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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Now where did that come from?

Irritating memory lapses having become for yours truly just the most obvious symptom of how faculties taken for granted in the fullness of youth are now withering under the impact of advancing years, it was a pleasant surprise last month to receive an unexpected package from Dalen, a Welsh publisher of "Celtic Graphic Novels… in English and in Welsh." Inside I found a copy of the shiny TPB Druids: The Ogham Sacrifice. Apparently I'd entered a competition on the site of my epals @EMOTIONALLY FOURTEEN; I'd won; and here was my prize. Sometimes what you forget does you good then!

Francophone finery
Druids: The Ogham Sacrifice
Writers: Jean-Luc Istin & Thierry Jigourel.
Artist: Jacques Lamontagne.
English adaptation: Lannig Treseizh.

The first thing I noticed about this TPB- after its Welsh origins and its striking cover, was that it was originally a French production. This intrigued me. Comics afficionadoes among my readers will no doubt already know that France is a country in which comics don't labour under the false impression that they're all kids' stuff, so that comics culture is mainstream in a way unfamiliar here in Britain.

The obligatory Asterix the Gaul aside, the classic SF/Fantasy magazine Métal Hurlant (AKA. Heavy Metal in English) has probably been most English-language readers' first point of contact with French comics. I was lucky enough to go on a couple of exchange visits to Orleans (twinned with my home town Dundee) when I was an adolescent, so my first encounter with 'French' comics was with the weekly Spirou. Belgian it may be but, back in the mid/late 70's Spirou introduced me to a whole new vision of comics which surpassed even the mighty 2000AD.

With the benefit of 30-plus years' hindsight I've no doubt that simple foreign difference was responsible for part of the power this comic exercised over my imagination; but only part. All the usual details of narrative and graphic excellence aside, what I recall that most impressed me about Spirou was the sheer range of the contents. I mean to say, I had grown up with action comics like The Hotspur and The Victor. What these had in common was a very Anglocentric- dare I say even imperialistic, story selection: most of the stories were very British in theme and treatment in other words.

Spirou on the other hand seemed to me to be full of stories which had nothing at all to do with France. I remember two stories that epitomised this for me:
  • 'Lucky Luke': the adventures of a cowboy in the old West.
  • 'Les Tuniques Bleues' ('The Bluecoats'): the adventures of a pair of Union soldiers in the American Civil War.
Sample panels from 'Les Tuniques Bleues'

Of these two, 'Les Tuniques Bleues' was my favourite. Its lead characters- Blutch and Chesterfield, are a finely executed 'Mutt and Jeff' pair; there is a quietly subversive edge to its humourous asides about army life; and there are some spectacular battlefield panoramas, which don't shy away from showing the gruesome cost of war.

Druids: The Ogham Sacrifice: between the covers
Whew! After all that, it's time to take a look at Druids: The Ogham Sacrifice itself. While I catch my breath, why not watch this simple but nifty video Dalen put together to advertise their new TPB.



Druids is doubly unusual for this reader:
  • It is a murder mystery: although I'm a big fan of crime fiction, I rarely read it in comic form.
  • It's set against the backdrop of the conflict between the rising Celtic Christian church and the declining Old Faith- the druids: this colourful historical setting is unique in my reading experience.
The premise of the story is that a series of terrible murders is taking place. A Christian priest who is a former druid calls on his old friend- the main protagonist Gwynlan, to help track down the murderer. It soon turns out that the mystery strikes to the very heart of the conflict between the Old Faith and the new in a way that threatens dire and bloody conseqences for all, but especially for the druids and their followers.

The various dimensions of this plot are played out really rather well. Most importantly, they are nicely dramatised through character and incident with the result that the reader's journey through the political ins and outs of the story becomes part of the unfolding of the mystery with the necessary exposition carefully woven in. This is a sign of quality story telling.

The artwork too is very nice. Clear linework in the classic illustrator's style with lots of finely rendered detail means that the world of late 5th century Celtic Europe is brought to vivid life. There are three particularly strong features IMO:
  • Geography: the elemental grandeur of nature which dwarfed the powers of man all those centuries ago is strikingly portrayed.
  • Architecture: nature's powers notwithstanding, man's creative capacities are sometimes demonstrated with inspirational panoramas of ancient cityscapes and other such features.
  • The mastery of faces: there are a lot of gnarled and wizened men whose very appearance speaks of the rigours of life in those distant times; and whose brooding visages provide instant and strong characterisation.
My one small complaint about the artwork is that it is a touch static, less expressive of the dynamism of action than it is of all the other features it brings so strongly to the story.

For the general reader then, Druids: The Ogham Sacrifice is highly recommended. For the roleplaying GM it is better even than that:
  • The setting is unusual and should inspire the creation of fantasy campaigns which step out from the all too familiar sub-Tolkien stylings.
  • The political relations between faith and magic are intrinisic to most fantasy settings and they are very well handled in this story.
  • The strong visual imagery will give GMs plenty of ideas for locations and incidents in their games.
  • There are great NPC's to lift into your games.
So, I really liked this comic and I'm already looking forward to future episodes in Gwynlan's story. Before signing off, I'd just like to give my thanks to the lads at EMOTIONALLY FOURTEEN and the folks at Dalen for my lovely prize. ;)
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