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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

french batman

France has its own Batman. He’s named Nightrunner, and he’s been patrolling the streets of Paris since 2011 when DC introduced him as part of Bruce Wayne’s Batman Incorporated team. I walked some of those streets in June, but I didn’t see any caped crusaders, just used book vendors lining the Seine. A few of them sold BDs (bande dessinee, “drawn bands”), mostly late 70s and early 80s stuff,  stray Teen Titans and X-Men between stacks of Tintin and Asterix.

The Bronze Age Batman belonged to the French publisher Sagedition. I found him in the Angouleme research library while tracing the influence of U.S. superheroes on their French counterparts. The cover title story, “Le Mannequin,” doesn’t match the cover image,”Le Secret du Sphinx” (I’ll let you translate both of those yourself) because the issue collects five Batman adventures in what was not yet popularly called a graphic novel format.

angouleme day 2, comics research 003

Note “LE JUSTICIER” printed along the left margin; it roughly translates, “THE ADMINISTRATOR OF JUSTICE” (a mystery we’ll return to soon). Otherwise the cover is Detective Comics No. 508, minus artist Jim Aparo’s growling dog in the foreground (deleted, presumably, by the French censorship board):

300px-Detective_Comics_508

The Sagedition version is cover-dated December 1982. I cross-referenced the content as Detective Comics Nos. 506-510, the last episode from January 1982, so roughly a one-year turnaround time. Unlike the original American publications, the translated reprints include no advertising, not even on the back cover; the inside front and back covers are blank, with an added table of contents and very brief publishing information on the final page.

Sagedition also printed only half of the pages in color. Turn a page and you’re looking at a black-and-white, two-page spread; turn again and it’s a color spread. This presumably saved printing costs, though I found the alternating color system dates back to the tabloid-sized newspaper BDs of the 40s. Sagedition applied it inconsistently. A 1985 Batman “collection un max” alternates its first 98 pages, before switching entirely to color for the last, re-paginated 45 pages (which also include an incongruous Golden Age Dr. Fate/”Dr. Destin” adventure). A 1986 Batman and Superman omnibus prints all 96 pages in black and white and in a smaller format:

angouleme day 2, comics research 007

Smaller, black-and-white pages may also reflect Sagedition’s shrinking business. The company vanished in 1987.

France has no Silver Age Batman. The BD censorship board (the Commission for the Oversight and Control of Publications for Children and Adolescents) established by the Law of July 1949 effectively halted the importing of most American comics. But just prior to the law’s passage, French readers had two Golden Age versions of Batman. Beginning from its first September 19, 1946 issue, the weekly 8-page tabloid Tarzan included “La Chauve-Souris” (the surprisingly multi-syllabic French way of saying “A Bat”):

angouleme day 2, comics research 181

And beginning with its first May 21, 1947 issue, L’Astucieux ran “les ailes rouges” (“the red wings”) on two of its eight pages, including an interior page in black-and-white which continued to the color back page:

angouleme day 2, comics research 138

Despite the title change and the red cape and cowl, Batman is still called “Batman” in the translated dialogue.

Both Batmen vanish in 1948 as criticism of American comics and their influence on France’s BDs was building toward the censorship law. U.S. comics publishers faced similar criticism at home but created the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers to stave off legislation. The ACMP’s 1948 code went unenforced until 1954 when it was revised and adopted by the new Comics Code Authority in the U.S. industry’s second maneuver to avoid government regulation. The British Parliament passed its own comic book censorship law in 1955.

In all three cases, the call for censorship was a post-war cause. Batman appeared only once in France during World War II. Germany invaded in May 1940 and by August divided the country into an occupied northern region and the so-called “free zone” of Vichy France.  The weekly Les Gandes Aventures premiered the following month. Beginning in the tabloid’s second issue, “Le Justicier” ran through October and November in eight weekly pages, divided into two, four-part stories. The first is an uncredited adaptation of Detective Comics No. 30 (August 1939), Batman’s fourth episode, written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Bob Kane with Sheldon Moldoff co-inking.

Les Grandes Aventures, No. 2:

angouleme day 2, comics research 100

Les Grandes Aventures, No. 3:

angouleme day 2, comics research 102

Les Grandes Aventures, No. 4:

angouleme day 2, comics research 101

Les Grandes Aventures, No. 5:

angouleme day 2, comics research 103

Unlike Batman’s post-war appearances, Les Grandes Aventures does not reproduce the original artwork, but redraws it panel by panel. To accommodate the differences in formats, the French version regulates panel sizes while usually widening Kane’s taller originals:

original DC art by bob kane cropped

angouleme day 2, comics research 103(2)

In order to conclude the adventure at the bottom of the fourth page, two new panels were added, including one of the worst drawn images in the sequence:

angouleme day 2, comics research 101 (2)

It’s difficult to judge what impact the Les Grandes Aventures Batman had on later French incarnations. His rouge costume is not quite the same as L’Astucieux’s Red Wings, though the inclusion of “Le Justicier” in the Sagedition reprints could be an allusion to Batman’s first appearance. But the term could also be generic, an equivalent of “vigilante.”

The Gardner Fox script features a thug named “Mikhail,”  who, though identified as a “Cossack” (so Russian or Ukrainian), wears a fez and hoop earrings. He replaces Dr. Death’s previous thug, “Jabah,” a “great Indian,” who Kane dressed in a turban. Both Jabah and Mikhail wear cummerbunds, green leggings, and purple capes–a result of the printer’s limited color choices and Kane’s limited lexicon for his Exotic East. Batman kills them both.

Fox doesn’t mention Jabah’s and Mikhail’s religious affiliations, but the fez suggests Muslim. It brings us back round to Bilal Asselah, AKA Nightrunner, AKA the Batman of France in the international Batman Incorporated. Creator David Hine explains his choice: “The urban unrest and problems of the ethnic minorities under Sarkozy’s government dominate the news from France and it became inevitable that the hero should come from a French Algerian background.”

1708155-praying_with_his_mother

Some conservative bloggers weren’t happy with a Sunni Muslim Batman. Warner Todd Huston accused DC of “PC indoctrination,” complaining that “Batman couldn’t find any actual Frenchman to be the ‘French saviour.'” “How about that,” writes Avi Green. “Bruce Wayne goes to France where he hires not a genuine French boy or girl with a real sense of justice, but rather, an ‘oppressed’ minority.”

I consider Bilal reasonable reparation for Dr. Death’s henchmen, as well as a nod toward the actual Algerians who did fight as French saviours during the German occupation. They administrated better justice than the first French Batman, a pirated, second-rate feature from a publisher working under Nazi rule.

I’m glad Paris has a new Le Justicier.

nightrunner2-640x480

 

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more angouleme 084

I met fellow superhero scholar Alex Buchet for the first time in Paris during a World Cup game televised in an Irish pub before my wife’s poetry reading in the building’s medieval cellar. After bemoaning the sorry state of Hollywood superheroes, Alex and I agreed we should collaborate on a project. I was headed to Angouleme, France’s center for comic book research, where I would be delicately flipping sixty-five-year-old newspaper sheets printed with the still-bold colors of one of France’s first superheroes, Atomas.

Mon Journal (“My Journal”) ran its first weekly issue on August 8, 1946. It’s front and back cover adventure strips were in color, with four of the six, inner pages in black and white, a standard format among French, newspaper-style, comic strip periodicals of the time. Beginning with No. 21 on January 23, 1947, reprints of  the American “Captain Marvel Junior” appeared on the cover. Mon Journal also translated an American magician strip, retitled “Ibis L’invincible,” for one of its two interior color pages. “Captain Marvel Junior” continued on the cover until December 18, 1947, after which the series moved to its own inside, black and white page.

No. 68 also announced a forthcoming feature: “Soon Atomas the Master of the Atom.”

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No. 70 featured Atomas in its revised header and “Charlie Chan” as its new front feature:

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“Atomas” replaced “Hopalong Cassidy” on the back cover. Each full-page episode included the credits: “par Pellos ed R. Charroux,” but the strip’s origins are more complex. According to coolfrenchcomics.com, writer Robert Charroux created the character for artist Auguste Liquois, who was drawing a similar superhero space opera “Salvator” for the weekly Tarzan periodical in 1947:

salvtator

Liquois drew Charroux’s first “Atomas” page:

atomasliq2

The page may have appeared in Mon Journal No. 69, but the issue is missing from the Angouleme collection. If so, it would have appeared in one of the four black and white, interior pages.  When Pellos (AKA Rene Pellarin) took over the strip, he used the same opening script for Mon Journal No. 70:

Atomas, Mon Journal 70

The two versions highlight a range of differences in artistic approach, including Pellos’ asymmetrical panel layout and Liquois’ comparatively realistic figural style. I prefer Pellos, though his Atomas may also owe a debt to Bill Everett’s scantily-dressed and A-chested Amazing-Man:

amazing_man_comics_may_41_C

Centaur Publications ran Amazing-Man from September 1939 to February 1942, five years before Pellos started illustrating Chirroux’s script. The series had also appeared in France, though Amazing-Man was renamed “Surhomme” or Superman:

amazing-man-i

The Pellos version of Atomas continued until Mon Journal No. 85. The Angouleme collection does not include No. 86 (or any subsequent issues), but according to coolfrenchcomics.com, the final issue was drawn by an uncredited artist who produced it in the style of Pellos, “d’apres Pellos.” Mon Journal then replaced the series with “Zorro.”

I was studying “Atomas” to test the claim that the violence of American superhero comics influenced their French counterparts. In short, Atomas is less violent than his immediate Mon Journal predecessor, Captain Marvel Junior. Though he often wrestles and flips his opponents, Atomas throws only one punch in his sixteen pages:

more angouleme 093

That maniacal smile is a bit troubling though, and unlike Captain Marvel Junior and the majority of American superheroes of the late 40s, Atomas uses deadly force, which Pellos depicts overtly:

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Pellos adds a category of representation I’d overlooked in my initial lexicon of violence, merging an impact burst with a panel frame:

more angouleme 106

Chirroux also scripts a surprising range of wide-scale death, from the tidal wave destruction of the moon crashing into the ocean to a heavily populated city exploding, images uncommon in American comics. Pellos’ exploding city holds even greater meaning less than three years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Atomas, Mon Journal 80 city explodes

In contrast, when Wayne Boring depicted the destruction of a Kryptonian city in 1944, he included no figures in the foreground, reducing the human impact of the violence. France’s comics tabloid L’Astucieux reprinted Wayne’s art in May 1947, less than a year before “Atomas” premiered:

wayne boring krypton city explodes

The post-war context highlights one other significant difference between Pellos and Liquois. I’ll let Jean-Pierre Mercier, conseiller scientifique at Angouleme’s le Musée de la Bande Dessinée (comic book museum), explain:

“Why was [Liquois] so abruptly discharged? Maybe because publishers had discovered that, during WWII, he published in Le Téméraire, a collaborationist, anti-English, anti-Russia, anti-American and  very anti-Semitic weekly magazine for kids. Even worse, Liquois published a very harsh story on the French Resistance in a satirical magazine named “Le Mérinos”, and it caused him a lot of trouble after the war. This is precisely what happened to him at “Vaillant”. He got fired right after the publishers discovered the Merinos story. Is it possible that he got the same reaction at Mon Journal (Mme Ratier, the woman publisher of Mon Journal was part of the Resistance during the war). And Liquois’ name disappears in Vaillant summaries in 1947… We know Mon Journal stopped because the publishing company had money problems, and that’s the main reason why they merged the two titles in only one, and therefore had to stop several series on a very short period of time, including Atomas.”

There is currently little or no scholarship in “Atomas” because the series has never been collected or translated. Until right now. Alex’s English version follows.

[Note from Alex Buchet: All comments in italics below are from me. Click on images to enlarge them.]

Mon Journal No. 70, episode 1:

Atomas, Mon Journal 70

Panel 1

Caption:

The year 1999: Professor Sinclair, father of Bella, has invented an electro-magnet able to attract the stars. Dr Borg, his associate, is ready to betray him.

Sinclair: Our electronic telescope is perfected.

Bella:      Father, you’re the world’s greatest magician!

Borg:      What a prodigious vision of Saturn!

 

Panel 2

Borg:       Enough playacting! Hands up! I’m the one who’ll exploit the mineral wealth of the moon! I shall be the master of    the world! Chang!… Put the cuffs on him!

Sinclair:   We are betrayed, Bella!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Bella Sinclair is shut up in an isolation cage.

 

Borg:       We’ll need the Professor. Keep an eye on him!

Chang:    OK chief! Nucleopolis has just sent a message! Our men are masters of the American fortress!

 

Panel 4

Chang:    The teams are hard at work! Everything’ll go right!

Borg:        And now, to work, Chang! The cosmic electro-magnet will attract the Moon. It’ll splash down in the Pacific Ocean!

 

Panel 5 (insert)

Caption:

The Moon heads for the Earth in a horrific magnetic storm

 

Panel 6

Ship:         S.O.S We are in hazard!

 

Panel 7

Loudspeaker: The State Police communicates: The population is ordered to observe the utmost calm. Our scientists…

 

Panel 8 (insert)

Astronomer: Hello! The Mont Ventoux Observatory here. The moon is hurtling towards the Earth at a speed of 100 000 kilometers per hour!

 

Panel 9:

Atomas:        It’s time for me to intervene!

Caption:

On the 25th floor of the Opera Building, someone is watching the sky! Atomas…

[This seems to bring on the crazy like Fletcher Hanks. Note that the background seems to be American -- since Jules Verne, America was always the home of futurism for the French. PS Opera Building is in Enclish in the final caption.That said, Mont Ventoux is a real French observatory.]

Mon Journal No. 71, episode 2:

Atomas, Mon Journal 71

Panel 1

Caption :

Installed at the cosmic machine, Borg seems master of the situation.

Borg: The Star Building has just collapsed! Too bad! The end justifies the means!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

Thanks to his magnetic detector, Atomas manages to get right to  Profeeor Sinclair’s laboratory

Atomas: It’s here!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Hanging from an antenna, the atomic hero advances through empty space

Atomas: I’ve been spotted!

Borg:      Curses! It’s Atomas!

 

Panel 4

Borg:     Hello Nucleapolis! Continue  the experiment with the fortress’s electro-magnet…I’m going to blow up Sinclair’s laboratory!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

From a terrace at the African base, the mutineers gaze on a grand spectacle

Mutineer:       When the Moon lands in the ocean, I believe it’ll make waves!

Accomplice:We’re prepared for the tidal wave…

 

Panel 6

Mutineer:   To your posts!

Mutineer 2: Dan!..Kid!…Battle stations, all. Things are going wrong in the city! Borg’s transferring controls to us!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

Borg, who’s just caused a short-circuit in the uranium piles, beats a hasty retreat.

Borg:            Load the Professor into the autogiro, he’ll be our hostage. His daughter will blow up with the laboratory!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Surrounded by radioactive effluvia, Atomas tries to avert the disaster.

Atomas:  It’s no use, the disintegration is starting!

 

Panel 9

Bella: Help! Help! Atomas!

 [The name Atomas is certainly a riff on the far more famous Fantomas.” –as” isn’t a normal French suffix; but “as” translates as ace, both the card and in the sense of a supremely competent person. So we’re reading about Atom Ace, name inspired by Phantom Ace!]

Mon Journal No. 72, episode 3:

Atomas, Mon Journal 72

Panel 1

Caption :

With a blow from his shoulder, Atomas has broken through the isolation cage

Atomas:     Quick! Everything’s going to blow up!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

To more speedily avoid danger, the two young people dive into the park’s basin

 

Panel 3

Bella:        Ah! My God!

Atomas:     Saved!

 

Panel 4

Bella:         They took my father to Nucleapolis, in East Africa. This ‘Supersonic Meteor’ will

do for us. Let’s board, you can fill me in!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

In the Pacific Ocean, the Moon suddenly splashes down, crushing the capes and islands, throwing terrestrial geography into chaos…grinding…drowning…destroying…

 

Panel 6

Caption:

The sea overwhelms the African jungle, and the panic-stricken animals flee

 

Panel 7

Bella:        Splash down, it’s here!

Atomas:    The land’s a huge swamp. Too bad, I’ll risk it!

Caption:

After a record-breaking trip, Atomas and Bella are flying over Tanganyika

 

Panel 8

Bella:        Let’s try to reach the atomic fortress!

Atomas:    Careful! The ocean’s overflowing the continent..let’s not get swept away!

Caption:

The vehicle is stuck in the mud, but the passengers are uninjured

 

Panel 9

Atomas:     Bella!

Bella:         I’m keeping afloat!

Caption:

In the furious waves, the young people swim amidst the half-sunken trees…

 [The insanity just keeps ramping up! Note the mention of Tanganyika, which in 1947 was still a colony and hadn’t yet merged with Zanzibar to form the new state of Tanzania.]

Mon Journal No. 73, episode 4:

Atomas, Mon Journal 73

Panel 1

Caption :

Atomas and Bella find footing in a swamp.

Bella:         We’re saved for the moment!

Atomas:      The jungle animals aren’t any better off than we!

 

Panel 2

Bella:         I’m afraid! The swamp is infested with reptiles! And those panthers in the trees!

Atomas:     Fear nothing, we’re getting to solid ground!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

In a lagoon of clear water

Atomas:    This mud sticks like putty!

Bella:        We’re alittle cleaner, but my clothes are in rags!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

On an islet spared by the tidal wave all the animals in creation seem to have rendez-voused…

Atomas:     All these animals seem paralyzed by fear …forward to Nucleapolis!

Bella:         Don’t stray away from me!

 

Panel 5

Bella:         What a nightmare!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

In Nucleapolis Borg directs operations

Borg:         From the underground base, 30 Flying Wings will take off for the Moon to set up hangars. Transport the cosmic magnets, too. It’s from there that we shall govern Earth

 

Panel 7

Borg:       Dan, watch over the work. I’m going in the vanguard.

Dan:         Everything will be set up by tomorrow!

Caption:

In a gigantic glider, the machine for attracting the stars is hauled aboard.

 

Panel 8

Borg:       And now, it’s between you and me, Atomas!

Caption:

Borg dons stratospheric armor

 

Panel 9

Atomas:   Nothing doing, the climb is impossible!

Bella:       Nothing is impossible for Atomas!

Caption:

After a hard trek, Atomas and Bella arrive before the ramparts of the fortress

[Pity, Bella reverts from a capable and brave adventurer to the standard whiny, shrinking female – one who typically complains about her wardrobe and showers the man with adoring flattery.] 

Mon Journal No. 74, episode 5:

Atomas, Mon Journal 74

Panel 1

Caption :

On the Moon an army of jet-propelled armored men set up pre-fabricated hangars

Foreman: Assemble the segments carefully! Mind the welds!

 

Panel 2

Dan:        Here are your installations assembled in record time!

Borg:       Oof! This armor’s become intolerable! Here we can breathe!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

At the bottom of the Pacific, Borg’s laborers exploit the uranium at a depth of 2000 meters

 

Panel 4

Near Nucleapolis, by an ocean once more tranquil, Atomas and Bella are intrigued as they watch bizarre goings-on

Bella:        It looks like a convoy of prisoners. There are women among them!

Atomas:    They’re going to enter the fortress. I have an idea!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

To one side, a guard was watching the disembarkation1

 

Panel 6

Caption:

In Nucleapolis, strange doctors prepare their equipment

Doc 1:     Terrific, this new invention of Borg’s. We needed manpower!

Doc 2:      Yes! We take a man and make him a robot!

 

Panel 7

Atomas:    Shh! We’re in!

Caption:

Disguised in the clothes of his victim, Atomas leads Bella and a group of prisoners into the fortress.

 

Panel 8

Doc 1:     Voltage 10…Cut!

Doc 2:      Zero current!

Caption:

Borg’s acolytes have finished a first experiment

 

Panel 9

Doc 1:       That’s fine! Detach them! Prepare a second shift!

Caption:

Emptied of their intelligence, the prisoners are now docile, reactionless robots.

[I like how Borg whines about how stuffy his suit is. You don’t hear Iron Man complain, do you? Meanwhile, Bella is treated like an idiot who has to be shushed in the enemy’s presence, as though she’d start blurting out her hero’s secret plans at any moment.]

Mon Journal No. 75, episode 6:

Atomas, Mon Journal 75

Panel 1

Caption :

Before Atomas, men and women pass by, walking in an automatic way…

Atomas:   How bizarre…they look like sleepwalkers.

Guard:      Group 3, come in!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

Guard 1:   Hop to it, come on!

Guard 2:    And you too!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

After getting rid of his disguise, Atomas decides to enter the laboratory

Atomas:     I’ve got to watch these fellows, Bella might need me!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

In the laboratory, the prisoners will be forced to undergo the horrible electric treatment

Doc:          They’re really calm, Captain!

Captain:     We drugged them on board before disembarking!

 

Panel 5

Doc 1:      Tighten the electrodes!

Doc 2:       This one’s not going along easily!

Caption:

On an insulated platform, a horrified Bella undergoes the preparation

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Despite her desperate resistance, Bella is at the mercy of the scientists in Borg’s pay.

Doc:         Everything’s ready. Can I lower the bell-jars?

Bella:        What are you going to do, you wretch?

 

Panel 7

Atomas:    In a minute it’ll be too late. What to do?

Caption:

Behind a glass wall, Atomas follows the horrible preparations.

 

Panel 8

Bella:        Ah! Ah! Oh!

Doc:          Let’s start out slowly…voltage 250!

 

Panel 9

Bella: Atomas! Atomas!

Caption: Through the gass bell-jar, the deformed face of Bella seems drawn from a nightmare.

[ I agree with that last caption. A pretty powerful image!]

Mon Journal No. 76, episode 7:

Atomas, Mon Journal 76

Panel 1

Caption: 

With a prodigious effort, Atomas tears a heavy dynamo from its base and hurls it against the wall of glass that separates him from the laboratory!

Panel 2

Bella:    Quick! Quick!

Doc:      Atomas!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

The atomic hero with his steely grip breaks the electrodes binding Bella

Doc 1:     He’s going to electrify himself!

Doc 2:      Overpower him!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

Then with no care for the formidable current he grasps with full handfuls the high-voltage cables

 

Panel 5

Caption:

Lethal discharges force the accomplices of Borg to beat a retreat

Atomas:    Your turn, now!

Doc:           It’s the Devil!

 

Panel 6

Atomas:      Are you hurt, Bella?

Bella:          No, you got here in time…but we must free these unfortunates too!

 

Panel 7

Freed captive: Let’s take advantage of this quiet moment to leave this Hell!

Atomas:           No! I’m with you, we’ll fight together!

 

Panel 8

Henchman:      Nucleapolis here…Atomas is in the fortress…Come quickly, he’s making the garrison rise up against us!

Caption:

In the radio room,  Borg’s agents communicate with him.

 

Panel 9

Borg:            Atomas! Him again! All right, I accept the brawl!

Caption:

Borg, in the lunar stratospheric station, has received the message.

[Seem to be some swipes from Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan here. Actually, I’ll bet the major influences on Pellos’ style are the American strips Flash Gordon—“Guy L’Eclair” in French—and Brick Bradford – “Luc Bradefer”.]

Mon Journal No. 77, episode 8:

Atomas, Mon Journal 77

Panel 1

Caption: 

Atomas harangues the prisoners he has just freed.

Atomas:       Borg tried to enslave you. All of you join me and we’ll be masters of the fortress!

Bella:           Most of them don’t understand you but I’m sure they’ll obey your orders!

Ex-captive:  Alert! The enemy’s attacking!

 

Panel 2

Atomas:       Let them approach, I’ll be their host! Take cover behind the insulators!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Manning a cosmic ray machine, Atomas bombards the assaillants with terrible discharges!

Atomas:        They’ll get the idea real soon!

 

Panel 4

Ex-captive:    Victory! They’re fleeing!

Atomas:         Come on…come on, Bella!

Bella:            Think of my father, he must be freed!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

Down a vast spiral staircase, Atomas and Bella descend towards the underground parts of the fortress.

Bella:         He’s sure to be imprisoned in the below-ground levels!

Atomas:     Let’s go down, we’ll find out!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

In one passage, iridescent bubbles float like balloons

Atomas:      Don’t go near them! It’s certainly a trap!

Bella:          I wonder what that could be?

 

Panel 7

Bella:         The poor man!

Atomas:      It’s a satanic invention of Borg’s. The displacement is considerable!

 

Panel 8

Atomas:     I’m going to rid the area of these explosive bubbles! Get down flat!

 

Panel 9

Bella:        Father! Father! They’re dragging him into the water!

Atomas:     I’m going to his rescue!

Caption:

The underground passage ends in an immense cavern in the middle of which is a lagoon

[Whew, say what you like about old-timey adventure comics – boy, did they ever have pace! By the way, please don’t assume the creaky English shows incompetence on my part; I’m trying to replicate the weirdness of the original French. I mean, “The displacement is considerable”?]

Mon Journal No. 78, episode 9:

Atomas, Mon Journal 78

Panel 1

Caption:

Bravely, Atomas dives from the top of the cliff at Professor Sinclair’s kidnappers.

Bella:       Father! Atomas! 

 

Panel 2

Bella:       One minute…two minutes…Atomas isn’t coming up!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Twenty meters underwater, Atomas wages a Dantesque battle against Borg’s divers.

 

Panel 4

Borg:       Let them keep him away for a few more seconds and I’ll be safe in the submarine!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

In the shelter of the submersible, Borg laughs with sneering satisfaction.

Borg:       Too late, fellow, you haven’t won the game yet!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Behind Atomas a diver, survivor of the battle looms up with a heavy iron bar in his hands.

 

Panel 7

Caption:

Though wounded, the atomic hero still has the strength to cast down his adversary with his Herculean arms…

Diver:          Rrra!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

…then, out of breath, he rises towards fresh air.

 

Panel 9

Bella:        Atomas?… Are you hurt?…I thought you’d never come back!

Atomas:     Your father is alive…but I’m at the end of my strength!

Mon Journal No. 79, episode 10:

Atomas, Mon Journal 79

Panel 1

Caption: 

Moments after the dramatic dive

Atomas:      It’s nothing, Borg will pay for it a hundredfold!

Bella:          Let’s go back to the terraces. Our men are mounting guard at the strategic points!

 

Panel 2

Atomas:    The Professor is still a prisoner but Nucleapolis is in our hands. Nothing is lost!

Bella:        Listen…there’s fighting up there!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Assailed by stratospheric-armored men the garrison fights on the ramparts with the weapons taken from the enemy.

Atomas:       Hold on, I’m coming!

Ex-captive:  Atomas! Here’s Atomas! Courage!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

In one group of adversaries Atomas fights like a lion.

 

Panel 5

Ex-captive:   Look! The young girl! They’re dragging her away!

Atomas:         Bella!

 

Panel 6

Atomas:        Too bad…I’ll risk it! We’ll see!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

Atomas dives into the void. A hundred feet lower: the sea…and Bella’s kidnapper.

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Seized in mid-air, the armored man feels a terrible vise crush his carapace of rubber

Atomas:       Prepare for a head-first dive, Bella!

Bella:           I’ll do what I can!

Bad guy:      Ahrr!

  

Panel 9

 Caption:

The young girl’s kidnapper, his limbs broken, tumbles through the void. Atomas and Bella try to restore their balance…to arrow into the water>

Atomas:       What a dive!

[Artist Pellos’s skill at depicting human bodies in action probably is largely due to his main career—as a sports cartoonist for many decades.]

 Mon Journal No. 80, episode 11:

Atomas, Mon Journal 80

Panel 1

Ex-captive:      Everything’s fine! They’re coming up!

Ex-captive 2:   What a dive!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

A few moments later…

Atomas:           And now, keep your eyes peeled! Borg doesn’t think he’s beaten!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

On the Moon, Borg has had a colossal city built.

Insert panel:

Borg:          We still have the electro-magnets, that’s the main thing! From here, we’ll govern the Earth!

 

Panel 4

Borg:           First, a reign of terror! Men will die…the survivors will obey!

Dan:           These atomic bombshells will sort things out!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

In the capitals of Europe, the fearful crowds await their last moment.

Runner:       We’ll all die!

Runner 2:     To the shelters! To the shelters!

 

Panel 6

Borg:            This is Selenos World Radio! The Master of the World declares his sovereignty over all nations!

Techie:          Master, the broadcast is scrambled…this is coming from Nucleapolis!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

At the citadel…

Soldier:          Borg’s message was inaudible…it’s our turn to take action!

Atomas:          I’m expecting reinforcements from the United Nations!

 

Panel 8

Caption:   

In the operating rooms, specialists have Borg’s victims recover their intelligence.

Doctor:           O.K.! The experiment’s a success!

 

Panel 9

Caption:

Meanwhile, from all points of the globe, aerial squadrons are converging on Nucleapolis.

Mon Journal No. 81, episode 12:

Atomas, Mon Journal 81

Panel 1

Atomas:      Destination: Selenos! Altitude: 800 kilometers1

Bella:          I’m going with you! I want to deliver my father!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

A few hours later, coming under terrible fire, the planes burst into flame. The rocket carrying Atomas and Bella is hit.

 

Panel 3

Caption:

The two youths clad in their jet-powered suits set foot un a sinister valley on the Moon’s surface.

Atomas:          Follow me, we must get to Selenos!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

Atomas and Bella behold the giant city under its Plexiglas dome.

Atomas:        Borg’s capital!

Bella:            How can we get into a glass fortress?

 

Panel 5

Caption:

Yet Atomas has managed to enter the place through an airlock.

Atomas:         Here we are, anyway!

Bella:             I’m not unhappy at getting out of this suit!

 

Panel 6

Atomas:        Borg’s done it up right. You’d think we were in the tropics!

Bella:             And now, let’s try our luck!

 

Panel 7

Atomas:       What the devil of a machine is being built?

Bella:            Father told me one day: Borg has found the mortal fluid. Would that be it?

 

Panel 8

Bella:            See, the rings come from this crater.

Atomas:         What sinister work has the bandit undertaken? All is not lost!

 

Panel 9

Atomas:         Elevators! They’ve got to lead somewhere!

Bella:              Let’s go…nobody’s paying attention to us!

Caption:

Next issue: The Mortal Fluid

[I love how they set up, in panel 4, how challenging and dangerous it’ll be to enter the citadel – and then, in panel 5, ehh friggit, they just stroll in. Note that Bella joins Borg in complaining about the suit. They really should get an ergonomist to check it out.]

Mon Journal No. 82, episode 13:

Atomas, Mon Journal 82

Panel 1

Caption :

For an hour, the elevator in which Atomas and Bella are descends into the depths of the ocean

Atomas:       Here’s the sea-bottom!

Bella:           What a monstrous factory!

 

Panel 2

Caption:  At 9000 meters beneath the Pacific, in a submerged diving-bell, Borg’s workers extract uranium or. The vein is incredibly rich.

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Far above, at some dozens of meters above sea-level, in a robot factory.

Dan:         All he lacks is the power of speech!

Borg:        Perfect, this is the humanity I intend for the Earth!

.

Panel 4

Borg:        Activate production…our invasion plan has advanced!

Dan:         Professor Sinclair refuses to help us!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

In the prison-laboratory of Bella’s father.

Borg:          Your stubbornness will cost you dearly, Professor! Give me the secret of talking robots…or else…

Sinclair:      It’s no use insisting, Borg, you’re a scoundrel!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Meanwhile, at different points of the globe, lethal fluidic rings fall.

Runner:       It’s the price of progress!

Runner 2:    It’s extermination!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

In the factory at the bottom of the sea, Atomas and Bella follow a path.

Atomas:       That robot’s transporting uranium!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Giant locks supply energy to the factory.

Bella:            They’re tapping considerable forces!

Atomas:         Yes, I understand, it’s from there that the fluidic energy flows out!

 

Panel 9

Caption:

In the infernal lair

Atomas:         Bella! We have to blow up this installation!

[Yet again, our heroes merely stroll into this top-security setup, taking in the sights like a tourist couple… Note the splendidly phlegmatic attitude of the chap in panel 6. “It’s the price of progress!” Shrugging through the apocalypse…typically French.]

Mon Journal No. 83, episode 14:

Atomas, Mon Journal 83

Panel 1

Caption:

Atomas and Bella have climbed up to the command valve.

Atomas:      One more bit of effort and we’re there!

Bella:          What a climb!

 

Panel 2

Atomas:   Careful! I’m shutting off the escape valve!

Bella:        Oh my God!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

The mortal fluid, turned back from the gigantic tube, flows into the factory.

Burning guy: Ahh!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

Atomas and Bella have managed to reach a mechanical ramp that links to the upper factory.

Atomas:     We’re getting near the sea surface!

Bella:          This is the last level!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

They arrive at that factory where they find a mysterious retreat.

Bella:         I’m sure that my father is imprisoned here!

Atomas:     Impossible to get any closer. The robots are mounting guard and the building is flush against the sea!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Borg is told of the catastrophe striking the factory on the sea bottom.

Video guy:   The machines are unusable…the robots too. As for most of the men…

Borg:             Curses! All this is signed Atomas!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

An army of robots sets out in search of the hero Atomas.

Borg:             Chang! Lead them! Dead or alive, bring me Atomas!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Meanwhile, Atomas and Bella, clad in light diving suits, explore the outer ramparts of the submarine city.

 

 Panel 9

Bella:            There…there…my father!

Atomas:         Professor!

[So evil henchman Chang returns in panel 7, and in the worst tradition of  yellow peril racism is colored in a spectacular lemon hue. Apart from this dubious instance, however, I salute this strip for consistently excellent coloring, vibrant and expressive. Some color effects are so delicately done, like the iridescence on the bubble bombs in chapter 8, that I suspect artist Pellos is responsible.]

Mon Journal No. 84, episode 15:

Atomas, Mon Journal 84

Panel 1

Caption:

The professor communicates with Atomas.

Sign:            Enter through the immersion column

 

Panel 2

Atomas:        It must be this!

Bella:            Yes, this lever controls the trapdoor!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

With a torrent of water, Atomas and Bella are thrust into the prison.

Atomas:        Are you injured?

Bella:           No!

 

Panel 4

Professor:     My dear child!

Bella:             Father!

 

Panel 5

Atomas:        When the pressures have equalized we’ll leave via the immersion column!

Professor:      I’ve prepared this plan, take it! Borg must, at no price, ever possess it!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

But Borg, on a telescopic screen, follows these goings-on.

Borg:             They’re with the professor. Close the exit trapdoor. I’m sending a Goliath Robot against Atomas!

Flunkie:        O.K.!

 

Panel 7

Flunkie:        It’s supercharged!

Flunkie’s pal:If Atomas messes with it he’ll be crushed like a fly!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Heavy, colossal, terrible, the Goliath Robot goes to face its enemy.

 

Panel 9

Caption:

In the prison

Professor:      The water’s no longer entering and the door’s opened!

Bella:             All is lost!

Atomas:          I feel there’s going to be a brawl!

Mon Journal No. 85, episode 16:

Atomas, Mon Journal 85

Panel 1

Caption:

Atomas, at the threshold of the laboratory’s door, sees the steel monster.

Atomas:        This time, Borg’s tipped the scales of luck!

Bella:            What a horrible monster!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

The atomic hero steps forth and the robot lowers its fearsome fist. Atomas, muscles clenched, is ready to strike back.

 

Panel 3

Caption:

The battle is on. But the metal giant remains insensible to the formidable blows rained on it.

Atomas:           Hhahn!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

Atomas has just thrown a heavy metal part  against the robot that teeters, unbalanced…

 

Panel 5

Caption:

The monster has fallen. But its immense arm was able to grab Bella who was in its reach.

Bella:                Atomas!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Borg, leaning toward his periscopic screen, commands the robot via shortwave.

Borg:              Such a lovely girl! It’d be a shame to damage her. She’ll make a magnificent hostage!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

Meanwhile Atomas, his strength grown tenfold by anger, breaks the steel fingers imprisoning Bella, and the injured robot bellows terrifyingly…

Robot:            RUUGGH!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Bella is free, but it’s Atomas’ turn to be caught in the steel vise of the infernal machine that has managed to get up.

Bella: Hold on one more minute!

 

Panel 9

Caption:

Bella, armed with a steel rod, beats relentlessly on the robot’s radar.

 

And so unfortunately the story ends, although it’s refreshing to see Bella stop screaming and start kicking robot ass! If my comments often were sarcastic, please don’t think my attitude towards this strip was one of indulgence in camp. With all its zaniness, ‘’Atomas” is a crackerjack thriller with the pace of a jet plane, a delight for every boy and girl, every week…while it lasted.

Hats off to artist Pellos! His work here has nothing to envy that of his 1947 fellow superhero artists across the Atlantic. Pellos had a remarkable career (from 1916 to 1981) and found success in genres ranging from sports cartooning to humor strips to science fiction – his 1938 strip Futuropolis is deemed the first French s.f. comic. Bravo, Monsieur Pellos!

 –Alex Buchet

 

(And as a special bonus, here’s the worst selfie ever taken on my wife’s cellphone:

chrisandalex

[That's Chris on the left and me on the right -- Alex]

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France’s Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image isn’t literally a city, but it’s getting there. It started as a single building, named after the French comic book artist Moebius:

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Le vaisseau moebius currently houses (in addition to a cinema and cafe) a public library devoted entirely to BDs (AKA comics):

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It also used to hold the research librarie (distinct from the above bibliothéque) and the Musée de la Bande Dessinée, but those moved across the Charente river. Just take the footbridge:

angouleme day 2, comics research 001

And you’re there:

angouleme day 2, comics research 002

You’ll pass a former paper mill renovated into the Musée de Papier, a tribute to Angouleme’s past as a paper manufacturing hub. Some of that paper is preserved in the librarie’s comic book collection. The BD Musée was a cognac warehouse in its former life, not that you would guess from its interior:

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A tourist website likens it to the set of 2001: A Space Oddysey, presumably the spacecraft headed to Jupiter–though that was built on a rotating ferris wheel. The allusion still works though, because the film’s soundtrack features Richard Strauss’ Thus spake Zarathustra, a symphonic adaptation of the book that gave us the Superman.

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One of the displays includes a facsimile of Action Comics No. 1, but the curators begin the history of “drawn strips” a century earlier, with a Swiss work I’d never heard of, Rodolphe Töpffer’s 1837  Histoire de M. Vieux Bois:

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Photography isn’t allowed, but because I had scheduled a research consultation, they made a kind exception. They didn’t charge me the museum entry fee either. There’s a massive BD book store too, but I spent most of my time in a back room:

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My French is shockingly non-existent, and the documentaliste I emailed with relied on Google Translate, and yet there was the stack of rare collection boxes waiting for me when I arrived. The conseiller scientifique (a job title I choose to translate as “Science Officer” to continue the scifi theme) was overwhelmingly helpful too, fielding my minutia-minded questions both before and after my visit.

I’d read that France’s BD-censoring law had passed in 1949 in part because of the violence of American superhero comics.  The censors wanted to end the damaging influence. American superhero comics were indeed violent, but I wanted to test the claim by looking at some of their French counterparts, most specifically Pierre Mouchot’s Fantax, a Batman-like adventurer stationed in New York. “It is no exaggeration,” I’d read on CoolFrenchComics.com, “to say that Fantax was single-handedly responsible for the adoption of the Law of July 1949 which thereafter heavily censored adventure comics.”

I untied the strings of the first rare collections box to find a stack of original Fantax magazines:

angouleme day 2, comics research 014angouleme day 2, comics research 015

My favorite cover features the hero smoking a cigarette:

angouleme day 2, comics research 013

As far as American superhero influences, it seemed Chott had based his Fantax costume on Bernard Baily’s Hourman, swapping yellow for red:

adventure_comics_48_001

The inside pages were colorless, but alternated between black and blue ink, a format I’d never seen before:

last fantax issue

last fantax issue late page

I came prepared to count panels and incidents of violence on objective scales. I’d worked up a lexicon of graphic representations based mainly on Bob Kane’s Batman: sound effects (including letter size, thickness, and exclamation points), gun clouds, bullet whiz lines, motion lines, impact lines, impact bursts (attached, detached and background), stars (implying internal state of near unconsciousness), foregrounded panel breaks, encapsulated vs. implied gutter violence, content angle and distance, violent movement through representational objects (dropped gun, falling hat), physical contact (punch, kick, grab, throw, pierce, shoot), aftermath imagery (corpse, unconscious body, wounds).

With the exception of panel breaks, Chott (that’s how Pierre Mouchot signs his pen name) uses them all. Each issue includes ten pages (plus the partially used back cover) with an average of ten panels each. I’m still in the process of tallying and averaging the number of panels with violent content, but at first glance I wasn’t seeing much outside the Kane’s Batman range.

Chott does substitute an occasional blood splatter for an impact burst:

angouleme day 2, comics research 087

And, more artfully, some of his panels offer a rare, first-person POV:

angouleme day 2, comics research 088

But it looked like Fantax, though lethally violent, was operating at the upper end of American superhero norms.

Until I looked at the cover of No. 6:

angouleme day 2, comics research 093

And this beheading in No. 8:

angouleme day 2, comics research 117

And I realized the French superhero had stepped beyond the influence of his American inspirations.

Fantax No. 8 was published in January 1947, while in the U.S. the notoriously violent EC was still publishing Pictures Stories from the Bible. EC owner Bill Gaines would later face a panel of offended senators while defending the artwork of Johnny Craig on a 1954 cover of Crime SuspenStories:

Crime-SuspenStories

SENATOR KEFAUVER: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?

GAINES: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

Gaines’ description of “bad taste” describes the Fantax beheading panel, published as the American superhero market was in collapse and the American horror market had barely launched with the first comic book horror title, Spooks Comics No. 1 (undated, c. 1946).

It’s no surprise Chott cancelled Fantax before France’s censorship law took effect. But the perception that the magazine mirrored American superheroes is wrong. Many of the hero’s adventures are set in New York, but they are a funhouse reflection of the U.S. as gleaned through U.S. comics. Chott is drawing a comic book version of a comic book.

His New York is a Comic Book City.

angouleme day 2, comics research 086

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Angouleme’s Les Murs Peints is the only comic book with literal gutters and panels four stories high. My guidebook adds “Circuit des” and translates it “Graffiti Walk,” but “Murs Peints” means “Painted Walls.” CitéCréation commissioned some of France’s most popular bande dessinée (comic book) artists to design them. It’s a fitting choice for the city that’s home to the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinee et de l’Image. The web address abbreviates that to citebd, or, literally, Comic Book City. I spent a couple of days at their research library and museum, so the murs were mostly an afterhours perk. My guidebook thinks there are twenty, but then I saw another dozen online and so kept looking. The tourist bureau has a map, but the city is a medieval maze. Unofficial strolls also produce a range of unofficial additions.

Some of the murals are so large they are hard to miss:

Angouleme day 1 021 Angouleme day 1 020

Some you can walk past without noticing:

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angouleme mural.

Some images are literally hidden:

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001 002

Often you just need to look up:

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003 004

They started painting them in 1998, the most recent in 2006:

001

One of my favorites includes its own shadow on the opposite building:

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And the rest of the wall is even better:

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If you like sequence in your sequential art, this is for you:

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While most are cartoons, a few play photorealistic tricks on the eye:

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Many are within the ramparts bordering the old city, but some (unofficial ones) are on the outer walls themselves:

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One is in the center square of the old city:

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More are down narrow side streets:

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My walks included actual graffiti:

Angouleme day 1 056Angouleme day 1 055

And sometimes just graffiti tags:

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Angouleme day 1 078Angouleme day 1 075

And even the utility and mail boxes joined in:

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I didn’t spot this one and the utility box facing it until driving out of the city:

Carnac 002 Carnac 001

I searched for but somehow did not find the tallest mural:

murs 1

For others I didn’t photograph myself, visit Angouleme’s site.

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Scarlett-Johansson-Pregnant-What-does-this-mean-for-The-Avenger

After calling Scarlett Johansson “the smartest, toughest female action star,” film reviewer Justin Craig declared: “it’s time ScarJo gets her very own Marvel franchise.” But when asked if a Black Widow film is in the works, Johansson had to fumble her way through a politic non-answer: “You know, I think it’s something that, um, again I think Marvel is is certainly, um, listening, and if, you know, working with them for several years now, you kind of see how, ah, they respond to the audience, um, demand I think for something like that.”

Marvel president Kevin Feige says it’s “possible,” but makes no promises. Meanwhile, Johansson is creating her own superwoman franchise. She literalizes her Black Widow codename by playing an actual man-eating spider in Under The Skin, and her voiceover computer operating system Samantha in Her is way way beyond anything Tony Stark could build.

under her skin postertumblr_mzdlx5rgOb1qz9z8jo1_1280

But I had my highest hopes on Luc Besson’s Lucy.

If there’s a director geared for writing and shooting a superheroine movie, it’s Besson. His 1990 Le Femme Nakita spawned an immediate Hollywood remake (though there really is no reason to see Bridget Fonda in Point of No Return) and later a Canadian-made TV series (thank you, USA Network, for keeping the French name). The Fifth Element was a bit of a mess, but an entertaining one, especially the fact that the “supreme being” is supermodel Milla Jovovich cloned from a severed hand to protect Earth from a giant black cloud of evil space death. I think magic space stones were involved too—the same plot Marvel seems to be headed toward now. And let’s not forget The Professional, Besson’s hyper-violent pedophiliac action-thriller co-starring twelve-year-old Natalie Portman (no wonder she fell for Chris Hemsworth when he and his hammer dropped out the sky in 2011).

I’m not really sure what Besson has been doing since the 90s, but it did not further hone his film-making skills. Lucy is not a good movie. But it is a superheroine movie. Lucy, like so many of her comic book counterparts, is the next leap in human evolution, one accidentally triggered by a ruthless drug cartel that continues to supply the script with shootouts and car chases. Lucy has Professor X’s mind-reading and telekinetic skills, invulnerability to pain, a cybernetic ability to interface with machines and airwaves, and the power to change her hairdo at will.  Johansson doesn’t wear an “L” on her chest (the t-shirt is cut too low), but her name does meet Peter Coogan’s requirement of “a superhero identity embodied in a codename” since Lucy, as we’re told very early, is the name of the first human being (who also makes two pleasantly bizarre cameos).

Morgan Freeman, reprising his science-guy helper role from the Batman trilogy, delivers some painfully scripted superpowers-science in the form of a literal lecture, complete with Powerpoint bullets and audience Q&A. Besson intercuts these with Johansson’s literal bullets and scantily costumed T&A. The film begins in Taiwan and ends in Paris, with occasional French and Korean subtitles. It would be significantly improved if the subtitles were deleted and the English dialogue dubbed in Latin or Old Norse or any other language the majority of viewers won’t understand. Because then we could enjoy the sequence of spectacle, which is Besson’s well-disguised strength.

Freeman’s faux-science distracts from the fun by pretending that the film suffers from internal logic. It doesn’t. Although the plot ostensibly follows Lucy’s brain growth, intercutting incremental percentiles from 10% to the climatic 100%, her actual superpowered behavior is random. When a kick to the stomach bursts the bag of drug-mule super-serum in her intestines, Besson flings Johansson around his rotating prison set till she’s writhing on the ceiling. This doesn’t really make sense—is she flying?—but it looks cool. The CGI team tries to disintegrate her during her flight to Paris, which looks cool too, but what exactly does that have to do with Freeman’s immortality soundclip? Once recovered, Lucy can dispose of a dozen armed cops with a flick of her hand—although for some reason those pesky martial arts gangsters require time-consuming one-by-one levitation. Also why, as she’s teetering on omnipotence, is Paris traffic quite so challenging? Oh, and why do her very first acts of drug-induced super-intelligence include hand-to-hand combat and two-gun marksmanship? Are those skills about brain capacity?

I prefer Johansson’s performance before her robotic transformation. Imagine the Black Widow quivering in fear and vomiting on herself at the sight of blood. Johansson fans could argue that Lucy should only be analyzed in relation to Her, since Lucy builds a supercomputer and downloads herself in her final moment of corporeal existence, ending the film with a text to her cop boyfriend: “I AM EVERYWHERE.”

But I’m gong to reroute us to 1933 instead.

1933 reign of the superman

If you don’t think Lucy counts as a superhero movie, read Jerry Siegel’s short story “The Reign of the Superman.” Before teaming up with Joe Shuster to create their comic book Superman, Siegel wrote a tale about a ruthless scientist who uses a starving vagrant as his lab rat. Lucy is a privileged college student, but she’s equally clueless when abducted and implanted with a mysterious super-drug.  Siegel’s is derived from an asteroid, but its effects are similar. Soon his anti-hero is reading-minds and projecting his thoughts across the universe too.

Unfortunately such unlimited power transforms him into a hate-mongering monster bent on world domination. Lucy’s transformation leaves her morally challenged too. She murders a hospital patient to make room for herself on a surgical bed with the excuse that the guy wouldn’t have lived anyway. When her cop sidekick comments on the tourists barely scrambling out of the way of her car and the string of exploding wrecks she’s leaving in her wake, Lucy says something about the illusion of death, which apparently gives her a license to kill and collaterally damage.

But, like Siegel’s second and far more famous Superman, Lucy finds a way to hold on to her humanity. When her hunky sidekick complains he’s no help to her, she kisses him. She needs him because he’s a “reminder,” she says. One of the students in my Superhero course made exactly that argument about Lois Lane.

So while Lucy is not the leap forward in superheroine evolution I’d hoped for,  perhaps Johansson, like Siegel in “The Reign of the Superman,” is running some experimental test work before delivering a full dose of her superwoman prowess.

lucy poster

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The end of the world is a comfort. Things have finally and definitively fallen apart, no more struggle, and, most importantly, all the Big Questions are answered. In literary terms, an apocalypse is mystery novel. The word means “uncovering” or “unveiling,” the exegesis Sherlock Holmes performs at the close of every story. Religions promise big reveals in the afterlife, delivered on a first come first served basis, but an end-of-the-world apocalypse provides closure to all readers at once.

Sometimes the answers suck. The Walking Dead apocalypse reveals that God is dead, life is brutal, and death a mockery and negation of all human values. But that’s still an Answer. Mystery solved. Horror usually tips the opposite scale: the universe overflows with supernatural import. Sure, most of the supernatural forces want to flay and eat you, but even when they succeed, the stench of blood and brimstone is still comforting. You finally know what’s what—whether Buffy or the Winchester brothers swoop in at the last-minute or not.

But the biggest horror is an apocalypse that doesn’t reveal anything. That anti-Rapture, the ten-episode adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, has been airing on HBO this summer. Although I’ve met Tom Perrotta (nice guy, drove him back to his hotel after his reading at UVA a few years ago), I have the blissful ignorance of having not read the novel. So I don’t know how season one will end, and based on ratings, season two is anything but a certainty.

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That’s appropriate for a show about radical uncertainty. Left Behind, the book series Perrotta is at least partially lampooning, delivers the ur-apocalypse of Revelations, complete with an all-mysteries-solved Antichrist at the center of its plot. The Perrotta Apocalypse is way scarier. When 2% of the planet’s population pop out of existence, the leftover 98% are left without any answers. Dr. Who, in the form of Christopher Eccleston’s American-accented clergyman, says it wasn’t God. A three-year congressional report might as well be blank.

That abyss-deep level of not-knowing is too much for some people. Liv Tyler and Any Brenneman join a nihilistic cult of mute chain smokers hell-bent on proving life is worthless. Their evangelical pamphlets are literally blank. They are the show’s zombie horde: they stare at you blankly from the sidewalk outside your living room windows; they buy your church and paint its windows white; they stage protests at commemorations for your vanished loved ones; they break into your home and steal your family photos from their pictures frames.

At least zombies are accidental. Reanimated flesh-eating corpses are random byproducts of a random universe. Perrotta’s zombies choose meaninglessness, abandoning their families and severing all emotional ties and then terrorizing others into adopting their philosophy—while inwardly struggling to maintain it themselves. People secure in their nihilism wouldn’t bother to terrorize or recruit converts or take vows of silence—behaviors as inherently meaningless as all other behaviors.

But the cult is a fundamentalist church. Most non-apocalyptic atheists don’t congregate in the name of non-God. They have better, more meaningful things to do. But being leftover raises the stakes. When the bank forecloses on Eccleston’s church, he gambles the existence of God at a roulette table. But do three double-or-nothing wins equal divine intervention? Are those pigeons gray-feathered messengers of the Supernatural—or are they just brainless birds? Are the voices in the ex-sheriff’s head evidence of his schizophrenia—or did they send a very corporeal, tobacco-chewing hunter to help his son shoot packs of wild dogs? These and many other burning questions will not be answered next week, or any other week.

Perrotta’s teenagers at least know how to channel their universe’s amoral indifference into an app (in addition to “kiss” and “hug,” a game of spin-the-cellphone includes “punch” and “fuck”). They know the baby Jesus in the town’s Christmas display is just a mass consumer object–yet one so haunted with a residue of meaning that burning it isn’t as easy as stealing it. In this world of heightened uncertainty, even the disappearance of a bagel into the bowels of an industrial toaster is enough to trigger existential crisis.

Although this agnostic apocalypse is Rapture-inspired, it reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of godless humanism. Vonnegut’s end-of-the-world revelations challenge basic assumptions of reality: water only freezes when cold, time moves in one direction, gravity is a constant, humans have free will. After a “timequake” causes years of predetermined repetition, humans find themselves suddenly at the metaphorical wheel again and are so unprepared they literally drive into each other. The Leftovers opens with a similar car wreck, a driverless car careening through a not-just-existential crossroads.

Vonnegut founds his own religions too. The Book of Bokonon announces that its teachings are lies, although useful ones, godly untruths that impose order on an unloving universe. Perrotta’s Guilty Remnant can’t cope with such abandonment and so their lies impose an uglier order. Their leader writes on her tablet: “There is no family.” It’s as true/false as any other religious claim. The “Lonesome No More” government in Vonnegut’s Slapstick randomly assigns the population middle names, providing everyone with an extensive family of siblings and cousins to care for them. It’s nonsense, but it also works. There might not be any Supernatural order to your life, but that doesn’t mean you have to act like a soulless zombie.

If that orderless order sounds too frightening for you, wait till October. The powers-that-be are giving the Left Behind franchise a second chance. Nicholas Cage will be our pilot through the end-of-days reboot.

I’d rather take my uncertain chances with The Leftovers.

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The world’s first comic book, Lascaux, was published in France 17,000 years ago. It was a single edition, printed on limestone, and arranged in a pair of strips over 128-feet long. The title refers to the medium (“lascaux” is French for “limestone”), but it is also the genre (cave drawings) as well as the specific work of art. Similarly, “pulp fiction” refers to magazines printed on paper made from wood pulp but later came to mean the tales themselves, eventually inspiring Quentin Tarantino to adopt the term as the title of his 1994 film Pulp Fiction.

Most reviewers refer to the Lascaux creators as “Cro-Magnons,” a generic designation which in this case might literally be true. The bones of the first so-called Cro-Magnons were found in a hole (“creux” in French) on property owned by a farmer named Magnon in a nearby town. Cro-Magnons are people of Magnon’s hole. More specifically, the creators of Lascaux were a loose collective of artists of the Neolithic Publishing Period who signed their work with a symbol resembling the head of a four-pronged pitchfork. This signature has been compared to a graffiti tag, but since it also appears in other caves of the region it probably denotes a clan or congregation and is mostly likely a corporate logo, similar to the globe Atlas Comics used before becoming Marvel in the 1960s. It may also be an umbrella logo like the circled “DC” icon that linked National Allied Publications with its affiliate branches All-American Comics and Detective Comics in the 1940s.

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Since Lascaux was published before France passed its first law protecting authors’ rights in 1793, the artists’ heirs retain no proprietary rights. A court challenge could argue that the 1940 discovery of the cave signifies a new “first” publication, but since copyrights lapse into public domain after seventy years, the point is moot. Four Pronged Publishing went out of business millennia ago and so collects no royalties on the postcards, t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, and other gift shop memorabilia appropriating Lascaux artwork.

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Legal issues aside, the work has influenced comic books for centuries. Reviewers often liken it to Michelangelo’s most acclaimed graphic novel, the Sistine Chapel. The comparison is apt, as the Lascaux artists also painted religious imagery on the ceilings of a temple while lying on their backs suspended by wooden platforms. The scope is also similar, with the largest bull drawing spanning seventeen feet. Michelangelo, however, worked in distinct panels, while Lascaux includes no formal frames or gutter, prefiguring Will Eisner’s use of open page space. The absence of captions and word balloons also influenced later works by Jim Steranko and Alan Moore.

Walt Disney borrowed animation techniques from Four Prongs too. Many of the horses and bulls in the Lascaux are drawn at angled perspectives with the closest front leg straight and the second front leg bent and slightly detached from the body to suggest motion. A single animal may be drawn multiple times in an overlapping row, with head or back end incomplete, to evoke forward progression—a technique copied by numerous artists suggesting the movements of speedsters Flash and Quicksilver. When viewed with Four Prongs candle technology (a hollowed rock filled with reindeer fat and a juniper wick), the moving animals flicker like nickelodeon images.

The artists also innovated crushed minerals for their palette, even for black, avoiding the charcoals favored by their contemporaries. Curators comment on the flawlessness of the artists as revealed by the lack of a single false or erased line in all Lascaux. This impression, however, may be due to the now invisible lines produced by one or more “pencilers” that later “inkers” effectively obscured as they finalized the pages. Credit is also due to the nuanced style of the colorists, whose muted amber bulls influenced Lynn Varley’s award-winning work in The Dark Knight Returns.

Sadly, after its republication in 1940, Lascaux was no longer preserved in its clay-sealed micro-climate—the geological equivalent of an acid-free mylar bag—and so it has been significantly downgraded from its former near-mint condition. As a result, reprints are flooding the market. Lascaux II—a painstakingly reproduced concrete tunnel located near the original—opened in 1983, Lascaux III is currently on tour, and Lascaux IV is in production.

While Lascaux has thrilled equine and bovine enthusiasts for thousands of years, casual readers should be prepared for a narrative told without human main characters. The comic book’s single human figure is located on the cave’s most inaccessible panel and, where many of the bulls and horses possess a slight and mildly Cubist quality of abstraction, the lone man is essentially a stick-figure with what may be a bird’s head and is most definitely a penis. This may in fact be the falcon-headed Horus or the ibis-headed Thoth, both of whom sojourned in Gaul before settling in the Nile valley. Fans of their adventures will also enjoy the comic books of ancient Egypt.

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