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BD reviews

I read BD’s (bandes dessinées or, as we say in English, graphic literature or picture storybooks) to keep up with my French. Regular books are too difficult for me. When it comes to BDs, some of the classic kids strips and albums are charming, but the ones for adults, which are more like Hollywood movies, are easier for me to read because I find the stories more compelling: I want to find out what happens next.

Here are brief reviews of some albums, in the order that I read them.

WW2.2, by David Chauvel and others. The first one I ever read! I bought Tome 1 at the train station in Brussels, then bought and read the others, one at a time. When I started reading, I had the impression that it was going to be an endless series in the vein of Lucky Luke. But then it turned out it was a finite set of 7 volumes. Since then, I’ve learned that a fixed-length plan is common practice, equivalent to a TV mini-series, I guess. Anyway, the 7 volumes of WW2.2 were of uneven quality but they were all pretty good, and the scenario as a whole made sense to me. My favorite was the first volume, where you get to know all these different characters, keeping them all straight in your head—and then all but one of them dies. Which makes the point of lethality of war more effective than any number of images of dismembered bodies.

Il était une fois En France, by Fabien Nury and Sylvain Vallée. Lived up to the hype. Without a doubt the best piece of literature, of any form, about a scrap metal dealer. I can’t recommend this one enough.

Gung Ho, by Benjamin Von Eckartsberg et Thomas Von Kummant. Fun post-apocalyptic adventure. I happen to have read most of Tome 1 on the beach, which somehow fixed it all in my mind. We’re now waiting for Tome 4 to come out.

Les promeneurs du temps, by Franck Viale et Sylvain Dorange. Fun story, excellent cartoony drawing style. I really loved Tome 1, but the story got so confusing that I lost touch somewhere in Tome 3. Too bad. I guess I’m not the only one who felt that way, because Tome 4 never appeared.

Tyler Cross, by Fabien Nury and Brüno. I saw this in the bookstore and it was intriguing. A Western—almost, I guess not quite as it takes place in the mid-twentieth century. I guess they’d call it a polar. The title character is reminiscent of Donald Westlake’s Parker. An open-ended series, two volumes so far with at least one more to come.

Souvenirs de l’empire de l’atome, by Thierry Smolderen et Alexandre Clérisse. I picked up this one on the strength of its drawings alone. Actually, that’s usually how I usually do it. Some drawings have character, some don’t. The story to this one was ok but didn’t quite follow through. I don’t really care, though, as the art was so distinctive. A real “60’s” feel.

Le temps perdu, by Rodolphe et Vink. Beautiful drawings, but ultimately the story was just too empty and sentimental so it didn’t really work as a BD.

Où sont passées les grands jours, by Jim and Alex Tefenkgi. Affecting, well-drawn story about the lives of some young adults. “Tout roule. Ne t’inquiète pas.”

Ceux qui me restent, by Damien Marie and Laurent Bonneau. Another one along the same lines: evocative, understated drawings and a realistic story that made me cry, this time about family and memory. The design of this one makes brilliant, spare use of colors in a way that perfectly matches the themes of the story.

Rouge comme la neige, by Christian De Metter. Sad, and beautiful. I don’t know why Westerns are such a popular form of BD, but this one played it straight and was heartbreaking.

Quai d’Orsay, by Christophe Blain et Abel Lanzac. Great drawing style. The story is funny, but my language skills are weak, so it takes pretty much all my effort to detect the humor, leaving me with little energy left to actually appreciate it. Still, I’m working my way through it. The book does not insult my intelligence.

Lancaster, by Christophe Bec and Jean-Jacques Dzialowski. A fun James Bond-style confection, just delicious. I read somewhere on the internet that it didn’t sell well so they decided not to continue it after the first 2 volumes. Too bad.

L’Arabe du futur, by Riad Sattouf. Wow. The guy is brilliant: inspired drawings and a wonderful story. Amazing presentation of a kid’s perspective and of violent societies. I wonder how people from Syria feel about this book: I could imagine them loving it, or I could imagine it getting them very angry. Tome 4 is coming soon. It’s just amazing how much facial expression Sattouf can capture in just a couple of lines.

I was motivated then to read other Sattouf books, including No Sex in New York (which is actually in French despite the title) and Les cahiers d’Esther. These are good too. No Sex in New York includes a hilarious cartoon of a lecherous Isaac Asimov.

Les vieux fourneaux, by Wilfred Lupano and Paul Cauuet. Wrinkly, still energetic soixante-huitards. Ni yeux, ni maître! 4 tomes so far. Lots of fun, takes a lot of work to follow. I think I’m catching about half the jokes.

Transperceneige, by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. I read a few pages of this one and then paused, discouraged by a native speaker who said that this book is full of invented slang and it will be really hard for me to understand.

La mort de Staline, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Hilarious. Sad, too, but hilarious.

Mort au Tsar, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. More of the same. Also high quality, but harder for me to follow as I didn’t know the story ahead of time.

L’été diabolik, by Thierry Smolderen et Alexandre Clérisse. A followup to Souvenirs de l’empire de l’atome, also with this great angular drawing style but this time with a better story, somewhat gimmicky but it worked for me.

L’homme qui ne disait jamais non, by Olivier Balez et Didier Tronchet. Lively drawing style and fun adventure. But when it was all over, I was disappointed because the plot was a bit of a cheat.

Stern, by Frédéric and Julien Maffre. The guy’s a gravedigger. This one’s more of a standard BD Western, tongue in cheek all the way through. Lots of fun, I liked it. I encountered it in the bookstore display one day. We’ve read Tomes 1 and 2; I assume more will be coming.

Junk, by Nicolas Pothier and Brüno. Le même dessinateur de Tyler Cross. What a great style. Good story, too. Another Western.

Katanga, by Fabien Nury and Sylvain Vallée: The team behind Il était une fois en France. This one’s good too, but a bit grimmer. A lot grimmer. This book has no good guys at all!

L’Imparfait du futur and La réplique inattendue, by Émile Bravo. These are the first two of a six-volume series. Science-fiction comedy; it really is funny and the sci-fi works too. This one is written for kids, but I’m including it on this list because this adult enjoys it. I’m looking forward to reading tomes 4-6.

17 Comments

  1. mic says:

    What a surprising -but fun- post!

    Here are a few that I enjoyed over the years:
    – Les maîtres de l’orge (Van Hamme and Vallès): follows a family of brewers over two or three hundred years.
    – Nestor Burma (Malet and Tardi): terrific adaptation by Tardi of Malet’s books. Burma is a detective in Paris in the postwar period. Fair amount of slang, but it’s really good. Tardi also adapted Céline’s “Au bout du voyage.”
    – Most stuff by Enki Bilal, mostly for the drawing, but also for the legacy of the Balkan wars on people’s psyche. I read it as a teenager/young adult; I’m not entirely sure how well it reads once you’re above 25. But the drawings are gorgeous.
    – Less traditional: Moebius.

  2. Xi'an says:

    Ah, a post mostly dedicated to French speaking readers! Transperceneige appeared when I was still in high school. I have no memory of an invented slang of the future, so it cannot have been that major. (A movie was recently made out of it, rather close from what I can guess from watching it on a neighbour screen in a plane — yes, I have this sad urge to watch screens near me in a plane, simultaneous with refraining from opening my screen to try to work!) And Il était une fois en France (that you lent me) is pretty grim as well.

  3. Carlos Ungil says:

    > bandes dessinées or, as we say in English, graphic literature or picture storybooks

    Or simply comic books. Alan Moore: “[Graphic novel] is a marketing term. I mean, it was one that I never had any sympathy with. The term “comic” does just as well for me.” (http://www.blather.net/projects/alan-moore-interview/northhampton-graphic-novel/)

    > La mort de Staline

    Recently adapted to film by Armando Iannucci. (I have not read the book nor watched the movie, so I cannot comment more than that.)

    • Andrew says:

      Carlos:

      Yes, but I don’t to call them “comic books” because sometimes they don’t have any comedy. Picture storybook or graphic literature or bande desinée seems much more descriptive to me. Although, sure, they don’t have to be in “strip” format either. I suppose that no expression formed from existing words will be perfect.

      • Given your penchant for Westlake, I strongly recommend you find the Stumptown series. Sure it’s not french, but I think you’ll like it.

        • Garnett says:

          Second the recommendation for Stumptown.

        • Andrew says:

          Daniel:

          I went out and read volume 1 of Stumptown. It was pretty good. The characters were appealing and the art was fine, but the story seemed a bit like recycled TV plots. Had it all been in French, I don’t think this would’ve bothered me, because it would’ve been enough that I could follow along at all. But when I read BD’s in English, I’m implicitly comparing to Clowes, Seth, and Bechdel, so I’m more sensitive to lack of depth in the storyline. It’s the same thing with movies and TV: if I’m watching in French, I’m happy with any sort of action movie or sitcom or whatever, as long as I can follow it, if I put in the effort to concentrate. But for shows in English, I have higher standards. So Stumptown could be as good as Stern or Junk (or maybe Gung Ho is a better comparison), but it’s hard for me to compare them fairly.

          • I missed this comment when you first put it up.

            It’s been a while since I read it, so I don’t remember exactly but I do think it developed and somewhat improved as the series went on. The concept was much grander than the actual production capacity. I suspect Rucka would have liked to write a whole Magnum PI type series, hundreds of episodes. But it was taking a ton of time for the artist to draw, and so the slow-build of the setting and character was hard to continue. I think they did pretty well considering the limitations. I also think there’s more interest when it’s more personal. I have family and friends in the Portland area and so the locations and vibe are familiar to me. For the same reason I LOVE Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels. They bring LA alive and are so connected to real places and events.

            • Andrew says:

              Daniel:

              1. Yes, the budget of a novel or a comic book is about a zillion times less than the budget of a movie or TV show. In some sense, it’s kind of amazing that novels and comic books can have any large audiences at all, given the discrepancy in production values. The power of an individual voice counts for a lot, I guess.

              2. I’ve never lived in LA, but I remember one thing I really liked about Repo Man was that it looked just like LA. Unlike a lot of movies, which looked just like backlots or fantasyland LA. Or cop shows, which looked like a certain kind of LA, but didn’t look real like Repo Man looked real.

              • You might enjoy the Amazon series Goliath. I didn’t like the second season as much, but Billy Bob Thornton’s character makes me think of someone like Charles Bukowski only as a lawyer. There is a definite “looks like actual LA” visual appeal. He lives in a converted Motel or something, definitely the kind of thing you see around LA. The high powered lawyers he goes up against are a little over the top I admit, but the street scenes have a throwback appeal like Streets of San Francisco or Bullitt or the old Rockford Files episodes, all of which looked like their respective locations.

      • Carlos Ungil says:

        Moore suggests “sequential art”. Maybe bande desinée can be understood in English as a synonym for “graphic literature”, at least in some circles, but in French it applies to anything from the Garfield comic strip in the newspaper to a three-page Smurfs story for children or Japanese erotic comics (which may include more tentacles than comedy… I guess one could also talk about tragic strips, epic strips, etc. to cover all bases).

        Mind you, I have no problem with your usage of BD to denote some specific subset (even though it is a bit inconsistent with saying that BD includes also classic kids strips). I find amusing how sometimes the meaning of a word changes when borrowed in another language and I think “comic book” is good enough to refer to longer, more serious “comic books”. However, I can also understand that a more restrictive term may be useful in some contexts.

    • I have sympathy with this view, but Graphic Novels are typically a lot longer/thicker than what is normally thought of as “Comic Books”, they’re cut and glue bound rather than the comic book folded stapled construction. So I think there’s a useful distinction.

      I read them in English because all my foreign languages are only about good enough to read headlines or slowly decode the occasional paragraph.

      I’m not much for superhero comics (though I loved them as a kid) but I love the newspaper comic strip format (Pogo, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Foxtrot, Sherman’s Lagoon). Unfortunately the super-hero genre is the dominant form on Comixology, the Amazon online comics service. But I do occasionally I find a non-superhero series that I like. I really enjoyed “Stumptown” and Mouse Guard and various books by “Jason” (the only one-named celebrity in comics?). I refuse to purchase paper versions, I just don’t have the storage space. I get them from my library occasionally and read them to my kids, but then I get to return them ;-)

  4. It would be interesting to know which of these have English translations. L’Arabe du futur does; I’ve read the first two volumes and they’re fantastic.

  5. Garnett says:

    Thanks for the list! I need to expand my library beyond Asterix and Gaston Lagaffe!

  6. Joe Amon says:

    I really enjoyed Il etait une fois en France too, and Le Photographe tomes I, II and III (Emmanuel Guibert, Frédéric Lemercier, Didier Lefèvre) are quite interesting — combining drawing and photography documenting MSF’s work in Afghanistan.

  7. Andrew says:

    P.S. I recently saw the movies of The Death of Stalin and Les Vieux Fourneaux. Both were good!

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