Continuing our discussion of graphic novels that might appeal to readers who enjoy the combination of art and text, but who are uninterested in either superhero or alternative comics.
While historical fiction makes up a very small portion of the American comic book/graphic novel market, it's a genre that's alive and well in other parts of the world. Thankfully for English language readers, Cinebook publishes several historical series, two of which we'll talk about here.
In some ways, The Scorpion by Stephen Desberg and Enrico Marini is a throwback to the 1930s and '40s, when writers like Frank Yerby and Frank G. Slaughter were filling America's bookshelves with popular historical fiction and Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power were filling theater seats with their portrayals of pirates and swashbuckling heroes. Like his forbearers, the Scorpion is a charming rogue, quick with his wit and his sword, and surrounded by a cast of vivid characters. Cardinal, later Pope, Trebaldi wants him dead for reasons the Scorpion can't fathom. Rochnan, the masked knight, pursues the Scorpion through late 18th century Rome, the Ottoman Empire, and the Holy Land at Trebaldi's orders. Accompanying the Scorpion is the gypsy woman Mejai, a mistress of poisons who claims she's only protecting the Scorpion so she can kill him herself. The red-headed swordswoman Ansea Latal aids or betrays the Scorpion as it suits her ambitions. While both Mejai and Ansea are beautiful and display a bit of skin at times, they're also capable, dangerous women in their own right.
Cinebook's tagline for The Scorpion is "a cape and sword thriller" and that's a fair description. Trebaldi is bringing to fruition, in his own way and for his own benefit, a plan begun at the fall of Rome. Secret scrolls, hidden treasures, and mysterious Templar plots all play a part in the four volumes translated so far. The series is like a more swashbuckling cross of The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure. Desberg's script is intelligent and brings the characters to life. You want to know more about them. Marini's art is beautiful. He's equally comfortable depicting vivid action sequences, quiet contemplative moments, beautiful women, and realistic landscapes.
The Scorpion is an entertaining, engaging historical tale of daring-do that Hollywood and the major fiction publishers don't seem to offer anymore. Thank goodness Cinebook has come to the rescue and made it available to English reading fans.
Crusade by Jean Dufaux and Phillippe Xavier is a different kettle of fish entirely. It's an alternate history set during the Crusades. Nominally Christian kingdoms and Muslim nations fight for control of Hierus Halem and the body of the Most Holy X3 that rests in the Holy Sepulcher. This is a big story, with a large cast, but Dufaux's dialog and Xavier's art bring them all to life as individuals. Though all are interesting, three characters stand out. First there's Gauthier of Flanders, who loses his honor and his wife when he refuses to participate in an ill-advised battle.
While seeking new allies for their cause, he also tries to right an old family wrong.
Then there's Eleanor, Gauthier's wife, a shrewd woman attracted to power. Yet by the third volume, The Master of Machines, we see she's not incapable of feeling or loyalty. Finally there is the traitor Osarias, whose mysterious history makes him an important player in this conflict between good and evil. These are haunted people, driven by their desires and pasts and seeking redemption of some kind.
However, don't mistake this for an angst fest or heavy-handed allegory. There's plenty of action. The three volumes translated so far have featured major battles, a mace against sword trial by combat, hack and slash against demonic creatures,and more than a few beheadings. Xavier excels at action scenes, capturing their beauty and horror. There's a double page spread of the two armies meeting in volume one, "Simoun Dja", that's so evocative you can almost hear the pounding of the horses' hooves against the sand and the cries of the warriors. Art fans will no doubt remember Xavier from his Caliber Comics series Legendlore.
Crusade is a series that will appeal to fans of epic fantasies such as George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones and Joe Abercrombie's The First Law series.
It would seem like Historical Fiction would be a natural for the comic book/graphic novel format. The visuals can get across in a panel what would take paragraphs to explain and the annals of time furnish more than enough plots to keep the most prolific of writers busy. Unfortunately, it's not a genre that has been embraced by publishers or fans in the United States. But for those who do enjoy the genre, Cinebook offers several series. Next time we'll cover two more.