Sunday, May 06, 2018

Les Cites Obscures

by RM Rhodes

I was recently re-reading issues of Roger Stern’s run on The Avengers circa 1983 because I remember reading those as a kid and I always got the impression that I didn’t get the whole story. (As it turns out, I was right.) In some ways, this was the flagship title of Marvel comics and represented a public face for what Marvel comics felt their product should look like.

In that same year, 1983, in Brussels, these two gentlemen – artist François Schuiten and his friend, writer Benoît Peeters – were well into the establishment of a comic book universe of their own.

The difference between English language comics and French language bandes dessinées (commonly shortened to BD) has been distinct for some time. Where the American industrial comic product is typically a floppy twenty-two (or so) page booklet every month (or so), the French industrial comic product is weekly or monthly anthology magazines that provide episodes of an ongoing story in anywhere from half- page (weekly) to multi-page (monthly) increments. If the feature was considered popular enough, it would be collected in a reprint edition. This makes for a complicated publishing history.

Les murailles de Samaris, the first story in what would eventually be known as Les Cites Obscures, was originally serialized in French in Casterman’s monthly anthology, A Suivre (English translation: To Be Continued), in 1982. Casterman released a collected edition in 1983 that is still in print. The story first appeared in English, in the Heavy Metal November 1984 to March 1985 issues under the name The Great Walls of Samaris, although the ending was badly mutilated and the translation is generally considered to be sub-par. NBM published a collected edition in 1987 and called the series the Stories of the Fantastic. They kept the Heavy Metal translation but fixed the ending. Copies of the NBM printing can cost $45 or more, but thankfully IDW released a new version with a better translation in 2017. This version comes with a translation of four episodes of an unfinished story that appeared in various issues of A Suivre and other publications.

Many of the older stories in the series were also serialized in A Suivre prior to collection, including La fièvre d'Urbicande (original 1983, Casterman collection in 1985, NBM collection in 1990); La Tour (original 1985, Casterman in 1987, NBM in 1993); and Brusel (original 1990, Casterman 1992, NBM 2001). By the time Brusel came out in English, the translation of the series name had been changed to Cities of the Fantastic.

There are still several stories in the series that have never been translated into English, including L'archiviste, L'Écho des cites, Le Guide des cites and L'ombre d'un homme. This latest round of translations from IDW are a result of Stephen Smith’s decision to translate and publish the entire run through his Alaxis Press, under the more accurately translated series name The Obscure Cities. The first book was The Leaning Girl in 2014 and IDW partnered with Alaxis Press for The Theory of a Grain of Sand in 2016. Samaris is the third edition in this collaboration.

It was smart of Smith (and IDW) to start with the untranslated books first and work back to earlier translations. The original NBM books were thin and printed on cheaper paper and tried to match the format of Asterix collections. The newer printings in French are lush, with a better paper quality, better coloring, and better overall production values. In fact, the newer editions produced by IDW are more-or-less indistinguishable from their European versions except for the language they are printed in.

As a consistent creative team, Schuiten and Peeters have been allowed to flesh out their universe at their own speed. Because of the way that French-language comics are serialized, there was no concern about having to maintain a consistent commercial presence in A Suivre. They just showed up when they needed a place to serialize their latest work and Casterman kept the collections in print. There has been no change in artistic teams, and it would be very odd to think of anyone but Schuiten and Peeters producing something in the series – although they have had artistic collaborators (eg the photographed sections of The Leaning Girl.)

As the title implies, these art nouveau-inspired pre-steampunk science fantasy stories are all about various cities on a massive continent on an alien world that is not ours (although there is a suggestion that it’s a planet on the other side of the sun from Earth). The mysteries of these cities add to the appeal of the series, as oblique references to one story often show up in another. Research and/or investigation is a consistent theme throughout and there is an entire book – L’archiviste – that is centered around research into artifacts from these cities and, as a result, contains a healthy heaping of references to other stories, including some that had not been made when L’archiviste was originally printed. You know, the sort of thing that makes people build websites to explain the whole thing. More than anything else, this shared universe presentation makes the comparison to The Avengers feel very apt.

Schuiten’s illustrative art style, however, is significantly different than most English-language commercial comic work and it has gotten better over time.  He was trained as an architect (his brother and father are practicing architects as well) and it shows in his work. Indeed, Schuiten’s illustrative art style is so detailed and distinctive that it sets the entire series apart from the pack. The reader is immediately drawn to the art and is pleasantly surprised that the stories are good.

This is almost a textbook example of how a specific art style meshes with a hyper-realistic kind of worldbuilding – and Benoit Peetershas actually produced a definitive piece about page layout. There is a lot of material that has not yet been translated and one can only hope that sales have been good enough to encourage IDW to finish the task. Between this and the Corto Maltese reprints (also published by Casterman in Europe), IDW deserves much more recognition. And now that I’ve got their attention, can I request a translation of the other stories by Pellejero and Zentner? That would be great.


Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch. 

When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes. 

It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.

In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area. 

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