Crossing Borders: Atomic Legionnaires


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French prodigy Bastien Vivès takes on the legionnaires of Rome and Jeroen Janssen chronicles Doel, an abandoned nuclear town in Belgium.

Doel in decay

Doel is a village that is slowly losing its battle with the Modern Age. Lying next to the industrial harbour of Antwerp, one of the biggest European transits for seafaring vessels, Doel is destined to disappear as the harbour of Antwerp keeps growing, Tetsuo-style, sucking up the pictoresque village of Doel in its techno-industrial organs.

Comic artist Jeroen Janssen of Bakamé fame has been appointed the village artist and is keeping a blog of his experience filled with beautiful watercolour paintings of an era gliding by. There’s an album in the making of stages but a short story has already been published in France by Auteur: Collectif XXI entitled Grand Reporters. In the book Janssen is in the company of such grandmasters as Tronchet, Guibert, Joe Sacco etc.

Click here to visit the blog

The legionnaires of the fantastic

Bastien Vivès rose to fame in 2009 with his fantastic album The Taste Of Chlorine (published in english by Jonathan Cape)  which was part of the official selection of Angoulême 2009. It immediately set up the themes of Vivès’ signature style: love, relationshiops and existential meanderings  coupled with a loose line and inventive storytelling. Dealing with unrequieted love, the whole comic takes place in an indoors swimming pool and is told almost completely without words, whole pages filled with two people swimming where the slightest gestures hold meaning in an emotional context. Subsequent albums like Through My Eyes, Close Friendship and the fantastic Pollina further explored Vivès fascination with intimacy in images as well as Vivès constant search in technique.

In 2010 though, a different sort of comic emerged from Bastien Vivès: For The Empire. For The Empire is a fantastical recount of Roman soldiers penetrating the unknown lands beyond the borders of the Roman empire. It can hardly be called an historical epos since there is little in the way of historical data or old world settings involved. The small Roman legion consists of an array of diverse personalities and comes only armed with their wits, expertises and a supposed map of these wondrous worlds never before seen.

Entirely drawn on the Wacom tablet, Vivès brings his loose signature style with flair to the ancient worlds. His facial work and body stances are lively and energetic, possessing a poetic beauty of its own only slightly tempered by the lack of variation of thickness in its linework due to the tablet usage. His action scenes are well choreographed performances of violence where some orgasmatic exploitation of visceral scenes are not askewed. It’s hard to typify Vivès art. His loose linework delineates the human figure, elevating it into a swirly mass of elegant proportions or degrading it into a composition dragging the world on its shoulders and all the emotions inbetween. And if there is one thing Vivès excells at it is emotions and that is what saves this graphic novel from being a ‘just ok’ reading experience. The colouring by Sandra Desmazières bathes everything in warm golden textures and the atmosphere drips from the pages by the buckets.

Newcomer Merwan’s story starts off well, taking its time story wise, expungiating a certain manga-like type of storytelling which Vivès cuts up into multiple panels per page. There are some good ideas and cool visuals here but the story is bogged down by a larger methaphorical subtext which stays hidden to this reviewer, I must be honest. The Roman legion’s trip to the outer worlds reads like a strange descent into the subsconcious with themes like sexism, alpha males and the subjectiveness of our perceptions. It never reads clear on what exactly Merwan sets out to tell, it reads like an adventure story with amazones, strange libraries and intelligent cave people but as it progresses it unfortunately descends into an incoherent tangle of methaporical visuals with the apotheosis especially creating a feeling that you are missing ‘something’. Vivès takes it all into stride and illustrates the hell out of it but one is left with a rather empty feeling upon closing the book.

For The Empire by Merwan & Bastien Vivès is a relaxed read showcasing some neat ideas with a Vivès in top form but ultimately falls flat as the story fails to communicate its premisse leaving the reader feeling quite bamboozled.

Pour l'empire, Tome 1-2-3 by Merwan & Bastien Vivès is published in french by Dargaud. They are oversized hardcovers in full colour. Each album counts 55 pages and retails for €11.99. This review was based on the dutch collected edition by Ballon Media.


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