experience is what most of the audience is interested in, making the short stories superfluous when it comes to the existing serial, and hence underdeveloped on the part of the creator who has long since gotten used to a different way of working.

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