Hommage á Ligne Claire Part 1- Review of “The Complete Rainbow Orchid” by Garen Ewing, SF Site 2013

I am going to post three SF site reviews that discuss the famous “ligne claire”  style of comic book illustration best known in the Anglosphere from Hergé Tintin series – one a review of a ligne claire style contemporary comic, another a book review of a self published young adult story I felt would have functioned  best as a ligne claire type comic (in retrospect this may simply have reflected my then-recent discovery of Blake and Mortimer) and finally a review of the Spielberg Tintin movie, which I actually did enjoy at the time.

I may also then post a piece from my student journalism days on the Tintin phenomenon in general.

The Complete Rainbow Orchid
Garen Ewing
Egmont Books, 144 pages

P.G. Wodehouse wrote of George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels that “if ever there was a time I felt that ‘watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet stuff,’ it was when I read the first Flashman.” I feel something the same about The Rainbow Orchid and Julius Chancer. Who knows what the future may bring (SF writers rarely do) but I sense that Julius Chancer will be with us for many happy years to come.

What we generally think of as graphic novels in the Anglosphere is a fairly recent innovation, deriving from more traditional comic books. In the Francophone world, bandes dessinées have a longstanding status and popularity which belies the slightly desperate quest of mainstream acceptability that often characterises English-speaking comics aficionados.

The ligne claire style of Tintin or Edgar P. Jacobs’ Blake and Mortimer adventures is, of course, not the only style of bandes dessinées, but perhaps it is the best-known and loved in the English speaking world. The blend of near-photo-realist draughtsmanship with exciting adventure plots, often overlaid with a certain Anglophile nostalgia, is a seductive one. One review of Steven Spielberg’s Tintin movie noted that, while so many action blockbusters of our day burden the hero with saving humanity, or the world, or at least some cute orphans and a hot blonde, Tintin simply wanted to get his hands on the treasure.

Blake and Mortimer adventures are still being produced, well after Edgar P. Jacobs’ death, but nevertheless it is a real thrill to discover a series of graphic novels which capture their spirit but also have their own unique voice. Garen Ewing is an English illustrator, designer and graphic novelist who has created the 1920s-set Rainbow Orchid series, the first (hopefully) adventures of Julius Chancer, a young WWI veteran turned assistant to Sir Alfred Catesby-Grey, freelance antiquarian extraordinaire and former director of the secretive Empire Survey Branch. The nature of the Empire Survey Branch is gradually revealed as the series continues; originally dedicated to the more obscure branches of antiquarian research within the British Empire, it came under military control, triggering Sir Alfred’s resignation.

The series begins with a client visiting Sir Alfred and Julius to receive a lost Henry Purcell opera the antiquarians have tracked down for him. Despite the afterglow of this success, a tension between knight and assistant is immediately evident; Julius encourages Sir Alfred to consider selling some of his collection of artefacts to shore up their parlous finances, which he refuses to do.

We are then introduced to the news reporter William Pickle, a newspaperman of the school which would culminate in phone hacking in our own time, as he machinates a story about a potential rivalry between Sir Alfred and a shadowy plutocrat, Urkaz Grope, over an upcoming flower show. This competition is less innocuous than it sounds; Grope manoeuvred Sir Reginald Pritchard Lawrence, “who owns half of Staffordshire,” into wagering his patrimony on the floral contest. Sir Reginald’s daughter, Lily, who has made the leap from London stage to Hollywood, is determined to stop Urkaz winning, and enlists Julius in the quest for a fabled rainbow orchid, mentioned in an Ancient Greek manuscript.

Thus begins a rollicking Lost World yarn, partly in the spirit of H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle but with a slightly more worldly air of Roaring Twenties Cosmopolitan. Much of the comic relief comes from Lily’s agent, Nat, whose devotion to his client includes accompanying her on high adventure. There are countless lovely touches alluding to the culture and society of the time, especially Nat’s evocation of pre-talkie Hollywood with Sam Goldwynesque turns of phrase and general wild overspending.

Ewing’s ligne claire style is a distinctive one, not a blind echo of his famous European forebears. Overall this is a pleasure to read and look at, and one hopes many Julius Chancer adventures will follow for many years.

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