Saturday, August 11, 2012

XIII 20 - Day of the Mayflower

Following the conclusion of the Vance/Van Hamme's original "XIII" cycle, Dargaud sought to continue the series with new authors. With the help of the original creative team, the venerable French publisher contracted writer Yves Sante (who already succeeded Jean Van Hamme on "Thorgal") and Russian-born Youri Jigounov, the artist of "Alpha" to come up with a new series of "XIII" stories.

The result is the long-awaited "Day of the Mayflower", published in 2011, as the first chapter of a new conspiracy that the titular number 13 gets dragged in. The story is in continuity with the previous albums, but the connections it makes are a bit flimsy and artificial. XIII is dragged out of retirement by a new cadre of enemies with a highly political agenda, on the flimsy basis of his supposed connection to a figure from America's history.

The volume itself features the book's longtime supporting cast, but mostly centers on Jason himself. This works to set up his friends' expanded roles in the sequel, but also to remind the readers that the new creative team wouldn't be taking the series in too much of a new direction. The villains are active throughout the country, working tirelessly to frame Maclane, and bully their way to their objective.

The book feels the strongest and freshest when it depicts Jason's life in Bar Harbor, the place where he washed up in "the Day of the Black Sun", but the creators' ambitious plan simply won't let him be. Meanwhile, XIII is trying a new treatment in order to help with his amnesia, and this is where Sente and Jigounov appear at their boldest. Namely, by giving Maclane flashbacks, they dispense with the ambiguity that has fueled the series. The creative justification is to be found in the closing pages, that tease the link to the real life political activist, which would be deprived of much of their potency if there was still some doubt considering the lead's identity.

Much more contrived is the idea that one of these memories connects him to a character that has compiled information on the very agency that is targeting Maclane in "the Day of the Mayflower". It was a shortcut that makes sense in the narrative, even if it strains the realism the creative team try so hard to maintain. Speaking of the latter, it is much more important to consider the album in context of the series that preceded it, and the many choices Van Hamme and Vance have made.

First and foremost, visually, the book is entirely consistent with Vance's celebrated work. There is no doubt that, once the reader opens the pages of "the Day of the Mayflower", that he is reading a "XIII" story. Jigounov has very consciously oriented his already detailed style to resemble Vance, with the results being very peculiar.

Jigounov's line is open and more free flowing, his figures much more kinetic, resulting in the look that is much more modern and current. Yet, there is no mistaking Vance's influence in the way the faces are inked, the way the vehicles and buildings are drawn, and the way the action flows. And while the new artist manages to overcome repeating the same stiff character positions,  the very fact that he has to provide the continuity to a half dozen of Vance designed characters solidifies the feeling that Dargaud wasn't interested in making too many risky decisions regarding the future of the title.

Getting back to the story, it feels a bit too violent even compared to a typical "XIII" volume. The connection to the original XX conspiracy likewise feels strained, as if the creators felt that including Maclane in a completely new story would alienate the existing readers. Otherwise, Sente feels compelled to confront the titular XIII with every possible contrivance, until the protagonist is forced to leave the country, and reunite with a couple of friends in Europe.

The chief hurdle for the reader to get over is that all this is served as the continuation of "XIII". The idea that a single man would survive a series of unlikely events and finally and publicly defeats the conspiracy that has spanned two administrations, and still continue to live in a small fishing village, requires the reader to assume a very strange stance. The creators are clearly telling a new story, their own, but they are doing it as a notional continuation of a very continuity heavy series, and the results are at best a compromise.

Visually and stylistically, it's still a "XIII" story, but in many ways it feels like a restart of the franchise, or even a prequel. On the other hand, if Jigounov was allowed to personalize his style and the scenario was developed independently of the "XIII" brand, it would still have come across as a generic, and pandering to the same demographic.

In other words, "the Day of the Mayflower" is exactly what its marketed to be - a not too ambitious continuation for a popular series that has already had more than its share of contrived plot twists. Where the spin-off "XIII Mystery' tries to make sense of many of the characters and setting alluded to in Van Hamme and Vance's work, the continuation of the main series is reserved precisely for the reader who has allowed the original creators their excesses and missteps, and genuinely wants to continue reading Jason's adventures, no matter how strained and unnecessary they may be, compared to the already bloated series.

As long as the Sente/Jigounov run works as its own story and avoids orientating itself to the full breadth of the scope of the original creative team, it seems that the reader will be getting a solid, if unexceptional modern thriller, professionally realized under the care of the publisher that continues to capitalize on the brand that has stayed strong for three decades.

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