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.
The President of the United States is assassinated. Months later an injured man washes up on a beach. Taken in by an elderly couple, he can remember nothing about himself. The only clue to his identity is the Roman numeral “XIII” tattooed below his collarbone. What is XIII’s connection to the late president and why is being hunted by determined killers?
Though Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity seems to have been the inspiration for Jean Van Hamme and William Vance’s XIII, to me the series has more the feel of an Alfred Hitchcock movie; particularly The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, and Vertigo. Like those movies XIII features an ordinary man caught in circumstances spiraling farther and farther out of his control. Despite the fact that XIII is an exceptional fighter, almost a killing machine, Van Hamme writes him as a fairly decent man of integrity who makes mistakes and shows a genuine sympathy for the innocent victims of his search for the truth.
XIII is a Hollywood type hero in that he has the most incredible luck, surviving with barely a scratch shoot-outs and traps that would kill the average man, but he’s still believable. His relationship with Lieutenant, later Major, “No First Name Given” Jones showcases XIII’s humanity. He says the wrong things, is insensitive to her feelings, and flirts with other women in front of her. In other words, he doesn’t have a clue as how to deal with this woman.
Jones is a thoroughly enjoyable character. She’s über-competent and confident. Proficient at hand-to-hand combat, an excellent sharpshooter, and able to fly just about anything, she’s no damsel in distress. She rescues XIII as many times as he rescues her.
She’s no automaton. We see her express worry, fear, anger, and weariness, but those emotions don’t drive her. She controls them. Introduced in volume two Where the Indian Walks as XIII’s guard, she’s soon swept up in his hunt for the truth.
By volume four, Spads, she’s jealous when other women show interest in XIII and in The Jason Fly Case, volume six, we get a strong sense of how
It’s not until volume eight, Thirteen to One that we know how XIII feels about her.
While the XIII-Jones relationship is part of the story, it’s only one part. This is first and foremost a mystery-suspense-action-thriller series and Van Hamme always keeps that in mind. The inside back cover of each volume carries the quote “XII is a saga where the reader should expect me to pull out the one rabbit he did not expect.” He fulfills that promise in each of the eight volumes released in English so far.
The first five volumes are one storyline focused on the hunt for XIII’s identity and the truth behind the president’s assassination.
Within that arc we also get a Southern Gothic Family murder mystery and a prison drama which tie into the main plot. Like Hitchcock, Van Hamme can write a layered, complicated story that’s still comprehensible to the average reader.
In volume six, the search for XIII’s identity takes another twist, with Van Hamme telling a two volume story that touches on the McCarthy-era witch hunts and the Ku Klux Klan while linking back to the first story arc.
This leads to volume eight and XIII’s discovery of the man behind all his troubles. The end of Thirteen to One promises an intriguing new status quo.
Not only can Van Hamme write an intelligent plot, but he can tell a story about corruption and the inhumanity of man without it being cynical and dark. XIII does not live in a world without hope. This isn’t a nihilistic, edgy drama. It’s about good people overcoming bad ones and continuing on despite the odds against them. It’s the kind of story that’s always in fashion with readers, if not creators.
Vance’s art is perfect for this type of story. It puts me in mind of something manga creator Osamu Tezuka said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was basically “The more complex the story, the less complex the page should be.” Vance’s pages don’t dazzle the eye. They allow the story to be told in a way the reader can understand. He sticks, for the most part, to the basic grid format – a plus for casual readers.
They can follow the story without trying to figure out how to read the page.
The characters, who come in a variety of different ages, body types, and ethnicities, have expressive faces. And is it just me, or does General Carrington look a bit like Lee Marvin?
The action sequences are dynamic and, again, easy to follow. Though there is on page violence, it’s not overly graphic. Vance follows the “Less is More” school of thought.
Vance also excels at creating a world for these characters to inhabit. The panels are filled with detail, yet it doesn’t distract from the main action. In volume two, XIII walks into a small town general hardware. Pans and lanterns hang from the ceiling. Barrels and baskets of produce are clustered near the counter. There are drawers of nuts and bolts. I’ve been in places like this.
His nature scenes are no less exquisite. The way he draws trees at night or a rocky shoreline or a deer racing out of the woods is realistic without being photo realistic.
This is comic art that a lay reader can understand.
XIII is one of those series that if you like the first volume, you’re going to go through the rest like popcorn. They are compulsive reading, structured so you get the general gist of the overall material no matter what volume you pick up. You also get a complete story in each forty-eight page book. This is the kind of series Americans don’t associate with “comic books” and yet it would appeal to a large number of people who glance at the comic strips and like action-adventure stories.