Reviews: The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec

Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec Volume 1,
Jacques Tardi,
Fantagraphics

And another Jacques Tardi piece I wrote for the now-defunct Forbidden Planet Blog, but somehow forgot to cross-post here on the Woolamaloo (in my defence I spent many of my own evenings writing or editing articles for the FP blog, unpaid, and didn’t have time or will to then do so on my own blog). So here below is my 2014 review of The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec:

French creator Jacques Tardi has to be one of the most respected writer-artists working in comics, European or world-wide, and he is also a huge favourite of ours. Like Bryan Talbot he seems to have an uncanny ability to move through different mediums, adapting his art and style to suit all sorts of stories, from his early work back in the 60s in the famed Pilote comics magazine through adapting hard-boiled urban crime novels and his anger-fuelled, horror-filled World War One strips, but he has also created one of the great heroines of European comics, Adele Blanc-Sec, a writer by day, adventurer by night, Set in early 20th Century Paris, just a few years before the Great War, Adele stands out in an era when women were expected to ‘know their place’ in society, being a single woman of means, more intelligent and observant than the men around her and certainly far more adventurous.

Like Tintin she is an intrepid investigator of mysteries, and there is also something of the classic Scooby-Doo here as well in that there is often a fantasy or supernatural element (or at least seemingly supernatural – or is it??) to her stories. Fantagraphics have been translating and publishing Tardi’s works in English, to much acclaim, a series largely driven by Fantagraphics’ own Kim Thompson, not only a champion of quality comics work but also a multi-lingual editor, translating these works himself until his recent death (a major blow for both the publisher and the comics community in general). This first volume has been out of print for a while, but with a fresh print run on the way it seemed like a good time to turn our Classic Comic spotlight on to it.

This handsome hardback, full-colour volume actually boasts two stories in the one volume, collecting two of the original Adele Blanc-Sec albums, Pterror Over Paris and The Eiffel Tower Demon. Pterror introduces Adele to us and also the bizarre stories she can be caught up in, in this case a madcap science fiction tale worthy of a Victorian writer like Verne or even Conan-Doyle (in his Professor Challenger mode), in which a peculiar experiment, part palaeontology, part medical science, part mystical-mental ESP powers (a not uncommon theme for the era) combine in an attempt to resurrect a Pterodactyl from its millions of years of fossilised slumber. Those same mental powers which brought this extinct flying dinosaur back from pre-history are meant to guide it, but the animal instincts are too powerful and freed from it’s tomb the creature soars into the night-time skies of 1911 Paris and hunts on the wing, as it was meant to, bring terror – or ‘Pterror’ as the title puns – to the City of Lights, and drawing in both Adele and the bumbling police inspector Caponi (who became a regular character in the series).

What follows is a spectacular piece of high adventure as the incompetent police, scientists from the Museum of Natural History (where the Pterodactyl emerged from) and Adele all follow the trail of death and destruction left in the dinosaur’s wake, each with their own ideas and agenda. As well as superb Boy’s Own style adventure moments (the beast swoops down and rescues a man falsely accused of murder right off the guillotine scaffold) there are nice touches of humour (government minister calls head of police to complain who in turn calls his senior officer who calls his district chief who calls the unfortunate Caponi in a classic bit of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel). The second story offers a classic supernatural cult conspiracy tale, an elite of the city’s movers and shakers, hungry for ever more power (as those types often are), seek to bring back into our world the demon Pazuzu. But who is truly controlling this cult, and is the demonic monster we glimpse (even entering Adele’s nightmares) real or a front, just a control method to garner more power for some?

And the art throughout is glorious – Tardi creates and portrays a strong female lead character but doesn’t sexualise her – Adele is written and drawn as what she is, a strong, independent woman who knows her own mind and she isn’t waiting for some hero to come along, nor does she pine for romance. But away from the characters, there is also pure joy to be had in his depictions of early 20th century Paris. The scenes in the historic heart of this beautiful city are especially wonderful, because many of those locations are largely unchanged today. An opening scene in a wonderfully detailed Natural History Museum in the Jardin des Plantes depicts its iconic great hall while a number of scenes on famous Parisian streets will be instantly recognisable if you have ever walked them, or even if you have only viewed them in photos and films, this realistic detailing giving the grounding that allows the more fantastical elements to take flight (in the case of our winged dinosaur, literally).

In the second tale we go from the famous Parisian underground tunnels to the heights of the majestic Eiffel Tower on a snowy, winter night, and it is all so beautifully executed you find yourself going back through the book’s pages after finishing the story, just so you can stop and admire many of the scenes, especially those beautiful cityscapes. Stunning art from a master of the medium, a strong female lead, fantastical adventures which both pay homage to those Victorian/Edwardian lost world science fiction tales while at the same time also clearly poking a little fun at how ludicrous the concept is to modern readers (but in a loving way), demonic being and ancient dinosaurs running amok in the Paris of a century ago, scenes filled with period detail, what’s not to love here?

From Belle Epoque Parsian adventures to a Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Over the long holiday weekend I managed to catch up on three different films in three different Edinburgh cinemas, starting with Luc Besson’s French-language movie adaptation of the great French comics artist Jacques Tardi’s wonderful Adele Blanc-Sec graphic albums, sitting in the Art Deco delights of the lovely Cameo, sipping beer (as the auditorium is licensed and you can take in your drink from the bar, very civilised). It is a fab adaptation of Tardi’s work, taking the plot of two of his graphic novels (a magically revived pterodactyl from le Jardin de Plantes) and Adele’s quest to find and bring back a mummy who was supposed to be an especially gifted doctor to help her critically injured sister) and very effectively interweaving them into a hugely enjoyable adventure romp split between Egyptian tombs and the beauties of Belle Epoque Paris. I loved the comics (now being translated into English by Fantagraphics), they give a cracking adventure yarn much like Herge’s immortal Tintin, except aimed at an adult audience. Highly recommended and hopefully there will be another – certainly they seemed to set it up so there might be another and there are plenty of the comics to borrow plots from. Oh and I did like the ancient Egyptian’s joke about pyramids and the Louvre.

On the holiday Monday I went to catch Ken Branagh’s big screen adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Thor – as one of my comics chums remarked Thor is a character who could so easily end up being ridiculous cheese if not handled correctly. And a number of folks wondered at a director best known for highly regarded Shakespearean works helming a major summer action/comics hero movie. But in truth Brannagh handles it perfectly – he understands myth and how important that is (remember Thor isn’t just a superhero in a cape, he is a god) and also borrows from Joseph Campbell’s idea of the journey of the hero. Add in some romance, some good character development, some enjoyable action and some humour, not to mention some spectacular visuals (not least Asgard and the rainbow bridge). A smart, well made comics flick for grown ups and a good start to a summer season of cinema that is heavy with comics related releases.

The stand out for me, however, was a visit to my beloved Filmhouse, long my second home in Edinburgh, for the budget matinee afteroon. I went to see the latest film from acclaimed (and often decliamed, I suppose!) director Werner Herzog, a documentary on the Chuavet Cave in southern France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The cave was only found in 1994, sealed for millennia after landslides covered up the original, large entrance used in paleolithic times. Within the explorers found a beautiful cave of exquisite stalactites and stalagmites, mineral deposits that had taken thousands of years to form… And the earliest human artworks… Beautiful art painted deep inside the cave system, some 32, 000 years old. When prehistoric humans first started painting here the great ice sheets covered most of Europe beyond; there was no English channel and you could walk from Paris to London (if they existed) with dry feet; now extinct animals roamed the land like wooly mammoths, wooly rhinos and cave bears and there were two distinct species of humans in Europe. Only one of which made intricate artwork – not the neanderthals, but the homo sapiens. Our direct ancestors.

Some of the artwork is breathtakingly beautiful – and so well executed and so well preserved there were suspicions it may be an incredibly elborate hoax, but carbon dating plus the mineral build up over some artworks has proven their authenticity (although some still argue over precise dates). The ancient artists were astonishing – not only working in a dark cave with only firelight to see by, but cleverly using the cave itself, using the curves and protrusions of the walls and outcrops, suiting their animal depictions to the contours to give the maximum effect of animals