The Dark Night of Valerian and Laureline
This album kicks off in the middle of the story. No wall of text. Yay!
Our two title characters have crash-landed on a planet and find themselves being pulled down a raging river on their shaky raft. Just when things seem the darkest, they’re rescued by a commercial fishing boat filled with workers pulling algae out of the water to feed The Master.
The workers are not there voluntarily. Their ships crashed on the planet, too, and now they’re being forced to work for The Master to feed him, all the while starving themselves. It’s a planet of slave labor, subservient to an unseen boss who threatens them with a swarm of scary “birds” whenever they act up. That fear keeps them alive, and a pit is kept separate for those who don’t want to participate, but suffer instead. Food is produced in bulk and dumped down a trough system to the unseen Master far far away.
It’s up to Valerian and Laureline to fight their way out, save their fellow work slaves, and defeat The Master, whoever he is.
But Is It Any Good?
This is the best episode of the original Star Trek series I’ve seen in some time, just on a slightly bigger scale. Still, it’s the kind of set-up you’d half expect James T. Kirk to fight his way out of. Then, he’d likely talk the Master off the planet using some logical conundrum. Pierre Christin has created another interesting and mysterious world that drops the reader head first into a tense situation. It’s a great set-up, and the final pay-off for who The Master is works for the book.
Jean-Claude Mezieres’ art continues to open up, and his bucket of storytelling tricks is getting heavier. Just look at the opening page, where he charts their raft’s course down a raging river with a stationary camera split across multiple panels in one tier.
The backgrounds on the first and second tier are one piece, each, but the panel then break things up into moments, where the main characters float across out front It’s a nice trick, and perhaps the best example of his growth as a sequential art storyteller in five volumes.
He can start to do this because Pierre Christin’s stories leave him the room to do it. The stories have opened up, not relying on dialogue run amok to explain everything. The stories are getting more linear and more focused. Events aren’t compressed down so much that Mezieres has to draw more panels to fit everything in.
Mezieres still far too often needs arrows to guide your eyes across panels. He hasn’t yet figured out how to lay out a half page with two stacked panels next to a tall panel in a way that the eye easily glides across. Worse, it causes the eye to track backwards, reading left to right, then right to left before dropping down to the next tier. It happens right away on the second page of this story:
It’s not a rare hiccup, either. This happens on at least half the pages. Even worse, a lot of the times there isn’t an arrow, and the word balloons aren’t positioned in ways that would make the reading order obvious.
I trip up every time there isn’t an arrow. Even worse, he occasionally staggers the panels vertically between horizontal layers , which makes it even more confusing.
One thing to keep in mind, however: “Valerian and Laureline” is Mezieres’ only comics work. He’s much more of a designer and illustrator. These “rules” of storytelling aren’t necessarily in his wheelhouse. It’s not like he studied at the Eisner Studio or with Peyo or anything. His strengths are in the design work, and that’s what’s propelled so much of this series so far.
I’m going to keep looking for these issues as the volumes go on. I have to think he learned a lot from doing all these books and that things will get better as we move up the volume numbers.
The Personalities Continue to Grow
We see a continued evolution in the relationship between Valerian and Laureline. It’s getting entertaining. Valerian is turning into something of a blowhard. He’s the G.I. Joe type character, sure of his honesty, goodness, and patriotism.
But he’s got a little bit of Inspector Gadget in him, too. He thinks he’s better than he really is, and Laureline is there to call him on it. She backs him up, not to the same degree that Penny backed up Gadget, but to the point where she can call him on it when he misses the point.
As serious and dark as this particular book feels at times, their interactions are a welcome glimmer of light. They also give the book a spark of life, more than just following the plot mechanics from one scene to the next.
Laureline also befriends a young worker, Sul, and becomes his biggest champion, taking his side in any debate with Valerian. Just like with the family pet in the last volume, she shows signs of a soft spot for the young and the weak.
Another bit of levity comes in the story from the workers who are trapped by The Master into doing his bidding, but hold high level philosophical conversations on what is right or just. What if what they’re doing is actually the right thing? Is conformity such a bad thing? Christin shows a wicked streak of humor in creating the personalities of the workers who have been trapped for too long. They’re another highlight of the book.
The Lettering Got Worse Again?!?
I mentioned in volume 4 that Cinebook finally got the crossbar-I situation fixed.
In volume 5, it’s both wrong and right. At random times, it’s correct. At other equally random times, it’s wrong. I can guess what’s going on. The lettering is credited to “Michael Splho, Design Amorandi.” It sounds like more than one person possibly worked on it. Maybe a whole agency?
In some scenarios, the crossbar-I only shows up on the word “I” and when the first word in a sentence begins with an “I”. I bet the letterer cut and pasted from a mixed case script for that.
When you see everything being all crossbar-I’ed, then maybe the script had the dialogue and captions in ALL-CAPS, and the copy and pasting there carried it through.
In either case, the crossbar-I is ugly when misused, and jumping back and forth with it results in whiplash for me.
Luckily for Cinebook, I’m the weird one. I bet only three other people have ever noticed.
You can feel Christin and Mezieres start to feel a comfortable groove here. The issues I had, in particular, with the first three volumes are dropping off quickly. It’s not perfect, but the story and art are starting to gel now, and I’m excited to read more.
You can see the final page of the album (spoilers!) on this ComicArtFan page.
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #15 of 100 for 2017.)