Set in 1983, “Incredible!” follows Jean-Loup, an 11-year-old boy with a difficult home life, a big imagination, and some quirks that take him on a big adventure from his home to school to the King’s residence and beyond.
It gets off to a slow start, but builds to an “incredible” ending with a lot to chew on along the way.
Step On a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Credits
Translator: Joseph Laredo
Letterers: Cromatik, Ltd.
Published by: Dargaud
Number of Pages: 198
Original Publication: 2020
A Long Walk Home From School
Jean-Loup has a mental affliction or two. It’s probably OCD. He gamifies his walk home from school to earn points for avoiding contact with people, avoiding the white striped lines in the crosswalk, and missing the hairdresser’s dog. He taps his nose three times repeatedly for what I assume is a kind of comfort. That’s why I’m assuming it’s OCD he’s dealing with. It’s 1983, so who would diagnose it back then, anyway?
His mother is gone. Her urn full of ashes sits atop his dresser. We never see his father. He’s absent, always promising to be there but never showing up. Jean-Loup practically lives by himself, and fills the time by writing index cards full of facts and then cataloging them.
He’s also imaginary friends with an imaginary version of the King of Belgium, King Baudouin. He’s picked on by the photograph of his grandfather in his military garb, berating Jean-Loup for not behaving as he should.
But it’s his intense curiosity and thirst for knowledge that will take him outside of his comfort zone, where making presentations of facts earns him a chance to compete for his school in front of large numbers of people that he usually works hard to avoid.
To overcome a lifetime of issues, he’ll need help from his Elvis-loving uncle and an assist from the real life King of Belgium, who he writes to every year at Christmastime.
The whole thing reminds me of a lot of children’s literature, where the kid is different and usually picked upon and is surrounded by harsh adults and super colorful characters. I’m thinking of stuff like “Matilda,” though that might be pushing it even a bit further than this book.
Jean-Loup has drawn a rotten hand in the poker game of life. The book starts by showing us how bad it is. Even knowing that it’s all set up to put his back to the wall so he can have a transformation or a victory later in the book, I let myself get wrapped up in it, feeling sorry for the kid for everything he’s going through, even though he takes it on without feeling sorry for himself or lamenting his spot in life. He’s a kid determined to get things done, just in his own way that he can under the circumstances.
I’ll be honest, I struggled a little bit through the first half of the book. I didn’t know where it was going. This book runs almost 200 pages and much of it was focused on a kid who’s alone and struggling to get through school.
I wasn’t interested in another fanciful story about a boy coping with social anxiety overcoming it all to win the game in the end or win the presentation trophy at another school or something.
The deeper I went, though, the more I wanted to see what was going to happen next. Jean-Loup’s fanciful trip to visit his friend, The King, is what kept me going. I’m glad it did because it’s a major turning point in the book. It ties back into the opening of the book, where the author lays out what is going to happen in the story, and it leads to a revelation for Jean-Loup that sells the whole book to me. It’s a completely different story than what I thought it would be.
Darnit, I got sucked in and learned to love the book and all of its trappings. Well played, Zabus and Hippolyte!
Also, I loved this panel at the start of the book:
Hippolyte’s art is not my usual cup of tea. The book looks like it’s inked with a single-weighted pen. The panels are borderless. The color is done with watercolor, but is limited and sparse.
I think the coloring might be my favorite part of the book. It’s interesting to see how he works with it to establish settings, focus your attention, and tell the story in the simplest terms. Backgrounds are often monotone, and the characters in the foreground are pretty simple to play against them. Jean-Loup’s yellow hair often helps set him apart.
In the end, while the raw style of the art isn’t what I’d normally reach out to read, it tells the story well and didn’t get in my way. The characters are great actors, and that’s what really counts.
The Lettering is Hard to Read
There’s something about Franco-Belgian comics that try to feel like slice-of-life books. They use a scripted font for their lettering. I don’t know why it is, but it happens frequently enough that it feels like a pattern.
Usually, it stinks.
It hits this book pretty hard. It’s hard to read. I was born and raised in an age where writing in script/cursive was expected and accepted. I can read and write script. This font is just tough, though, particularly when it comes to words that aren’t commonplace, or are specific place names or people’s names. You can’t cheat those by expecting those words. You have to work out every letter. So “Beaugens” to refer to Jean-Loup’s family lineage can be a stumbling block. I tripped over it in this book a lot.
I think the problem with this book is that the letter forms are just too compact and small. They feel a little squished together inside the balloons and a little too small relative to the size of the page. Compare it to the lettering in “Mamma Mia,” whose script font is a little wider and cartoonier looking. It’s easier to make out the strokes and read the words.
Or look at “Seeking Dad 2.0“, which almost looks like normal mixed case lettering, but with a few extra strokes to make it look like script.
Yes. Like I said above, it got off to a bit of a slow start for me, but Zabus’ script eventually charmed me. Hippolyte’s art is not my conventional stylistic preference, but told this story well and I fell into its rhythms quickly.
Basically, this book had everything working against it when I started it. Despite all of that, I enjoyed the book a bunch. Zabus and Hippolyte did their jobs well and won me over. This is a wonderful book.
"Incredible!": The Story of a Belgian School Boy - PIPELINE COMICS
Jean-Loup is a shy and lonely boy with absent parents. But an opportunity for greater things at school might break him out of his shell. If it doesn't break him.
Author: Zabus, Hippolyte