Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer: The Francis Blake Affair

I've just been reading this recently translated Belgian Bande Dessinee featuring the intrepid, stiff-upper lipped British duo Blake and Mortimer, originally created by Edgar P. Jacobs, the artist who worked closely with Herge on some Tintin books (notably The Seven Crystal Balls) before they had a bit of a dust up. Jacobs wanted more credit on the series - I think he was keen for the books to be labelled "The Adventures of Tintin by Herge and Edgar P. Jacobs". Not much to ask, eh? Needless to say Herge was not best pleased and eventually Jacobs received the order of the boot. 

Off he went and created his own comic book series about spiffing Brits Blake, a top-ranking secret service man, and Mortimer, a genius physicist. Just average chaps. They share a posh flat in London with Egyptian statues lying about the place and hunting trophies on the walls, where they lounge about in their grey flannels, say "blimey" a lot and smoke their pipes. But - no smirking at the back! - they're just good friends, right? 

A few years back I read The Mystery of the Great Pyramid, by Jacobs, expecting Tintin-level excellence, but was greatly disappointed. I realised then why Herge had to show Jacobs the egress. The basic idea was entertaining enough, and the strip looked great - with Jacobs employing the same clear line drawing style that Herge used - stylistically almost identical in some respects - but unfortunately Jacobs lacked the humour or visual economy of Herge. The story was torturously overwritten, over complicated, and relentlessly po-faced. The characters - even the main ones - seemed to be empty, stiff-jawed moustachioed ciphers.  And if that didn't put you off, the stiff new translation into English would. 

So I picked up this new volume - done in the 1990s by a new writer/artist team, Van Hamme and Benoit, working for the Jacobs studio - in the hope that it might be better than Jacobs' originals. It's a good effort, and has its moments, but unfortunately it seems authentically Jacobsian in its overbearing, wordy, grim-visaged convolutions. And once again, the translation seems more suitable for a physics textbook than a comic strip. 

Here's a sample of the delightfully sprightly dialogue for you. 

Mortimer: But that's Ardmuir Castle! That's where I was invited to attend a physics seminar.

Blake: I found one of those publications on Ardmuir Castle in Olrik's pocket. And that's how I finally understood what kind of "move" our enemies were preparing: the kidnapping by a foreign power of the best physicists in the Kingdom!

Mortimer: Good Heavens! That...that would be appalling!

Blake: Indeed. This would represent a technological step backward of almost ten years for Britain and her allies. And, an equivalent gain for the country that would thus obtain the forced collaboration of the unfortunate scientists.  

Still awake at the back there? Like Mr Jacobs' earlier originals, it all looks splendid (though the period and location details are somewhat odd - attention all European cartoonists: no, British police didn't carry guns in the good old days, and I wonder how many inns would have served "a fried sausage and beans"), but it's all so desperately serious and pointlessly complicated and the speech bubbles are sadly crammed to overflowing with dry, stiffly translated, purely plot-progressing blather. By the end of the book I was wishing that the evil Olrik had kidnapped Mortimer, Blake, and every other bow-tied stuffed shirt in the volume, if only in the hope that it would make them shut up. 

You will find this book in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.

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