There is something rather appropriate about this tale born of the Franco-English wars of the Napoleonic crossing la manche from its French publisher to a British one. This is a tale born out of those seemingly interminable cross-Channel wars, based on a reportedly true event (although it is just as possible that this is a local myth that has acquired the legality of truth across the last couple of centuries). Not long after the decisive sea battle at Trafalgar a French warship is cruising just off the coast of Britain. Her captain, a very unlovable character, a virulent bigot and former commander of a slave ship, has a monkey (named Nelson) as his mascot, dressed up in a small French uniform to amuse the crew.
The ship also boasts a young cabin boy, who bursts the captain’s good humour at Nelson’s antics when he sings an old sea shanty, a song the captain considers to be “an English song”. His furious bigotry is stoked to boiling point when the innocent lad ventures that it was just a song he picked up from his nanny, who was a Cornish woman, so he learned English as well as French as he grew up. This naïve confession tips the captain to violent action and before he knows it the young boy is being forced to walk the plank. But with all attention focused on this event the crew fails to notice the weather turning on them rapidly, as it can so often in the Channel…
The storm is upon them, the crew caught unawares, as the lad is sent into the gray waters the ship itself is suddenly floundering, then taken by the tempest. As she starts to break in the teeth of the storm the crew try to abandon ship; the mast snaps and Nelson the monkey clambers onto it, clinging on for dear life as the few crew who get off the ship flounder and drown, the captain disappearing below the waves right in front of his little mascot. Locals on shore watch through a telescope, unmoved by the loss of life, laughing at the fate of the “Froggies”, just as bigoted and vulgar as the French captain.
However, as they always do the storm passes, the wreckage washes up upon the shore by Hartlepool, among it two survivors, Nelson and our young cabin boy. Only Nelson is spotted by the locals, provincial yokels, profoundly ignorant, so much so that they take the unfortunate simian for an actual Frenchman from the ship, and decide to capture him then try him as a spy. Fortunately our cabin boy wakes up on a sheltered part of the beach, and with his excellent English he passes himself off as Philip, a native from another town to the local kids who are excitedly playing among the debris, pretending to round up the ‘Frenchies’ and protect Great Britain’s shores from invasion in a playful fit of patriotic fever. Meanwhile a doctor travelling in his coach is forced by the storm to stay overnight in the local inn, and it is largely through the eyes of his young son Charlie, who runs off to play with the local kids, that we witness the events which unfold.
Lupano and Moreau take these events and spin them artfully into a tragical comedy of the highest order of the Absurd, as the trial is planned and carried out by the locals, from the major on downwards all pumped up with a hugely inflated sense of self importance – this isn’t just a ragged survivor, this is a spy, perhaps the vanguard for an invasion of the sacred soil of Albion itself! And they caught him! They will try to pry his deadly secrets out of him and save the entire kingdom! But blast, his French is just gibberish to them! And as for his looks? Well, of course they all know those damned French are ugly, inhuman brutes! The town’s one veteran, the only one of them who has ever seen a Frenchman, a legless old soldier, utterly mad, testifies that yes, the monkey is actually a Frenchman. A child’s suggestion that he is actually a chimp is laughed off by the locals. Unable to understand his ‘language’ they give up on the idea of interrogating him for imagined invasion plans and move instead to try him – in a very improvised, cartoonish version of a proper trial.
As I said at the start, this is an event which has been oft-repeated as historical fact, and it may well be, but it may also be in inflated myth from centuries long gone. Or, one theory holds it may be a story to hide a much more horrible truth – the young boys, like our cabin boy shipwrecked with the monkey, were sometimes referred to on ship as “powder monkeys”. Did those thuggish townsfolk once string up a hapless cabin boy who had survived the wreck of a French vessel then mythologised it as the monkey incident to hide the truth? We’ll probably never know, but it’s a theory that lends the reader a different view of the character of the surviving cabin boy, now safely passing himself off as English and playing among the local kids, able to view the proceedings, obviously knowing Nelson is a monkey, but unable to interfere to save him, unable even to speak up in case these ignorant locals turn on him too.
The events play out their course with an awful inevitability, but in some ways this story – which to this day has left the locals to be called ‘monkey hangers’ – is just a framework Lupano and Moreau use to hang up there highly effective examination of the dangers of rank ignorance, delusion, nationalistic bombast and jingoism run rampant, the mob mentality, the nature of unfounded bigotry and the sheer stupidity that humans are so capable of. And before we settle back in our smug, 21st century, media-rich, highly educated, literate world and laugh at how stupid our dim ancestors were, that they could mistake a monkey for a foreigner and act in such a ridiculous manner, all whipped up by half-understood propaganda about ‘the enemy’, let’s just consider how this historical tale has much resonance to our modern world.
We may all be aware of the difference between a person and a monkey, but that unreasoning beast, The Furious Crowd, or worse, The Mob (which can be as unruly and stupid even when made up of highly educated people – somehow mobs seems to atrophy our reasoning skills and revert us to bestial nature, it seems), is alive and well, still stoked by half-truths and outright lies from certain parts of the media and some groups only to happy to use them to exploit a mass moral panic, be it wild tales of mass Satanist cults in remote towns abusing children or painting caricatures of immigrants, asylum seekers, someone who wears a hijab, someone who has different skin colouring or different religion, or no religion – the number of differences perceived to differentiate ‘them’ and ‘us’ is endless and there are always those exploiting them. We all see that right now in our own supposedly more educated and enlightened era, just look at the growth of xenophobic hate groups. These people are the spiritual heirs of the monkey hangers, prepared to hate without real reason (but convinced they have solid reasons, of course) and all wrapped up in over the top , and Moreau and Lupano are, while telling their tale in an inventive manner, also offering a warning of how easily we can descend into mob mentality and commit some awful act.
Moreau’s artwork is splendid throughout, a perfect match for Lupano’s changes from high drama to absurdist farce, from laugh out loud comedic silliness (shaving a monkey so it looks more presentable for the court) to the sad and tragic. Lupano crafts some memorable characters and dialogue (also huge tip of the hat to the translation by Frank Wynne, which rather skilfully substitutes not just French for English but some great and believable vernacular terms), while Moreau seems equally at home with close up character-filled studies (giving us some wonderful close ups of their characters) as he does with large, dramatic scenes, and his skilful use of elements such as light quality to help convey scenes (such as the storm wrecking the ship). And I also have to say something about Moreau’s clever us of the quality of light, especially notable in the opening scenes where the storm clouds literally gather over the ship, panels becoming darker, grayer, colours more muted, to the following morning, and the warm light of a sunny dawn after the storm passes, or the flickering, copper light of a bonfire at night on the character’s faces. It’s the sort of delicate touch which many reader may not notice consciously but it will register subliminally, helping to create the atmosphere for each scene. It’s a lovely bit of craftwork.
Moreau also takes Lupano’s memorable creations and gifts them with equally memorable appearances. There was also, for my money anyway, something of the Steadman about some of Moreau’s panels, especially some which showed the characters in a more grotesquely foolish fashion (and naturally I mean this as a high compliment). It’s a fascinating read, by turns comedic, dramatic and bizarre tragedy, with artist and writer working perfectly together to bring this unusual historic gem to life. As we blogged just a few days ago one of the major French historical conventions conferred an award (the Rendez vous de l’Histoire – see here) on the French edition of this tale (as with the win of the Costa award earlier this year by the Talbots this was not in some comics category, making the win all the more remarkable and laudable), and it’s not hard to see why.
It’s an astonishing story and you will find yourself both upset with injustice and anger and yet at the same time laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of so much of it and many of the characters, and the sheer absurd nature of it all – although no less absurd than many of the reasons present day people find to vilify anyone they consider ‘different’, which is, I think, part of the point here. This makes it more than a tale of a historical curiosity, making it, as history so often is for those who read it, applicable also to our modern day world. Hugely recommended reading and kudos to Knockabout for bringing us an English language edition so swiftly.
this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog