The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec are extraordinary indeed. Adele is an odd woman in Belle Époque Paris in the first two decades of the 20th Century who finds herself enmeshed in events involving such wild and amazing creatures and events as mummies, a pithecanthrope man, evil demons, human sacrifice and the sinking of the Titanic.
The amazing Jacques Tardi creates a fully realized world in the two stories contained in this book, stories in which strange, almost mythological, creatures live right next to the Eiffel Tower, famous French cemeteries and the Louvre. Using a bright and cheerful art style, Tardi creates an extraordinary world in which the bizarre lives right next door to the banal.
Not that Adele Blanc-Sec’s world is banal; her life is anything but a typical life. I thoroughly loved how Adele always seems to have bizarre and extraordinary adventures thrust upon her, seemingly for no reason other than that she is a person who happens to travel in those circles. I think my favorite scene in the book happens when Adele ends up at an event in which a prehistoric man is revived after a very long hibernation. When the Pithecanthrope is woken up, however, he’s a surprisingly erudite and intelligent creature.
But it’s not all amusing surprises and wacky adventures in this book. In the first half of this collection, Adele is caught up in a car chase that seems surprisingly dangerous for American readers who are used to our heroes emerging completely unscathed from the horrible dangers they face.
And horrible events suck other characters into their miasma as well. Our brilliant Java man meets a fate very different from that which we expect him to face at the end of the first story, and the awoken mummy in the second story has equally horrible things happen to him.
In fact, at the end of the second story, a fate befalls a main character in the story in a way that would be almost impossible to imagine for a reader accustomed to adventure heroes always emerging from every battle unscathed and unharmed. Tardi delivers an ending to the second half of this book that is thoroughly shocking. Adele and her friends aren’t Doctor Who and his companions, gallivanting across space and time and always emerging unscathed. The adventures that occur in this book are real and terrible in their consequences. They may seem a bit outlandish — the sinking of the Titanic is blamed on Adele, among other astonishing events — but they are real in a way that feels oddly intense for American readers.
In a surprising way, the two stories in this book seem emblematic of the era in which they are placed. Early 20th Century Belle Époque was an optimistic setting for a story, a time and place when science and reason seemed to be conquering the very rules of time and space. It was an era of great fascination with Egypt and Athens, a time when great explorers seemed to be erasing the very borders of the globe. Adele’s adventures seemed emblematic of that time, representing her view of the world with widely open eyes.
But as the Great War loomed and an imminent sense of despair hit France, Adele changed. She soon became one of the Lost Generation, and the latter section of the second book represents the end of that era in a striking and elegant way.
But don’t get me wrong. These aren’t grim comics; they’re extraordinary adventure comics created by a brilliant creator at the height of his skills. Tardi creates a wonderfully unique and exciting world in these comics, one that I absolutely loved exploring.
(Oh, and that last image directly above? It’s actually not a spoiler. How’s that for a tease?)
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he’d like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.