The Crusades – a series of loosely connected Holy Wars where thousands of knights ran off to the Holy Land to evict its current denizens – lasted 200 goddamn years, yet it’s oft-ignored in popular culture outside of Dan Brown-level antics and that one Ridley Scott movie that nobody likes. I guess it’s hard for Western culture to accept a scenario where the God-fearing white people are the bad guys, no matter how just they think their war in the Middle East is. Hm!
The aftermath of the Crusades is just as interesting as the Crusades themselves. France’s King Philip IV owed the Knights Templar a ton of money — besides protecting pilgrims and fighting in Holy Wars, they were a major part of the economic infrastructure and even innovated banking practices like the use of checks — so he decided to get rid of that pesky debt by arresting all the Templars in France and accusing them of outrageous crimes. Once he got Pope Clement V to issue an order that got the rest of Europe to turn on the Templars, they were pretty much done for.
I’m not just talking the higher-ups; everyone got arrested — high-ranking knights, regular grunts even the non-combatants that worked the banks. It’s the lower class of betrayed Templars that give writer Jordan Mechner a through-line for Solomon’s Thieves, as a few of these knights slip through the cracks of oppression and persecution to… pull off a heist?
I love when stories pull shit like that. Sweeping epics are too expensive to be interesting; I like period flicks with a genre. Did you see Centurion? Neil Marshall took the tired, saggy flesh of the Roman epic and made it into a high-octane chase film that fulfilled all the violently sleazy, John Carpenter-esque promise that Doomsday showed. It doesn’t all have to be Cleopatra and Quo Vadis, just as a Crusades-related period piece doesn’t have to be Kingdom of Heaven. There are tons of stories you can tell given any historical framework, and thankfully Mechner understands this.
No stranger to bygone eras in his video game career, which includes titles like Prince of Persia, the relaunch Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and The Last Express (a game I seriously need to track down and play), Mechner does his research — as the fascinating backmatter in this volume indicates. Influenced by Alexandre Dumas and adventure films, wisely makes the surviving Templars the naughty brigands of the Order (read: “the interesting ones”). ‘Cause you know the loyal ones were the first to go forth and let themselves be burned at the stake.
This first volume, like the first act of everything ever, is all setup. We meet our characters, get a sense of the environment, and Mechner sets off the political machinations that end in the arrest of all Templars around Europe. He mitigates with a climactic, swashbuckling swordfight, ending the book with our heroes venturing off on their quest. After Resistance: Book One gave me the introductory chapter of an interesting bit of history, I’m getting a bit ill of the serialized delivery. But considering I get the same thing from superhero comics, TV shows and movies, I guess I’ll have to live with it. To say I wanted more isn’t really a slight, but I really wish I could read it all at once.
The art of LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland — both of Dreamworks Animation — makes Solomon’s Theives look like a traditionally animated Disney Film, right down to the expressive faces and cartoony character designs. Their linework’s more, um, sketchy (not to sound pejorative) and less polished than one would imagine the final product being if it were an animation, but the effect is unmistakeable. They’re saddled with the unenviable task of illustrating a period for which there are no contemporaneous photo references, so they must rely on using (one assumes) historical artifacts and art from the era to recreate it. In their efforts, they create a world that feels real, while expressing Mechner’s script with some great panel-to-panel storytelling and fight choreography.
Solomon’s Thieves, for all of its heavy historical backdrop, is one of the more fun books to come out from First Second, which really speaks to the publisher’s diversity. For those in the ongoing comics debate of variation in what appears on shelves, look no further and support books like this.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book writer, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter as @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his newest comic, “Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men,” over at Champion City Comics.