Sunday, August 28, 2011

Yoko Tsuno 2 - The Devil's organ

Collected in 1973, "The Devil's Organ" is the second Yoko Tsuno adventure story, serialized in "the Spirou Magazine" by Roger Leloup. As is typical with Franco-Belgian comics, the album offers a complete story that is completely accessible to a reader unfamiliar with the events of the original album. Yoko is simply a resourceful young Japanese woman, traveling with her two friends, and encountering a complicated mystery plot along the way. Finding themselves in Germany, the previously dubbed "trio of the bizarre" are witness to a strange incident involving a beautiful local woman. Once again, the impulsive Paul is quick to respond to Ingrid's charms, while Yoko maintains an objective stance, tempered by her helpful nature.

The elusive Vic is once again continually on the sidelines. That Paul relatively quickly joins in and falls into the background, silent but for the occasional blunder and an aside, speaks to the archetypal characterization Leloup imbues the new character with, who plays the role of the victim right until the very end. Thus, most of the action revolves directly around Yoko, who is tasked not only with coming up with the solution to the murder mystery involving Ingrid's father and local folklore, but also saving the lives of herself and her helpless companions.

One could make the case that Yoko is a stereotypical Japanese woman in that she seems to be a string of racial attributes tied into an Franco-Belgian comic book hero, but ironically this is also what sets her apart. That her technical savvy is coupled with a knowledge of martial arts somehow makes her into a potent protagonist, and not a walking cliche. Leloup is careful to present her as a character having adventures in foreign lands, where her special skills are secondary to her intellect, curiosity and compassion.

Of course, having his Belgium-based character on a dangerous undertaking in a neighboring country, done by Herge's background assistant once again invites direct comparison to "Tintin". In this respect, "The Devil's Organ" appears as a relatively straightforward detective story, with some local flavor to make it more memorable. Where Herge seems somewhat broader in his assessments and more focused on his cast of characters and the specific style of humor he used, Leloup proceeds in a much more direct fashion.

His story takes place in Germany, revolves around the local legends and maintains a subtle note of occult terror throughout, but could otherwise very easily be reworked to star any number of Franco-Belgian protagonists, such as Gil Jordan, and even Colonel Clifton. Roger Leloup's work would be what would still distinguish it from the other albums in a similar series. Having a creator produce a single 44 page album per year makes for a staggering amount of artistic detail and a clear break between volumes. It seems that simply concentrating so much time and energy into a single story made the Franco-Belgian creators mindful to at least change the formula to include different locales in each of the entries in the series.

The resulting research and effort certainly pays off to produce visually startling work that both feels like a continuation of the series, and a pleasant diversion on it's own. Simply watching the Rhine vistas and the craggy hills ancient castles surrounded by the old fashioned town should feel like a typical middle European comics adventure, but in the hands of Leloup it becomes a real treat. The physical model of the castle itself, with the prominent tower and the adjacent area, feels completely realized, befitting it's importance as the story setting. This is particularly notable given so much of the similar locales in the medium typically looking like a cheap cardboard approximation of the same generic fortress. In Leloup's hands, the structure is depicted as looming over the river and the town houses, until it becomes the stage for the final act of the story.

Once again, the artist's attention to detail when it comes to the ferryboat and the train goes far and beyond the usual standards of realism in comics, with vehicles that have weight and mobility far beyond the look of being traced from a postcard in the work of a lot of the figure-centered artists. As befitting ligna claire style, the characters seem much more livelier than their surroundings, which is something of a problem when it comes to the artist's design for Paul, who simply looks like he belongs in a different comic book altogether. And while Yoko is kept in the realistic proportions, some of the side characters sport a somewhat looser style, which when compared to the main character's relatively calm and measured behavior, proceeds to somewhat distract from their surroundings. This is no doubt intended to ease up the characters acting out long swathes of dialogue, but the capable yet not too attractive figure drawings still betrays the artist's preference for depicting still life.

It stands to be pointed out again that this is a complete reversal from the typical comic book illustrations that tend to concentrate on the fast paced physicality of the characters in motion, with the background details provided to liven up the atmosphere, or more often, when the script specifically calls for them. When it comes to the story, in "The Devil's Organ" Leloup decides to mine the larger then life implications involved with having characters investigating a possible local cult, coupled with the depictions of medieval armor and, later on, a dungeon complete with a baroque organ that could hardly possess such a presence in a non-visual medium. Thus, despite the somewhat simple case of detective work Yoko encounters in the town of St. Goar, the writer/artist keeps maintains the aura of supernatural by using familiar tropes such as giant bats coming through the window.

That Leloup builds a peculiar sets of clues involving the audio tape left after the disappearance of Ingrid's father makes for an entertaining technology based investigation involving the town and it's river front. Still, what every 44 page comic book mystery story has to grapple with is the small number of suspects that can be previously alluded to in order for them to turn into the credible antagonists in the final act. Ironically, this makes for some realistic cases when Yoko and her genre colleagues pieces together the motives and evidence pertaining to the case, but still leaves a discerning reader with a mystery that could hardly have revealed a much different outcome.

Leloup tries to diversify the circumstances by coming up with a few final complications, but the explanation only becomes that much more convoluted because of it. Thankfully, such a bizarre set of contraptions that the technologically minded villain comes up with to undertake a simple interest fuel goal feels right at home when it comes to the medium. Reading the story about sound used to hypnotize the opponents and constructing a gigantic organ to echo the local folklore seems much better suited to the material then even watching it on screen, in what could only work as a very peculiar star studded blockbuster. But again, even a serviceable explanation seems more than enough when it comes to the story featuring as many action scenes as "The Devil's Organ".

Yoko in particular, seems to be continuously climbing up hills and falling off the walls, while the underground passages and secret rooms appear just where she imagines them to be, all flawlessly rendered by her creator. In a world where complicated machinery dominates every brightly lit room, this electrical engineer still relies chiefly on her instincts and rational mind to overcome threat against threat that is thrown against her.

That Roger Leloup manages to produce such a well thought out detective story, back to back with what was almost a space opera, belies a comics creator capable of every kind of work in the field. That the very next album represents the return to the series' origins could just mean that he was thinking of his own interests first, no matter the perceived audience's distaste for mixing the two.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Yoko Tsuno 1 - the Trio of the Bizarre

Yoko Tsuno debuted in 1970, starring in a couple of try out short stories published in the pages of Belgian "Spirou" magazine. Created by Roger Leloup, Herge's assistant on "Tintin", the character has since gone on to star in the series of 25 albums, with her adventures being translated and published in several different languages. The first English edition of the material debuted in 1998 and covered two of the early albums, while Cinebook has since picked up the licence. Since 2007, the publisher has kept to the schedule of more or less a single album per year.

The adventures of a beautiful Japanese girl teaming up with Belgian television crew Vic and Paul are somewhat distinctive. While Yoko herself is certainly an independent woman, perfectly suited to the life of an action hero, Leloup treats her with respect and avoids concentrating too heavily on her figure. Her two friends are somewhat more familiar Franco-Belgian Silver age characters, with Vic basically playing the role of the reader identification figure, and the much flawed Paul being around for comic relief and a more pronounced touch of humanity.

In "the Trio of the bizarre", Yoko is introduced as an electrical engineer that is suspected of burglary by the two friends working in the movie studio. What starts as a spy story, all too quickly (due to the album being originally serialized in the course of several installments of "Spirou" magazine) turns into an adventure story, until it becomes apparent that Leloup is actually most interested in placing his characters in a science fiction milieu similar to that of "Star Trek: The Original series". A turn for the bizarre is, of course, nothing new for the Franco-Belgian comics of the era, with even the otherwise semi-realistic "Tintin" having oddball albums dealing with the more outlandish pulp elements.

In fact, 1968's "Flight 714" is particularly of note when discussing the origins of Yoko Tsuno. The second to last Herge album, featuring extensive work by Leloup, is notable for a light-hearted featuring a strange setting, and ending in a denouement that is very tongue in cheek. In the space of several pages, Herge attributes several unexplained phenomena as the work of aliens coming to visit the Earth, clearly inspired by the theories of Erich von Däniken. Däniken's "Chariot of the Gods" was published the same year as the collected edition of Herge and Leloup's work, and it's no coincidence that it plays with the ideas of aliens inhabiting the planet Earth in the past, which would theoretically serve as an explanation for some of the various culture's folklore and scientific wonders the ancient countries produced at seemingly far above the assumed technological level of the eras they lived in.

In any event, more notable then even the beautiful tropical backgrounds in the Tintin album, attributed to Leloup, the artist was reportedly responsible for the design of the airplane which plays a key role in the story and feels thoroughly modern and realistic, despite being the work of Herge's technically minded assistant. Interestingly, in Yoko Tsuno's long form debut, Leloup returns to Däniken's ideas, and crafts a story that takes the concept in a completely different direction that Herge's well meaning satire. Basically, while exploring a current for a possible documentary set in an unnamed Belgian cavern system, the characters stumble upon what at first seems like the remnants of some kind of modern Atlantis, and it's characteristically blue skinned denizens. Even more unlikely, at first chance the Vinean female Khany reveals their origins to the trio of total strangers, revealing that her race has originally come to the planet millions of years ago, while escaping from the destruction of Vinea.

The beautiful images showing the merging of the planet's suns are certainly the visual highlight of the volume, but by having his characters' original adventure, and subsequent supporting cast, integrated so heavily in the science fiction meant that Leloup was very conscious in carving out a niche in the Franco-Belgian comics industry. And while some of the succeeding adventures have featured the more realistic locales, the writer/artist has repeatedly returned Yoko and her two friends to the trappings of Vinean civilization, even going so far as sending them on Vinea. Interestingly, Cinebook has so far steered clear of the albums dealing directly with the Vinean civilization, and judging by the solicited material they certainly seem set on translating the more grounded material first.

It's a very peculiar situation for a reprint publisher to find themselves in, and certainly breaks away from the creator's original idea regarding the series. "The Trio of the Bizarre" is unapologetically an album featuring science fiction elements, and it certainly seems more reminiscent of "Flash Gordon" than "the X-Files".  Namely, once Yoko and her friends come close to the Vinean settlement, Leloup drops all pretense of her companion's ambitions as journalists, proceeding with a long speed chase that highlights several of the book's key elements. Namely, the writer/artist's superbly executed vehicle designs, which seem both visually impressive and entirely plausible, given the setting. Leloup's fertile imagination immediately creates several challenges that use the exotic setting of an underwater alien train chase, making for an uncharacteristically long journey broken by every contrivance possible.

Again, this is certainly not a problem, as the creator uses the space to expand on the just introduced alien culture, introduce a major new character in Khany, and shows the traditional comic heroes coming to grips with the new locale and circumstances. Once Khany's equipment malfunctions after a cascade of problems that overtake their journey, it's transparent that the reader is dealing with a pulp yarn, but the array of tropes  changes again as the story continues in ostensibly new issue of "Spirou", meaning that the final third of the album takes place in Vinean city, with only the threat of a villain serving as the dramatic thread and making the introductory album into more then a tour of the writer/artist's science fantasy setting.

It goes without saying that Leloup's architecture is on pair with his intricate vehicle designs, resulting once again in several breathtaking designs that he takes full advantage of. Returning Yoko, Vic and Paul to their civilian clothes serves to juxtapose these ordinary humans to the advanced alien civilization, but reading the story in 2011 means that her forty year old attire seems very dated and even disconcerting. The Vinean Vulcan-like hostility is on the sidelines through Khany's tour of the computer-colored complex, but in returning to the exposition Leloup once again breaks the suspension of disbelief as some of Yoko's questions seem far too direct to be given such extensive and matter of fact answers, given that she is a complete stranger to an alien civilization that has for millions of years been purposely hidden from the surface world.

Thankfully, in reasserting some semblance of loyalty to her people in Khany's character, the writer/artist manages to round out what has largely been a benevolent alien so far. Given that the otherwise goofy Paul gets the same treatment in the same scene, it's easy to see the last segment of the book as most interesting and dramatically the strongest. That Leloup follows the exposition with an action heavy climax featuring the peak of Vinean technology perverted and manipulated to be used against their people, and in turn surface world goes a long way to give the book some semblance of thematic resonance beyond the simple escapism. Truthfully, the allegorical reminder of the logical endpoint of computer-dominated society seems very familiar to anyone who has had experience with the genre, but it works to sufficiently raise the stakes for the final combat with the villain.

The stern Yoko directly opposing thoroughly evil Karpan is at least more notable then his initial appearance, but the character continues to be problematic, and seems very forgettable. His appearance is perhaps the strongest call back to "Star Trek", but the single minded obsession that the character displays makes him merely the obligatory antagonist, and not by any means a memorable villain in his own right. Still, perhaps it's to much to be expecting the series to launch with the album introducing the main characters, the setting they would remain closely linked throughout the series and a charismatic key opponent all at once. Most of the rest of Franco-Belgian adventure comics the same readership certainly acquired each of these elements during the course of many years they were published, with the creators routinely going back to the drawing board in searching for the appealing combination of the three.

The need for the immediate continuation of another new adventure with it's own set of action set pieces and cliffhangers, necessitated a familiarly quick wrap up of the main plot. In itself, a notable stranger coming to an ancient civilization with the fresh eyes for some of it's newer flaws, and dealing with them in short order is a stock plot that, along with the obligatory "techno babble" that follows most of the similar pulp science fiction scenarios, leads to a somewhat unsatisfying resolution, but Leloup dulls the effect with the advent of Khary's parting gifts to the main characters.

The mere fact that they were given actual items that hint further adventures, instead of some abstract McGuffin, goes a long way to differentiate the series. And while certainly having such a strange science fiction status quo to return to seems a challenge for both the readers and the writer/artist, Leloup has continued on to mine the concepts introduced in "The Trio of the Bizarre" for the following forty years. Perhaps that a simple fact of having such a strong, independent woman at the center of the book that is nevertheless a classic Franco-Belgian adventure story made such an impression on the readers. Considering that Yoko's chief rival was Dupuis' own "Natacha", focusing on much lighter cheesecakey depiction of the female form, it's easy to see why Leloup's heroine has remained such a strong presence in what was originally an industry catering to young boys' serial entertainment.

Friday, August 5, 2011

DC Retroactive - Flash 1980s

This Wednesday saw the release of Flash 1980s, a part of the DC comics project centered around mainly rehiring the creative teams that made their mark on the superhero titles from decades past. With Flash, DC has solicited three specials, of which the William Messner-Loebs and Greg Larocque's effort is the second one, acting as a tribute to their run on then recently relaunched title.

Following the original Crisis on infinite Earths and the role Flash played in the mega crossover, his title was in a perfect place for the new #1. The new series starred Wally West in the title role, and was helmed by Mike Baron who left the title after little more then a year's worth of stories. William Messner Loebs, writer of independent hit "Journey" took over, and slowly adapted to writing the series on his own terms. Gone were Baron's superspeed themed villains, and Wally's immature characterization (carried over from New Teen Titans), and in their place Loebs put his own interests.

Typically for the 1980s superhero comic books, these included a more introspective take on the superhero tropes, and a turn from flamboyant supervillainy of the antagonists, to Flash tackling some of the more relevant social issues. A lot of times, the demands of the market meant that the final result was a not always successful mash up, that still read as heartfelt and genuine. Poised between Mark Baron's and the successive Mark Waid superhero heavy interpretations of the character, there was every indication that Loeb's and LaRocque's run was at least a pleasant diversion, that stands as an artifact of competent, if not overtly ambitious superhero storytelling of the day.

Following the writer's departure, Greg LaRocque stayed on to pencil the beginning of Waid's long association to the character, which was commercially and critically lauded, remaining one of the better remembered runs in a very specific moment of DC's history. In this respect, reuniting the 1980s creative team was a decision targeting primarily the collectors nostalgic to the era. Considering the modus operandi behind next month's wide scale relaunch, the Retroactive specials may well be the last time many of these creators tackle these characters in those particular iterations.

Specifically, in regards to "Flash 1980s", everyone involved seemed very conscious of all those factors. Packaging the resulting story with a reprint taken from early into their run, DC's editorial has essentially produced a 5$ Annual. Still, the new material is inoffensive enough to be function perfectly as a standalone piece, reflecting a different sensibility then current material involved with the character. The continuity basically hinges on the incarnation of Flash being less experienced then either Wally or Barry who are both currently married and ill fit for a story dealing with an obsessive fan willing to go great lengths to get together with their celebrity fantasy boyfriend.

Just like the best of Loeb's work, the basic theme is timeless and not tied into the continuity minutiae, even if he tries his best to dress it up in the superhero tropes. Interestingly, the focus is in the sick woman's interaction with the Rogues, the loose network of Flash's over the top enemies. Captain Cold, Mirror master and the rest of the original Barry Allen's Silver age antagonists were rarely the focus in the writer's original work on the title. What's more, the garishly colored characters were depicted as more or less reformed, as the thrust of the series was in establishing Wally West as his own character in the role of the Flash, with his villains in tow. That this was only partially successful, as evidenced by the other writers going back to the Rogues, does not really condemn Loebs and Larocque's work.

Simply, the creators were poised to tell a different kind of story, and it's interesting to see their working in a large number of those characters in Retroactive. Loeb's take on mental illness and the issue of identity aside, the offering is still somewhat limited by it's original premise. Simply put, the writer was seemingly asked for a competent script, featuring a version of the character that is little seen these days, and this is what was delivered. A professional, if not overtly complicated superhero plot designed with nostalgia as it's selling point.

But this does not elevate the rushed feeling of the whole enterprise that is exemplified by Larocque's artwork. It stars very thorough and detailed, and as the pacing slowly picks up, the backgrounds fade to non existence resulting in some very ill defined art that seems as if it was hastily put together to meet the deadline. Greg both pencils and inks his work here, and while his layouts remain clear and reader friendly, a lot of the finesse gets lost along the way. By the end of the twenty five pages allotted to the segment, the reader is reminded how inessential such a contribution is to DC comics on the whole, who regularly put more of their time and resources into more pretentious projects.

As for the cast, interestingly it consists mostly of Flash, Golden Glider and Pied Piper, with Dr Alchemy substituting for the voice of all the other Rogues duped into helping Flash's obsessive fan carry out her attention grabbing plan. Interestingly, Golden Glider, a good example of throwaway Silver Age character sports such an overblown hyper sexed design that she serves as the source of distraction in most of the panels she appears in. The otherwise seldom seen character's previously subdued sex appeal is so magnified in these pages that it distracts from her ice skater superhero gimmick. Of course, the highly idealized female form is nothing new when it comes to superhero comics, but the portrayal is so much at odds with Loebs' script that depicts her as a Captain Cold's younger sister, that it creates a curious juxtaposition.

It doesn't help that the garish colors fail to spotlight the blade of her skates in one panel where the character draws attention to it. Glider's appearance is particularly spotlighted given that the rest of the cast, Flash's physique aside, sports realistic human anatomy. Pied Piper particularly looks like overweight with long hair making for a distinctive sidekick look, that is in keeping with Loeb's original run on the title. Unfortunately, due to the writer's perpetual uneasy when it comes to typical superhero storytelling, the character ends up completely forgoing the use of his superhuman abilities, making him little more then a clown serving as another voice commenting on the strange events in Central city.

Dr Alchemy makes for a very unsettling visual, seeming like a self-conscious parody of a caped archetype. Sporting an unkempt beard and spending most of his page time in his underwear, the character's appearance is somewhat distracting, but ultimately makes sense plot-wise. Unfortunately, the way the Flash deal with doctor's own mental illness is very troubling, albeit ultimately somewhat amended when it comes to the showdown with powers stealing Alex, whom he subdues in a way that is thankfully somewhat less controversial.

Curiously, the presence of Captain Boomerang in the closing scene makes little sense given the previous plot, and the character's more modest power level. It suggests that Alex has made her way through even more of the Rogues' operations then identified in the dialogue, but it would been more logical if Larocque used Heatwave in his place. The flame-themed villain's powers feature into the plot, thus it would have made sense if he was present at the big showdown.

Finally, Alex herself is rendered as a more or less ordinary young woman, bereft of impossibly perfect superhuman physical attributes. Once again, this is more present in the story's opening pages, that go somewhat overboard in identifying her love for Flash as one-sided. Following her contrived plan that drives Flash, Glider and Piper on a mad chase around the crime scenes of Central City, the character returns with a much more lithe form. Due to the presence of superhero antics such as her leaving notes in battered jewelries and museums, her final idealized appearance doesn't stick out too much, but it's still inconsistent with her initial look, no matter the character's personal delusions.

Complete with an end sequence that opens the possibility of the character's further appearances down the line, Loeb's scripting is much more tighter then his original run on the title. In a way, it seems that "Flash 1980s" was written to play to the expectations of a current Geoff Johns' Flash fan regarding what the title must have been like some twenty five years ago. The presence of the Rogues aside, this is reinforced by the Silver Age elements that were much less pronounced during the writer's original run on the title.

For evidence, the reader doesn't need to look much further then the reprint included after the original story. Featuring the third part of Loeb and Larocque's original "Flash" storyline, the story was conceived to wrap up some of the departing writer Baron's plot threads, and is pretty much inaccessible to the reader uninitiated with these never reprinted comics. Albeit, a cursory look through the pages reveals Flash as the only costumed character within, coupled with Larocque's art that seems much more refined and earnest, if understandably old fashioned. The characters are easily recognizable due to the, admittedly exaggerated, facial features, but the work on the whole feels like it could have come from any of the alternate genre publishers of the day. 

Forgoing some of the amateurish touches, Larocque illustrating the Retroactive event Flash comic is much more concerned with putting a modern sheen on his work, robbing it of some of it's uniqueness. In the process he achieves a somewhat more moody artwork, that certainly benefits from stronger line and better staging, but it's to a large percent workmanlike, the product of yet another contributor painfully aware of the limits of the editorial mandate and the finite appeal of the material he was commissioned to produce, which is never as apparent as in the final panel. Still, the very inclusion of such a tongue in cheek commentary on the whole of Retroactive project versus the upcoming relaunch of DC's entire superhero line, belies the creators that at least approached the arbitrary endeavour with a sense of playfulness and humor.