Reviews: art swallowed by the ice – Glacial Period

Glacial Period,

Nicolas De Crécy ,

NBM/Louvre Editions

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Nicolas De Crécy is one of the more fascinating – not to mention gifted – creators to emerge from the great Franco-Belgian comics scene in the last couple of decades, able to switch his styles seemingly effortlessly to suit different subjects, from biting satire in the trilogy which started with Léon la Came (in collaboration with the equally brilliant Sylvian Chomet, who would go on to become the acclaimed animation director of Belleville Rendezvous and The Illusionist) to end-of-the-world science fiction as we have here in Glacial Period, part of a series created in conjunction with the Louvre Museum in Paris.  First published in Europe back in 2005 it has recently been reprinted in English by NBM, and a very welcome return to print it is, with this single album (presented here in a slim hardback similar to many French bande-dessinee volumes) allowing De Crécy to express adventure, comedy and action all in one tale, accompanied by some beautiful and varied artwork.

The world is frozen, the snow and ice hold dominion over the sleeping land below, as they did several thousand years ago during the last Ice Age (which still leaves its marks on our landscape today). A party crosses the often featureless expanse of white – they are researchers from an enclave of surviving humans somewhere far to the south, exploring, seeking out a fabled lost metropolis, the humans accompanied by some rotund creatures who look like tubby dogs but can speak. In fact these are genetically modified dogs (with a little pig thrown in, hence the rotund appearance) and their sense of smell is  an invaluable tool for the expedition. One, Hulk (they are all named for what the researchers think are the names of ancient gods), has very refined nasal receptors (as he likes to tell everyone) which he can even use, via a Carbon-14 augmentation, to detect some of the history of found objects.

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The thing is, this earnest party of researchers on their noble quest knows almost nothing about the world before the great freeze. We see them discussing a venerated object to be taken back for serious scientific study, a mysterious logo of interlocking letters – hieroglyphs they want to learn the meaning of, little knowing it is merely the logo of a long-gone French football team… When a collapsing fissure reveals the mighty Louvre museum, emerging from beneath the snow, they enter and are astonished at the size of the place and the sheer volume of paintings. Except they don’t know what paintings are, much less why anyone would create them and hang them on walls. Or how a flat image can still convey a sense of depth. Shorn of all knowledge of pre-ice civilisation they attempt to understand our world through these pieces of art, swiftly coming to the conclusion we must have been illiterate but skilled at image making, hence all the paintings, and also, judging by the number of nudes, a rather salacious bunch of erotomaniacs, not to mention having some odd notions about femininity…

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I don’t understand … More images. And More lewd ones! And as if lewdness was always feminine. A lewdness in enslavement to men,” muses Juliette, the only woman on the team, observing large numbers of nude paintings and wondering about gender in that long-ago society.

In many ways this is broad comedy, as we watch the serious historian attempting to place some paintings into what he thinks is a chronological order so they can give them a rough history, of course getting it hopelessly wrong. Even the concept of an art gallery and museum is unknown to these researchers, able to find these remains of the previous human civilisation, but totally unequipped to comprehend the social, cultural and historical meanings contained within those works. Of course there is a serious point here, partly riffing on the old “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, look upon my works ye mighty and despair” theme of how even the greatest grandeur will be lost in the face of the eternal march of time, but partly a comment, as much good SF is, on our own present era. We have spent centuries, especially since the 1700s, piecing together this history and customs and beliefs of those civilisations which predate us – ancient Greeks, Egypt, Babylon, Ur, Angkor Wat – from similar pieces of art, paintings on walls, sculpture, lost languages. And with great respect to generations of historians and archaeologists who spend careers painstakingly putting those clues together, there must be whole swathes where a person from that era would find our conclusions laughable. I found this especially intriguing, having just recently read Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book where a historian goes back in time to the 1300s and finds out how many solid conclusions they had reached on life back then were false. It’s a reminder to all seekers of knowledge to remember humility and the fact that, lacking important context, we may easily and often get it wrong.

Hulk, separated from the group, is the first to enter and finds himself by great walls within walls which any visitor to the great museum will recognise as the original walls when the Louvre was a fortress-palace, now buried inside the great gallery. A visual reminder of the passings of civilisations, as is a later, more comic sequence where some of the artefacts, now possessed of a sort of life (a la Night at the Museum) tell Hurk of the days when earnest, slim scholars came to gaze upon then, then much later (in our own time) the obese, jolly tourists gawking. Again satire from De Crécy, painfully on the nose, and once more riffing on how time changes everything. His art changes from delicately drawn scenes with the main characters to an almost cartoonish style for Hulk and the other modified, intelligent dogs, to a gloriously detailed, painted approach to depict those millennia of artworks gathered in the Louvre.

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At one point De Crécy touches on the war years and the evacuation of these treasures to the countryside to protect them from Nazi bombers, as if, one character comments, they were more important than people. Again De Crécy uses a double-edged sword, on the one hand berating the way we have been conditioned to place certain artworks on a pedestal for veneration, a value which is purely in our head, product of our culture (a culture, which the book reminds us, can vanish taking all the contextual meaning of that object with it), when it is people who are more important.

And yet at the same time those works of art are people, our collective soul of aesthetics, beauty and wonder without which any human society is dreadfully impoverished. We’ve made art for as long as we’ve been human, from paintings etched on cave walls by flickering firelight to these massive oil paintings dominating entire walls of the Louvre. Perhaps De Crécy is trying to remind us with his satirical approach not that these works lack importance, but it is we who give them that importance, so we shouldn’t simply accept being told by some authority this is a masterpiece to be worshipped, we choose, we think, consider, and in doing so we make the art part of us, as it should be. It’s a delightful satire on human civilisation, knowledge and art, both lacerating and venerating it, using the genre of science fiction and a future-set tale to comment on the present (and the way the present sees the past, which of course is what today’s present becomes in time too), and even veers into some highly enjoyable fantasy when Hulk comes in contact with some of those artistic treasures, who have their own opinions. Beautiful comics work and art talking about the importance and place of art, what’s not to love here?

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This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews from the past: Jekyll & Hyde

This review originally dates from 2003 and is another of the many I wrote for The Alien Online. Robert Louis Stevenson, a fellow dweller of Edinburgh, has long been one of my very favourite writers and it delights me no end that I can walk around some of his old haunts here. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is also a landmark tale, dating from the late 19th century it is a horror tale which is a splendid example of early internalised horror (the body itself becomes the source of the horror) and of the use of the then fairly new science/art of psychology. Its a tale which, like its near contemporary Dracula, has infected the cultural bloodstream of humanity ever since, to the extent that even people who have never read the tale will use the phrase Jekyll and Hyde personality to describe someone who switches from one extreme to the other.

And if you haven’t read the original I highly recommend it as one of the finest tales every spun and a story which has far more layers and meaning than the simplistic versions seen in movies and TV which usually opt for simple good versus evil motif, while the book is far more nuanced and subtle, a tale of warring desires within a man’s soul. Most adaptations in other media I have found miss the point of Stevenson’s tale, but Kramsky and Mattotti clearly understood the way vice and virtue, shame and desire were intertwined in Jekyll and Hyde, not separated. And this was also my first real exposure to Lorenzo Mattotti, a remarkable European comics artist who has since become one of my favourites:

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
By Jerry Kramsky and Lorenzo Mattotti,
Published by NBM

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A gorgeously painted incarnation of Stevenson’s tale

Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky have collaborated to create a beautifully painted take on Stevenson’s tale of fractured humanity. Obviously somewhat shorter than the original novel, this is really more of an adaptation than an abridgement. As with Stevenson’s original classic, Doctor Henry Jekyll is not a complete saint, depraved and corrupted by Edward Hyde’s malevolent spirit. Rather Jekyll is the embodiment of his own theories on the duality of human nature. By all public appearances he is the distinguished and respected scientist, well known in society. However, Jekyll feels the tug of his darker desires. He sees the depravity around him in drinking dens, dark dancing halls and shady alleyways where ladies of the night ply their trade. And he wants it so much… Ah, but the shame of it all! Despairing of having his darker nature revealed and yet increasingly desirous of releasing his animal wants and needs to be satisfied Jekyll uses his scientific genius to free himself.

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At first the transformation is reasonably controlled. Hyde is a distillation of all of Jekyll’s dark impulses, unfettered by conscience – but it is Jekyll’s fantasies that he is living out. Like a masque in long-ago Venice he has found a way to move through the shadows of night and desire without ruining his public persona. The trouble comes as Hyde’s violent nature asserts itself and Jekyll is left with the remorse, shaking and shuddering like a junkie on withdrawal and guilt. The transformation back to Jekyll is increasingly difficult as Hyde beings to assert his own existence, preying on the darkest fringes of human iniquity and sexual deviance… Playing on Jekyll’s darkest dreams, his most sordid fantasies made flesh with no restraint.

Mattotti and Kramsky have created a most unusual graphic version of this tale. The painted artwork is alive with unusual angles, distorted images of people and buildings, echoing the out-of-control spiral of Jekyll and his alter ego Hyde. The colours and shapes eschew realism and embrace a style that draws heavily on the Surrealist painters of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The colours remind me of a Kandinsky painting while the grotesque images of people owe much to Picasso and even Edvard Munch. The warped angles of the city’s architecture echo the Expressionist films of the same period, such as the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Appropriately, the tale has been moved from the Victorian era to sometime in the 20s or 30s. All flappers and Weimar-era decadence – hidden by day, seeping out at night to parade its sinful flesh, just as Hyde does. The old social order crumbling at the seams while the new one emerges from it’s straight-laced and barely restrained desires, an illegitimate offspring born in darkness.

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The tale is wonderfully told, ignoring the simplicity of most film adaptations, where Jekyll is a saintly character and Hyde a devil. Instead, as Stevenson intended, it dwells more on humanity’s inherent duplicity of desires, between our goodness and our darkness, something we all have deep within. What happens when a man tries to act out those desires by freeing himself of the consequences by becoming someone else? This is no accident – Jekyll wants, at least in the beginning, to free himself to enjoy these depravities this decadent new age offer. This is an unusual and often disturbing take on Stevenson – who wanted it do disturb after all – but wonderfully crafted and painted in the most gorgeous manner. It is almost worth buying simply for the fantastic artwork alone and NBM (who brought us Far, Far West and Boneyard amongst others – see earlier reviews) have employed their normal larger scale book, allowing the artwork more room to breathe. Deep, dark, disturbing – nightmare images to haunt you in the night, lying alone with your desires.