Hey, guys. So, we’re a few weeks into 2017, and things are off to a bit of a rocky start. But to counter that, let me tell you about another awesome thing I read and that you guys should totally pick up. And this time it’s The Chimera Brigade by Serge Lehman. Or at least the first volume.
Yeah, this is another first for this series of reviews/recommendations – a comic book. And a French one, at that. But let’s get the basics out of the way first. Blurb
Europe. World War II. Witness the rise and fall of the European super-heroes, on a thrilling journey through pulp literature and alternate history! Essential reading for fans of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Planetary and Hellboy, The Chimera Brigade is a captivating series of graphic novels revealing the deadly hidden history of Europe’s last and only generation of superhumans!
The Chimera Brigade (or rather, Le Brigade Chimerique), originally published in French from 2009-2010 (and in English starting in 2014) has already received quite a bit of praise, winning the Grand Prix del l’Imaginaire for new comics in 2011.
It’s been referred to as essentially a French response to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. And that’s a fairly accurate claim, as both are works where fictional characters are real people and interact with each other. But there are two major differences: first, while LoEG (or at least, the first two volumes) is set in England during the late-19th century, CB is set in continental Europe (namely France) during the 1930s; and second, LoEG’s initial cast of characters are mostly from English stories published at the time, CB’s cast is pulled form pulp fiction, especially non-English pulp fiction. That’s not to say that there aren’t characters from English pulps, just that they’re more side-characters.
And though the point doesn’t come up here, the series also a sort of meta-commentary explaianing why the realm of comic book superheroes is dominated by American-published works, despite the genre having very clear roots in European pulp novels.
Now, I’ll admit that this sort of thing has a special appeal to me that might not be shared by others. I mean, I’m not an expert on late-19th/early-20th century popular fiction, but I do think it’s cool whenever someone decides to take a bunch of these characters (and most of them are public domain) and play around with them. Heck, it’s one of the reasons I liked Anno Dracula.
But in this case, that same trait is also a bit of a problem. As mentioned, most of the characters are from pulp novels of the early 20th century, particularly those published in France and Germany. So that’s one hurdle for an English-speaking audience. The other ties into that meta-commentary thing – most of these characters have been forgotten, supplanted by superheroes put out by DC and Marvel. And unlike with LoEG, there’s no handy list of online annotations to explain who’s who.
And that certainly isn’t helped by the fact that the English translators look to have decided to change character names to make them more lawyer-friendly.
Allow me to give you an example.
The first issue of the comic essentially sets up the whole series. In it, a bunch of pulp-era heroes and villains are called to a meeting in a city in the Alps. Our principle protagonist, Irene Juliot-Curie (daughter of Marie Curie – and yes, that’s important) sneaks in to observe the meeting.
At this meeting, there’s an American delegation consisting of three people. They’re referred to by name as, “Professor Iron,” “the Hidden,” and one by the alias “Mr. Steele.” Now, while reading the comic (though knowing a bit about American pulps of the time), it’s fairly easy to guess who these guys actually are – “Professor Iron” is Doc Savage, “the Hidden” is the Shadow, and “Mr. Steele” is Superman. While the thinly-veiled cover is necessary for that last one, I don’t understand why the first two were changed.
And this gets worse with the main characters. The ostensive villain of the series (I mean, the man has Nazi flags hanging in his big meeting hall; yes, it’s the 1930s, but come on) is one Doctor Missbrauch, but is clearly intended to be the German character Doctor Mabuse. Why the name change?
The same goes for a somewhat villainous French character: in the comic, he’s referred to as the Eye, but his appearance and all the sources I can find make it clear that he’s actually the French pulp hero Nyctalope. They didn’t even change the name of his secret identity!
This sort of thing is really frustrating for me, because one of the fun bits about works like this is being able to look up these characters and learn more about them. And that’s hard enough when there isn’t any convenient place to go for such information.
There’s also one other minor problem with the first volume – it’s short. Like, really short.
Okay, that might require some explaining.
So, I don’t really buy comics by the issue – I tend to prefer picking them up in “graphic novel” format, where a bunch of issues are collected and released in a single volume. I like this because it means I get both more for my money and don’t have to wait a whole month or more for the next installment.
Now, graphic novels tend to collect five or so issues of a comic. That’s a pretty good number, since that’s either a whole story arc, or at least a good chunk of one.
That’s not the case with Chimera Brigade. No, instead, each volume consists of a grand total of two issues.
Now, I get that the series only ran for ten issues (and that was intentional), releasing them in English as individual issues, then as two-issue “graphic novels” feels like a nasty move on the part of Titan Comics, the series’ English-language publisher.
Now, they are scheduled to release a single-volume collection of the first five issues, but that’s not scheduled for release until the end of this coming March. So yeah, bad form, Titan Comics.
So again, while I certainly do recommend picking up a copy of The Chimera Brigade, maybe wait a little while. And if you don’t happen to have an encyclopedic knowledge of French pulp-era characters, maybe find a source. Personally, I’m thinking of picking up a copy of Jean-Marc Lofficier’s Shadowmen: Heroes and Villains of French Pulp Fiction.
And for the curious, I am planning on starting up a sporking the next entry in the Mortal Instruments series soon. I just need to get started on reading it first.