Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wayne Shelton 1 - the Mission

In 2001, the longtime "XIII" scribe has negotiated a deal with Dargaud, to have the publisher invest in the new spy actioneer along similar lines. Illustrated by Christian Denayer, "the Mission" both looked and read like a "XIII" album, but with some clear differences. For a start, Jean Van Hamme begins his story as a detective mystery, divorced of the trappings of global conspiracy and Cold War intrigue. The titular Wayne Shelton is a veteran soldier turned realist, hired to put together a team of mercenary friends in order to fulfill a mission in regards to corporate interests. That his financiers come from France instead of America seems almost an afterthought, as the work derives most of its aesthetic from cinematic excesses and crime novel inspired plots. Yet, it's the distinction that makes the strongest impression on the new reader.

Wayne Shelton himself of course isn't French, but his creators are, and that's what makes all the difference. At one point, the late 40s protagonist specifically mentions Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones" movies as part of a ploy to get a new acquaintance to join his group of specialists. By inviting the comparison, Van Hamme deliberately poses his narrative as that of a more nuanced genre work, something that doesn't wear its influences on the sleeve. A more apt comparison would be to "James Bond" movies, with the chief difference being that Van Hamme and Denayer employ an ensemble cast to achieve the objective.

It's telling that of all of Shelton's military friends, the protagonist remains the most brutish, albeit genuinely likable. The opening scenes featuring Shelton in a trench coat did bode for a one-note characterization, but thankfully the creators sidestep that approach in favor of something a bit more interesting. As presented, Shelton is well connected when it comes to operating in the Middle East and the former Soviet republics, and the introductory volume serves mainly to set up the mission which takes place in the second volume, concluding Van Hamme's original proposal.

The introductory volume thus roughly corresponds to for the first hour of an action movie, with Van Hamme plotting a dense story that still manages to maintain tension throughout. The veteran scribe starts off with a tense scene followed by the expository dialog, a common technique, but even then the "XIII" creator is careful to provide some diversion so as to avoid page after page of tedious background information. The writer continues in a similarly lively fashion, depicting the characters charming their way through numerous potentially dangerous situations, only resorting to their fists when they have no other choice. For a world weary adventure story featuring a band of mercenaries, "the Mission" is decidedly restrained, while still teasing a messy showdown in the next volume.

Thus, after the protagonist gets his orders, most of the volume is taken up by his approaching new and former specialists, while gathering the team to go to the fictional Kalakchistan. As for the immediate drama, the creators pick up on one of Shelton's friends and use his middle Eastern predicament to provide for a diversion. Lord Bellie is certainly an interesting character, in that he maintains the English nobleman facade even though he has long since become a smuggler and a grifter like the rest of his friends. The creators steer off from going too far into camp, following Bellie's debut with a scene which serves to give the reader some concrete information on Shelton's background, while stealthily setting up a new addition to Shelton's crew.

Despite the bluster, "Wayne Shelton" is a comic that thrives on details, and the complicated set-up still manages to be entertaining and genuinely smart the whole way through. On the surface, each of Shelton's associates is a familiar genre archetype, such as a smuggler turned bordello owner, but the creators still manage to make them seem fresh individual. Except for the movie stunt-man that gets little more than a cameo appearance, Shelton's associates strike an interesting dynamic. Most interestingly, the sole female of the group, Honesty Goodness (a tongue in cheek name if there ever was one) enters the story as a stage magician that humors his ruggedness for the sole purpose of avoiding boredom.

Compared to the overweight Kalahar pleasure den owner, the flirty Honesty provides more than comic relief, and does more than play into the archetype. As unlikely as it seems, following Wayne himself, the gorgeous ms. Goodness is the closest the series gets to a fully fleshed out character. More often than not, Shelton himself seems just like a walking series of cliches, but there is a genuine attempt at characterization on the part of the creators. Sidestepping his genre-requirement street smarts and the ability to put together an international operation, Shelton's instant enmity to his client's secretary does seem like interesting in that he never stops with the hostility. Likewise, his smooth talking an expatriate Kalakchistan actor does seem contrary to Shelton's no nonsense attitude, but this, along with the hint of age creeping up on Shelton at least work toward rounding him out as a more realistic character.

As for the presentation, Denayer offers a more traditional comic book style than somewhat rigidly realistic Vance on "XIII". The artist still relies heavily on research for the setting and vehicles, but his characters are much less static and seem don't appear to be photo referenced. That kind of spontaneity animates the character designs, which are designed so clearly and distinctively that they wouldn't be out of place in the better known series. Most effectively, Van Hamme breaks up some of the longer scenes with a last panel establishing shot that works against the cohesiveness of the individual page, but helps with the pacing. Just seeing the story cutting away to an interesting new location mid page works to keep the reader interested and unable to put the book down.

And while the mix of real world settings and fictionalized locales does serve to remind the reader of some of the troubling simplifications made in all too many of the underwritten actioneers, only a particularly gung-ho scene featuring the escape from a orientalist gang lord particularly grates of working in tropes so broad so as to approach self parody. Otherwise, "the Mission" remains a well told, competently put action comic that does more than enough to entertain the reader and set up the sequel that completes the protagonist's introduction to the world of Franco-Belgian comics.

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