One of my favorite books this year was Jean-David Morvan’s Bramble–making me love a new writer’s imagination in exported French comics–and it was published by one of the greatest importers of the best in comics Europe has to offer, Humanoids Publishing. I have to say they’ve done it again by introducing me to one of France’s most popular novelists from the French science fiction movement of the ’70s, Julia Verlanger; adapting one of her stories into the beautiful hardcover, Retroworld. I had never heard of Verlanger and considering myself to be very knowledgeable in the genre of science fiction, I had even more of a reason to scrounge up the scratch to purchase this must have for my collection.
I cannot describe the desire that gripped my brain; wanting a copy of this book ever since I set eyes on it in my local comics shop. The cover just drew me in along with the fact I did not recognize a single name on the cover taking credit for this beautifully designed graphic novel. As I’ve mentioned before, when people talk European comics, they always just stick with the Masters–the All-Stars–like Jean Giraud, Juan Gimenez, Enik Bilal, Pepe Moreno, Philippe Druillet–to name a few. Going against the grain, Humanoids has brought into their publishing house not only new European voices like the forementioned Morvan, but from Mexico as well with newcomer, Bazal. Bazal will collaborate with fellow comic geek from the Old Country, Cédric Peyravernay, who pencils and inks the first half of Retroworld with awesome visual results. From there it just gets better with Bazal taking over the reigns for the books Second Act–rendering beautiful panels; complimenting Peyravernay’s first half but still retaining his own personal style.
Being an adaptation, I can not give all the writing credit to Verlanger even though it’s based on her works–she passed away in 1985–but one can see the brilliance of her imagination come out within this graphic novel with Patrick Galliano doing an excellent job of penning a great script. Translating the script into illustrations Peyravernay and Bazal make Retroworld come out of its panels; wrapping me in its medieval settings while still immersing me into a high-tech science fiction story. The Retro part of the title refers to the planets–hundreds of thousands of them–who are not as technically advanced as those who belong to the Federation-like collective of planets who formed their own government. The citizens and the politicians of the primative planets–these retroworlds–refer to the diplomats from the more advanced worlds as “the Starmen”.
On one such retroworld, Almagiel, slavery is rampent and many of the industrial aristrocrats do not want to lose their stations in life–especially their slaves–in order to join the more advanced worlds; gaining their knowledge and technology as their own for conforming to the more superior technological galactic civilization’s constitution. Many of the artistocrats on Almagiel wish to continue their isolationist stance they first took when the Starmen made First Contact and thus, they plot a consipracy against the Starmens’ Diplomat, Marce, by framing him for the murder of an aristocrat. Once thrown into a prison made out of the remains of a starship, Marce befriends a strong willed slave, Jatred, who wishes to see more of the galaxy beyond the primitive solar system he has been enslaved in. The two struggle against their prison masters and, once they’ve escaped the prison, forge their way through endless miles of swamp in order to make their escape. Through their ordeals together, the two men form a bond; finding the strength to take on the their desperate, relentless oppressors and clearing Marce’s name.
I love the story regardless of the fact it is presented in graphic novel format–this is just a bonus!–and would love to read English translations of the novels by this highly imaginative French author this particular Humanoids hardcover adaptation is based on, Julia Verlanger. To see two opposite worlds collide–in physical structure and in ideologies–is fascinating and not relatively new in science fiction–fans of Sci-Fi Grandmasters Gene Wolfe and Marion Zimmer Bradley would agree. But there is an original style to be found here and the gorgeous artwork makes me want to see more of this developing galaxy which humans had colonized thousands of years ago, lost contact with each other, turned into countless retroworlds and then, slowly, start to find each other once more amongst the stars. This is the level of imagination of what science fiction graphic novels are suppose to be and Humanoids always delivers.
Throughout the book you find yourself staring not just at what is in the foregrounds of the panels but at the detailed backgrounds as well–marveling at how many comics today neglect this integral part of creating quality visuals within comics today. Not the Europeans. They prove how impatient we Americans are when producing comics–deadlines, deadlines, deadlines–publishing hardcover album series whereas the Yankee approach is the softcover booklets found in comic shops U.S.A. They take the time to approach their comics with not just a business sense but by putting the artistic aspect within the forefront of their production and publications. Humanoids has been a leader in this concept when creating their world reknowned graphic novels.
I wish a lot more North American comic companies took a page from Humanoids Publishing’s playbook when it comes to graphic novels. They make their hardcovers affordable–averaging between $24 to $30–and seek out quality by authors and true artists who look at their works as true art–not just comics. Magnetic Press is one of these new up and coming American small presses importing excellent European comics–pubishing new voices in the world of French graphic novels–but we need more of them. We can’t just expect Humanoids and Magnetic to be the only ones–relying on them to fill the holes Marvel and DC Comics have proven they are no longer interested in; finding loads of cash in hills of Hollywood! They used to care–hell, DC Comics once owned Humanoids–but the accountants are counting the box office receipts instead. The publishers of these respected comic book giants, who used to take a chance and import comics from Europe no longer do and now these rare books are only discussed at comic conventions amongst those of us who are in the know.
But in the meantime, I am going back and experience Retroworld again; hoping Humanoids Publishing will adapt more of Julia Verlanger’s books into inspiring graphic novels. Furthermore, I hope to see more of Bazal and Peyravernay’s illustrations gracing the covers of Humanoid’s graphic novels in the future because their illustrations speak thousands of words almost making the dialogue unnecessary and challenging the American comic companies to aspire to be better.