Writer : Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Picaret
Art : Jean-Claude Gal
I always found it hard to square my ideas of what European (well, French) comics was meant to be with what most of it turned out to be. In my mind I saw thoughtful and artistic presentations both deep and meaningful, topics rejected by the American market which was hungry for simple violence. In reality it turns out that the French are as capable of producing cheap thrills as their American counterparts.
I think is the best representation of that clash between the two – here is a a book that couldn’t be farther away from the reputation of sophistication that is often associated with French culture if it came with a free Manowar CD and had every chapter booked with an Uncle Eerie summation page.
In a way my qualms are not so much the fault of the French as my own – no culture outputs only high-minded art. For years people in the English-speaking world have only been exposed to a few select bits of French culture, and because American culture has been so good with providing the bread-and-circus part of one’s cultural nutrition the only things we got from France were the top of the pole art stuff (in cinema at least). A person grown up like this might be forgiven for thinking the French never wasted their time and money on mindless action films or cheap comedies. (It’s all bullshit, of course.)
This has probably been the most enlightening part of my Humanoids reading experience. Sure, a lot of it is “art” (or wants to be), but there’s plenty that doesn’t have any ambitions, and some that have a measure of ambition that they can’t really live up to. Armies is the latter, but it is one hell of ride.
Armies is an epic fantasy, or variation thereof. Also, it’s a book of two distinct parts set in a time unknown a grand unnamed conqueror sends his endless legions across the world. The first half of the book is a collection of short stories, focusing on lone soldiers, small legions in far-off regions, and people who find themselves in the way of the armies. It is an intentionally micro-level gaze at a macro-level scale – we never hear or see the commanders of the army, we never get a sense of the grand purpose that unites them. The second half goes for a more traditional narrative. One can easily be forgiving for thinking of it as separate piece linked by creators and a generic-medieval-European-fantasy-setting. Called “Arn’s Revenge,” it is a grand story of a young prince betrayed by his father’s shifty adviser, sold to slavery, and escaping only to…. You can make the rest of it up without me heaving to write this, right?
The first half is the one that made me mention Uncle Eerie (or was it Creepy?) – these short stories are exactly the kind of twist-ending forgettables that one could find in one of the old horror anthologies. (I’ve got a distinct taste of Richard Corban from these, to be fair though – he is the only Creepy / Eerie artist whose work I’m actually familiar with.) It’s not that they’re bad. Some of them actually have quite clever little twists, and one or two produce actual emotions of horror, but none of them is very memorable.
“Arn’s Revenge” story sticks farther into the mind – the plot is generic to the extreme but Jean-Pierre buys into it whole heartedly: Arn’s story is a grand tragedy played out as bombastically as possible – there’s not a moment of levity or humor to be found in it (which puts it in glaring contrast to some of the black comedy pieces of the first part). There are small touches that make “Arn’s Revenge” different than the average sword-and-sorcery epic – a bleaker outlook, odd touches of magical un(realism), a Game of Thrones-esq willingness to go the whole hog for the grim and grittiness thing.
But strip all of these away and you end up with something that could have been plotted by a computer that had been fed a steady diet of Conan the Conqueror novels. The “Armies” part was, at the very least, interesting in its commitment to eschew the larger image in order to focus on the peons (even if their stories weren’t all that new), but “Arn’s Revenge” is all been there, done that.
…. Or it would have been had it not been drawn by Jean-Claude Gal. There’s very little information about Gal in the English speaking internet, but a quick browsing reveals that the man died at an early age (52), and that during that time he produced scent amount of comics work – several short stories here and there, one completed graphic novel (‘L’Aigle de Rome’ – never been translated to English as far as I could discover), an unfinished collaboration with Jodorowsky (Diosasamante – the last said of which the better), and Armies.
Looking at Armies it becomes clear why he produced so little material – every panel and page is Baroque in scope and nature (helped immensely by the impressive size of the hardcover – like a DC Comics “Absolute” book). Gal creates whole worlds and environment reach in details – a huge shot of forest spares no single leave even in the most distant tree, every soldier uniquely scarred, and every armor differently chipped and battered. His work also avoids unnecessary smoothness: this world feels like it’s been lived in – like it left its scars on the people just as they have left scars on it.
I’ve mentioned Conan the Barbarian earlier, and would Frank Frezzata had not done the definitive take on the character (and the ethos he represents in popular culture) one could see Gal as a worthy replacement. As far as I’m concerned this is Gal’s book even more so than Dionnet and Picaret: his work that gives the story worth, his world building that gives the sketchy characters a place to inhabit, his attention to details that creates believability where there is none. Reading through book one, nearly confused by the disparity between the level of the art to that of the writing – it’s almost like hiring Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot an Uwe Ball picture
The best thing that I can say about this book is that it’s a good showcase for Gal’s work (probably the only worthwhile one found in English) – and that it’s a pleasure to behold for fans of painted overkill (see – I’ve just invented a style). Otherwise the work itself never rises above it’s a clear influences. A shame, but a mixed one.
 I am not American – but growing up in Israel meant that I’ve been exposed to mostly the same film and television as the average American – though often months and years behind
 I find myself constantly returning to book to fill out details that slipped my mind – usually I remember all the comics I’ve read quite clearly, even years after the fact.
 A good decade before Martin thought off his grim saga. Though, to be fair – Martin’s work seem to work as response for post-Tolkien type fantasy, while Armies inhabits a more pulpy Conan the Barbarian type environment.
 That poor machine would probably short-circuit itself to death
 OK – I’m exaggerating, but you catch my drift.