Logo Winch v1 cover detail by Philippe Francq
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Largo Winch v1: “The Heir” and “The W Group”

Largo Winch inherits a $10 billion fortune if only he can get out of jail first.

This is the start of one of the first European comics series I fell in love with. It’s something unlike anything being produced in America, despite being a series set in an American board room, first and foremost.

It combines business and politics along with street-level thrills and action spills. It’s a remarkable combination of styles that works very well.

Ten Billion Dollar Credits

Logo Winch v1 cover by Philippe Francq
Original Titles: “L’Héritier”, “Le Groupe W”
Writer: Jean Van Hamme
Artist: Philippe Francq
Translator: Luke Spear
Letterers: Imadjinn sarl
Published by: Cinebook
Number of Pages: 96
Original Publication: 1990

What’s Going On?

Nerio Winch is the head honcho of The W Group, an international conglomerate made up of hundreds of companies. It’s the biggest company in the world, and is worth billions of dollars.

Winch is murdered at the start of the book, triggering a race to find his rightful heir and bring him in to keep the company together. That heir is an adopted child in Eastern Europe by the name of Largo. Unfortunately, he’s in a spot of trouble at the same time. He’s been thrown in jail in a corrupt prison system on trumped charges after being set up for a crime he did not commit.

Largo Winch in jail

Wait a second, is that timing a coincidence?!?

That’s the framework for the first half of this book. In the second half, Largo makes it to the States and has to quickly make friends with the extensive company board and secure his ownership of the company. As you might expect, such delicate political maneuvering involves a gun fight, a knife fight, boats, helicopters, beautiful women with secluded houses, and a secret island base

Naturally.

That’s what makes this book so fascinating to me. You can turn a page from a deep explanation of macroeconomics and land in a race to Europe, a car chase, or a fistfight. Yet it all flows together brilliantly.

Largo Winch, cleaned up, in a suit and a tie in New York City

I don’t want to give anything away, but Largo is a great candidate for this job. He’s smart, he’s quick on his feet, he’s a political mastermind, and he’s pretty handy with a knife. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but he will toy with them to get what he wants. He’s fun to watch work. His mind is always a step ahead.

Throughout this book, we get small flashbacks to his life growing up — from the adopted parents he lived with to the specialized school training he had and even an early love. It goes a long way to explaining why Largo is the person he is — a broken man in some ways, but also one completely and uniquely qualified for the role he’s being asked to serve now.

It’s a crazily absorbing story filled with reveals and twists that make for a real page-turner. Even when it’s a relatively quiet character moment, you’re deep in the story and want to see what happens next.

It is a book that is set up on a solid foundation of business practices and the real world’s ability to turn people into megalomaniacal jerks when it comes to money and power. But Van Hamme then cranks up the dial to 11 and lets everything fly. It’s a little over the top at times, but wildly satisfying for it.

The reason for this is that writer Jean Van Hamme can take what would be the most boring talking heads scene in the world, and draw you in. He continues to ratchet up the tension in the room he’s writing about with every volley in the dialogue.

There are many examples of this throughout the book, though the opening scene might be the best. It deserves an entire article on its own to show you how it works, and I’m working on that now.

Too Many Words?

Double Page Spread from Largo Winch v1 where everyone is talking

There’s another two-page spread where Largo meets the board and attempts to calm their frazzled nerves with his charm. The spread is more text than pictures. It’s exactly the kind of page I’ve said countless times before makes “Blake and Mortimer” so unreadable to me.

When you get into the dialogue on the page, though, it grabs you. Van Hamme injects the tension, logic, reasoning, and pure emotion that drives every character in the scene. Watching Largo at work against many of his new “frenemies” is a lot of fun.

It feels like I’m watching one of those great talkative British television dramas, except those have the helpful British accents to grab your attention first. (I can’t help it. I’m American. I’m a sucker for a good British accent.)

Whodunit? Who Cares?

If there is one weak spot in the book, it’s the solution to the big mystery of the book. When we see Nerio Winch’s death in the opening scene, his murderer is kept in the shadows or just off-panel. We don’t know who he is.

So many people are then introduced who might be the murderer that it’s hard to be surprised and shocked when we discover who it is.

It’s not a character who had any development or anything unique about him. You see who it is, you flip back to see which one he was from a previous scene, and you move on.

I wanted a more shocking revelation, but it wasn’t possible. There’s just not enough room on the comics page to flesh all the characters out. I wonder if the original novel did a better job of this. There, at least, Van Hamme could get deeper into everyone’s head and thinking process. The reader might be better acquainted with possible suspects. In the comic, it ends up being a bit of a “meh.”

There’s plenty of other things going on in this book to keep me interested, though. The trip to get to that climax is where the thrill of this book is. In fact, Largo has to get past an intermediary to get to the ultimate bad guy, and that go-between is almost more dangerous and loathsome than the final murderer.

Van Hamme does a great job in consistently raising the stakes in the book. Even though things have to reset a bit between the two halves of the story, it always feels like Van Hamme’s story is spinning more and more wildly out of control.

But, of course, it can be controlled. Trust in Largo. He’s kinda smart at this kind of thing.

The Art of Philippe Francq

Largo Winch dives into the water to avoid all the bullets

Francq’s style is perfect for this book. It’s very realistic and grounds the book. I usually prefer a much more cartoony style, but that wouldn’t work for this book at all. This one works better with a super realistic look at the world.

It’s obvious that he uses a lot of photoreference in his work. It’s something that he doesn’t hide at all. But he knows how to use it well. He’s not tracing the buildings with a dead ink line. He didn’t have SketchUp 30 years ago to place those buildings for him. His pages are also not simple photocopies of the photoreferences glued into the art. He may have lightboxed them, but he drew them.

His characters are very expressive facially and, to a certain extent, with their gestures. The book feels a lot like a movie of that time, or a made-for-tv mini-series. Of course, it’s not difficult to do period hair and clothes when, well, it was the fashion of the times when the book was produced. Today, it feels like a very specific period piece, which is some of what gives it its realistic flair.

Francq’s art has a lot of isolated people in middle-range or close-up angles filling the panels, like you’d see in a television series or a movie of the week. Nobody goes over the top in their gestures or extensions. Francq keeps the book feeling “real” even when an exaggerated moment might sell the story even better. That’s not the area Francq works in, though. He stays in his lane of realism.

During the fights, characters move believably. They’re not Kirby figures breaking out of the panels with bodies twisted in fantastic displays of musculature. There’s no forced perspective. It always feels like you’re looking through a video camera to watch the action. Francq very carefully and specifically sticks to that style.

Everything else is amped up in this book, including the character designs. Largo is a ridiculously good looking guy with a disarming smile. The board room members look exactly how they act – the rule-follower on the Board who challenges Largo is as stiff and perfectly upright as you might imagine. The cute girl in the mailroom trying to get his attention is drawn a bit over-the-top with the big hair and the short dress and the pouty lips.

It all helps to tell the story because it makes characters easier to follow. You don’t get the colorful superhero costume, which is always the big cheat in making it easy to follow different characters. You do, however, get unique traits and attitudes that help individualize everyone, particularly the people Largo is forced to work with inside the W Group.

A Publication History

Jean Van Hamme conceived of “Largo Winch” as a pitch to “Tintin Magazine” in the 1970s. It died in development, though, when its original artist left the project.

Van Hamme took the character a few years later and created a series of novels with him that lasted through the mid-1980s. I can’t find any information on just how many novels he published or which of the comics adapt any portion of them. I’m guessing the first few albums are heavily influenced by the original novels, though.

The “Largo Winch” series, in its comics album form, is composed of diptychs. That is, each story is told across two books.

When Cinebook first started publishing “Largo Winch,” they collected each story by putting both albums together into one book. This first book, “The Heir,” is actually composed of album 1 with that title, plus album 2, titled “The W Group”.

They continued this with the first four diptychs. After that, they moved to publish the books one album at a time. I guessed at the time it was to help keep the price point down, which I believe was confirmed. At the time, they weren’t caught up to the French books, so they weren’t slowing down for that reason.

Volume 23 just came out recently as the start of a new storyline. Cinebook is caught up through book 22, which is their book 18. Van Hamme has now retired from writing the stories, though he is doing a spin-off prequel of sorts, telling the story of the shared ancestry between Nerio and Largo Winch.

The numbering of these volumes is a bit of a problem, just because it gets slightly confusing. A bigger problem with these print editions, though, is their size. I’m afraid that carries down to the digital comics.

Not Large “Largo”

Francq’s art is detailed and drawn often with a fine ink line. Cinebook shrinks the books down.

This series is reprinted at a size smaller than “Lucky Luke.” A lot of thin lines break down at that size.

It’s not unreadable, but the purist in me who’s seen DC destroy Francois Schuiten’s art this way once really grates against it.

It didn’t bother me so much when I read it the first time years ago. Today, though, when I read most of my comics on an iPad at the full album size, things start to look very dark and very small in print. Thankfully, the digital edition gives me a larger screen to read it on, but a brighter skin to see all the linework.

The catch: Since the English iPad edition of the book is the Cinebook version, the art is still slightly broken up from being shrunk down before being blown up to my 12.9″ screen.

This was confirmed for me when I looked at the digital edition of the book in French, which comes out of the full-sized album pages. In isolated detail, it might not look like much of a difference, but spread across the whole page it gets very shaky.

Detail comparison between French and English edition of Largo Winch

The top section is from the French edition. The bottom clip is from Cinebook’s. Look at that yellow stripe down the middle of the road for the biggest difference. The line is badly jagged and pixellated. The stairs off to the far right are a mess. The taxis in the middle of the street are broken up.

I’m spoiled after looking at the French edition.

I’ve had similar issues in taking screenshots of the digital comic to accompany this review. At full-screen size, all the issues with shrinking down the comic show themselves. Things start to look soft and broken up.

It’s unfortunate, and the only real fix for it right now is to only read it on a smaller iPad screen. But this is exactly the kind of thing I bought an iPad 12.9″ for: reading comics.

Nothing is ever simple!

The “Largo” Cover-Up

There’s one other difference between the books, too. It’s admitted upfront:

“With the authors’ consent, and in order to not upset our more sensitive readers, certain illustrations of this edition of Largo Winch have been modified.”

By that, they mean that the topless women have been covered up.

This doesn’t bother me as much as the page size difference does, to be honest. Yes, there are scenes in these books of Largo Winch, billionaire playboy, accompanied by topless women.

In the Cinebook editions, those drawings are slightly altered to add a little extra bit of clothing to cover the woman’s chest up.

It doesn’t impact the story one bit, so it doesn’t bother me. Occasionally, I laugh at the obviousness and inconsistency of the cover-up, but it is what it is. It allows Cinebook to publish the book, as they do one printing for worldwide distribution and those panels would be enough to deny them some markets.

It’s not tasteless or gratuitous nudity. It’s never the point of the scene. But, pragmatically speaking, for very understandable reasons, a minor art modification fixes it. All we really lose is the ability to judge Philippe Francq’s ability to draw a nipple.

There’s enough going on in the rest of the book that it’s an insignificant price to pay to give us access to these books.

Recommended?

Logo Winch v1 cover by Philippe Francq

Heck, yes! This is all the set-up for the series, and it’s still a great action-packed thriller of a book where nobody feels safe and Largo has to move quickly to keep ahead of things.

The second book gets into the sweet spot of the series where Largo has to move on two fronts — both a business front and an action/adventure front. It almost seems ludicrous sometimes, but it’s also the point of the series. We’ll see an even better example of it at the end of the second volume.

Buy It Now

This first volume is part of Kindle Unlimited. If you have a subscription to that, it’s a free read for you.

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3 Comments

    1. Yeah, and I’ve long ago given up raging against the machine on that one. I just talk it up to cultural differences that don’t always make logical sense, and move on. I point it out with this review just because it was a topic of conversation when Cinebook originally printed it and because I’ll be following up with a bad example of it in the second book review — coming soon! 😉

  1. There were originally 6 novels published by Mercure de France and when Lefrancq Litterature collected them in 2 big compendia they added three previously unpublished ones to the package. I have a copy of those two on my shelf right now. The BD albums are wordy because they are originally repackaging of the books with some dialogue often verbatim, stiff and expositional, as no one speaks like that in real life and Van Hamme is not that great of a writer anyway. The also have to explain a lot because the art is very inexpressive, Francq swipes the heck of William Vance, of XIII and Bob Morane fame, but he doesn’t have his talent, and the whole thing is mostly plot-driven.
    The series is “inspired” by S.A.S. a very popular “Roman de Gare” (cheap novels that you would buy in train stations to pass the time on your trip) series in the 80’s, think of it as James Bond but with more T&A. Hence the very mild nudity that made the jump into the LW albums and no doubt contributed to their success with a young male demographic. Add to that the Yuppie factor of the 80’s by having it loosely set in the vague background of international finance. As mild as it is, the series still spawned a TV series (harmless yet rather faithful to the source material) and a couple of movies. Not bad for a mediocre team of creators. If you read a couple of XIII books you’ll see all of Van Hamme’s characters talk the same way. About 20 albums published then JVH passed the baton to a new writer. I didn’t get the chance to glance at it since.