Désastre Hurlant (T16): What did you expect?

It wasn't all major authors or acclaimed artists, though. Or sometimes it was just a little bit of the major and/or acclaimed, straight from the whims of capricious fate. More often, the blips of DC/Humanoids -- the one-volume wonders and the frustrated efforts -- seemed the reinforce that decades-built Heavy Metal characterization of what French comics 'are,' a persona struck from that early state of Humanoïdes itself, really. You reap what you sow.

Transgenesis 2029 Book 1: Fides

I mean, we can go on about Enki Bilal as much as we want, but this right here does sum up a few prevailing aesthetic assumptions, eh? When confronted with these situation, I find it useful to paraphrase the Dirk Deppey theorem of quality for Heavy Metal features: the sooner the breasts, the lesser the story. Transgenesis 2029 sports full frontal nudity on page two, which I think analogizes roughly to Bloody Mary smashing a black cat through my bathroom mirror while I pick up a stray penny heads-down and envision a white nun. Mind you, that's still better than full nudity on the first page, which would approximate to a burglar shooting me in the head.

This is actually the first of two Transgenesis books released in English; Tucker reviewed the second one, which he subsequently deemed the worst DC/Humanoids book that didn't boast a tangential connection to the Sinestro Corps War. I didn't feel half as strongly about this one; it's pretty much exactly the sort of dead-center sci-fi satire you'd expect to find in virtually any contemporary issue of Heavy Metal, with virtually nothing to help it stand out from the pack of not dissimilar sci-fi releases from other various publishers.

All right, I guess there's concept. Transgenesis is the brainchild of writer Anne Ploy, a multi-artist, multi-series megaproject intended to provide different looks at the same world in different time periods. You'll note the book Tucker covered was Transgenesis 2025, the very first segment of the project to see release, back in 1999 (it ended in 2006 at vol. 5; the English version collected vols. 1-2), with original artist Loïc Malnati. This one, the 2029 series, was the second to start up, in 2000 (it ended in 2008 with vol. 5), drawn by unassuming craftsman Didier Pagot.

However, the 2029 series was the first to be released by DC/Humanoids (again, collecting the French vols. 1-2), possibly because it's so damn familiar - strap yourself in for a nasty future of mind-control and devouring religion, where the theocratic government of Paris has outlawed antibiotics and morphene and plans to install 'guardian angels' in the populace that kill everyone who disbelieves! Naturally, it all boils down to a family conflict between young conformist Janus, his ruling mother and his counter-revolutionary father, although there's also a tough-talking rebel girl with multi-colored hair and a rag-tag group of subversives that Janus eventually joins... perhaps to destroy them, ho ho ho!!

Words really aren't adequate to express how dull (yet never horrendously bad) this thing gets; there's even just enough moments of amusement -- a city-wide morning workout or a pretty lived-in depiction of workaday office sniping -- to keep the heartrate perfectly level. It doesn't help that Ploy's grip on the modularity of her project isn't so firm; while the plot is never confusing, it's pretty much assumed you know a few of the character relationships from some earlier bit in the project -- which, of course, DC/Humanoids hadn't released when this was new -- for a lot of the emotional impact to land. It absolutely doesn't.

But, you know, this is a massive, sprawling project (the 2035 strand is still ongoing), so maybe Ploy has an eye for the longterm. Jean-Pierre Dionnet mentioned in his Métal Hurlant column that he couldn't even read the first of these albums when it was brand new, yet he came to consider the broader project "amazing" and "an immense fresco ten times more ambitious than seventy-five percent of comic books in the world today."

Or hey, for further validation you can always go to Ploy's own Afterword to this DC/Humanoids edition, with copious elaboration on her research on contemporary cults and her desire to arrive at "new answers to the great questions of humanity, human nature, and its possible evolution, as a social and emotional creature, and also as a biological and spiritual being." I can't begrudge her the effort, but the execution does have its way of casting such artist's statements as the most charitable reading a book can hope to receive.

El Niño Book 1: The Passenger

A lot of these odd books were released toward the end of the DC/Humanoids deal, at which point it was decided that yet another strange tactic was necessary: filling out the trades with extra pages from one volume past where the books would usually go. Basically, that means a few softcovers came out collecting two and one half French albums, with the story stopping (sometimes pretty abruptly) with a To Be Continued...

For this book, at least, the notion made some sense. A dry, info-heavy 'sophisticated' adventure from high seas specialist scribe Chistian Perrissin and artist Boro Pavlovic, El Niño was about a year or so away from the vol. 5 conclusion of its first storyline when DC/Humanoids released this English softcover in March 2005; I suspect the plan was to wait out the rest of the French material so as to produce a simple, two-part English release, provided that the structure had been planned out ahead of time. It was idealistic, expecting the effort to continue into 2006, but I suppose it doesn't hurt the psyche to plan for the future, nor does it hurt the marketing to pump a softcover up to a length akin to a superhero trade paperback collection of six 22-page chapters.

Sadly, marketing discussion provides the most excitement I've known for El Niño. I imagine this isn't an unpopular series in France -- a two-volume sequel was launched in 2008, currently set to finish this upcoming June, with a 296-page all-in-one edition of the prior series published just this past January -- but Perrissen's discussion-heavy tour of world issues struck me as dry, slow and often at odds with Pavlovic's statuesque presentation of Vera, the series' questing heroine, on the trail of a lost brother who seems to have become a notorious pirate, and prone to listening to people talk about the plights of various global hotspots.

It's all very proper and composed -- a detailed panorama here, a shower scene there, lots and lots of conversation everywhere -- yet also the only one of these books I presume would work a lot better as a television series or something, where actors and music could maybe keep things lively. As a comic, all these unfailingly realistic compositions and waist-up Japanese computer game-like talking heads fail to spark any interest in me, although I'm sure Perrissen's research and motives are fine, and the approach probably fits into some traditional adventure storytelling schema that hasn't much caught on in North America. Kind of a bore to this reader.

Thousand Faces Book 1: Two Mules, a Rifle and Ten Bullets

But then there's Philippe Thirault, writer of Miss: Better Living Through Crime. Given how eager Humanoids was to flaunt the critical acclaim Miss provoked upon its initial release, I was sort of puzzled as to why they didn't release more the guy's writing. Turns out they did, except not until February 2005, and without any discernible marketing support; I picked up my copy online for the price of a fancy drink at Starbucks, and that's after shipping.

And lo and behold: Thousand Faces is the writer's second very nice genre piece to see English release, and unique in approach from the layered plotting of Miss (albeit in that the plot is uniquely layered). It's another two-and-a-half album collection -- presumably because the series was intended to conclude with a vol. 5 in French, which hasn't materialized as of yet; vol. 4 is dated May 2006 -- with a structure that sees a new narrator pick up at the start of every new album. That's fitting, since it's a supernatural horror tale adept at taking on many identities, with a monster central character that can literally accomplish the same. The page-by-page storytelling manages some tricks too.

I wouldn't blame you for mistaking Thousand Faces for a grim cowboy comic at first; it's early pages are devoted to some poor Old West cowpoke struggling to survive after being cast out into the wild for unspecified crimes. Hell is evoked and a wicked force is referenced, but such old-timey religion proves more than just metaphor as the story flashes back to London in 1842, where Our Hero falls under the sway of a sinister doctor whose advanced blood transfusion theories mask a diobolical intent.

And that's maybe half of the first album, in drastically simplified form. Soon there's partnerships with natives, unkillable wild animals, the sad saga of a Scottish hunchback and his delicate mastery of evil magic, the cowpoke's gay son and his seemingly accidental accumulation of riches in Illinois, and a curious young boy who survives a train robbery massacre and gets into a Scanners-style psychic head explosion showdown with a possessed frontier wolfer.

Bits and pieces of each chapter overlap from different perspectives as the various narrators take over, album to album, with seemingly every new revelation shoving the story into another genre or subgenre, the whole sick thing presided over by a wicked presence prone to infiltrating bodies and becoming slightly different, just like the story surrounding it.

Now, don't let me oversell this. At heart it's basically an above-average Vertigo series, complete with a slightly left-of-center visual style courtesy of Marc Males, writer/artist of Different Ugliness, Different Madness. There's little of that book's flourish-of-moments here -- too much plot to get through, I'd say -- but Males retains a pleasingly assured blocky take on classic western character types, with some great, just so slightly unreal visions of bloodied, rampaging wildlife under magical control.

It's worth the (probably small) price to see, despite being transcontinentally incomplete; tricky pop comics like this tend to be the least rewarded by freight train release schedules. Maybe a few more books would have given Thirault a name you could hear above the racket. Anyway, it's wrecked now, so no harm in sifting through.

Deicide Book 1: Path of the Dead

You may, however, have heard the name Das Pastoras. He's a Spanish cartoonist (born Julio Martínez Pérez) recently seen in one of Marvel's recent Wolverine one-shots, January's Wolverine: Switchback. Speaking of locomotion. To wit:

It's not an easy approach to forget, a sort of textured amalgam of model-mad Richard Corben and Frank Quitely circa Missionary Man, the kind of thing you'd probably hope to see if running down the Heavy Metal expectations. And Deicide doesn't disappoint - if we've already gone down the sci-fi commentary (Transgenesis), the dispassionately composed adventure (El Niño) and the addled genre swap (Thousand Faces), it can't belong before we encounter muscular he-men and scantly-clad wild women taking on weird creatures in a fantasy world, complete with a cruel monarch type cackling on his throne at the conclusion of episode one.

This is a pretty great take on such an old standard, even though it actually does contain full frontal nudity on page one; it could be its sheer directness somehow reversed the Deppey theorem, or maybe the bullet realigned my priorities. Whatever the reason, it's a lot of fun.

One Carlos Portela is the writer, an apparently frequent presence on the Spanish comics scene (fanzines, festival organization, comics scripts) whose also done some screenwriting; as far as I know, this is his English-translated comics debut, save for a Métal Hurlant piece with Das Pastoras included in the DC/Humanoids edition as a bonus.

His is an disarmingly earthy vision of gods and monsters, focusing on the warrior Agon's struggle to revive his dead lover, essentially by beating the shit out of his tribe's dark god, Madorak. Allies and foes are encountered, like the lion-ish talking beast thingy Beluch (who's on the run from his people) and Hettia, the daughter of a completely different evil god, who's led around on what amounts to a magic leash. No, it's not much of a deconstruction of gender roles in fantasy literature.

It is pretty funny, however, both in terms of buddy movie back-and-forth and casting its world of mighty beings as irritable neighbors in a small community. This subtly undercuts the majesty of questing, allowing for odd routines like a fallen worm god's followers amending their religion on the fly to account for his death to pay off later as consequences of human connection beyond a (very very) obvious satiric intent. Helpfully, Das Pastoras' art throws maximum emphasis on bodies and flesh, and the stones that make a wall moreso than the structure itself.

Granted, I doubt it'll convert anyone who's opposed to this kind of saga, winking or not, or doesn't think of Das Pastoras' art as much more than a sum of influence. Corben himself rather liked it, judging from his blurb on the back cover. So, one presumes, did Alejandro Jodorowsky, in that he eventually snapped the artist up to work on his prequel to The Metabarons, the three-volume Castaka, which launched in 2007:

He might be a tiny bit like Metabarons artist Juan Giménez, actually - a cartoonist under his paints, though Das Pastoras' whimsy is more in color and fauna than his strapping humans, unless they're having a transformation, which is likely in his world(s). We'll doubtlessly be seeing more of those, since another Wolverine one-off is on the horizon, and I imagine the Metabarons stuff will find its way over once it's done, although the activity may not bode well for Deicide; this DC/Humanoids edition collects all extant material, and the story ends on a cliffhanger. It was nice while it lasted, at least.

The Fourth Power

And look at that - another friend of Jodorowsky!

No no, it's okay; I know Giménez had a long career prior to starting the Metabarons. Hell, I doubt anyone who got themselves exposed to the old Tundra/Heavy Metal/Kitchen Sink catalogs/ads could forget the omnipresent Apocalypse: The Eyes of Doom, located somewhere around Ramparts: Unseeing Eyes or Scott Hampton's The Upturned Stone. I think they even had one of Jodorowsky's George Bess collaborations in there at one point, Anibal Cinq: The Last Ten Women I've Known. I hope you're copying down this valuable information for your next Kitchen Sink trivia night, preferably on the wrapper of a Devil Girl Choco-Bar.

Anyway, The Fourth Power actually dates from 1989, as a solo one-off Spanish-language album Giménez completed just before the Jodorowsky series began. It's easy to imagine Jodorowsky flipping through it and nodding furiously, certain Giménez is the man for the job; the opening sequence alone depicts hordes of armored troopers bursting in on various locations to kidnap women in ways than ensure a maximum loss of clothing.

The narrative then jerks itself between a pacifist pirate broadcast to a lazy, sexed-up future society and the high-tech troubles of a girl pilot named Mega, who's wanted by sinister forces as a crucial component of a psychic weapon that may tip the scales in an ongoing war that nobody pays much attention to anymore. The narrative aches to contain itself, wandering away on short tangents then rushing to build itself up a cataclysmic finale - it's not entirely unlike Jodorowsky's own work, both in terms of happy excess and spiritual yearning in a fallen, sleepy society.

It's not nearly as good as Jodorowsky's best stuff, though; if anything, Giménez's tendency for over-explanation recalls Masamune Shirow, another fan of detailed tech drafting. Still, demand for the artist was surely up as the Metabarons began to wind down; 2004 saw the Spanish album translated into French, accompanied by a brand new sequel so as to kick off an ongoing series.

This DC/Humanoids release collects both 2004 French albums (the series is currently up to vol. 4 in French), allowing for some useful comparison of the artist's development over a decade and a half's time, although I can't say his writing improves much. It doesn't seem to have mattered to admirers, though; a quick scan of online retailers reveals this as one of the pricier of the line these days, with most deals starting at around $30.00. In comparison, you can get a nice Apocalypse: The Eyes of Doom for under five bucks, which leaves plenty of money left for James O'Barr's Pink Dust: Morphine Dreams or any other Kitchen Sink items you regret passing up prior to their shuttering everything but the confections outfit. What kind of candy did they sell anyway? And how long do those Devil Girl bars hold up?

The Hollow Grounds

Woah, look out - last goddamned review in the last goddamned segment of this internet series to appear on this site, and it's finally a book I actually reviewed back when it was sort of semi-new, or at least only two years old or something!

It was also one of the very first DC/Humanoids releases, and it's easy to guess why; artist François Schuiten may not command the rapt attention of the English-reading world in its entirety, but he's definitely in the realm of respected Eurocomics masters whose North American releases command tall prices after their short print runs vanish; just try finding some of NBM's old editions of his Les Cités Obscures (with writer Benoit Peeters) for under a hundred bucks. Worse yet, this particular tome appears to be totally sold out from certain popular used book websites, although adept readers can probably sniff out a copy or two.

Or, you know, there's always Humanoids' earlier hardcover releases of exactly the same material, three albums released in 2000 and 2001: Carapaces, Zara and NogegoN. These were the only books Les Humanoïdes had the rights to, a suite of projects Schuiten created with his brother Luc. They're also one of the only bodies of work critically damaged by the trade paperback proportions of the DC/Humanoids deal; most of these artists are probably better read in the oversized album format, but Schuiten's yawning architectures and subtle colors need every centimeter of that space to reach their sincere potential.

Plus, that way you can elect to only buy NogegoN, which is the only mandatory Schuiten work in here. Carapaces may be worth it for the nostalgia, since it's a collection of short pieces that got some great play in early Heavy Metal - surely you remember the one about the guy riding the bike who breaks up into cubes, or the b&w thing about the metal people who take off their armor to reveal color skin and then they're eaten by steel cockroaches? It's ok, if mainly a visual showcase (and an early one at that).

The less said about Zara, meanwhile, the better; back in '06 I deemed it "an ambling, formless mess, stocked up with neat ideas and good visual concepts, and virtually nothing to do with them save for indulging in odd world-building asides, scattershot satire, gratuitous naughtiness, and roundabout adventure." It's sufficient to note that going through the stuff again prompts absolutely no desire for critical revisitation.

But NogegoN, man; it really is a gem. That's the one where a woman is searching for her lover and happens into a world ruled by the forces of symmetry; her girlfriend fell in love with a man from that place, but then their affair grew awful, like everything good on NogegoN eventually turns bad, and everything evil must finally become good. Literally everything is symmetric, from emotions to actions to jobs, including Schuiten's artwork, which is laid out front-to-back, story-length as a visual palindrome, and Luc Schuiten's dialogue, which often has characters reverse emotions or opinions in union with corresponding panels from the other half of the story.

A gimmick? Probably by some definitions, but it's an often stunningly deep exploration of its concept. Schuiten allows the world's strange force to manifest in seemingly countless ways, from the differing perspectives in corresponding panels to the parallel symmetries in characters' backstories, to the eventual, possible revolution of the mind in the world entire, as a necessarily opposite extreme. It gets to you. Even the panel gutters - usually, you can imagine what's going on in there, right? How people move, etc. - that's the operation of comics, yeah? Schuiten destroys this by forcing us to comprehend the comic's reality as a frozen schema, one piece always matching the other; it's the only comic that truly positions the reader as a sort of god, if a constrained one, keenly aware of the poignancy of human affairs as preordained and helpless, and empathetic for that.

It's the kind of comic a deal like DC/Humanoids' ought to be bringing to a wider audience. Too bad the market-dictated contours hurt it; that's kind of the story of life with these books. Lucky there's a less affected version around; get it.