Writer : Pierre Gabus
Art : Romuald Reutimann
Possibly the most enjoyable thing about District 14 (and I say “possibly” only because there is so much to choose from that I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for choosing differently) is the way it constantly surprises you. Going into this book one could be forgiven for thinking it’s a stock story dressed up in animal skin: There’s an immigrant arriving to a new land, bereft of all, who quickly finds himself entangled in a network of crime and corruption. That the immigrant is talking elephant in a world of anthropomorphized animals, and that the titular new land is called District 14 and not America – these would appear to be mere window dressings. But appearances, teaches District 14, are often deceiving.
“(Un)Funny Animal” comics are nothing new – from Mouse to Usagi Yojimbo to Apocalypse Meow to today’s reigning champion Blacksad. The genre is familiar, it’s rules known – the animals are masks, images over the bodies of people. When I bought District 14 I was expecting another Blacksad – an early 20th century noir story played straight (and Blacksad, as good as it is, couldn’t be any straighter if it came with a ruler) with some nice art. But District 14 is anything but straight, whenever I thought I had pegged it down it threw another curveball at me – shifting plots and genres, adding characters and ideas to an already dense mix.
It becomes clear very quickly that Michael Elizondo’s plot is just one part of a much larger mechanism. The book also explores the politics that control District 14 with a large cast of characters that includes elected officials, corrupts cops, crime organization, social activists, and aliens. Indeed, there are actual space-Aliens in District 14 – a race of black blob-ish beings with weird powers that came to the district generations ago and are still at the bottom of the social pole.
It’s such an odd, yet brilliant, move on Gabu’s part. In a world where everybody is already a species unto themselves, he creates a completely different class of immigrants by inserting science fiction elements into seemingly historical setting. As the story progresses, we see that Gabu has actually gone a lot deeper than we expect him to: exploring the sociological and physical consequences of a world in which animals evolved human-esq intelligence and humanoid-characteristics. The animals in District 14 have human attributes, but retain their animal instincts and habits. Each species reflects their real-life limitations and properties– from a short sighted rhino to an sexually prolific frog and his cadre of similar-looking-and-slow-witted offsprings.
The book’s plot dances around time and space, establishing histories and locations, building up the world these characters inhabit. There are many twists and turns throughout the first two volumes of District 14, but the author refuses to abuse them into the now common “Ah-ha” moment which infests American comic-book story telling. Shocking things happen, but they are never treated with an artificial showman-like quality – these are things that feel like they are happening to actual people, which makes their impact all the more effective.
Reuitman’s art is nothing short of spectacular in its classicism – the pages are rigidly constructed (with most featuring between three to seven panels) and the actual characters are simple in representation. These facets do not obscure the impeccable story-telling the book offers. Nothing is ever wasted on the page, every small details builds up the work and the world. At one point two cops look in awe as the local vigilante makes short work of a small gang – “his control and mastery of even the smallest gesture is stunning…” says one of the awed policemen, this compliment could have easily been given to the artist drawing these images.
Reutiman does not seek to amaze the reader with beautiful imagery – his concern is the story, by establishing characters and settings. There isn’t a single image that adequately represents Reuitman’s mastery of the ninth art. One must weigh in the work as a whole and observe the artist’s approaches to the different genres the author throws at him (drama, political intrigue, Science Fiction, noir, etc.).
If there is a complaint to be lodged against District 14, it’s that at times it feels like too much of a good thing: two long volumes into the series and only now the main players are finally in place for some good action. While it has been a pleasure watching them get into these positions, it’s a full time job keeping up with the loose ends the story accumulates. (I guess that this is something that would appeal to fans of stuff like The Wire, but people who prefer a more straightforward approach might just get lost in the shuffle.) What starts off as a character driven narrative, quickly becomes the story of a city, the whole city – from the upper echelons to the lowest of decks. (There is a spin off book called The Fantastic Voyage of Lady Rozenbilt – a proto-origin story for one of District 14‘s more intriguing side characters. That book is notable mostly for showing that Reuitman’s art looks just as good colored as it is in black & white; it is, otherwise, a pleasant but inessential diversion.)
That the story is a bit too clever, too ambitious, is a minor qualm. Still, District 14 is nothing short of treasure and one of the most highly recommended gems in the Humanoids’ crown.
 There is one big exception to the rule: Bryan Talbot’s excellent Grandville graphic novel series.
 Elizondo’s history – when we finally see it, is as effective both as a great short story and as a “ah-ha” moment
 The first two “seasons” as the books are 700 pages altogether – and I remind you that these are 700 pages without full and double spreads; in District 14 every page counts