Thursday, 14 July 2011


The 9th Art
From the website of Cinebook:

The comic book and its close relative, the graphic novel, are a highly respected art form in France, Belgium and the rest of Western Europe—so well regarded that Cinebook takes our tagline (“The 9th Art Publisher”) from the classification of comic books as No. 9 on the list of plastic arts in Europe (Plastic Art list: 1st-Architecture; 2nd-Painting; 3rd-Sculpture; 4th-Engraving; 5th-Drawing; 6th-Photo; 7th-Cinema; 8th-Television; 9th-Comic books), In fact, one of every eight books sold in France is a comic book.

Set up by Olivier Cadic in 2005, Cinebook publishes a wide range of English translations of some of the best graphic novels from France and Belgium. The format is different from American comics being larger and with, traditionally, a length of 48-56 pages printed on good quality paper. The Asterix books are the best known examples of this kind of format. 

They tend to come in series following a character and serials, with a distinct end, rather than one-off stories. Unlike Japanese manga, however, the serials usually tend not to be very long, perhaps 2-3 volumes. The series Orbital has had four volumes published to date with an individual story spread over two books. Lucky Luke, the all-ages comedy western series by Morris and Goscinny, is currently up to 31 volumes of reprints to date.

The books are age-linked, split into Children's, 7-77 (i.e. all ages), 12+, and 15+ which is convenient for libraries who often put graphic novels in inappropriate sections which I, as a retired librarian, know all about.

As regards subject matter, they range all over the place -thrillers, SF, fantasy, westerns, humour, historical, crime, etc- but the one place they don't go to is super-hero ville which is probably why this publisher isn't all that well-known. Also the very name connotes something different from graphic novels. I was aware of Cinebook but only on the periphery of my vision.

Cinebook: Science Fiction
About now you might be wondering why I'm suddenly writing about this publisher, though the above sub-heading provides a pretty big hint. I'm a regular reader of SFX's spinoff magazine about comics called (and how's this for imagination) Comic Heroes. In the latest issue they reviewed some of Cinebook's latest releases, giving a 5* rating and rave review to the latest volume of Orbital (see above). It intrigued me enough to order the first in the series and about ten minutes after reading it I ordered the next two from Amazon. After reading samples on the Cinebook website, I also ordered the first volumes of Aldebaran and The Chimpanzee Complex and, after reading them, I ordered the rest of their series.

To put it crudely, this is seriously fucking good Science Fiction in graphic novel form.

The artwork (which I'll go into later on) of the three, and while each is very different from the other, lacks the often flashy layouts and full page images of American, especially super-hero, comics -the Batwoman graphic novel looks great is sometimes hard to follow. Here the art is in all cases designed to serve the story, not get in the way.

(Incidentally, in the previous issue of Comic Heroes, they included a full but digest-sized copy of the first volume of the thriller/action series X111 -that's 13, not X a hundred and eleven. I quite liked it but not enough to invest in a series which spans over 20-volumes.)

Despite the rating of 12+ -which really only indicates that there's no sex or bad language- there's nothing remotely childish about this series which is dark and complex. Set a couple of hundred years hence, there is a community of alien races which Earth is about to join. Humanity is somewhat split on the matter and there are many violent alien-haters and a conference to confirm the union is blown up. A couple of decades later and humans are at the bottom of the totem pole, despised (and often with good reason) by many of the races for their violence. Indeed they nearly exterminated the humanoid Sandjarr. Now two new members of a diplomatic peace-keeping group are paired together -Caleb, whose parents died at the conference, and Mezoke a Sandjarr.

In the first two volumes they have to resolve conflict between humans and Javlods on a bleak  planet with rich mineral resources. Needless to say this isn't easy. The main problem is that there are pathological bastards on all sides and there's no easy answer. Our two heroes are betrayed and subverted by almost everyone, human and alien.

You can see the style of the art above but note the colouring. Almost the entire volume is like that, dark and grey. This not only reflects the environment but also the tone of the story. The second story, which begins in vol.3 Nomads, is much lighter and more colourful and is set on the Malaysian peninsula. This time a nomadic alien race are the gatecrashers.

This is really all very well worked out with a detailed background and a realistic if perhaps pessimistic view of human nature. That said, it's a very refreshing change from mainstream American comics.

The Chimpanzee Complex vol.1 Paradox
If the next two volumes of the trilogy are up to the first, they'll be amazing.
In 2035 the planned Mars mission has been cancelled much to the disgust of leading astronaut and single mother Helen Freeman, though her feeling aren't shared by her 12 year old daughter who constantly complains of being abandoned by her mother. When space capsule of unknown origin crash lands off the coast of Mozambique, Helen is summoned to interrogate the occupants -Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

On the off-chance you actually might want to read this series, I won't say more than that about the story, except that it had me totally hooked and I can't wait for the rest of the series to arrive. Twist follows twist and I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen next. I just hope the rationale matches up to the imaginative SF plot which is also backed up by strong characterisation and a very human story.
The art is appropriately realistic, almost as if it's been copied from photographs, and looks great, ironically being a little more American-realism in style. It's as different from Orbital as it is from the next series I'm going to look at.

Ironically, the series with the oldest age rating (15+) of the three has the most clear art. Realistic in a comic-book way, it's the most accessible of the three series. 

Set on an earth-like alien world which has had no contact with Earth for over a hundred years, the story begins in a quiet fishing village where we meet our two protagonists -13 year old Kim (who becomes the main character in later volumes) and 17 year old Mark who has an unrequited crush on Kim's older sister. When disaster strikes, Mark and Kim embark on a journey which reveals their world to be environmentally stranger and politically darker than they were aware of. 

Unlike the previous titles I've looked at, this is the size of an American comic and contains the first two books in the series, as do successive volumes. While not as immediately striking as those others, Leo (the single-named Brazilian writer-artist) draws you into the story with its gradual development and your engagement with the fallible but likeable protagonists.
I did note that on the back of the title page was the following: With the author's permission, and in order not to upset our more sensitive readers, certain illustrations of this edition of Aldebaran have been modified. To which my reaction is: flooming huck! (with the author's permission certain words have been modified so as not to upset arsehole prudes). Presumably some nudity which still surprises me given that Mark (admittedly with the blinds drawn) shags an older woman and 13 year old Kim seems to be being heavily petted by a youngish bloke. Strange.

End bit
I'm not rushing out to buy anything and everything from Cinebook and I'd be stupid to try. Only a small minority of titles appeal to me and even fewer of those appeal to me enough to want to get out my credit card. I am, however, completely knocked out by these three series so far and can't recommend them highly enough to fans of SF and graphic novels.

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