Freaks Squeele v1 cover detail for a header
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Freaks’ Squeele v1: “Strange University”

Role playing game dramas/comedies are trendy these days. This is not exactly one of those, but it feels close enough.

Plus, the book originally saw print a decade ago, so maybe it’s actually ahead of the curve….

Picture Adam Warren’s “Empowered” or Richard Moore’s “Boneyard” mixed with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Academy with a touch of “Giant Days,” “Zombiellenium,” and Jimmie Robinson’s “Five Weapons” mixed in. Throw in “Rat Queens” while you’re at it, too.

That is what “Freaks’ Squeele” (pronounced “school”) feels like to me.

It’s a very entertaining read with nice art. And there’s lots of it: 137 pages in this book, alone.

Freaks' Squeele v1 cover by Florent Maudoux

Super Credits Academy

Writer, Artist, Colors: Florent Maudoux
Published by: Ankara
Number of Pages: 137
Original Publication: 2000-something


What Is It?

Freaks Squeele school for budding superheroes

This is a book about a school for young superheroes in training. There they are taught to harness their powers, sure, but also how to create their own costume and manage their public image and the media.

Along the way, you get a college comedy/drama filled with all the usual suspects from the loud roommate to the small group of outcasts who band together for survival, and the teachers who are tough and uncompromising, making the lives of our protagonists difficult for heightened drama’s sake.

It may not be anything new. It may be just mixing bits and pieces of familiar and well-trodden territory, but I’ll be darned if I’m not entertained by it.

Wolf Shadow meets Chance and Xiong Mao for the first time

It focuses, in particular, on the three students at the bottom of their class. There’s the flighty Chance, who has wings and horns on her head. You have Xiong Mao, whose powers aren’t immediately evident, but she seems smart. And then there’s Wolf Shadow, who’s a walking talking werewolf.

Together, they have to drag themselves up from the basement of their class, overcome the taunts and teases of their classmates, and somehow become better superpowered people.

If John Hughes wanted to direct a superhero movie in the 1980s, this is a bit of what it would look like.

The Balancing Act

The reason why I’ve fallen in love with this book as hard as I have is that it balances all of its factors neatly. Yes, there’s definitely superpowered mischief and shenanigans. There’s good versus evil (or at least “humans” versus monsters) and there’s full scale school riots with powers intact.

There’s also a nice sense of imagination and design. We see all sorts of imaginative places with nooks and crannies that could all play host to some kind of drama.

But there’s also that soap opera element of the relationships between the characters and what each brings to the table that we don’t all know at first. There are big revelations in store for each of these characters.

We don’t start off with their origin stories — those fall neatly into place when necessary. Yeah, it can slow up the story for an exposition dump, but it happens at an interesting time. Just as the rock is about to fall off the cliff, Maudoux explains why the rock is important and it holds that moment well. It’s just good writing.

And then there’s the humor. The book doesn’t take itself completely seriously. There are lighter moments, often between the characters owing to their differences. When done right, humor can be very similar to drama. It’s all about those opposing forces and their different points of view into the world. Maudoux isn’t just relying on superhero parody for gags.

Superheroes and the French

Far be it for me to make broad generalizations about a country full of people, but I’m going to do it anyway.

The French and the Belgians don’t do superheroes. They like to consume a limited supply of American ones as part of a more varied diet, but they don’t do their own. Of the hundreds of reviews I’ve done here, really only one has been a superhero book, and that was a parody of superheroes, “Superdupont.” (I’ve since reviewed another, the funny “Captainz,” which tries to be a team superhero book but comes off as a parody of them, as well.)

This book can’t help itself. It can’t take superheroics seriously. From the costumes to the strength training, there’s nothing about the construct of superheroes that is safe here.

Valkyrie is a character with super strength for obvious reasons....

It’s not mean about it. It feels more like a loving parody than a satirical fire-starter. It’s not tossing off barbs and aiming for weak spots to prove the inferiority of superiority of one genre or another. But it does have its own twists on the superhero tropes that make it fun without being too reverential or, on the other hand, satirical.

You don’t need to be well-versed in those superhero tropes to like this book, either. It works on its own as a character piece with fantasy elements thrown on top. I don’t have any inside information, but I’d bet this book has a large readership of women in France. This feels like the kind of book that would inspire tons of fan art on Instagram from younger artistic women — teenagers and college-aged kids specifically. Look at the kind of audience that some of those books I mentioned at the beginning of this article can generate. This would be right up their alley.

The weird cultural thing to note here is that the manga bomb hit France just as hard as it hit America 15 years ago. From that, you can see the manga influence on many titles from the last ten years. This book is a great example. Look at “FRNK” for another.

You don’t see a huge superhero upswing in the history of Franco-Belgian comics ever. You don’t see a big Jim Lee style push coming out of France.

Manga, though, remains.


The Art and Color of Freeks’ Squeele

Florent Maudoux comes from the world of animation and storyboards for video games, but it’s clear that manga is a huge inspiration for his work.

It starts with the technical elements:

The amount of speedlines in the book is mind-boggling. When the big action pieces happen, the backgrounds disappear completely and all the focus is on the action of the interacting characters. Speedlines and sound effects replace everything else.

He even includes a Fastball Special, which is a notable American invention:

Never thought I’d find a Franco-Belgian book with an homage to the X-Men with a side of “Toy Story”…

As you can see already, Maudoux uses his tools in service to the story.

While some pages might be simpler than your typical Franco-Belgian comic, he still packs each page with plenty of panels and lots of backgrounds.

Freaks backgrounds can be detailed, painted, and nice to look at.

He can do great backgrounds. He has a few techniques he uses to set them back from the foregrounds. His best technique is the way he paints the backgrounds in softer greytones. They set off nicely from the sharply focused foregrounds, just as your normal vision would have them do.

The example above is straight pen and ink with some graytones added in digitally, I’d bet. The are the examples where he’s painting his backgrounds, too. He uses similar techniques there, too, with some nice white highlights to suggest strong lighting.

After that, lots of the story is told in a closer-up style, emphasizing facial expressions to tell the story, with quick images to pick out key moments. Characters often zip into their next position and hold a super dramatic pose, while others stare blankly ahead. And those faces often distort slightly. It’s not like those big-eyed manga you might initially think of, with eyes that take up half of their faces and little marks emanating from their face to indicate emotion.

This style reminds me a bit of Takeshi Miyazawa’s, who shares the same influences that he wears on his sleeve.

Then, in the middle of the book, it goes full color. I don’t know why. I know some manga have chapters that begin in color for a few pages before returning to black and white. I know that has to do with the printing presses and having color signatures and all. This just seems random.

Honestly, I like the pure black and white better, but the color isn’t bad looking. Things feel a little softer somehow with the color, but it doesn’t ruin the art. I just feel like this art style works better in black and white. It does a good job on the contrasty images with good separation between the whites and black, with the gray tones to fill in the middle. The color isn’t a necessary replacement.

Manga and Motion

Here’s a quick sequence that shows off a lot of techniques. The camera is following that power blast through the scene. We know it’s moving fast because of the abundance of speedlines. The color has a gradient that also helps show the speed with the color shift, and reflects the brightness of the energy with the way its light casts out.

Even the sound effects mimic the physical effects of the sounds they’re making. Look at how they’re sharp in one panel, blending in with the speedlines in one, and breaking apart in the other. these are all ways Maudoux controls the scene and guides the reader along. Even if you don’t consciously pick up on these techniques and how they impact you, you feel them.

This is that visceral action feeling that manga does so well, often eliminating everything else to focus on the moment of pure action in the panel, or in the scene. Everything else drops away and you don’t notice the lack of backgrounds or the weird and unnecessary way the panels are shaped and staggered. You feel the action, and that’s the cartoonist’s job.

Also, that peak moment of action often happens immediately and ends just as quickly. There’s little transition between Resting Face Character and Extremely Excited Happy Face character, complete with speedlines emanating from their heads.

It’s a style that understandably isn’t attractive to everyone, but I like the way it works here.

The Lettering Problem

It’s a problem. I don’t know where they got this font from, but they should send it back to be finished.

It has that uneven look of a font trying hard to look like hand lettering.

But the kerning fails it. It’s so wildly uneven at times that it’s distracting.

The spacing between words looks off to me. The spacing between letters is mostly even, but with some of the odd letter shapes there are awkward gaps between them.

But that’s not the worst of it. The “FR” combination is so bad that it hurts my eyes. It doesn’t happen frequently, but just enough that I stumble over those word balloons every time:

There is no space in the “FR” combination. They practically overlap.

And, then, there’s the lettering rule we learned in the earlier days of computer lettering in the late 90s: Don’t use special fonts for each character. There’s a witch character in this book who gets her own font and it annoys me a bit. It matches her, as a character, but the way the letters go from thick at the top to thin at the bottom creates a jarring effect when reading it.

It’s not the end of the world. Honestly, you get used to all of this as you read through the book.

Except that “FR” problem. That’s really bad.


Recommended?

Yes, it’s a good light read. A fun book with nice art. There are little character mysteries and a strong sense of humor. It has some very small moments of what you’d probably call “fan service,” but it’s very minor in this book. (It goes a little further in volume 2.)

There are three books to the series available in English today. It looks like there are seven books, total, in the main series, and at least three spin-off books beyond that. I look forward to all of it…

— 2019.016 —

The Podcast Edition

The 28th episode of The Pipeline Comics Podcast was an abridged version of this review. You can listen to it here:

Buy It Now

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Bonus Panel

The university has a grand library, of course, as all good schools do. Here’s a wide shot featuring our three stars along the bottom. But look carefully for the Spider-Man-like character hanging out above them…

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

5 Comments

  1. We used to consume heavy doses of american super-heroes, I was introduced to Marvel and DC from french publishers LUG and ARTIMA back in the day. Today, different publishers, PANINI, URBAN, and others but still heavy servings even though I’m mostly out of that game, apart from the occasional blockbuster-related binge. (I’m currently rereading classic DOOM PATROL, for example). In France they’re not selling as much as Manga, but still doing pretty good, so we know about super-heroes, even though you are correct to assume that the general public stopped at SUPERDUPONT (which was about the equivalent of a couple of volumes worth of stories, about 40+ years ago, still…). I guess that’s how pop culture works.

  2. Liked the book form the cover, glad the book itself is good too, I’ll make sure to buy it (probably next week or so).
    Love your lettering parts of the review, I don’t think any other reviews do that.

    1. Thanks, Arcturus! Lettering is always an important part of a comic, and it drives me nuts that more people don’t realize it. The lettering mix of styles in translated BD is so broad that it naturally lends itself to more discussion. Marvel and DC kind of have a house style at this point, so it’s tough to say anything new about them. All the different books I’m reading from Europe lead to different styles and font choices to talk about. From what I’ve seen, the translation letterers try to approximate the same style of lettering in English as was originally done in French, but the results of that can be mixed.

      Now the big question: Did you get the book? =)

      1. Sorry for the late answer, I forgot I posted here…. 🙁 It’s on sale now (first two volumes) so I came to re-read the review and saw this. I’m getting it, impossible to say “no” at the low price of 2.5 Euro.
        Thanks for the big explanation. The first time I noticed lettering was in a book which did it badly, that’s what made me really appreciate this part of your reviews. Kind of sad that Unless lettering is awful most don’t notice it (myself included for a while).

        1. Glad you were able to pick it up while it was on sale! =) And, yes, bad lettering is the best introduction to the world of lettering. From there, you can start to appreciate and notice the good stuff. Welcome to a bold new world….